One of the puzzles associated with the war in Syria is why radical Islamist groups such as Al Nusra flourish while more moderate groups do not. Al Nusra — al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria — had no real presence in the country until civil war broke out in 2011. Since then, it has become the dominant militant group fighting the Assad government. A similar pattern occurred during the civil wars in Mali and Iraq, where Islamic extremists rose to prominence fairly quickly amid a field of competing factions.
So today’s puzzler is this: Why has al Qaeda had such success in countries experiencing civil war? Why are more moderate groups less able to organize and thrive in the competitive marketplace of opposition groups?
Most of the puzzles I present are about phenomena for which I don’t have good answers. I present them as “puzzlers” because they truly are puzzling to me. This is true of last week’s puzzler. I honestly don’t know whether sexual abuse of women in the U.S. military is worse than in any other co-ed military. I suspect it is, but the data don’t exist to confirm or deny this. I also honestly don’t know why sexual abuse might be more widespread in the U.S. military, if it in fact is. What I can say, though, is that the U.S. government should be funding and supporting research that helps answer these two questions — it’s embarrassing how little we know. With an estimated 26,000 U.S. servicemembers sexually assaulted in 2012 (a 35% increase since 2010), the American public, its soldiers, and the mothers and fathers of potential soldiers deserve to know what’s driving this trend and what can be done to stop it.