With the recent revelations that a youth was picked up and arrested on the way to a suicide bombing, hundreds of arrests of suspected terrorists have been made, and security is being drastically tightened across the country, what is happening?
In the aftermath of the recent suicide bombing, blamed on ISIS in Jakarta last week, Malaysia is in a panic. Reports are coming out in the media that hundreds of Malaysians are joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq, and the elaborate means through social media young people are being recruited to the cause of Islamic State.
According to a report by the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, there are about 450 Indonesians and Malaysians, including women and children in Iraq and Syria today. Islamic State has a special unit in Syria called Katibah Nusantara which is made up of Indonesian and Malay speaking fighters and their families. There are great fears that members of this group will return to Malaysia to carry out jihadist activities at home within the near future.
This should not be a surprise, as the Islamic narrative within Malaysia has been edging towards a more fundamentalist stance over the last two decades, since UMNO and PAS began competing against each other to show the Malay heartland that they are more Islamic than the other.
According to a recent Pew Research Centre study on attitudes towards ISIS, 12% of Malaysia’s Muslims are supportive of the group.
Islamic State formed out of the remnants of Al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq during the Maliki regime as a consequence of his persecution of the Sunni population. Baathists quickly joined the ranks of ISIS, along with a number of local tribes. Sunnis within Iraq saw ISIS as the lesser of two evils and reluctantly supported them. The leader is ISIS Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi last September gave a sermon in the Great mosque in Mosul declaring a Caliphate across parts of Iraq and Syria, which has been inspiring to many Muslims around the world.
Malaysia had experience with a group with similar aspirations to develop a caliphate back in the 1980s. Al-Arqam was founded by the charismatic Ashaari Mohammad with a vision of developing small village economy and trade. Ashaari advocated a strict but simple sustainable community lifestyle, following the Syariah codes. Instead of blood and warfare Al-Arqam saw trade and Daqwah (spreading the message), as the future of Islam, where the group started a conglomerate of enterprises all over Malaysia, the region, and even in Europe, US, and Australia.
At the time, the Al-Arqam movement had the sympathy and respect of many Malays within the community, including civil servants, members of the armed forces, police, professional people, academics, and even politicians.
However in the early 1990s, Al-Arqam ran afoul of the authorities when Ashaari was rumoured to claim that he could mystically communicate with the Prophet. There was also a rumour that Al-Arqam was planning to topple the Malaysian Government and replace it with a Caliphate, with Ashaari as the Caliph. Rumours also existed that Al-Arqam had a commando training camp in Thailand, although this was denied by the Thai Government at the time.
In September 1994, the former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir banned Al-Arqam and arrested many of the leading group, putting them under ISA. Most went underground and kept their sympathies to themselves. Even up to the Badawi era, there have been attempts by Al-Arqam to make a re-emergence.
In the absence of Al-Arqam, there has been a vacuum in ‘revolutionary’ Islam, to topple existing governments and establish a utopian Islamic state. Al-Arqam had a vision of an Islamic life under a caliphate and now Islamic State has filled this vacuum.
The moderate Malay Muslim demeanour that Malaysia once grounded Malays into the social status quo has long disappeared. There is now outcry about how Malaysian Airlines stewardesses are dressed. The slapstick comical P Ramlee films of yesteryear that reflected Malay society at the time would probably not even pass the Censorship Board today.
Malaysia has become a religiously compliant society, very ritualistic, where non-adherence is frowned upon. Arabness is replacing Malay culture under the assumption that one would be a better Muslim under such a persona. Islam Hadhari was pronounced ‘dead and buried’ along with the demise of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and replaced with a look-alike Taliban blend of Islam that wants HUDUD without the Tawhid.
Islam in Malaysia is evolving into a religion of exclusion. Biro Tata Negara (BTN) dogma preached to civil servants and students on scholarship has extended this concept of exclusion, into an ‘us and them’ paradigm, depicted by the concept of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’, which assumes Muslim and non-Muslim are adversaries.
Consequently, Muslims now mix much less with non-Muslims, where joint celebration of non-Muslim festivals like Christmas is frowned upon by authorities. Malay Muslims now believe it is wrong to ‘Salam’ non-Muslims in Arabic. In Kelantan, cashier lines in shops are gender segregated, and halal trolleys proposed in national supermarkets.
We have seen protests against Hindus where cow heads have been displayed, and churches burnt down, without authorities taking much action against the culprits. Authorities have ordered the demolition of a surau because it was used for purposes other than praying in a resort complex. Authorities try to remove anything that may look like a cross, even though there are not religious connections to the structure. Women are being blamed for rape by ‘exposing and flaunting’ their bodies in front of men.
This is a perfect environment for Islamic State philosophy and dogma to breed and fester, rekindling new visions for the Muslim youth of Malaysia.
The strengths of Islamic State lie at multiple levels. First there is the Caliphate, the first in many years, something that many Muslims aspire to. The Caliphate is about living a life within Islam, something extremely important to many Muslims. Then there is the political Islamic State which is repelling the evilness of the world away, which includes all the enemies of Islam. Then there is the Jihadist Islamic State which encapsulates both Islam and bloodthirstiness, a mixture that appeals to many marginalized people, unemployed, lacking self-esteem, and under achieving, become the targets of Islamic State social media.
Islamic State has both a utopian appeal to Muslims and a deranged Jihadist appeal to those who want to achieve martyrdom in a Holy war.
Islamic State’s messages through social media are powerful. They show starving children as victims of war, and the results of US drone strikes, which are designed to form outrage and anger within impressionable young people.
Islam in Malaysia no longer carries the moderation and tolerance it once was. This encourages serious consideration of the Islamic State message.
Malaysia has become institutionally hard-line as well.
This is reflected at an international level as well. Just recently two Israeli participants were banned from competing in an international sporting competition because they were Jews. Hate for the Jewish state Israel has been built up over the Palestinian issue for the last few years. Socially it has been considered a noble thing to go to Gaza and assist the situation by giving humanitarian assistance there. However Hamas is a group that still uses militancy to pursue its ends.
The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib’s trip to the Gaza strip in 2013 was denounced by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who said that it “enhances division and does not serve the Palestinian interests”.
The implicit support for Hamas, doesn’t seem any different to supporting Islamic State at the domestic audience level. Young Muslims had been led to believe through Malaysian Government actions and dogma that it is noble to fight for such causes.
So are there any solutions?
Unfortunately for non-Muslim liberals, the solution to the problem is not about advocating a moderate Islam. The remedy can only be seen through Muslim eyes. Non-Muslim concepts of progressive or moderate Islam will be seen as an attempt to ‘Christianize’ Islam, and fall on death ears. Such an approach may even encourage more sympathy for Islamic State. US President Barak Obama himself, with a Muslim father may be seen as an apostate, with no moral authority to talk about Islam.
Malay society needs to follow the expectations that Islam has created within the youth of the country. The authoritarian, feudalistic, corruption, gangsterism, and elite’s hypocrisy to Islam need to be eradicated from Malaysian society. This environment, where the youth are being grounded in Islam is turning them towards other alternatives. With a weak and unappealing opposition in Malaysia, many have become apathetic of politics and are looking for religious solutions.
There needs to be a national vision for a virtuous society based upon Tawhidic principles, something inclusive for all.
This has to happen for the youth of Malaysia to respect the government and institutions of the country, making the appeal of undertaking jihad to serve Islam less appealing, especially if there are duties of jihad at home to be undertaken.
This doesn’t need any reinterpretation of the Qur’an. The concept of a peaceful Islamic society already exists within the Qur’an and needs to come out without changing the meaning, only the methods. Lectures to school children and university students won’t work if respect for authority is not there. Instead the orthodox Islam that Malaysians are taking up, the message of Islam needs to be framed inward upon the self and then onto what type of society that Malaysians can create here at home.
This is the challenge to the Ulama of today to take up.
It would be easy to speculate here, that the situation should any terrorist acts occur, will lead to the activation of the National Security Council (NSC). This would greatly advantage Prime Minister Najib’s grip on power. False flag operations are a possibility here.
However the situation may be evidently more serious. Anymore overt repression by the government could open a “Pandora’s box” of jihad within Malaysia. These jihadist actions don’t need direction from the Islamic State in Iraq or Syria. They will be domestically inspired and generated.
Until today, most terrorism within the South East Asian Region has been domestically generated, sometimes inspired by movements far away. From this point of view Islamic State is a big wake up call to Malaysia.
The Autopsy of Jihadism in the United States
The American counter-terrorism establishment is shocked to know that its current terrorist threat, contrary to conventional wisdom, is not foreign but “a large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents”.
A terror threat assessment by NewAmerica, a think tank comprehensive, up-to-date source of online information about terrorist activity in the United States and by Americans overseas since 9/11, 20 years after 9/11 reported: “…while a range of citizenship statuses are represented, every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident except one who was in the United States as part of the U.S.-Saudi military training partnership”.
The ultimate irony is NewAmerica quoting a terrorist to underline the seriousness of the threat: “Yet today, as Anwar al-Awlaki, the American born cleric who became a leader in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, put it in a 2010 post, ‘Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie’.”
Since 9/11 and today, the United States faced just “one case of a jihadist foreign terrorist organization directing a deadly attack inside the United States since 9/11, or of a deadly jihadist attacker receiving training or support from groups abroad”. The report recalls: “That case is the attack at the Naval Air Station Pensacola on December 6, 2019, when Mohammed Al-Shamrani shot and killed three people. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed the attack and according to the FBI, evidence from Al-Shamrani’s phone he was in contact with an AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula) militant and AQAP prior to his entry to the United States…”
In the last two decades, “jihadists” have killed 107 people inside the United States. Compare this with deaths occurring due to major crimes: 114 people were killed by far-right terrorism (consisting of anti-government, militia, white supremacist, and anti-abortion violence), 12 and nine people, respectively, killed in attacks “inspired by black separatist/nationalist ideology and ideological misogyny”. Attacks by people with Far-Left views have killed one person. It just goes to show that terrorism inside the United States is no longer the handiwork of foreign or “jihadi” ideologies, but is “homegrown”, the report points out.
The report points out a poor understanding of the terror threat and its roots by the Trump administration. A week into his presidency, Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry of citizens of seven Muslim countries into the United States. The countries were: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Th order cited “national security” as the reason, but gave no real justification.
Trump’s aides tried to find some justification for the order claiming that in the administration’s assessment the United States was and will be the prime target of terrorist organisations from these countries. The same report clarifies how wrong this assessment was: “None of the deadly attackers since 9/11 emigrated or came from a family that emigrated from one of these countries nor were any of the 9/11 attackers from the listed countries. Nine of the lethal attackers were born American citizens. One of the attackers was in the United States on a non-immigrant visa as part of the U.S.-Saudi military training partnership.”
President Trump had to swallow his pride and gradually revoke his order. In early March of 2017, he revised the order excluding Iraq from the ban list. That September, he dropped Sudan too, but added North Korea, Venezuela and Chad.
In the last two decades since 9/11, there have been 16 “lethal jihadist terrorists in the United States”. Of them, “three are African-Americans, three are from families that hailed originally from Pakistan, one was born in Virginia to Palestinian immigrant parents, one was born in Kuwait to Palestinian-Jordanian parents, one was born in New York to a family from Afghanistan, two are white converts – one born in Texas, another in Florida, two came from Russia as youth, one emigrated from Egypt and conducted his attack a decade after coming to the United States, one emigrated from Uzbekistan and one was a Saudi Air Force officer in the United States for military training”. Nobody from the banned countries, nobody foreign citizens; all were American citizens.
What is more embarrassing for the Trump administration is the report saying: “When the data is extended to include individuals who conducted attacks inside the United States that were foiled or otherwise failed to kill anyone, there are only four cases that the travel ban could have applied to. However, in at least two of those cases, the individual entered the United States as a child. In a third case the individual had a history of mental illness and assault not related to jihadist terrorism. In a fifth, non-lethal attack Adam al-Sahli, who conducted a shooting at a military base in Corpus Christi on May 21, 2020, was born in Syria but was a citizen because his father was an American citizen and thus would not have been subject to the travel ban.”
The NewAmerica assessment, in contrast to the executive order, finds concrete evidence to suggest that the terror threat is “homegrown”. It gives the example of Mohammed Reza Taheri-Azar, “a naturalised citizen from Iran”, who on March 3, 2006 drove a car into a group of students at the University of North Carolina, injuring nine people. “Taheri-Azar, though born in Iran, came to the United States at the age of two” and “his radicalization was homegrown inside the United States”. On September 17, 2016 Dahir Adan, a naturalized citizen from Somalia, injured 10 people while wielding a knife at a mall in Minnesota. He too had come to the United States as a young child.
There are more such instances: “On November 28, 2016 Abdul Razak Ali Artan, an 18-year-old legal permanent resident who came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia in 2014 — having left Somalia for Pakistan in 2007 — injured eleven people when he rammed a car into his fellow students on the campus of Ohio State University…However, it is not clear that the attack provides support for Trump’s travel ban.
In Artan’s case, he left Somalia as a pre-teen, and “if he was radicalized abroad, it most likely occurred while in Pakistan”, which is not included on the travel ban. The report says the chances of him being radicalised inside the United States are more. This is based on the fact that “in a Facebook posting prior to his attack, he cited Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric born in the United States, whose work — which draws largely upon American culture and history — has helped radicalize a wide range of extremists in the United States including those born in the United States”.
There are several other pointers to the “homegrown” theory. For one, a “large proportion of jihadists in the United States since 9/11 have been converts”. There are “jihadists” who are non-Muslims. These facts “challenge visions of counterterrorism policy that rely on immigration restrictions or focus almost entirely on second generation immigrant populations”, the report says, debunking the Trump executive order.
The NewAmerica report debunks the assumption that only “hot headed” people are attracted to jihadist extremism. It finds that “participation in jihadist terrorism has appealed to individuals ranging from young teenagers to those in their advanced years (and) many of those involved have been married and even had kids – far from the stereotype of the lone, angry youngster”.
Women have broken the glass ceiling of jihadist terrorism as “more women have been accused of jihadist terrorism crimes in recent years” inside the United States.
The expansion of the social media world has played a singular role in radicalising American youth. “Many extremists today either maintain public social media profiles displaying jihadist rhetoric or imagery or have communicated online using encrypted messaging apps. The percentage of cases involving such online activity has increased over time.” Al Qaeda terrorists became key figures in this proliferation. They “fine-tuned the message and the distribution apparatus” and “put out extremist propaganda via websites and YouTube videos”.
America’s jihadists were never an immigration problem, the biggest jihadist terror threat U.S faces today is “homegrown”.
March Towards Mosul: Beckoning the End of ISIS
The tenor of ISIS is laced with terror and brutality ever since the militia began rattling Iraq in 2013. While the Civil War already wreaked havoc in the desolate country long before, the advancement of ISIS resonated the country beyond repair. The spread of ISIS quickly transitioned into an endemic as a succession to government failure and withdrawal of the United States military from Iraq in 2011. The group quickly took hold of the key cities of Raqqa, Tikrit, and Ramadi: inching closer to the capital city of Baghdad. However, the strategic win came in 2014 when ISIS struck victory and subsequently toppled the city of Mosul: the core cultural and economic haven of Iraq, only second to Baghdad. The fall of Mosul not only alarmed the Iraqi regime regarding the surging threat of ISIS but also pushed the US to advance airstrikes to displace the gripping offensive in northern Iraq.
While ISIS flourished on the sectarian divide rooted in the Iraqi society post the execution of Saddam Hussein, the US invasion and subsequent withdrawal was cited as the main reason for the passage of ISIS into Iraq. The 2003 invasion left the Iraqi society weakened and desperate for constant US regulation. While the Shia-Sunni divide broadened gradually over the decade, the Arab spring added oil to fire as animosity against the shite-regime expanded in the region. Syria served as the death grip of chaos as rebellious militants surged to dethrone the adamant Bashar al-Assad. With loose Syrian borders, compromised governments on either side of the border, and immediate exit of the US military, ISIS got a convenient passage of expansion from Syria to Iraq.
Amidst the sinister possibilities of the springing rebels in the Middle-East, ISIS declared the split from Al-Qaeda in January 2014. However, what some touted as the fragmentation of the Afghani militant group was only to surf into dangerous territory. A nightmarish humanitarian crisis followed suit as ISIS ransacked city after city while Iraq dwindled and perished piece after piece to the swelling violence of the militants. The US airstrikes targeting the militants did little to deter the group as it verged towards the city of Erbil, spewing chaos as they gripped the northern periphery of Iraq.
The fall of Ramadi, however, quickly incited the retaliation of the regional Kurdish forces. The regional forces were notoriously accused of fighting the government in the civil war and were the main targets of the US forces before their withdrawal in 2011. With the combined effort of the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Democratic Forces (KDF), and the sporadic US airstrikes, ISIS was pushed to a defensive stance as key cities of Falluja, Ramadi, and Tikrit were snatched back from the tight hold of the militant group. The city of Mosul, however, has been much of an unprecedented challenge to rope back as ISIS has cliched onto their ‘Caliphate Capital’ as a power statement to prove their subdued yet eminent presence in Iraq.
ISIS holds onto as many as 2.5 million people in the city of Mosul ever since the reign of brutality sprawled over the city in June 2014. Public beheading, lynching, and incineration are the common tactics inflicted by the group that has led to a mass exodus of millions of victims from the city over the course of the decade. With Mosul’s strategic proximity to Syria and Turkey, ISIS has commanded the region ever since the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, declared the city as their ‘Cultural Capital’. The reality, however, is not as simply put as the context of historic or cultural significance of the city. Mosul is the prime location of some of Iraq’s most lucrative oil fields and thus a notorious means of revenue to the group. Confirmed reports suggest illegal oil dealings between ISIS and both regional and international smugglers. The heavy compensation has granted ISIS enough means to acquire advanced artillery to continue its combat against the coalition forces of the country.
The command of combat against ISIS in 2016 were to mark the end of ISIS as the group perished its conquests. Despite that, the Iraqi coalition amounting to 94000 members all but failed to oust the group estimated to be only about 5000 to 7000 in number. The coalition faced a decimating response of round-the-clock attacks ranging from suicide bombings and car bombs to heavy firing while the forces breached the 200 km radius leading to Mosul. The coalition managed to free the Erbil-Mosul road which was a strategic mark to sever any connection of ISIS from the rest of Iraq. While the coalition cornered ISIS only to Mosul and its outskirts, the urban center of Mosul resisted the breach attempt even with the heavy backing of a coalition with up to 90 fighter planes. The labyrinth of villages in the Mosul metropolis deterred the coalition to advance further and to this day, Mosul remains the last remaining straw in the violent streak of ISIS in Iraq.
The fall of Mosul could end the blood-ridden hold of ISIS in Iraq since it has all but fallen in shambles throughout the Middle-East. However, the victory over Mosul is only the beginning of the end of ISIS; the key lies in the execution of the strategy. The fall of ISIS may crush the backbone of extremism yet the Shia-Sunni divide still exists as it did long before ISIS raised its head in 2014. The same divide could fester again after the common enemy is eliminated from the picture. Moreover, the fall of Mosul could disperse ISIS over Europe in the form of ethnic-diaspora recruited by the militant group over the years. This could well spread the militants over Europe and Africa: reigniting the offshoots in failed states like Libya, Syria, and Nigeria. Without a doubt, the fall of Mosul could bring liberation and economic flourish to Iraq. However, precise execution and reform of the war-torn country is the answer for a sustained and progressive reality in Iraq.
Every Pakistani is a soldier of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad
Citizens have the right to participate in politics and to be aware of the political situation. However, in our country, it is becoming common to make unwarranted comments and speculations on non-political, national issues. All institutions in the country have their own mechanisms and among them, the Pakistan Army is the most committed to its rules and regulations. However, the attitude adopted by some people towards the security agencies of the country and the nation in the recent past does not fall under the category of patriotism in any way. This is the same institution whose soldiers and officers have not only extinguished the flames of the beloved homeland with their blood but also restored peace by eradicating terrorism from the country. DG ISPR Major General Babar Iftikhar briefing on the completion of four years of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad said that the forces with the help of the people have defeated terrorism and eliminated major terrorist networks. Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad covers the entire country and every Pakistani is a soldier of this operation.
There is no denying the fact that Pakistan has suffered the consequences of being a frontline ally in the US war, launched in Afghanistan in the name of eradicating terrorism, in the form of the worst terrorism on its soil. The Pakistan Army launched Operation Rah-e-Rastin 2008 to eradicate the scourge of terrorism, which entered the phase of Operation Rah-e-Nijat. These operations took place mostly in North, South Waziristan and Northern areas, followed by Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad were launched, the domain of which was extended to the whole country and combing operation and Operation Khyber-4 were also launched under it. Our security forces made great sacrifices in these operations for the protection of civilians and a peaceful Pakistan and remained committed to continuing the operation till the last terrorist is killed. It is the result of the unparalleled sacrifices and determination of the security forces that the terrorists have been completely wiped out from the land of Pakistan. Although some miscreants fled across the border during the counter-terrorism operation which is a constant threat to Pakistan butto secure the borders, Pakistan is erecting fences not only on the border of Afghanistan but also on the border of Iran so that the movement of terrorists can be stopped.
After four years of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, the country is peaceful, playgrounds are inhabited, foreign teams are coming to the country for sports, Pakistan’s war on terror is being praised around the world, world leaders and Institutions are also acknowledging the peace efforts of our security forces. According to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Pakistan’s journey towards peace is excellent while British General Sir Nicholas Carter is calling the clearing of South Waziristan from terrorists a great achievement of the Pakistan Army. Pakistan army has not only accepted the challenge of terrorists and their sponsors and facilitators but has also left no stone unturned in measuring their necks. DG ISPR has rightly termed it as a journey from terrorism to tourism. However, all this has been made possible by the sacrifices made in Radd-ul-Fasaad.
There is no doubt that the Pakistan Army has not only successfully met every trial yetis working day and night to protect the country’s internal and external borders but the question is, are we doing our job? Even now, some political and non-political people are hurling insults against the institutions in public meetings and also on social media; those who slander the country’s sensitive institutions should be ashamed. It is the duty of every patriotic Pakistani along with the spokesperson of the institution to respond to them with arguments and facts and also to take a hard line to discourage them. The rioters who speak out against these institutions and sitting on social media are even more dangerous than ISIS. If every Pakistani is a soldier of the Radd-ul-Fasaad operation then we all have to work for our country. The anti-national agenda must be thwarted together but we must not forget the heroes who made Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad a success by shedding their blood and the people are beginning to breathe a sigh of relief in an atmosphere of peace.
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