Age Nineteen: We Are Fallible, Are We Not?


233. Constitutional amendment

When the United States Constitution was being drafted in 1787, the Founding Fathers of the new nation debated how flexible the Constitution should be. If it was too rigid and hard to change, it might become obsolete, and no longer meet the needs of the people. On the other hand, if the Constitution were too easy to change, the most important institutions of government, and the most precious rights guaranteed to citizens, might be eliminated due to temporary fads. The solution was to create a formal process for changing the Constitution that made gradual changes possible, but still difficult enough that modifications would require careful consideration and broad consensus by the people.

Article V of the US Constitution specifies the mechanisms for passing a constitutional amendment. There are two methods. One option is for an amendment to be approved by two-thirds majority votes in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Once three-quarters of the state legislatures (currently 38) vote to approve the amendment, it is considered ratified and thereupon becomes part of the Constitution.

The other option is for two-thirds of the state legislatures to vote in favor of holding a special convention for proposing amendments to the Constitution. Ordinary citizens would be nominated as delegates to the convention, and could approve amendments by a two-thirds majority. State-level ratifying conventions would then be called to vote on an amendment passed by the national convention, and once three-quarters approved the amendment, it would be officially ratified. Due to the complexity of this procedure, thus far, all constitutional amendments have been passed through Congress, rather than by an Article V convention.

In 1789, Virginia congressman and future US President James Madison argued that the Constitution did not provide enough protection for the rights of citizens to be free from abuses by the government. So he authored a series of ten constitutional amendments that came to be known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights guaranteed many essential rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishments.

Since then, constitutional amendments have been used at many key points in American history. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, while the 14th and 15th Amendments gave African-Americans citizenship and voting rights. The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. The 18th Amendment established prohibition of alcohol in 1920, but it was repealed in 1933 by the Twenty-First Amendment and alcohol became legal again.

In recent times, constitutional amendments have been proposed for many purposes, including prohibiting discrimination against women, banning the burning of the American flag during protests, and limiting the number of terms that members of Congress can serve.

According to Article II of the Constitution, the president of the United States must be at least 35 years old.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle is only 19, her supporters write a “Danielle Amendment” making a one-person exception to this rule. It is soon approved by the required number of states. Thanks to this constitutional amendment, Danielle is able to run for president.

See entry for Joint Session of Congress.


234. Self-driving cars

An important emerging technology of the next decade is self-driving cars. It is the result of decades of advances in sensor technology, computing, and artificial intelligence. Unlike earlier innovations that make driving easier but still require a human behind the wheel, self-driving (or autonomous) vehicles are able to take a passenger from a desired origin point to their destination without any human assistance. As this technology is introduced around the world, it will bring enormous benefits, but also cause economic uncertainty for people who have jobs as drivers and will need to search for new ways of making a living.

Model of a self-driving car system from the “Futurama” exhibit

Model of a self-driving car system from the “Futurama” exhibit by designer and futurist Norman Bel Geddes at the 1939 New York World’s Fair

Although self-driving cars have only been capturing headlines in the last several years, people have been imagining such a technology for more than eight decades. In 1935, a science fiction author named David H. Keller wrote a short story called “The Living Machine,” which featured a silver, globe-shaped machine that could take verbal instructions and drive a car wherever people wanted. This vision inspired others to think about how a self-driving car might actually work. The 1939 World’s Fair in New York City featured an exhibit depicting a major city circa 1960, with highways that used magnets to control vehicles’ steering and speed.

Starting in the 1950s, auto companies like General Motors began developing vehicle-automation technology more seriously. At first, prototypes used radio signals and a wire in the road to guide vehicles along predetermined routes. This was a breakthrough at the time, but it had major drawbacks. First, it would require a massive new infrastructure system, including wires in the roadways and radio control towers to be constructed across the country. Second, a system like that could only ever be useful for saving drivers effort on long highway drives. The cars still couldn’t sense obstacles or hazards around them, so autonomous driving in cities would not be possible. As a result, the self-driving cars of that era were never used by the general public.

Instead, innovators realized that they would need to make the cars themselves smarter. During the 1970s and 1980s, teams from Japan and Germany made significant progress in this direction. They fitted cars with cameras and the computers of that era that allowed the cars to “see” the road ahead and avoid obstacles. But these systems could still only handle predictable highway driving, and humans had to take the wheel every so often to prevent crashes. In the ’90s, major projects in Europe and the United States managed to greatly improve the reliability of autonomous highway driving—so cars could go longer without needing human intervention—but they made little progress toward automated city driving.

The problem was that cities are simply too unpredictable. There are pedestrians, cyclists, potholes, dogs, and children running across the street. Roads are closed due to construction, and police officers use hand signals to safely guide drivers around accident scenes. Other drivers run red lights and make illegal turns. Unless a car is smart enough to react to these diverse conditions safely, it cannot be truly autonomous.

The solution came after DARPA, the advanced research arm of the US military, sponsored a competition called the Autonomous Vehicle Grand Challenge in 2004 to encourage universities and corporations to attack the problem with fresh and innovative ideas. DARPA offered a $1 million prize for the first vehicle that could successfully navigate a 150-mile off-road course through the California-Nevada desert, without any human assistance. In total, 21 teams competed, including entries from Carnegie Mellon University and Ohio State University. Although none of their vehicles managed to complete the course, DARPA repeated the Grand Challenge in 2005, and the result showed substantial progress. Of 23 teams in the 2005 race, 21 did better than the 7.4 miles achieved by the Carnegie Mellon vehicle the previous year. In fact, five vehicles completed the entire 150-mile course, with Stanford’s self-driving car “Stanley” taking first place. A follow-up Grand Challenge in 2007 focused on driving in urban environments, and spurred more leaps in the technology.

Many converging technologies made these breakthroughs possible. GPS became more accurate for street-to-street navigation. Sensors like radar, sonar, and lasers became small enough and accurate enough to pick out even small objects around a car. Thanks to the law of accelerating returns (the exponential advance of information technologies such as computation), computers became powerful enough to process complex data from these sensors to construct a model of the surrounding environment. Yet the key factor was advances in artificial intelligence.

The earliest attempts to use AI for self-driving cars used rigid rule-based systems. Programmers would have to code software instructions such as “If the sensors detect rain, reduce speed by five mph.” The problem is that there are always unclear or unexpected cases. What if it’s only a very light rain? Or a heavy downpour? How should the sensors tell the difference between rain and falling snow? Or the difference between falling snow and falling sleet? The combinations are endless, and no software program can include rules for every possible situation.

Sensors in autonomous cars

Sensors in autonomous cars detect objects in the surrounding environment, and machine learning software interprets what the objects are and how the AI should react

The solution used to win DARPA’s Grand Challenges was machine learning, modeled on the networks of neurons in the human brain. These are more advanced descendants of the Perceptron, the first practical neural network, whose creator Frank Rosenblatt I met at Cornell when I was 14 years old. These artificial neural networks are built around the idea of pattern recognition, with early (lower) levels of the system designed to recognize simple patterns such as lines and curves, and deeper (higher) layers designed to recognize complex patterns about earlier patterns. By building up networks many layers deep, software can recognize abstract patterns about complex phenomena such as driving. Thus, instead of having to follow fixed rules, it figures the rules out for itself, much like a child finding her balance when learning to ride a bicycle.

Following the Grand Challenges, Google (which I work for on projects related to machine learning, AI, and natural language understanding) decided to get into the autonomous vehicles field. They hired Sebastian Thrun, who had led Stanford’s winning team, and put him in charge of making self-driving cars commercially viable. Starting in 2009, Google invested substantial AI resources into making cars smart enough not just to win these demonstration challenges, but actually replace human drivers.

Google self-driving car with a human passenger

A Google self-driving car with a human passenger on the streets of Mountain View, California

The big advantage Google had over previous projects was the ability to create a positive feedback loop of learning. Google connected its whole fleet of self-driving cars, so the experiences one car had would make the software in all the other cars in the fleet smarter, too. The smarter the cars in the fleet, the faster they all learned. As of mid-2017, Google’s self-driving cars have driven more than two million miles on city streets without any major incidents. Corporations like Tesla and General Motors are making large investments in their own self-driving car systems, and a new company called Otto is making progress toward automating large trucks. The first trials for self-driving taxis are already underway in Pittsburgh and Singapore, and as the software improves even further, they will be expanded, and the technology gradually introduced commercially for the public.

Otto self-driving truck

An Otto self-driving truck

The introduction of self-driving cars will have many benefits for society. Fewer cars will be needed, because ride-sharing apps will allow many people to efficiently share a fleet of vehicles. Software will optimize routes for better fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, and lessen traffic congestion. Many people will gain hours a day that they would have spent behind the wheel. Driving will be less expensive because we will no longer have 95 percent of cars sitting unused in parking lots and garages. People with vision problems or other disabilities that prevent them from driving will have the ability to use cars. In total, self-driving cars are expected to bring about $5.6 trillion of economic benefit across the world each year.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when nineteen-year-old Danielle is running for president of the United States, she supports self-driving cars. It is unclear whether this will hurt her politically, because in the major automobile-producing state of Michigan, people are worried about whether self-driving cars will hurt their jobs. However, voters see the benefits of autonomous vehicles as outweighing the costs, and Danielle is elected.

See entries for Artificial Intelligence and Neocortex.


235. The Taliban

The Taliban is a religious, political, and military movement that has controlled parts of Afghanistan since 1994. It is most famous for sheltering Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorist group while they planned the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In response, the United States invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power. In the years since, though, they have waged a brutal insurgency campaign against the elected Afghan government, and still control large chunks of the country.

The Taliban emerged from the Mujahedeen movement, which was a conservative Islamic insurgency against the Soviet-backed socialist government that came to power in a 1978 coup. The Mujahedeen were Sunni Muslims who believed in armed religious struggle, or jihad, against the new government and its socialist ideology. The following year, in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support the socialist government, and the Mujahedeen fighters waged a guerrilla war against them. They ambushed Soviet soldiers, shot at their helicopters, and used violence against Afghans who collaborated with the Soviets.

Mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan

Mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan, 1985

At this time, the United States was struggling against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Although the Americans wanted to stop Afghanistan from falling under Soviet control, they didn’t want to fight them directly. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction meant that a direct military conflict might escalate into massive retaliatory nuclear attacks. So instead, the Americans sent weapons to the Mujahedeen to help them fight the Soviets.

With American support, the Mujahedeen inflicted heavy losses on the Soviets. In 1989, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Soon after, though, rival warlords began fighting each other for control of the country, and causing substantial casualties and suffering for innocent civilians. Many madrassas, or Islamic religious schools, taught that the corruption and violence of the warlords needed to be ended. So in 1994, a group of adult madrassa students called the Taliban (from the Pashto language word meaning “students”) began fighting the warlords with some support from Pakistan. Many of the Mujahedeen who had fought the Soviets joined them. They shocked the world by capturing the southern city of Kandahar and then in 1996 swept into the capital, Kabul, where they overthrew the official government. The Taliban announced that they were setting up their own government, called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, under the leadership of a former Mujahedeen commander called Mullah Omar.

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan enforced an extremist interpretation of Islam and the Qur’ān, and gave out harsh punishments to anyone who broke the religious laws as they interpreted them. They banned women from receiving education, forced men to grow beards, and banned almost all music and dancing. They had people executed by stoning them to death in public. The Afghans who resisted this extremism formed a group called the Northern Alliance, which managed to keep the northern part of the country free from Taliban control.

During the late 1990s, Mullah Omar and the Taliban welcomed Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda into their country. Al-Qaeda set up training camps and planned its attacks against the United States and other countries. In 1998, they committed two deadly bombings in East Africa, at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. 224 people were killed, and in retaliation, President Bill Clinton ordered a cruise missile strike on the al-Qaeda camp at Khost, Afghanistan. The attack failed to kill Osama bin Laden, and the Taliban continued to support him.

But the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks changed history. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the American homeland, and hundreds of millions of people around the world saw the aftermath on television. There was broad public support for ending the al-Qaeda threat and toppling the Taliban who supported them. The following month, the United States began an invasion of the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan, in partnership with the Northern Alliance. Within just a few weeks, they captured Kabul. Many Taliban fighters fled into the remote countryside, or across the mountainous border into Pakistan.

Although Afghanistan was largely peaceful for several years, the Taliban gradually reorganized themselves and started a new insurgency against the US-backed government. By 2005, they were committing deadlier attacks in Afghanistan than in their early insurgency, and began taking control of more and more territory. In 2010, President Obama authorized a “surge” of extra American troops to Afghanistan, commanded by General David Petraeus. Although this helped turn the tide against the Taliban, they remain a serious threat, and the Taliban still controls substantial territory in Afghanistan.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle becomes president of the United States at age nineteen, she issues a series of ultimatums, including one to the Taliban to turn themselves in and face justice. As expected, the Taliban do not reply to the ultimatum.

See entries for Sunni, Qur’ān, Jihad, Sunni Terrorist Groups, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Cold War, Mutually assured destruction, Madrassa schools, President Obama, and General Petraeus.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote peace in the Middle East.


236. Special operations forces

For most of history, military forces have been designed to fight against other similar military forces. From ancient times until about World War I, most soldiers fought in large formations of men that would seek out enemy formations and attack them in battle. Yet by the early twentieth century, military tactics started to shift, largely driven by changing technology. Where previously a soldier might be able to fire a few bullets or arrows per minute, the introduction of bolt-action rifles and machine guns dramatically increased a soldier’s lethality. When one soldier could fire hundreds of bullets per minute, it was suicidal to have large units of troops standing close together and relying on strength in numbers. This prompted the development of smaller units that used courage, creativity, elite training, and special equipment to accomplish their objectives. These are broadly known as special operations forces.

Special operations forces are descended from the units of scouts that many imperial nations in Europe used to impose control over their colonies in Africa and Asia. Scouts used superior knowledge of the landscape to conduct dangerous reconnaissance missions and strike deep behind enemy lines.

These sorts of irregular tactics were also used by Native Americans to combat the early European settlers and colonizers in America. The American settlers learned from these tactics and used them against the organized battalions of British soldiers during the American Revolutionary War.

European militaries brought these techniques back home when World War I broke out, and the fighting turned into a deadly stalemate along the fixed lines of trench warfare. Both sides formed special operations forces to sneak across trenches, attack by surprise, and sabotage enemy fortifications, to make it easier for the much larger regular forces to achieve victory.

In World War II, these units became even more common as new technologies opened more possibilities for their missions. Airborne forces could be dropped by parachute deep into enemy territory, while underwater demolition teams could destroy enemy warships and port facilities. Some special forces units were fewer than a dozen men, but thanks to radio could operate independently and communicate with headquarters hundreds of miles away. The British called their special forces Commandos, and the Americans developed the Army Rangers along a similar model.

By the 1960s, the missions of special operations forces became even more diverse. Sometimes, units would be sent into enemy countries to arm and train local forces willing to fight against the enemy government. Other units waged counterinsurgency campaigns intended to suppress rebels using the hit-and-run tactics of guerrilla warfare. An increase in terrorism prompted many nations to create special operations forces that specialized in rescuing hostages or hunting down terrorist leaders.

These capabilities have become even more important since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The month after the attack, the United States and a coalition of allies invaded Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power and capture al-Qaeda terrorists. These enemies were very different from other potential adversaries such as North Korea, which has almost a million soldiers, and thousands of tanks and artillery guns. Instead, al-Qaeda and the Taliban rely on ambushes, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and sudden attacks against vulnerable civilians. Preventing these attacks and tracking down their fighters required the use of special operations forces. The British Special Air Service (SAS) and American Delta Force and Navy SEALs all played major roles in the effort to defeat jihadist terrorists in Afghanistan. Not only did they conduct offensive operations against the jihadists, but they worked to train local Afghan security forces to take responsibility for the security of their own country.

United States Navy SEALs

United States Navy SEALs come ashore with their weapons at the ready

Not all special operations forces work involves fighting. Here, an American special forces operator plays pool with men in Afghanistan during operations to build relationships with the local population and strengthen their ability to fight against the Taliban.

American special forces operator plays pool with men in Afghanistan

In addition to this prominent counterterrorism role, special operations forces are also active around the world in combating maritime piracy, human trafficking, and kidnapping for ransom. They are additionally used to disrupt the production and smuggling of illegal drugs, outlawed weapons, and the parts of poached animals such as elephant ivory and rhinoceros horns.

Over the coming years, technological change will likely make special operations forces even more powerful. New weapons will be more accurate and precise in avoiding civilian casualties. New armor and medicine will make it possible to survive more severe injuries. New stealth technology will let special operations soldiers enter enemy territory undetected, and improved integration of information technology will put vast intelligence and computing power at their fingertips.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle becomes president of the United States at age nineteen, she orders America’s premier special operations unit, Navy SEAL Team Six, to carry out a difficult and dangerous mission to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden alive from his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The mission is a success, and despite opposition from her security advisors, she conducts a televised debate with bin Laden and convinces him to instruct his followers to give up terrorism.

See entries for Sunni Terrorist Groups, Jihad, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Navy SEAL Team Six, and Abbottabad.


237. Al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda is an extremist Sunni Muslim terrorist organization, which was founded in Afghanistan but has members or sympathizers in dozens of countries around the world. It was founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden (1957–2011), the Saudi-born heir to a construction fortune. Since then, it has committed or inspired hundreds of terrorist attacks all over the world, killing thousands of innocent civilians. The worst of these events was the September 11, 2001 attack, in which al-Qaeda operatives hijacked American airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and failed to take over one plane, which crashed in Pennsylvania. Since the killing of bin Laden by US special operations forces in 2011, al-Qaeda has become much weaker, and has been eclipsed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as the world’s most feared and notorious terrorist organization.

The origins of al-Qaeda lie in the war between the Muslim Afghan Mujahedeen fighters and the atheist communist Soviet Union and its military. This conflict, fought between 1979 and 1989, gave thousands of extremist Muslims experience in combat, and showed them that their efforts could defeat a superpower like the Soviets. This inspired the non-Afghan Muslims who had joined the Mujahedeen to return to their home countries and fight against governments that they saw as corrupt and un-Islamic. Osama bin Laden, who had inherited a fortune worth tens of millions of dollars, set up an organization to fund, train, and plan these attacks. He called it al-Qaeda, which in Arabic means “the Base” or “the Foundation.”

Al-Qaeda first came to major international attention when bin Laden issued a public declaration of war against the United States of America in 1996. He called Muslims all over the world to participate in armed religious struggle, or jihad, against all those he thought were a threat to his interpretation of Islam. That same year, a group with similar ideology called the Taliban took power in Afghanistan and gave safe haven to bin Laden and his followers.

In 1998, al-Qaeda formed an alliance (and later, full merger) with Islamic Jihad, an Egyptian group led by the physician and terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Bin Laden released a statement that “every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded [should] comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it.”

That August, al-Qaeda carried out two deadly bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. 224 people were killed. The US responded with a series of cruise missile strikes targeting bin Laden and his associates, but he escaped unharmed.

US embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

The US embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, following an al-Qaeda bombing, August 1998

Bin Laden planned a series of coordinated attacks to take place at in 2000, but they were thwarted by international law enforcement authorities. That October, though, al-Qaeda managed to execute a suicide attack against the USS Cole, an American destroyer in Yemen. An explosives-laden boat drove up to the warship’s hull and detonated, killing 17 American sailors.

Damage to the hull of the USS Cole - 2000

Damage to the hull of the USS Cole, from the al-Qaeda suicide boat attack, October 2000

Still, bin Laden wanted something even bigger and more dramatic. From his hideouts in Afghanistan, he led the creation of a plan to use hijacked airliners as missiles to destroy iconic buildings in the United States. Al-Qaeda hoped to simultaneously destroy both of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York, severely damage the US military’s headquarters at the Pentagon, and destroy either the White House or the US Capitol. This would create the powerful media impact and mass intimidation that bin Laden was hoping for. Al-Qaeda sent 19 operatives to the United States, where they took lessons on how to fly commercial aircraft.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the 19 terrorists hijacked four flights taking off from cities on the East Coast. The hijackers successfully attacked three out of their four targets, flying planes full of passengers at high speed into their target buildings. When the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, many people (including myself) believed that it must have been a tragic accident. But the large fire and plume of black smoke attracted thousands of cameras all over New York. Americans watching television as they got ready for work or school watched in horror as a second plane smashed into the South Tower on live television. The huge fireball became one of the most iconic images in history—and it immediately became clear that this was a terrorist attack unlike any that had come before.

Second hijacked plane strikes the World Trade Center

The moment the second hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center, hitting the South Tower. The North Tower burns in the background. 9:03 am, September 11, 2001. Still from video

While the World Trade Center burned, firefighters, police, and paramedics worked frantically to evacuate tens of thousands of people. In the next shocking event in the terrorist attack of 9/11, the extreme heat from the burning jet fuel caused both buildings to collapse, also witnessed on televisions as hundreds of millions of people watched.

There was similar heroism at the Pentagon. And on the fourth hijacked jet, United Airlines Flight 93, passengers learned via their cellphones about the other attacks and decided to storm the cockpit. The struggle in the cockpit caused the plane to crash in Pennsylvania, but prevented a devastating tragedy in Washington, DC. In total, almost 3,000 people were killed in the attacks.

Since those attacks, international militaries and law enforcement agencies have killed or captured hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters. In October 2001, the US military invaded Afghanistan and the Taliban government quickly collapsed. Al-Qaeda members scattered, trying to avoid being captured by American special forces, or killed by missiles fired by American drones. Bin Laden went into hiding in Pakistan, sending messages by courier to plot future attacks or deliver taunting messages to America and the rest of the world.

Spreading this propaganda over the Internet, al-Qaeda established affiliates or “franchises” in many countries with large Muslim populations. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) committed terrorist attacks against Americans in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, and also against Iraq’s Shiite-majority population. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) waged jihad in North Africa. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was based in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, while Boko Haram operated in Nigeria and al-Shabaab terrorized Somalia. Some people in Europe and North America were inspired to carry out “lone wolf” attacks on behalf of al-Qaeda without having ever met any of its members.

Yet “al-Qaeda Central,” the main part of the organization, became less effective over the years. Late in the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States made missile strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles one of its major tactics to hunt and kill terrorists. President Barack Obama greatly increased this drone campaign, and over time, the senior leadership of al-Qaeda was mostly wiped out.

Then, on May 2, 2011, the United States launched a special operations forces raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan. Osama bin Laden had been hiding there for several years in a walled compound with only a few of his family members and closest followers. The Navy SEALs stormed the compound, killed bin Laden, and seized mountains of intelligence information about al-Qaeda. Since then, al-Qaeda’s leadership has been largely decentralized. Ayman al-Zawahiri took over from bin Laden as leader, but he has less control over the organization than bin Laden did, and has not succeeded at any attacks on the scale that bin Laden aimed for. Instead, the main terrorist threat in the world today is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which evolved out of al-Qaeda in Iraq but broke away because they considered al-Qaeda too moderate.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle becomes US president and orders the SEALs not to kill bin Laden during the Abbottabad raid. Instead, they capture him alive. This allows Danielle to have a televised debate with him, showing an audience of millions that his interpretation of Islam is wrong. Bin Laden calls on his followers in al-Qaeda to give up terrorism, and al-Qaeda dissolves, but the ISIS breakaway group defies these orders and continues its terrorist acts.

See entries for Osama bin Laden, Sunni, Jihad, Sunni terrorist groups, Cold War, Mutually assured destruction, the Taliban, al-Zawahiri, Infidels, President Obama, Special Operations Forces, Navy SEAL Team Six, Abbottabad, Break away group from al-Qaeda, and Qur’ān.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote peace in the Middle East.


238. Pakistani nuclear weapons

After the Partition of India and the end of British colonial rule in 1947, there was great hostility between the newly independent countries India and Pakistan (originally called West Pakistan). There were several wars and border skirmishes, and Pakistani leaders feared that India would one day try to reconquer their country. In 1965, Pakistani foreign minister and future prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto warned: “If India builds the [atomic] bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.” Pakistan soon began efforts to acquire nuclear weapons technology, but made this the top national priority when India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974.

Much like the Manhattan Project in America three decades earlier, the Pakistanis worked simultaneously on two different technologies for building a nuclear bomb. One version used uranium, the other used plutonium. After several years of intense effort, in 1983 Pakistan managed to build and test an experimental nuclear device designed not to create an actual fission explosion. Using plutonium as its preferred nuclear material, Pakistan continued to refine its weapons technology, as rivalry with India continued.

In early May of 1998, India made a series of nuclear weapons tests, and Pakistan decided to respond in a dramatic way. Later that month, it conducted its first full nuclear tests, named Chagai-I and Chagai-II. The test bombs were exploded deep underground, with the largest being twice as powerful as the one America used to devastate Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. Following these tests, Pakistan began rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal, which now has over 130 warheads.

Pakistan acquiring nuclear weapons created a dangerous new threat in global politics. Because Pakistan and India have been in a long running dispute about owner-ship of the Kashmir region, both sides have large military forces there. Occasionally, shooting breaks out between them. India has an official policy of never being the first to use nuclear weapons, and only using its warheads in retaliation for a nuclear attack. By contrast, though, Pakistan says that it might use nuclear weapons in self-defense against attack by ordinary military forces, if it fears that such an attack is a threat to the survival of the Pakistani nation. Similarly, Pakistan says that it might use nuclear weapons if it believes India is trying to destroy the country through nonmilitary means, which might include an economic blockade or encouraging a coup against the government.

If an outbreak of violence in Kashmir accidentally escalates, with both sides confused about the other’s intentions, this could lead to Pakistan using nuclear weapons against India, and India retaliating. Hundreds of millions of people live in areas that could be destroyed by such a nuclear conflict.

In addition to the risk that Pakistan might use its weapons against India, there is also a danger that warheads or radioactive material might fall into the hands of terrorists. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are known to have some members who sympathize with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. A related risk is the sharing of nuclear technology with terrorists or hostile governments. One of the fathers of Pakistan’s nuclear program, A.Q. Khan, transferred nuclear weapons technology to Iran and Libya, which have both been known sponsors of terrorism.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, shortly after Danielle is inaugurated as US president at age nineteen, she issues an ultimatum to Pakistan to allow American special operations forces free rein to finish off al-Qaeda and Taliban forces hiding there. If Pakistan does not accept the ultimatum, Danielle threatens to remove Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and warns them that she knows exactly how to do this. Pakistan’s leaders comply.

See entries for India’s Hindu-Muslim conflict, Thermonuclear weapons, Mutually assured destruction, Sunni terrorist groups, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Special operations forces.


239. Microbot

Microbots are tiny robots, usually no larger than a small number of millimeters (thousandths of a meter). In order for such a robot to work, some of its parts must usually be so small that they are measured in microns (millionths of a meter).

Kilobot developed at Harvard University

Kilobot, a thousand-robot swarm developed at Harvard University

Although research on microbots dates back to the 1970s, the first useful robots on this scale were not developed until the start of the twenty-first century. This was the result of several converging areas of technological innovation. First, microbots must have power sources that are very small, light, and long-lasting. This requires either batteries made from advanced materials, or a system for gathering energy from the environment, such as efficient solar power.

The robots must also have tiny sensors for gathering information about their environments, such as video cameras, microphones, or chemical detectors. To get around, they need miniature motors to power their mode of movement—whether tiny legs, wheels, wings, or even other exotic concepts. Inside, each microbot needs a computer to make sense of the information from their sensors, and usually a wireless connection to communicate with nearby microbots or get instructions from a computer network.

Although microbots can perform some tasks on their own, they are most effective working together in large groups known as microbot swarms. These swarms may consist of a few dozen robots all the way up to thousands. In the future, even greater numbers may be possible. Microbot swarms are still mainly in the experimental stage, but in the coming years they may be deployed for a wide range of missions. They could be useful in searching for survivors trapped in rubble after disasters, exploring cramped spaces, or conducting military reconnaissance. They could also become key tools for mineral mining and vertical agriculture.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle is eleven, she suggests to Israel a plan to ensure its security using emerging technologies including microbot swarms. Years later, just before she becomes president of the United States, she develops a new microbot swarm that uses flying robots to conduct DNA identification on people. After she becomes president at age nineteen, and following up on CIA intelligence, the swarm she developed is released from an unmanned aerial vehicle over Abbottabad, Pakistan and scans DNA in the hair of people in a suspicious compound there. This information confirms with a 99 percent certainty that al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden is hiding there. On this basis of this report, Danielle authorizes a risky mission by Navy SEAL Team Six to capture bin Laden alive.

See entries for Microbot swarm, Nano-based solar energy production, DNA Identification, Abbottabad, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, Sunni terrorist groups, Jihad, and Navy SEAL Team Six.


240. DNA identification

Deoxyribonucleic acid, commonly known as DNA, is the basic building block of almost all life on earth. DNA is a biological instruction set made of molecules called nucleotides. Each strand of DNA consists of two chains of sugars and phosphates coiled around each other in the famous double helix shape. The two chains are connected by nucleotides like the rungs on a ladder. There are four types of nodes, or “bases,” in DNA, known as A (adenine), C (cytosine), G (guanine), and T (thymine). The configuration of these molecules tells living cells how to grow, how to function, and how to multiply. A long string of bases, usually many thousands of bases long, is called a gene. Genes give specific instructions for how a cell should make proteins, which are the molecules used for most of the functions of life. Large groups of genes, often around a thousand, are organized into chromosomes. Humans normally have 23 pairs of chromosomes, a total of 46.

Most genetic information is used to determine the broad characteristics of a species. Humans share a significant minority of our genes with even distantly related organisms like plants. And even animals vastly different from humans share much of their DNA with us. For example, fruit flies and humans have about 60 percent of their genetic information in common.

Part of our DNA provides the blueprint for the neocortex, which is the brain region responsible for recognizing complex and hierarchical patterns and is a unique feature of mammalian brains.

Rodents, which were the first mammals (emerging about 200 million years ago), and humans share over 90 percent of our genetic code. Chimpanzees, humans’ closest ancestors, share up to 98 percent of their DNA with us. That roughly 2 percent difference is responsible for humans’ advantage in intelligence, creativity, and power of language.

All people—from the Inuit in the Arctic to the Bantu in Africa to the Aboriginal people of Australia—share almost all their DNA with each other. Substantially less than 1 percent of the genetic information encoded in your DNA is responsible for the key ways your physical appearance differs from other people. Although scientists disagree about just how much of a role DNA plays in intellect and personality, it can at least influence these aspects of who we are. Your DNA is like a chemical fingerprint that your cells all share, and which separates you from everyone else on earth unless you have an identical twin. Scientific testing can analyze your DNA to determine if a sample of cells came from your body, and to find how closely you are related to another person.

The most well-known application of DNA testing is in law enforcement, where it has been in use since the late 1980s. When detectives find traces of DNA at a crime scene, such as loose hair or drops of blood, they can examine it to see whether it matches the DNA of known criminals they have on file. Or if there are several suspects in a crime, they can take a sample of blood or saliva from each of them to see if there is a match. Scientists compare the samples at certain locations on chromosomes that have high variability from person to person. If the test is performed properly, the odds that it would make a mistake due to unrelated people having identical DNA are one in at least several billion (although hair only has a portion of a person’s DNA so matching DNA from hair is less reliable).

DNA identification (also known as genetic fingerprinting) can also be used to help people find long-lost relatives, or to determine the origin of unidentified remains of soldiers killed in wartime and return them to their families for proper burial. Additionally, DNA tests can allow doctors to diagnose certain diseases and genetic disorders. As technology advances, more advanced tests will be able to identify risk factors before they cause problems, and guide patients in changing their lifestyles and adopting other interventions to minimize their risk of health problems emerging later.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, before Danielle is elected president of the United States at age nineteen, she invents a swarm of microbots able to locate people based on incomplete DNA identification. Danielle realizes that this technology has serious privacy implications, so she keeps it secret, but later uses it to locate Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. An unmanned aerial vehicle releases a swarm of the tiny microbots, which fly around like tiny, virtually invisible insects, landing on people and analyzing the DNA in their hair. This evidence indicates with 99 percent certainty that the man in question is indeed bin Laden. Using this intelligence, Navy SEAL Team Six executes a daring and successful raid to capture bin Laden alive.

See entries for Reproductive enzymes, DNA replication errors, Neocortex, Microbot, Microbot swarm, Osama bin Laden, Abbottabad, and Navy SEAL Team Six.


241. Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda

Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda and the former most-wanted fugitive in the world

Osama bin Laden (1957–2011) was a Saudi Arabia-born terrorist leader most infamous for founding al-Qaeda and orchestrating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He then lived in hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan for nearly a decade, until finally being discovered by American intelligence agencies and killed during a raid on his secret compound.

Bin Laden was one of 56 children (from many wives) born to Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, the billionaire founder of Saudi Arabia’s largest construction company. He was raised with great material comfort, and traveled to Europe while growing up. Although his family were conservative Sunni Muslims, young Osama found himself drawn to the ultrafundamentalist Salafi movement within Sunni Islam. He read about religion intensively, and after studying business administration in college, left Saudi Arabia for Pakistan. The year was 1979, and the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan.

Because Osama’s father Mohammed had died in a plane crash while he was still a child, Osama had inherited the 2016 equivalent of several tens of millions of dollars. In Pakistan, Osama used money from this inheritance to support the Mujahedeen movement, which was a group of Islamic fighters who opposed the Soviet presence across the border in Afghanistan. The Soviets were atheist communists, and the Mujahedeen were Sunnis who waged an armed religious struggle, or jihad, trying to drive them out of the country.

The conflict in Afghanistan was happening within the larger context of the Cold War, in which the United States was trying to prevent the Soviet Union from increasing its power. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction made direct military confrontation too risky, because it could escalate into a nuclear conflict that would destroy both sides, and the rest of human civilization. So instead, America took an indirect approach, and provided weapons and support to the Mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviets. To this day, experts disagree about how much assistance Osama bin Laden got from the US, and important details may still be classified. But through a combination of American assistance, and money from bin Laden, the Mujahedeen got the equipment they needed to inflict serious losses on the Soviet army. Moscow ordered its troops to withdraw in 1989.

In 1988, near the end of that conflict, bin Laden had formed his loose network of Mujahedeen into an organization called “the Base” or “the Foundation,” or in Arabic, al-Qaeda.

As the conflict in Afghanistan ended, al-Qaeda’s goal was to have its members return to their home countries throughout the Muslim world and commit terrorist acts against governments they felt were un-Islamic. Bin Laden believed that Jews should not have a homeland in Israel and hated America for supporting Israel. He also believed that American culture was undermining Islam, and that Americans needed to be punished for this in a dramatic way.

Bin Laden was especially angry that his home country of Saudi Arabia allowed American troops to use it as a staging ground for defeating Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces and driving them out of Kuwait in 1991. The Saudi government realized that bin Laden was dangerous and exiled him to Sudan. Then, in 1996, Sudan expelled him. That same year, the Taliban had come to power in Afghanistan. This ultrafundamentalist Sunni Muslim movement had many ideas in common with bin Laden. So they offered him a safe haven.

Soon after arriving in Afghanistan, bin Laden publicly declared war on America. In a written statement, he said: “My Muslim Brothers of the world: Your brothers in the land of the two holiest sites and Palestine are calling upon you for help and asking you to take part in fighting against the enemy, your enemy; the Israelis and Americans.” Bin Laden called on Muslims to “do whatever you can, with one’s own means and ability, to expel the enemy, humiliated and defeated, out of the sanctities of Islam.”

In 1998, bin Laden formed an alliance with a major Egyptian terrorist named Ayman al-Zawahiri, who later became his second-in-command. That year, al-Qaeda carried out two nearly simultaneous bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people. Then in 2000, al-Qaeda used a boat full of explosives for a suicide attack that killed 17 American sailors and badly damaged the destroyer USS Cole. But bin Laden was very ambitious. He wanted to commit spectacular attacks that would make the whole world stop in its tracks. So he formed a plan to use hijacked airliners for suicide attacks against landmark buildings in America.

Al-Qaeda sent 19 operatives to America for training, and on September 11, 2001, they hijacked four airliners, just as planned. Two planes smashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, causing enormous fires that ultimately made the buildings collapse. Another crashed into the Pentagon, which is the main headquarters of the US military. A fourth, United Airlines Flight 93, was headed for either the White House or the Capitol, but crashed when its passengers heard about the other hijacked planes on their cellphones. They rushed the cockpit, and although they weren’t able to recover control of the airplane, they prevented another tragedy in Washington, DC. The attacks killed almost 3,000 people.

Osama bin Laden and top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri

Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, interviewed in Kabul in November 2001

Very soon after September 11, US authorities traced the attack back to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. They demanded that the Taliban turn over all those responsible for the attacks, but the Taliban refused. Within a month, the United States began an invasion of Afghanistan, in support of an anti-Taliban faction of Afghans called the Northern Alliance. The Taliban government quickly collapsed, and al-Qaeda fighters scattered into the most isolated parts of the country to avoid capture.

In December 2001, bin Laden and his closest followers were nearly surrounded by US special operations forces and their Afghan allies in a region of mountain caves called Tora Bora. But somehow, bin Laden managed to slip out of the trap and cross the rugged border into Pakistan. He lived for a few years in Pakistan’s remote tribal regions before secretly moving into compound that had been built for him in the city of Abbottabad. From this compound, he communicated with the outside world via a system of trusted couriers. Some of these messages were operational directions about planning new al-Qaeda attacks, and some were messages intended to encourage al-Qaeda members with low morale, or scold them for mistakes. And some of the messages, including written statements, audio recordings, and videotaped speeches, were bin Laden’s messages to the outside world. He would periodically release these messages to taunt the United States for failing to capture him, and to call on other Muslims to join his cause.

Years passed, and the American government and intelligence agencies were frustrated. Despite the world’s largest manhunt and rewards totaling over $50 million offered for his capture, all the leads on bin Laden’s whereabouts had turned out to be dead ends. But it was the courier system that eventually led to bin Laden’s downfall. In 2010, US intelligence agencies identified bin Laden’s primary courier, and realized that he lived in a strange compound in Abbottabad. It was surrounded by high walls, and had no telephone or Internet connections. The residents burned all their own trash. Putting together many pieces of evidence, American analysts realized that bin Laden probably lived inside.

Advisors to President Barack Obama (born 1961) offered several options. They could drop a group of large bombs on the compound and obliterate everything and everyone inside. But that would probably kill many innocent civilians, and there would be no way to prove that bin Laden had been killed. They could use a small unmanned aerial vehicle to shoot a small missile at bin Laden when he went out for a walk on his balcony. But that technology had never been used before, and would be too unreliable. The other option was a raid by a special operations forces team. This would involve using helicopters to sneak about two dozen members of Navy SEAL Team Six over the border from Afghanistan to Abbottabad, deep in Pakistan. They would then storm the compound, capture or kill bin Laden, and collect computer hard drives and other information that might help prevent future attacks. All three options involved using violence in a sovereign foreign country, but American leaders judged that asking permission from the Pakistani government or even warning them would risk someone tipping off bin Laden and the trail going cold again. Obama chose the special forces option.

Raid and killing of Osama Bin Ladin

President Obama and other US officials watch on video screens as the Abbottabad raid unfolds, May 1, 2011. The photo came to be known as The Situation Room, but this room is actually a smaller conference room off the main White House Situation Room

The raid was conducted on the night of May 1–2, 2011. The SEALs were equipped with state-of-the-art technology, including secret stealth helicopters to avoid detection by Pakistani radar, and advanced night vision goggles to let them see clearly in the dark. One of the helicopters unexpectedly lost lift and crash-landed in the compound, but the SEALs inside weren’t injured and the mission went ahead anyway. Bin Laden’s courier fired his assault rifle at the SEALs, but was quickly killed. They carefully made their way into the compound’s main building, and up to the third floor, where they shot and killed bin Laden. After gathering a wealth of intelligence information, they flew back to Afghanistan with bin Laden’s body before the Pakistanis could stop them. After DNA testing confirmed that the body was indeed bin Laden’s, the corpse was washed according to Islamic customs and buried at sea.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle orders the operatives from Navy SEAL Team Six to capture bin Laden but not kill him. These orders are more dangerous, and she faces resistance from her advisors, but the mission turns out to be a great success. Danielle conducts a televised interview with the captured bin Laden, which is watched by hundreds of millions. During this interview, Danielle displays her in-depth knowledge of the Qur’ān. She argues to bin Laden that his interpretation of jihad is wrong, and that jihad is really meant as an internal spiritual struggle, rather than violence against innocent people. Bin Laden realizes the truth of what Danielle is saying, and calls on his followers in al-Qaeda to stop their terrorist activities.

See entries for al-Qaeda, Sunni, Jihad, Sunni terrorist groups, Cold War, Mutually assured destruction, the Taliban, al-Zawahiri, Infidels, President Obama, Special operations forces, Navy SEAL Team Six, Abbottabad, DNA Identification, Break away group from al-Qaeda, and Qur’ān.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote peace in the Middle East.


242. Abbottabad

Abbottabad is a city of about 1.4 million people in Pakistan, located in the northeastern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Abbottabad is situated in a hilly region over 4,100 feet above sea level, so its climate is cool and pleasant during Pakistan’s hot and humid summers. It is only a few hours’ drive away from the national capital at Islamabad, so many politicians and government officials spend time there during the warmest months of the year. For this reason, Abbottabad is considered a wealthy and comfortable community.

The city was founded in 1853, and is named after James Abbott, a British Army officer who was the first colonial administrator of the region. In 1947, Abbottabad became the site of the newly founded Pakistan Military Academy, which trains new officers for the Pakistani army. As a result of the academy’s presence, Abbottabad is home to many senior military officers and retired generals.

Outside Pakistan, Abbottabad is most famous as the final refuge of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist leader. Several years after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, bin Laden secretly arranged to have a large compound built for himself, his immediate family, and some of his closest aides. The compound had large walls like a fortress, designed to keep away unwanted attention and buy time for bin Laden to escape if police or military forces raided the compound looking for him. After evading a massive manhunt near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, bin Laden slipped into Abbottabad and lived there quietly for about half a decade.

Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan

Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan

Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, by a team led by US Navy SEAL Team Six in a raid coordinated by the CIA. The raid was watched in real time by President Barack Obama and other top officials of his administration. Bin Laden’s body was buried at sea within 24 hours of his death to comply with Islamic tradition. Observers commented that had the United States captured him alive that this would have inspired acts of terrorist blackmail seeking his release. Even keeping his body would have had a similar effect.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, the United States intelligence services discover that the compound is one of a few hundred possible locations where bin Laden is hiding. Prior to her inauguration as president of the United States at age nineteen, Danielle perfects a new microbot technology, which uses microscopic robots to gather DNA from people and tentatively identify them. Using this technology, the CIA confirms that bin Laden is living in the Abbottabad compound. Upon becoming president, Danielle instructs the elite commandos of Navy SEAL Team Six to raid the compound and capture bin Laden alive. Although the military resists this idea, they execute it flawlessly and take the infamous terrorist leader prisoner.

Danielle proposes to interview bin Laden on live television, which sparks fierce resistance from CIA director David Petraeus. He tries to resign in protest, but Danielle does not accept his resignation. Danielle conducts a televised dialogue with bin Laden about the proper way to interpret Islam. She quotes to him from the Qur’ān, and impresses him with her deep knowledge of his faith. Bin Laden is convinced by Danielle and says, “I am deserving of the ultimate punishment.” He tells the huge television audience, including his followers in the al-Qaeda terrorist group, that he was wrong, and that all their plans and organization should be abandoned. Critics say that bin Laden’s apparent reversal will be rejected because he is being held a prisoner. Nonetheless, the interview appears to be a success, and the intelligence gained from the raid on Abbottabad is used to capture bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and other senior terrorist leaders. Al-Qaeda soon implodes, although an even more ruthless breakaway group forms in Iraq and Syria.

See entries for al-Qaeda, Sunni terrorist groups, Qur’ān, General Petraeus, President Obama, Muhammad, Jihad, Allah, Infidels, al-Zawahiri, Break away group from al-Qaeda, Navy SEAL Team Six.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote peace in the Middle East.


243. Joint Chiefs of Staff

The Joint Chiefs of Staff is the most senior council of uniformed officers in the United States Military. It is led by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with a Vice Chairman, and consists of the heads of each of the service branches: the Chief of Staff of the Army, the Chief of Naval Operations, Commandant of the Marine Corps, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and additionally the Chief of the National Guard Bureau. The Joint Chiefs are all officers of four-star rank, which is the highest rank given in peacetime. They meet together regularly to exchange information about their respective services, and to formulate advice for the president and Secretary of Defense, who are the civilian leaders of the US military.

The organization that became the Joint Chiefs was established during World War II, when America’s military was rapidly expanding to about 30 times its pre-war size. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) brought together his most senior and trusted military advisors to coordinate efforts between the services. In 1947, the National Security Act dramatically reorganized the US military, and made FDR’s wartime council the permanent leadership group of the uniformed services.

In the years since, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have played two main roles. The first is to directly advise the president and Secretary of Defense. This includes letting them know what strategic threats they foresee in the future, and highlighting opportunities for the military to increase its effectiveness. It also involves giving them frank and honest assessments of the military’s capabilities—what it can and cannot do, and what the likely costs will be. The second job of the Joint Chiefs is to cooperatively organize the administration and direction of their respective services.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle orders a raid on Abbottabad to capture Osama bin Laden, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff advises her against it. He fears that capturing bin Laden will bring many challenges including violent protests and blackmail to gain his release. But Danielle overrules him, and—as the military faithfully does—he executes her order expertly, deferring to her as the civilian Commander-in-Chief with the ultimate responsibility for making military decisions.

See entries for Osama bin Laden, Jihad, Abbottabad, and Navy SEAL Team Six.


244. General Petraeus

David Petraeus, born November 7, 1952, is one of the most highly decorated and successful American military leaders since World War II, and also served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He is most famous for implementing the surge strategy in Iraq in 2007, which is widely credited with saving Iraq from civil war and preventing what appeared to be an impending US defeat.

Petraeus began his career as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point. After excelling as a student and leader at the Academy, Petraeus quickly rose through the ranks of the peacetime US Army. He earned a PhD at Princeton, where he wrote a dissertation on lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War. In military assignments in Bosnia and Haiti, he gained experience in humanitarian relief operations, and so-called “nation building.” He developed a reputation as a hardworking intellectual, and was not afraid to challenge his superiors when he thought he had a perspective he believed they should consider.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Petraeus was the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, known as the Screaming Eagles. This division is one of the most famous in American military history, and it was given the difficult task of securing the large northern city of Mosul. Petraeus achieved success in Mosul, first defeating Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces and then suppressing the jihadist terrorists and insurgents in his area of operations, thereby restoring security to the region. He made it a priority that his soldiers treated the Iraqi people with respect, and worked to ensure that their quality of life was restored as quickly as possible. These positive results were a sharp contrast with the ongoing violence in many other parts of the country, and Petraeus was selected for increasingly important roles. He led the program to train and equip Iraqi security forces, and advocated increased efforts to rebuild civilian infrastructure.

General David Petraeus

General David Petraeus, during the US troop surge in Iraq in 2008

Still, violence was worsening in Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites had formed armed militias, and were battling in the streets of Baghdad and other major cities. Each violent act by one side caused resentment on the other, leading to cycles of revenge and terrorism. By 2006, Iraq was on the brink of civil war, and President George W. Bush decided that a major change in US strategy was needed. He selected Petraeus to command all United States forces in Iraq and lead the surge, which temporarily increased the number of American troops in Iraq by 28 percent. With these increased forces, Petraeus was able to provide the security needed to allow some level of political peacemaking. Petraeus also developed a new doctrine for how to fight against insurgencies such as the Sunni and Shiite militias. Together, these actions are widely credited with turning around the situation in Iraq. Violence diminished, and by the time American troops left in 2011, Iraq was a relatively stable, if fragile, country.

Following the surge, Petraeus was named commander of CENTCOM, the US military command that is in charge of all operations in the Middle East. He then deployed to Afghanistan to take a hands-on role heading the US-led coalition there. Although he achieved some progress in the long-running war against the Taliban, the campaign was not as successful as the surge had been in Iraq.

After Petraeus retired from the Army with the top rank of four-star general, President Barack Obama nominated him to serve as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Petraeus led the CIA for more than a year, but ultimately resigned due to his mishandling of classified information involving a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair. He has since devoted his time to lecturing and advising nonprofit organizations.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when nineteen-year-old Danielle is president of the United States, Petraeus serves as her CIA director. Danielle orders a risky mission to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden alive, but Petraeus opposes the mission. He tries to resign in protest, but Danielle does not accept his resignation and rips his letter into little pieces. The mission to capture bin Laden is successful, and it allows Danielle to hold a televised debate where she convinces bin Laden that al-Qaeda’s terror tactics are morally wrong. Al-Qaeda collapses as a result.

See entries for Shiite, Sunni, Sunni terrorist groups, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Jihad, President Obama, and Abbottabad.


245. Qur’ān

The Qur’ān (sometimes spelled Quran or Koran) is the primary sacred scripture of Islam. Muslims believe that God, known as Allah in Arabic, revealed important wisdom to many prophets throughout history. Islam considers several key figures in Judaism to be prophets, including Ibrahim (Abraham) and Musa (Moses). In Islam, Jesus Christ is known as Isa and also considered a great prophet. According to Islam, Allah completed this process of revelation when in 609 AD, he sent an angel named Jibril (called Gabriel in Jewish and Christian tradition) to appear to a man named Muhammad (570–632 AD).

At the time, Muhammad was a merchant in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia. He was meditating in a cave known as Hira, and had a dramatic vision of the angel Jibril. During this experience, Jibril taught Muhammad a series of religious verses, which Muhammad shared with his friends and family. The verses had a powerful spiritual impact on people, and soon Muhammad was surrounded by a large group of followers. Over the next 23 years, Jibril taught Muhammad many more verses, which his followers passed around orally. Within a generation, Muhammad’s successors compiled these into written form, which became the Qur’ān.

The standard Qur’ān is divided into 114 chapters called suras, and 6,236 verses, written in a classical form of the Arabic language that is a standard literary dialect across the Muslim world. Physically, Qur’āns are often decorated with beautiful abstract patterns, and elaborate Arabic calligraphy. Tradition says that they should be treated with utmost respect, and not burned or mutilated. They are read left-to-right.

According to Islam, the Qur’ān is Allah’s way of making Himself known to human beings, and showing them how to live virtuously. The Qur’ān emphasizes the totally undivided nature of God, and that it is impossible to fully comprehend His nature. In the Qur’ān, Allah is both creator of the entire universe and the being who will judge every person at the end of time. The text describes Allah as infinitely powerful but also merciful and forgiving. The Qur’ān urges people to surrender completely to God’s will, and to struggle to overcome their natural tendencies to do bad things.

There are many ways of interpreting the Qur’ān, and so there are many groups within Islam that each have their own interpretations. In some cases, subgroups within Islam consider themselves largely separate from each other, such as Sunnis and Shiites. In other cases, they are simply different schools of thought within the same religious community. Along with the hadith, which contains the sayings of Muhammad, and the sunnah, which are the reports about his life and behavior, the Qur’ān forms the main guide to how Muslims should live their lives. Islamic religious law is known as Sharia, and the practice of interpreting it is called fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. Islam gives special honor to people who can memorize the entire Qur’ān, and they are known as hafiz.

For most of Islamic history, the Qur’ān remained in essentially the same form. It was either copied out by hand or, later, printed by printing press. Unlike the Jewish and Christian Bible, the Qur’ān has remained unmodified for many centuries. In the twenty-first century, online versions of the Qur’ān have made it more accessible, however, in that people can listen to each verse recited musically in Arabic. They can read translations in their native language, and there are links to annotations by a wide range of Islamic scholars and commentators.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle is president of the United States, she orders Navy SEAL Team Six to conduct a daring raid to Abbottabad, Pakistan. They have orders to capture al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden alive. The mission is successful, and Danielle holds a controversial televised debate with bin Laden that is watched by millions. They debate their interpretations of the Qur’ān, such as on the word jihad, and bin Laden is impressed by Danielle’s detailed knowledge of Islamic scripture. She convinces him that his interpretation has been wrong, and that jihad is not about violence against innocents, but instead is an internal spiritual struggle. Bin Laden tells his followers to give up terrorism, and al-Qaeda collapses.

See entries for Allah, Angel Jibril, Muhammad, Moses, Saudi Arabia, Sunni, Shiite, Navy SEAL Team Six, Osama bin Laden, Jihad, al-Qaeda, Sunni terrorist groups, and Abbottabad.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote peace in the Middle East.


246. Muhammad

The Prophet Muhammad (570–632 AD) was the founder of Islam, and is believed by Muslims to be God’s final and greatest messenger. Muhammad had a series of visionary spiritual experiences that his companions later recorded in the Qur’ān, Islam’s holy book. Based on these ideas, Muhammad started a religious movement that today has more than 1.8 billion followers.

Muhammad was born in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia, to a wealthy and prominent family. Both of his parents soon died, leaving him an orphan, and he was raised by other relatives. Muhammad grew up to be a successful merchant, and became a respected community leader in Mecca. He was known for being wise and fair, and other Meccans came to him to help them settle disputes.

By the time he was about 40, Muhammad was actively seeking greater spiritual enlightenment. One night he was meditating or praying alone in a cave called Hira, when he had a vision of an angel called Jibril (known as Gabriel in the Jewish and Christian traditions). The vision was frightening, but Jibril taught him sacred verses where God (called Allah in Arabic) communicates to humanity. More visions followed later, giving Muhammad more verses. At first, he only shared these verses with his family and close friends, but after about three years, Muhammad began to speak publicly about them. The core messages of the verses were that there is only one God, that God is totally undivided, and that people should submit themselves completely to God’s will. Muhammad attracted a growing assembly of followers, but also faced opposition.

Many powerful residents of Mecca were still polytheists, believing in many different gods and goddesses. They felt threatened by Muhammad’s monotheist vision of only one God. During this time of growing hostility and persecution, Jibril took Muhammad to a spot in Jerusalem now marked by the Dome of the Rock mosque, and led him on a mystical journey to heaven. In heaven, Muhammad said he saw Ibrahim (known to Jews and Christians as Abraham), Musa (Moses), and Isa (Jesus). Muhammad communicated directly with Allah, who commanded him to tell humans to pray fifty times a day. Muhammad said that this burden was too heavy, so Allah changed the requirement to praying five times daily—which Muslims around the world still follow.

In 622, the persecution in Mecca became so severe that Muhammad and his followers fled to the nearby city of Yathrib, which became known as Medina. This event became known as the Hijrath (voluntary exile), and the Islamic calendar is calculated in years since the Hijrath. The community of Medina embraced Muhammad’s teachings, and many of its people became Muslims. The Meccans tried several times to conquer them, but Muhammad and his followers defeated them in battle. These battlefield successes further convinced the early Muslims that God was on their side.

After about eight years, the Muslims had become so strong in Medina that Muhammad returned to Mecca with a large group of followers. He was prepared to fight the Meccans, but they welcomed him into the city. Muhammad gave forgiveness to those who had persecuted him, and they converted to Islam. Soon the Islamic community was sending out messengers to other cities, asking them to follow Muhammad’s teachings. Some tribes fought against the Muslims, while others accepted Islam eagerly. By 632, Muhammad had spread Islam across the whole Arabian Peninsula.

After going on a pilgrimage back to Mecca to pray at the Kaabah, Islam’s holiest shrine, Muhammad gave a set of final instructions to his followers. He warned them to set aside vengeance and prejudice, and to treat each other with mercy. He said, echoing the teachings of Jesus, “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.” Muhammad finally established the “Five Pillars” of Islam: faith in God, praying five times daily, giving to charity, fasting to increase spiritual purity, and going on at least one pilgrimage to Mecca. Soon after giving this sermon, Muhammad became sick and died. His tomb in Medina is seen by Muslims as the second holiest site in the world, after the Kaabah.

After his death, the verses that Muhammad’s followers had passed down orally were put in writing and compiled into a book. This book, the Qur’ān, contains 6,236 verses, and established the version of the Arabic language that remains a standard literary dialect across the Muslim world. In addition, Muslims seek spiritual guidance from the hadith, which is a collection of sayings attributed to Muhammad, and the sunnah, which contains accounts of his life and behavior.

According to Islamic tradition, it is forbidden to depict Muhammad in visual images. Extremist Muslims have reacted with violence when non-Muslims have broken that rule, such as when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of Muhammad.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle is president of the United States, she orders a mission that successfully captures al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. The mission succeeds and Danielle stages a televised debate with bin Laden that is watched by millions. She points out to bin Laden that Muhammad preached the pursuit of justice in society through words and nonviolent actions. She comments that Muhammad’s ideal form of jihad, or religious struggle, was “a word of truth in front of an oppressive ruler.” This contrasts with bin Laden’s use of violence against innocents. She eventually convinces him that he has committed a grave error, and he publicly renounces terrorism, asking his followers to do the same. As a result, al-Qaeda dissolves, but a breakaway group continues a campaign of terrorism in Iraq and Syria.

See entries for Qur’ān, Allah, Saudi Arabia, Angel Jibril, Moses, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Jihad, and Sunni terrorist groups.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote peace in the Middle East.


247. Angel Jibril

In Islam, Jibril is the name of the archangel believed to have revealed to the Prophet Muhammad the messages from Allah that were later written down as the Qur’ān. Before this, Muslims believe that Jibril was Allah’s primary messenger to the earlier patriarchs and prophets of history. They identify him as the same angel known in Judaism and Christianity as Gabriel. Islamic tradition says that Jibril comforted the first man Adam, after Allah expelled him and his wife Hawa (Eve in Judaism and Christianity) from the Garden of Eden. Later, he appeared to prophets including Ibrahim (Abraham) and Musa (Moses). Muslims agree with Christians that Jibril (or Gabriel) announced to Mariam (Mary) that she would give birth to Isa (Jesus), who Islam also reveres as a great prophet.

Muslims believe that in late 609 AD, Jibril appeared to a merchant named Muhammad (570–632) near Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia. Muhammad was meditating or praying in a cave called Hira, when he had a vision of Jibril, who taught him verses that Islam considers direct communication from Allah. Muhammad told his friends and family about this spiritual experience, and soon had a growing group of followers. In a series of visions and spiritual experiences over the next 23 years, Jibril transmitted to Muhammad many more verses, which were compiled into the Qur’ān.

According to Islam, Jibril took Muhammad to Jerusalem, and from a point now marked by the Dome of the Rock mosque, led him on a journey to heaven. There, he prayed with Ibrahim, Musa, and Isa, and was announced as a great prophet. Allah commanded him to have humans pray fifty times a day, but Muhammad explained that this was too heavy a burden, so the command was changed to saying prayers five times a day.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when nineteen-year-old Danielle, as president of the United States, has her televised dialogue with Osama bin Laden after his capture, she comments on the unchanged nature of the Qur’ān over the centuries. Bin Laden says that it is “literally the word of” God, and had been “directly conveyed to Muhammad.” Danielle impresses him with her knowledge of Islam, and comments that the Qur’ān was given to Muhammad “by way of the angel Jibril.” Realizing the strength of her arguments, bin Laden tells his followers to stop their violence.

See entries for Qur’ānAllah, MuhammadMoses, Moshiach, Saudi Arabia, Jihad, Infidels, Osama bin Laden, ShiiteSunni, and Sunni terrorist groups.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote peace in the Middle East.


248. Old and new testaments of the Bible

The Bible is the primary religious scripture of the Jewish and Christian faiths. The Jewish version of the Bible is known in Hebrew as the Tanakh, and contains 24 sections called books. Jews see the Tanakh as being inspired by God, and written down by a group of leaders and prophets in stages from about 3,000 to 2,500 years ago. The Christians call the Tanakh the Old Testament, and some include several extra books in it. Christians also include another set of books called the New Testament, which in most versions has 27 books, and is about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Altogether, both testaments are usually about 800,000 words combined when translated into English.

The Tanakh was written in Hebrew and is divided into three sections. The first section, called the Torah, is the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These are considered the heart of Jewish scripture, and are also very important to Christianity. These books tell the story of God creating the universe, the earth, and everything on it. They show the first people, Adam and Eve, disobeying God and bringing evil into the world. The Torah then explains how God appeared to a man named Abram, and made a solemn agreement, or covenant, with him. If Abram would follow God’s commands, God would protect him and his descendants. God renamed him Abraham, and today three of the world’s largest faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—think of Abraham as their spiritual ancestor.

The rest of the Torah is the story of how Abraham’s descendants sometimes loved and honored God, and sometimes did evil things instead. They were taken as slaves to Egypt, but God helped them escape, and promised them a homeland in what is now Israel and Palestine. Some Jews say that God’s promises in these books make Israel their rightful homeland. The Torah also contains perhaps the most famous section of all Jewish scripture: the Ten Commandments. These are ten principles for how people should behave, such as honoring God, not killing, and not stealing. But they are not the whole of Jewish religious law. There are hundreds of other minor laws throughout the Tanakh, and Jews have large texts outside the Tanakh that are commentaries by ancient religious teachers about how to interpret these laws.

The second section of the Hebrew Bible is the Nevi’im, (prophets). These are books about people who interpreted God’s word to the Jewish people. They often shared messages of warning, letting the community know that they had fallen into evil behavior, and asking them to repent and behave virtuously. The prophets also helped the ancient Jews interpret religious law and apply it justly in society. Then, the third and final section of the Tanakh is the Ketuvim, or writings. These books include many different styles of scripture. There is poetry, religious wisdom, history, genealogy, and more.

By the time of Jesus, 2,000 years ago, the Tanakh had been mostly fixed in the form it is in today. Jesus wandered through the land that is now Israel and Palestine around 30–33 AD, teaching people to treat each other with love and to repent for the bad things they had done. Christians believe he also worked miracles, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and demonstrating God’s power. Jesus was arrested by the Jewish authorities, who feared that he was going to start a rebellion and cause harsh retaliation by the Romans, who had occupied their country by military force. They handed Jesus over to the Romans, who tortured Jesus and executed him by nailing him to a wooden cross. Christians believe that three days later, he came back to life and taught for several more weeks before ascending into heaven. According to Christians, Jesus was the incarnation (from Latin meaning “to be made into flesh”) of God, who came to live on earth as a human being. Because Jesus was innocent but went willingly to his death anyway, Christians see him as bearing the suffering for humanity’s evil behavior. Further, Christians see Jesus as the Messiah (in Hebrew, Moshiach) that had been promised by the prophets on God’s behalf in the Tanakh.

The followers of Jesus traveled throughout the Roman Empire, spreading this message of love and repentance. Because Greek was a common language in much of the empire, they wrote down their memories of Jesus in Greek. These stories, which Christians believe were written with the guiding influence of God, came to be known as the Gospels. There were several Gospel narratives, but by the fourth century the Christian community had settled on four that it considered most reliable: the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are named after the early Christians believed to have written them, but there is still much disagreement over what the actual authorship process was like.

In the early Christian community, there were churches scattered throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, and they communicated by sending letters. Some of these letters, by Christian leaders encouraging the church communities to live virtuously and overcome hardship, were collected along with the Gospels as important for all Christians to read. These were combined with a book of history about the lives of Jesus’ followers called the Acts of the Apostles, and a book of vivid prophetic images about the end of the world called Revelation. All these books together (Gospels, Letters, Acts, and Revelation) came to be known as the New Testament. Christians then added a few other books to the Tanakh, which they called the Old Testament, and formed a new Bible.

In the fourth century, Christians standardized this Bible into a version called the Vulgate. Both the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament were translated into Latin. Versions based on the Vulgate have been the official bibles of the Roman Catholic Church ever since. In the Middle Ages, though, some Christians in Europe complained that the common people did not speak Latin, and therefore couldn’t understand the Bible properly. So they started translating the Latin Vulgate into the everyday languages of their own countries. In the late fourteenth century, John Wycliffe made the first major translation into Middle English. In the early sixteenth century, William Tyndale retranslated the Bible into a more modern form of English directly from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, and had it printed widely by printing press. Catholic officials opposed these translations—some say because they undermined the authority of the Church, and some say because the Church was worried about mistranslation.

After England broke away from the Catholic Church during the Reformation, King James I authorized a new translation later known as the King James Version, which became the main English version of the Bible into the twentieth century. Today, people can access dozens of translations of the Bible online, including illustrations, explanations, and other commentary. Some translations use very formal language, like the King James Version, while others use more common language, like the New International Version. Some versions, like the Living Bible, are heavily paraphrased into contemporary English. More precise and formal translations have the advantage of closely conveying the original text, while looser translations are usually easier for people to understand and apply to their own lives.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle has her televised debate with Osama bin Laden at age nineteen, he argues that the Qur’ān has remained unchanged since it was first written. Danielle acknowledges that its text has stayed remarkably unchanged over the centuries, while there are many different translations of the Bible. But Danielle reminds bin Laden that even with a text that has remained constant through the centuries, Muslims are not immune to error. She reminds him that the Qur’ān teaches that humans cannot attain the flawlessness of God, and interpreting religious scripture involves errors and uncertainty. Danielle ultimately convinces bin Laden that he has committed a grave error by advocating violence in the name of Islam. He tells his followers to give up terrorism, and al-Qaeda dissolves.

See entries for Fruit of Knowledge, Moses, Golden calf, Promised Land, Palestine, Moshiach, Qur’ān, Osama bin Laden, Jihad, Sunnial-Qaeda, and Sunni terrorist groups.


249. Jihad

In Islam, jihad is a religious concept relating to the idea of “struggle.” Originally, jihad mainly referred to an internal spiritual struggle against evil impulses, or the struggle against oppression. But over the centuries, jihad has often been twisted to justify acts of aggression and violence. Most notably, the followers of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and Daesh (also known as ISIS) claim that they are waging a holy war of jihad, trying to convince Muslims to support such violence.

Islamic philosophers often speak of four different types of jihad: jihad of the heart, jihad of the tongue, jihad of the hand, and jihad of the sword. The first, jihad of the heart, refers to the obligation that Muslims have to struggle within themselves to have pure intentions and to avoid temptation to violate God’s commandments. This is the most fundamental meaning of jihad, and how most moderate Muslims interpret it in today’s world. Jihad of the tongue refers both to being a vocal advocate of what is right, and speaking out against injustice. It also includes trying to convince others to follow the teachings of Islam. Jihad of the hand is working to support good causes, and putting the principles of the faith into action.

Jihad of the sword is the most controversial aspect of Islam. It is the idea that it is noble for Muslims to use violence on behalf of the religion. Most Islamic scholars say that the use of force is only allowed in self-defense when all other diplomatic and political options have been tried and have failed. Even then, there is a strict ban on harming innocent civilians. But some extremists say that force can be used against anyone who does not agree with their interpretation of Islam. Not only do they kill Christians, Jews, and atheists, but many Muslims as well.

When Islamic scholars argue about when jihad of the sword should be allowed, they often discuss the conquests that occurred in the first few generations of Islam. While the prophet Muhammad (570–632) was still living, his followers fought against and conquered many of the other communities on the Arabian Peninsula in what is now Saudi Arabia. Muhammad’s successors formed an army of over 100,000 fighters, and conquered most of the Middle East. Just over a century after Muhammad’s death, there was an Islamic empire that stretched from what is now Spain and Morocco on the Atlantic coast all the way to Central Asia and parts of modern-day India. Along the way, they spread Islam—sometimes peacefully, but sometimes by force. Many moderate Islamic scholars argue that the battles during Muhammad’s lifetime were fought in self-defense, and that any forcible conversions that happened after his death were violations of his example.

Over the centuries, many different groups claimed that they were waging jihad as a way of justifying warfare. The Ottoman Empire sometimes portrayed its invasions of Europe during the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries as a religious struggle, and during World War I they officially called for jihad against the Allies. During the nineteenth century, a series of radical Islamic rebellions in Africa had similarly proclaimed jihad against their enemies.

After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, many Islamic extremists called for its destruction. Terrorist organizations such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (which later renounced terrorism), Hamas, and Hezbollah committed terrorist attacks in the name of jihad. These attacks not only targeted Israelis but also American and European civilians. Radical clerics from both of Islam’s main groups, Sunnis and Shiites, said that Western culture was undermining their religion, and tried to recruit more moderate Muslims to join in the violence.

In 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Mujahedeen fighters who opposed them said that their resistance was a jihad. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, Mujahedeen leaders such as Osama bin Laden wanted to keep the jihad going. In 1996, bin Laden publicly declared war on the United States, and two years later organized devastating bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The September 11 attacks in 2001 were far worse—the deadliest terrorist attacks in history. Bin Laden hoped that the sight of hijacked airliners destroying iconic American buildings would convince other Muslims to join his jihad against the West.

When the US invaded Afghanistan, bin Laden and the rest of al-Qaeda’s leadership went into hiding. Missile strikes from aerial drones killed key terrorists one by one. This made it hard to recruit and train new operatives and send them to the West. Instead, terrorist groups began an online jihad. They spread their messages to Muslim young people using platforms like Twitter and Facebook. This has convinced some people to commit violence in the name of Islam without ever meeting a terrorist leader.

Since al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq split off to become Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), it has waged aggressive jihad against several countries in the Middle East. Daesh formed an army with tens of thousands of fighters and seized control of large areas of Syria and Iraq before being driven back by an international military coalition.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle orders Navy SEAL Team Six to capture Osama bin Laden in a daring raid on his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. This allows her to debate him in a televised conversation watched by millions all over the world. Danielle surprises bin Laden with her knowledge of the Qur’ān, and convinces him that the proper understanding of jihad is as the internal struggle of jihad of the Heart. Bin Laden realizes that violence against innocents is a misinterpretation of Islam, and orders his followers to give up their jihad of the Sword. In response, al-Qaeda dissolves.

See entries for al-QaedaOsama bin Laden, Allah, Qur’ānMuhammad, SunniShiite, Sunni terrorist groups, the Taliban, Infidels, Special operations forces, Navy SEAL Team Six, Abbottabad, Break away group from al-Qaeda.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote peace in the Middle East.


250. Allah

In Islam, God is referred to by the Arabic word Allah. Contrary to a common misconception, Muslims do not see themselves as worshiping a different god than Christians and Jews. Rather, they see all three of these religions as worshiping the same divine being. Notably, Arabic-speaking Christians also refer to God as Allah.

According to most interpretations of Islam, Allah is a supreme being that has existed for all time and exists outside the limitations of time and space. Islam emphasizes that Allah is an absolutely undivided entity, which contrasts with the Christian idea that God exists as a united Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It also contrasts with polytheistic religions like Hinduism, which believe in multiple separate gods. According to Qur’ān 47:19: “There is no deity except Allah.”

Muslims also believe that Allah is unique, beyond human understanding. As Qur’ān 42:11 says: “There is nothing like Him.” Muslims believe that Allah is the Creator of the universe and all that is in it, the Sustainer who makes all life possible, the Ordainer who governs everything in the universe, and the Judge who decides whether humans have lived virtuous lives.

Allah is seen as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. An important idea in Islamic philosophy is the concept that Allah is infinite and incomprehensible, but at the same time is concerned with every single person and the smallest details of the universe. From Qur’ān 6:103: “No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision: is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things.”

Islam sees Allah as having partially revealed Himself to human beings by inspiring a series of prophets in ancient history. For example, according to the Islamic view, Moses and Jesus were both prophets of Allah. But Islam says that Allah revealed Himself fully to the Prophet Muhammad (570–632) through a series of divine messages from 609–632 AD in what is now Saudi Arabia. Muhammad shared these teachings with a group of followers who wrote them down as the Qur’ān, which Muslims see as the definitive text about Allah and his relationship with the world.

Traditionally, Allah has 99 names in Islam. Each of these describes an important aspect of Allah’s nature. For example, Allah is known as “the Merciful,” “the Compassionate,” and “the Giver of Life.” In this way, Muslims can think about Allah’s different attributes without seeing Allah as divided.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle has a televised dialogue with Osama bin Laden after she directs his capture, Danielle recites quotes from the Qur’ān showing that Allah is merciful and forbids violence against innocent people. Bin Laden struggles to argue against this, and finds that he can no longer justify the violence that his al-Qaeda terrorist group is committing. He orders his followers to cease their attacks, but an even more radical and brutal breakaway group forms in Iraq and Syria and continues further violence.

See entries for Qur’ān, Muhammad, Saudi Arabia, Jihad, Infidels, Infidels, Osama bin Laden, Sunni terrorist groupsBreak away group from al-Qaeda, and Navy SEAL Team Six.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote peace in the Middle East.


251. Infidels

In several of the world’s major religions, there is a term for people who do not follow that religion’s teachings. In English, these terms are often translated as infidel. This comes from Latin and means “not faithful.” Although it has historically been used among Christians and Jews, most modern uses of the term relate to Muslims. In Islamic tradition, someone who does not follow the teachings of the Qur’ān is referred to as a kafir. A kafir, or infidel in English, is considered to be in error. Different groups within Islam differ over how to address this error. Some Muslims believe that they should live in peaceful coexistence with infidels, and that the virtuous living of the Islamic community will eventually persuade them to convert. On the other hand, a minority of Muslims follows extremist interpretations that see infidels as an enemy that must be converted or destroyed.

Islam contains very clear teachings that it is wrong for Muslims to use violence against each other. Yet extremist groups justify such violence by arguing that even though certain people self-identify as Muslims, they are really infidels, and can therefore be killed. For example, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claims that it has established a universal religious kingdom called a caliphate. It says that Muslims who do not acknowledge the authority of the caliphate are infidels, and commits terrible atrocities against them. ISIS is not the first to do this. ISIS was formerly a part of al-Qaeda, which also claimed that some fellow Muslims were really infidels. Other extremists throughout history have done the same. The act of saying that people who self-identify as Muslims are actually infidels is called takfir in Arabic, and is considered an especially serious offense.

Among those who do not self-identify as Muslims, Islam identifies several types of infidels. Christians and Jews are considered Ahl al-Kitab, meaning “People of the Book.” They are viewed as partial believers, because Islam acknowledges their religions as being early stages in the process of divine revelation that was completed with the Prophet Muhammad (570–632). Those from polytheist religions like Hinduism are seen as committing an error Islam calls shirk, with such a person known as a mushrik. Finally, someone who once practiced Islam but has converted to another faith or became an atheist is called a murtad. Renouncing Islam this way is called irtidad, or apostasy, and has often been forbidden, with death as a punishment under traditional Islamic law.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle debates Osama bin Laden about the justifications he uses for terrorist attacks, bin Laden claims that Islam is under threat by evil infidel influences. Danielle points out inconsistencies in bin Laden’s view, and ultimately prompts him to see that his teachings and proclamations have been wrong and inconsistent with Islamic teachings. He orders his followers to stop their violent actions, and al-Qaeda dissolves. A breakaway group continues its violence, though.

See entries for Allah, Qur’ānMuhammad, Jihad, Osama bin Laden, Sunni terrorist groups, Break away group from al-Qaeda, and Navy SEAL Team Six .

How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote peace in the Middle East.


252. Stalin

Joseph Stalin, dictator of the Soviet Union

Joseph Stalin, in his early years as dictator of the Soviet Union

Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) was the dictator of the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953. He led one of the most repressive governments in world history, which virtually abolished individual freedom, and caused the deaths of tens of millions of its own citizens. On the other hand, he played a key role in defeating Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany during World War II. Following his death, the Soviet Union distanced itself from Stalin’s legacy, and he is now generally seen alongside Hitler and Benito Mussolini as one of the worst tyrants of the twentieth century.

He was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in the region of Georgia, on the Black Sea. At the time, Georgia was part of the Russian Empire, and was ruled with an iron fist by the Tsars. Young Joseph’s father was a cobbler who provided a decent living for his family, but was alcoholic and abusive. His mother took him away from home to protect him, and enrolled him in a church school. This allowed him to get an education that people of his social class could rarely afford in those days. While at school Joseph became attracted to politics, and started reading the works of radical philosophers such as Karl Marx (1818–1883). As a young man, he became a political activist, and tried to organize workers in opposition to the government.

At this time, there was a growing movement in Russia advocating Marxist ideas, and promoting a violent revolution. Some of the revolutionaries hoped to replace the harsh authoritarian rule of the Tsars with a “communist” society. This meant that property and political power would be shared evenly by all the workers, according to the Marxist principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Joseph Dzhugashvili traveled around Georgia, leading strikes and marches by different workers’ groups. The tsarist secret police arrested him several times, and he was repeatedly jailed and exiled.

In 1905, there was an unsuccessful communist revolution in Russia that the tsar’s forces harshly suppressed. Although the revolution failed, the crackdown turned more people against the tsar, and convinced Russians that something needed to change. Dzhugashvili started writing political material under the name Stalin (from the Russian word for steel) around 1902, including a 1913 pamphlet on Marxist theory that became very influential in the movement. So he kept the name Stalin and became increasingly well known among Russian communists. He led a criminal gang that raised money for the cause by extortion, fraud, and bank robbery. He was arrested again and sent to exile far to the east in Siberia.

Stalin returned from exile just as the Russian revolution was beginning in 1917. In February of that year, massive protests forced Tsar Nicholas II to give up the throne. A moderate provisional government was set up to oversee free elections, but in October it was overthrown by a more radical communist revolutionary group, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924). Stalin became one of Lenin’s most important deputies in the new Soviet Union, and helped organize the Soviet military during the 1917–1919 civil war between Russian communists and anti-communists.

In 1922, Lenin made Stalin the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Because this was the only party allowed in the country, holding this most powerful office in the party made Stalin the second most powerful person in the country, behind Lenin. When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin became the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union. The Party believed that society wasn’t ready to transition to the kind of full communism that Marx envisioned. Instead, there would have to be a period of “dictatorship of the proletariat,” where a worker-led dictatorship would forcefully restructure society to make communism possible in the future. So Stalin was given totalitarian power. Citizens lost almost all their rights. The government told them where to work, where to live, and where they could travel. Those who had wealth or property had it taken away by force. If people even slightly displeased Stalin, he could have them executed without a trial.

Stalin understood that in order for communism to expand around the world, which was Lenin’s goal, it would first have to survive in the Soviet Union. So he tried to rapidly build up the country’s industrial capacity, so they could produce enough weapons to defend themselves. With a series of “Five Year Plans,” Stalin built new factories, mines, and railroads. Millions of people were put into forced labor, and workers were given impossibly high quotas of goods to produce. Family farms were reorganized into collectivist farms run by the government, which were intended to increase crop production, but often led to severe food shortages. Some scientific research was suppressed due to fears that it would have political implications unfavorable to communism.

Ultimately, Stalin achieved a major industrial buildup, but at the cost of great suffering by the Soviet people. A severe famine in 1932–1933 caused millions of people to die unnecessarily. Because the Ukraine region resisted some of Stalin’s reform programs, he had most of their crops shipped to other parts of Russia to relieve the famine, and refused to provide aid when starvation set in. About five million Ukrainians starved to death or became so weak they died of other illnesses. Stalin covered up the mass starvation, but historians now recognize it as a genocide known as the Holodomor (Great Famine).

To prevent the population from becoming demoralized, Stalin constantly bombarded citizens with propaganda. Posters encouraged people to work themselves to exhaustion, and demonized people perceived as too capitalistic. Films and newspapers spread lies about how well the Five Year Plans were going, and made excuses to explain why people weren’t seeing the amazing results Stalin had promised.

Communist philosophy states that there is no God, and that religion is the “opiate of the masses.” So the government arrested priests and destroyed churches, because it didn’t want the people to have loyalty to anything but the Communist Party. Much like Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) in Germany and Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) in Italy, Stalin created a cult of personality around himself. Soviet propaganda portrayed him as an all-knowing father of the nation, and made up many false stories to exaggerate his abilities and accomplishments.

Propaganda posters like this one warned people not to slack off or steal supplies, and encouraged people to be resentful of others who might be doing so.

Soviet propaganda posters warning people

During the 1930s, Stalin became increasingly paranoid that people in the military or government were plotting against him. He ordered a series of purges, where hundreds of thousands of people suspected of disloyalty—including some of the most senior generals and army officers—were fired, imprisoned, or executed. Stalin’s forces also targeted intellectuals, artists, and some scientists. The secret police had a huge network of informants who would report anyone who criticized Stalin or his policies. The Soviet people lived in fear, and millions were exiled to a series of hard labor camps in or near Siberia known as the gulags.

In 1939, just before the start of World War II, Stalin agreed to a nonaggression pact with Hitler’s Germany. Although the Nazis and Communists were bitter enemies, they decided to work together in conquering Poland and dividing its territory between them. But Stalin’s trust in this agreement nearly destroyed the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Hitler launched a surprise attack all along the German-Soviet border, sending more than 3.5 million soldiers pouring into Soviet territory. The Soviets were caught off guard. Millions of Soviet troops were killed or captured, and most of these prisoners of war died in captivity. German forces drove deep into the country, and almost took the capital at Moscow. But Stalin used “scorched earth” tactics, which means that the retreating Soviets burned or destroyed almost everything of value so the Germans couldn’t use it. Winter soon set in, and the German advance came to a stop due to the brutal weather. With local food supplies wiped out and the supply lines back to Germany stretched thin, the German army soon became cold and hungry.

The German-Soviet conflict of World War II was the scene of savage house-to-house combat that wrecked thousands of villages and cities all over the Eastern Front. Here, Soviet troops engage in combat with German forces not visible in the photo.

Soviet troops engage in combat with German forces

Stalin ordered an all-out counterattack, and had army officers who retreated arrested and executed. Over the following months and years, the Soviets gradually pushed the Germans back, but at a horrific cost. Over 11 million Soviet soldiers and 13 million civilians were killed on the Eastern Front, and many war crimes were committed by both sides. To comfort and inspire the people, Stalin relaxed the government’s opposition to religion. Although Stalin hated capitalism and democracy, he worked with the Allies because of their common enemy. He had meetings with the American and British leaders, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), and Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965), and frequently exchanged messages with them. Stalin wanted the Allies to take some of the pressure off the Soviets by invading German-occupied France. This would divert German units to the west and away from the Eastern Front. But Roosevelt and Churchill knew that if they invaded before their own forces were ready, the invasion would fail. So they didn’t invade until D-Day, on June 6, 1944, but the operation was considered a great success.

At that point, Nazi Germany’s fate was sealed. It took less than a year for massive Allied and Soviet armies to drive deep into Germany itself, and Hitler committed suicide when he realized that there was no hope.

Stalin disagreed with Roosevelt and Churchill about what to do after the war. Stalin wanted to keep most of Eastern Europe under Soviet control and install communist governments. The Allies wanted those countries, which had just been liberated from the Nazis, to be able to decide on their own governments. Neither side wanted to fight the other, so they settled on a tense compromise. Stalin agreed to share control of Berlin with the Americans, British, and French, but refused to give up control of Eastern Europe.

Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill at the Tehran Conference in 1943

Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill at the Tehran Conference in 1943, where they discussed the strategy for the war, and Stalin pressured them to invade Nazi-controlled France as soon as possible

This compromise started what came to be known as the Cold War. Both sides were trying to undermine each other, but without escalating it into an open war.

At the beginning of the Cold War, there was a major imbalance between the two sides: the United States had nuclear bombs, but the Soviets did not. Stalin ordered an emergency program to create a nuclear bomb of their own. They did so in 1949, which sent the Cold War into a new phase. Now, if a war erupted, millions of people might die. This made both sides cautious about not provoking the other excessively. For example, when the Soviet-backed communist government in North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, the United States and its allies counterattacked with conventional military weapons. But when they realized that they would need to use nuclear weapons to win the war, they settled for a stalemate rather than risk drawing the Soviets into the war.

By 1953, Stalin’s health was poor. He suffered from atherosclerosis and had had a serious heart attack several years before. One morning, he was found collapsed from a stroke, and died a few days later. His successor Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) publicly denounced the cult of personality that Stalin had created, and ended some of Stalin’s extreme totalitarian policies. After the end of the Cold War in 1991, historians got access to the Soviet archives and learned new information about Stalin’s crimes, which had previously been covered up. It is now clear that he was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Soviet citizens during his time in power.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle is nine years old, she compares the death toll from Stalin’s policies of forced agricultural collectivism with the deaths from collectivism under Mao Tse-tung in China, and from the Holocaust in Hitler’s Germany. Later, when she is president of the United States, she debates Osama bin Laden, who claims that he only allied with the CIA during the 1980s because the Soviets were their common enemy. Bin Laden compares this to the alliance of convenience between the western Allies in World War II, which were capitalist democracies, and the communist, totalitarian Soviet Union.

See entries for Hitler, Mussolini, Authoritarian, Totalitarian, Charismatic leadership, Hitler’s “Final Solution,” Shoah, Holocaust, Winston Churchill, Cold War, Thermonuclear weapons, Mutually assured destruction, Atherosclerosis, Mao Tse-tung, and Osama bin Laden.

How You Can Be a Danielle and combat totalitarianism in the world.


253. Hitler

Adolf Hitler, dictator of Germany 1933–1945

Adolf Hitler, dictator of Germany 1933–1945 and mastermind of some of the worst crimes in history

Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) was the dictator of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and the leader of the Nazi party. He was responsible for the Holocaust genocide, which killed roughly 11–15 million people including about six million Jews. He also started World War II, which remains the most destructive war ever fought, and resulted in about 80 million deaths. As a result of these crimes, Hitler is widely regarded as the worst tyrant in human history.

Hitler was born to a middle-class family in Linz, Austria, the son of a civil service worker. Growing up, he dreamed of becoming an artist. He moved to Vienna, where he twice applied to the Academy of Fine Arts. He was rejected both times, so eked out a living selling sketches and doing odd jobs while staying at cheap boarding houses. By this point, both his parents had died, and he felt very bitter and frustrated about his struggles. At that time, Vienna was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The city was full of intellectuals and wealthy people of several different ethnicities. Among these were many Jews, including my grandparents. Vienna was also a major center of Marxism and left-wing philosophy. As a young man, Hitler started to blame Vienna’s diversity for his personal problems and became more politically active.

When World War I began, Hitler was classified as not healthy enough for service in the Austrian military, so he volunteered to join a German unit. He served on the front lines of trench warfare, where he was wounded by shrapnel and later was temporarily blinded by a mustard gas attack. Hitler received prestigious medals for bravery, and took great pride in fighting for Germany, even though it was not his native country. When Germany was defeated in 1918, Hitler was devastated. He believed that Germany hadn’t lost the war “fair and square,” but instead believed a legend that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by communists and Jews disloyal to the country. He became more committed to right-wing politics and joined a small radical group called the German Workers’ Party.

Hitler had a captivating speaking style and soon rose to leadership roles in the party, which was renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (in German the NSDAP, known in English as the Nazi Party). The Nazis were fiercely opposed to communism, and they argued that the German people had a special destiny different from other races and ethnic groups. Hitler gave many speeches about these ideas, and spoke with such passion and intensity that witnesses said it was almost like he was hypnotizing his listeners. By November 1923, Hitler was in a power struggle with other right-wing leaders, who disagreed with him over how to accomplish their objectives. So Hitler and some of his closest allies showed up at a meeting of his rivals’ supporters, held at a beer hall in Munich. He gave a powerful speech, and convinced over two thousand of them to march out of the beer hall and attempt to overthrow the local government. After that, they hoped to take over the national government in Berlin and replace the democratic government with an authoritarian regime. Hitler was inspired to do this by seeing the success of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) and his March on Rome the previous year.

This incident, known as the Beer Hall Putsch, ended in disaster. The army and police confronted Hitler and his supporters, and a battle broke out. Several people were killed on both sides, and the rebels panicked and scattered. Hitler was arrested and sentenced to prison for treason. Most people expected that to be the end of his career, but Hitler used the incident to his own advantage. The Putsch gave Hitler massive publicity in Germany, and allowed him to claim that he was one of the only politicians willing to take risks and make personal sacrifices for his beliefs.

While in prison, Hitler wrote a book called Mein Kampf (meaning “My Struggle”). It explained his political ideas, which centered on the idea of race. Hitler saw German-speaking people as part of the Aryan race, which old pseudoscience said included Northern Europeans, Persians, and Northern Indians. Much like Mussolini in Italy, Hitler took inspiration from the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Nietzsche created the idea of the Übermensch, a natural “superman” defined by superior willpower and ambition. Later philosophers expanded the Übermensch idea to include a right to rule over others, and contrasted this with the Untermensch, a subhuman person naturally destined to serve more advanced people. In Mein Kampf, Hitler identified the Aryans with the Übermensch, and argued that people like Jews and Slavs had Untermensch status.

Based on these ideas, Hitler claimed that the German people had been unfairly denied the resources and land they naturally deserved. He argued that Germans needed Lebensraum (meaning “living space”), which they could get by expanding to the east and taking land from inferior people. Hitler identified two groups as the greatest threats to Germans achieving this destiny: Jews and communists. Through Mein Kampf, Hitler told his German readers that they needed to unite and destroy these threats. He blamed the country’s problems on political squabbling and lack of firm leadership, and presented himself as the solution. The book became a bestseller, and Hitler was released from prison after serving only a year of his sentence.

In 1929, the American stock market crashed, which set off a financial panic all over the world. The German economy fell into a deep depression, and millions of people lost their jobs. Hitler blamed this on Jews, who he said controlled the financial system, and communists, who he said were sabotaging German industry. The people were poor and desperate, and Hitler’s promises to restore wealth and honor to the country attracted growing support. The Nazis sent armed thugs into the streets to intimidate anyone who criticized Hitler, and these men, known as storm troopers, often got into bloody fights with the communists. Ordinary citizens were frightened by the violence, and Hitler promised that the Nazis would restore law and order. He traveled around Germany by airplane, and made charismatic speeches in front of huge crowds. The Nazis printed millions of propaganda leaflets, which spelled out in short, simple words why people should support them.

In the 1930 election, the Nazis became the second largest party in the German parliament. In 1932, Hitler ran for president and came in second place, but in the parliamentary elections later that year, the Nazis became the largest party. Yet because the Nazis didn’t have an overall majority in parliament, there was a frenzy of political deal-making as different parties tried to put together a coalition with a majority. The president of Germany at that time was an old man named Paul von Hindenburg. He had been a successful general during World War I, and was greatly respected by the people, but because of his age he could no longer be a very active leader. Hindenburg was an independent, but most of his political allies were moderate, traditionalist conservatives who disliked both the communists and the Nazis. Yet some of Hindenburg’s advisors suggested that they give Hitler the second-highest office in the government, the chancellorship, in return for the Nazis’ support. They considered Hitler an unintelligent rabble-rouser and thought that they could use him as a puppet for their own agenda.

On January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor. Weeks later, the German parliament building, the Reichstag, burned down in a mysterious fire. Hitler blamed the fire on a communist arsonist, but many historians now believe the fire was set by the Nazis to frame the communists. Using the fire as a justification, the Nazi-led parliament passed a law called the Enabling Act, which massively increased Hitler’s powers in order to respond to the crisis. The following year, Hindenburg died and Hitler took the powers of the president for himself, under the title of Führer (meaning “leader,” just like Mussolini’s Italian title Il Duce).

As Führer, Hitler ruthlessly crushed his political opponents, creating a totalitarian society where the government sought to control every aspect of life. People who criticized him were rounded up and sent to jail or concentration camps. Some disappeared in the middle of the night and were never seen again. This created so much fear that most people who opposed Hitler didn’t dare speak out against him. Hitler wanted people to feel that everyone around them supported the Nazis, so he sponsored a series of propaganda films by the director Leni Riefenstahl. These films used dramatic and emotionally stirring images to create a cult of personality around Hitler, and encouraged Germans to look at him as an almost godlike figure.

Spectacles like the one shown in this photograph, taken during a Nazi Party rally, helped reinforce the image that the whole German people were united in support of Hitler. This was not true, but it made most of the opposition too afraid to resist him.

Nazi rally

By the mid-1930s, most of the resistance against Hitler in Germany had been squashed. He turned his attention to rearming the German military, which had been greatly reduced by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. At first, he secretly funneled money to building new tanks, planes, and ships, in violation of the treaty. But soon, he openly paraded these new weapons, because he knew that the Allies were not willing to go to war. Britain and France had lost millions of men during World War I, and most citizens in those countries were sharply opposed to fighting another war. Hitler used this reluctance to his advantage. In 1936, he sent troops back into parts of Germany that had been demilitarized by the Treaty of Versailles. He signed a treaty with Mussolini’s Italy that grew into the military alliance known as the Axis. Germany then seized control of Austria and Czechoslovakia and absorbed their territory.

In March of 1938, Hitler and the Nazis came into Austria and annexed the country in an event known as the Anschluss (union). German troops marched into Austria on March 12. On March 15, Hitler gave a dramatic speech in the Heldenplatz (Square of Heroes) in Vienna to 200,000 enthusiastic Austrians. Hitler declared that “[t]he oldest eastern province of the German people shall be, from this point on, the newest bastion of the German Reich.” Many Austrian Jews realized at that point that if they were going to survive they would need to flee. My parents (who had met but were not yet romantically involved) and my grandparents fled that summer in a harrowing escape to England and finally the United States.

Austria and Czechoslovakia were too weak to resist, and had large numbers of pro-Nazi citizens anyway. They gave up without significant fighting. The Allies objected, but again, were not willing to actually fight a war to stop Hitler. So they signed the Munich Pact with Germany, allowing these conquests in return for what they hoped would be “peace for our time.”

Then, in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Because there was a formal alliance between the British, French, and Poles, England and France declared war on Germany to protect their ally. And so, World War II began. At first, Hitler achieved spectacular successes. Germany quickly conquered Poland, and then took over Denmark and Norway. France had constructed a powerful string of fortifications along the French-German border called the Maginot Line, and thought it would be safe. But in the spring of 1940, the German army launched a surprise attack that quickly overwhelmed Belgium and the Netherlands. Because France hadn’t built fortifications on its border with Belgium, German tanks were able to get around the Maginot Line and race for Paris.

The Germans called this new, fast style of warfare Blitzkrieg (meaning “lightning war”). Before the Allies knew it, their armies had been trapped between overwhelming German forces and the English Channel. A heroic evacuation at Dunkirk saved most of them, but German units soon captured Paris, and the French surrendered. This left the British fighting alone, under the inspiring leadership of Winston Churchill (1874–1965). Hitler ordered the German air force to bomb the civilian population of England, especially London, hoping to terrify them into pressuring their government to surrender. But the British did not give in to this bombing, known as the Blitz. Churchill gave inspiring speeches over the radio, and although thousands of civilians were killed in the bombings, the citizens did not panic.

By 1941, Hitler realized that the British weren’t giving up, and turned his attention to the Soviet Union. He had signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviets, led by Joseph Stalin (1878–1953), but Hitler hated the communists deeply. He ordered the German military to prepare a massive surprise attack against the Soviets. They moved about 3.5 million soldiers, and thousands of artillery guns, tanks, and aircraft to the Soviet border. Then, on the morning of June 22, 1941, the largest invasion in the history of warfare began. Hitler called it Operation Barbarossa. The invasion force drove deep into Russia, and killed or captured millions of Soviet troops. But when winter came, it got too cold to keep going. The Soviets counterattacked, and the war on the Eastern Front turned into a brutal and bloody stalemate.

Meanwhile, Hitler looked at the war as an opportunity to fulfill the racial ambitions he had written about in Mein Kampf years earlier. Germany had persecuted Jews since Hitler came to power, but this shifted from harassment and occasional violence (such as the 1938 anti-Jewish riots known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass) to mass murder. The Nazis constructed concentration camps and filled them with millions of Jews from within Germany and from the territories conquered during the war. Some of the camps were for slave labor, and others were mainly for extermination. Jews were sent to the camps in crowded train cars, separated from their families, stripped down, and herded into special chambers where they were killed with poison gas. The bodies were then burned in giant ovens. My wife Sonya’s father David narrowly avoided this fate when he escaped through the roof of a train car taking him to the Treblinka death camp, and spent the rest of the war hiding out as a resistance fighter (known as a partisan). In total, this genocide, known as the Holocaust, the Shoah, or the Final Solution, killed about six million Jews and five to nine million others. In addition to Jews, the Holocaust also targeted communists, priests, gypsies (Roma people), LGBT people, and those with disabilities.

On December 11, 1941, Hitler made what some historians consider his worst strategic mistake. Just after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, he declared war on the United States, which had previously been staying out of the war. This brought the huge might of American industry fully onto the side of the Allies. Factories in the United States churned out weapons and equipment that helped the British and Soviets turn the tide of the war. Soon, American troops were joining them, and they gradually pushed Hitler’s forces out of the areas they had captured. June 6, 1944 was D-Day, the beginning of the final invasion of Europe to destroy the Nazis.

With American, British, and Soviet armies pushing toward Germany from both West and East, some Germans lost faith in Hitler’s abilities. A group of army officers tried to assassinate him, but failed through a series of flukes and coincidences. By the spring of 1945, almost everyone but Hitler realized that the end was near. With the Soviet army closing in on Berlin, he retreated to a bunker deep under the capital, surrounded by his most fanatical followers. He was convinced that Germany was on the verge of making a devastating counterattack, but the counterattack never came. Finally, he realized that all was lost, and began blaming his supporters, his friends, and the German people for failing him. In the bunker, Hitler married his longtime girlfriend Eva Braun, and then they both committed suicide in despair.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle attends the Stern School, which is named after the Stern Schule, which was founded by my mother’s mother’s mother in Vienna in 1868. The school provided pioneering education for girls, but was shut down when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 as described above. This put Vienna’s Jews, including my family, at great risk. Fortunately, they managed to escape just in time, but many people were not as fortunate.

Later, when Danielle is president of the United States, she orders a raid by special operations forces that captures al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. She then stages a televised debate with bin Laden about the principles of Islam, and convinces him to renounce terrorism. Although the interview is seen by millions of people and is a great success, political talk show host Craig Michaels asks Danielle some pointed questions about it. He asks her whether she would have had a similar debate with Adolf Hitler, and she says that she would, “If it would have saved the life of a single victim of Nazism.”

See entries for MussoliniAuthoritarian, Totalitarian, Winston Churchill, Charismatic leadershipHitler’s “Final Solution”, Holocaust, Shoah, Stern Schule, Special operations forces, al-Qaeda, Sunni terrorist groups, and Osama bin Laden.

How You Can Be a Danielle and combat totalitarianism in the world.


254. Al-Zawahiri

Ayman al-Zawahiri, born on June 19, 1951, is an Egyptian terrorist leader and physician. He is best known as Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command.

Al-Zawahiri grew up in Cairo in an educated and rather wealthy family, and trained as a doctor. As a young man, he became more and more interested in extremist interpretations of his Sunni Islam faith. These interpretations called for violent jihad against Christians, Jews, and moderate Muslims. Al-Zawahiri led a jihadist group in Egypt, and in the 1980s was imprisoned by the Egyptian government for his activities there. Shortly after his release, terrorism experts believe, he met Osama bin Laden for the first time in Saudi Arabia.

In 1998, al-Zawahiri acknowledged bin Laden as his leader. Al-Zawahiri’s own followers pledged loyalty to bin Laden, and he became second-in-command of al-Qaeda, also acting as bin Laden’s personal physician. In his al-Qaeda leadership role, al-Zawahiri was partly responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and went on the run afterward to avoid being brought to justice. He is believed to have been hiding ever since in the rugged tribal regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Despite a $25 million bounty offered by the US government, al-Zawahiri has evaded capture. Periodically, he sends out written statements or video messages to the world, making threats or commenting on global affairs.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, as US president, nineteen-year-old Danielle succeeds in having Osama bin Laden captured in Abbottabad, Pakistan. After debating with bin Laden in a televised dialogue, she convinces him to order his followers to stop their terrorist activities. Using intelligence gathered in the Abbottabad raid, American forces manage to capture al-Zawahiri, who had been leading al-Qaeda in bin Laden’s absence.

See entries for Sunni, Sunni terrorist groupsAbbottabadJihad, Allah, Infidels, Osama bin Laden, and Navy SEAL Team Six.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote peace in the Middle East.


255. Break away group from al-Qaeda

In early 2014, the main branch of the al-Qaeda terrorist group in Iraq split off from the central al-Qaeda organization. Benefiting from the chaos of the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011, it had expanded from only committing terrorism to actually conquering large parts of Syria and Iraq. In 2013, it renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and later just the Islamic State. Following an ultra-extreme version of Sunni Islam, it has declared a worldwide Islamic caliphate, and is encouraging attacks against moderate Muslims and citizens of Western nations all over the world.

ISIS, sometimes called by its Arabic-language acronym Daesh, has its origins in a terrorist group created in Jordan in 1999. Its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (1966–2006), saw the Jordanian government as corrupt and un-Islamic, and wanted to overthrow it. al-Zarqawi also operated secretly in Iraq during the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule. After the American-led invasion of Iraq, al-Zarqawi pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist group based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), it carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks—both against US forces and against Iraqi civilians, especially Shiite Muslims.

From 2003–2006, AQI became more and more powerful. They used car bombs, roadside bombs, kidnappings, ambushes, and assassinations. Thousands of Iraqis were being killed, and the violence was creating a cycle of revenge between Sunnis and Shiites. Most observers agreed that Iraq was rapidly sliding toward civil war.

American forces were leading a massive manhunt for al-Zarqawi, who was the second most wanted man in the world after Osama bin Laden. Again and again, al-Zarqawi narrowly escaped capture, and he continued to lead the devastating insurgency. Finally, American intelligence tracked him down and he was killed by a US airstrike on June 7, 2006. The next year, President George W. Bush called for a new strategy in the war, and selected General David Petraeus to lead a surge of nearly 30,000 additional troops to Iraq. The surge was regarded as a success, and violence in Iraq dropped dramatically. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was weakened and many of its leaders were either killed or arrested.

By 2011, AQI was very weak and could only commit occasional terrorist attacks. But that year, the so-called Arab Spring swept across many countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Prodemocracy protests took place throughout the region, largely enabled by social media. Activists used Twitter and Facebook to share information and plan their gatherings. Large crowds formed in public squares, refusing to leave until authoritarian leaders left office or agreed to major reforms. This caused the fall of dictators in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. In Syria, ruled by dictator Bashar al-Assad, there were huge protests, but the government suppressed them with violent crackdowns.

Many members of the Syrian military refused to kill their own civilians, and they defected from government control. They began an armed campaign against Assad’s forces, calling themselves the Free Syrian Army. Neither side could defeat the other, and the violence worsened throughout 2012 and 2013.

Around this time, an assortment of jihadist groups began flocking to Syria. They fought against Assad’s government and often fought against the Free Syrian Army as well. Because large areas of Syria were no longer under government control, terrorists had a safe space to train and to plan new attacks. AQI expanded its operations into Syria and renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (often abbreviated ISIS, but sometimes translated as ISIL, for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

The lawlessness in Syria allowed ISIS to expand beyond terrorism into actually conquering territory. ISIS fighters entered villages and towns, and forced populations to follow their ultra-extremist interpretation of Islam. Men were forbidden to shave their beards, girls were banned from attending school, and people were harshly punished for using alcohol or cigarettes. If ISIS decided that someone was not following its rules properly, they would be beaten, mutilated, or even publicly executed.

In January 2014, ISIS sent hundreds of fighters into Iraq, hoping to conquer territory there as well. The Iraqi army and police had low morale, and abandoned their positions without putting up much of a fight. This allowed ISIS to take over the major city of Fallujah, and capture the advanced weapons and equipment stored there.

In February, following a period of growing tensions, al-Qaeda’s central leadership cut its ties with ISIS. Even al-Qaeda—which had murdered nearly 3,000 innocent people in the September 11 attacks—felt that ISIS was too brutal, especially in its terrible violence against Muslims. Al-Qaeda was also angry that ISIS was not following orders from its leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Black flag of ISIS

The black flag of ISIS. It is also flown by other jihadist groups that are allied with ISIS

That summer, ISIS launched a major invasion of western Iraq. Thousands of fighters, strengthened by captured weapons and vehicles, pushed the Iraqi army backward. In June, ISIS conquered Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, with more than two million inhabitants. It was a humiliating defeat for Iraq’s democratic government. Probably fewer than a thousand ISIS jihadists had stormed into a city defended by tens of thousands of soldiers and police, and sent them into a panicked retreat. ISIS broke into Mosul’s jails, freeing hundreds of terrorists, and looted almost half-a-billion dollars worth of cash from the city’s banks. They took over a whole arsenal of Iraqi military equipment, including helicopters, tanks, artillery, and body armor. Mosul is also the center of major oilfields in northern Iraq, and ISIS began selling this oil on the black market to finance its activities.

Map of territory controlled by ISIS

Territory controlled by ISIS at its greatest extent in 2014, shown in red. Pink areas were subject to ISIS attacks, but not under ISIS control

With more than a third of Iraq’s territory under its control, and its armies advancing toward the capital at Baghdad, ISIS made a startling decision. It declared establishment of a worldwide caliphate: a fundamentalist religious government patterned on the empire of the Prophet Muhammad’s early successors. They called this caliphate simply the Islamic State, which reflects its hope to conquer the entire world and destroy all other governments. The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, started calling himself Caliph Ibrahim. Yet most governments and journalists do not use these names, because they do not want to make the caliphate and caliph seem legitimate. And although al-Baghdadi has instructed Muslims all over the world to submit to his authority and join the war against the West, most Muslim scholars say that al-Baghdadi did not have the authority to establish a caliphate, and that his orders are null and void.

Despite its vision of a worldwide fundamentalist Sunni government, in reality ISIS controlled a fragile nation straddling the border between Syria and Iraq. From its capital at Raqqa, Syria, it sent out propaganda all over the globe, trying to recruit more fighters to the cause. ISIS posted many videos online showing its members beheading and torturing innocent people, both Muslims and non-Muslims. The videos warn that the same fate will happen to those who do not submit to the caliphate. Several jihadist movements elsewhere in the region declared their loyalty to the caliphate, including groups that controlled or operated in parts of Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. In addition, ISIS has aggressively used the Internet to spread its radical interpretation of Islam to faraway countries.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declaring himself Caliph Ibrahim

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, speaking to a crowd after declaring himself Caliph Ibrahim

In some cases, socially isolated individuals in the West have been recruited to ISIS entirely over their computers, without ever meeting an ISIS member in person. They read tweets from jihadist accounts, watch propaganda videos, and chat online with people living in the caliphate. Then they go out and commit attacks in their local communities. These are known as “lone wolf” attacks. They include a stabbing of four people at a university in Merced, California, the shooting murder of 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and a truck that rammed a crowd and killed 86 in Nice, France.

Other ISIS attacks have been carried out by groups of people, sometimes with support from jihadist sympathizers living nearby. For example, nine ISIS terrorists committed the attacks in Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people, and five ISIS members were involved in the suicide bombings in Brussels, Belgium that killed 32 in March 2016.

ISIS terrorists from a propaganda video

ISIS terrorists in a still from a propaganda video

A major focus of the United States and its allies has been defeating ISIS attempts to recruit people for such violence. This involves a combination of cyber attacks against ISIS social media accounts, digital surveillance of known ISIS supporters, and countermessaging. Countermessaging involves spreading information online meant to discredit ISIS, showing them as weak, cowardly, and evil. Muslim scholars have been consulted to provide religious arguments why terrorism is forbidden by Islam. These programs show people passages from the Qur’ān denouncing violence, and include authoritative interpretations by Islamic leaders who say that joining ISIS is a violation of religious law.

In addition, since 2015, ISIS territory has been steadily shrinking. Iraqi soldiers, supported by American and European forces, have been gradually pushing ISIS out of the country. In Syria, rival rebel groups have taken over parts of the area that was once under ISIS control. US troops have deployed to Iraq as advisors, and special operations forces have been used to rescue hostages and target ISIS leaders. American military aircraft use precision-guided bombs to support the anti-ISIS operations on the ground. Meanwhile, the CIA and other intelligence services are working with banks around the world to help cut off funding to ISIS and prevent them from buying more weapons.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle becomes US president and orders a raid by Navy SEAL Team Six that captures Osama bin Laden alive. She has a televised debate with him, and convinces him—in front of an audience of millions—that terrorism is gravely wrong. Bin Laden calls on his followers to give up violence, and most do, but the al-Qaeda breakaway group in Iraq and Syria continues its brutal attacks.

See entries for al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Qur’ān, SunniShiiteSunni terrorist groupsJihad, Infidels, Authoritarian, Muhammad, General Petraeus, Special operations forces, and Navy SEAL Team Six.

How You Can Be a Danielle and help promote peace in the Middle East.


256. Navy SEAL Team Six

The premier special forces unit of the United States Navy is known as the Navy SEALs (for Sea, Air, and Land). The SEALs began as the “frogmen,” who were underwater demolitions specialists during World War II. By the time of the Vietnam War, the SEALs had become a general-purpose special forces group. Their missions included reconnaissance, sabotage, and dangerous raids behind enemy lines.

In 1979, during the Iranian revolution, a mob stormed the United States embassy in Tehran and took the personnel there hostage. The US military came up with a complicated plan to rescue them, called Operation Eagle Claw, but a series of avoidable mistakes caused the mission to be a costly failure. In response, the Navy created a new unit of SEALs specially focused on counterterrorist operations like rescuing hostages and capturing terrorist leaders. It was commanded by a SEAL officer named Richard Marcinko, who had a maverick leadership style and wanted his men to be daring and creative in accomplishing their missions.

Although it was just the second of two SEAL teams at the time of its creation in 1980, the unit was named SEAL Team Six to confuse Soviet intelligence services and make them think that there were several teams they didn’t know about. Marcinko let team members grow out their facial hair, choose their own weapons and equipment, and ignore many of the formalities of military life. Unlike most other Navy units, the officers and enlisted men of Team Six train side-by-side, and socialize freely with each other. Since the 1980s, SEAL Team Six has been officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU. This name refers to its role in pioneering new techniques for special operations, some of which are later adopted by other units. It is widely considered to be the most elite unit in the entire US military.

Members of DEVGRU must pass a grueling selection process. Just to become a SEAL, a candidate must master both classroom-style instruction and practical learn-by-doing exercises. There is intense endurance training, and candidates must be extremely good swimmers. They are trained in hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, parachuting, wilderness survival, and many other skills. Once they become SEALs and serve with distinction on one of the other teams, they may be invited to apply for DEVGRU. This involves careful interviews and then more training in specialized skills, with a focus on counterterrorism, including activities like infiltrating a civilian population, sneaking into guarded areas undetected, and stopping suicide bombers. Once accepted to Team Six, SEALs must spend time in its training squadron for additional preparation before being deployed to the main combat squadrons. Overall, the process for a civilian to join SEAL Team Six takes several years at a minimum.

SEAL Team Six has been at the center of some of the most high-risk and high-profile missions the American military has attempted since the 1980s. In 1983, its men took the lead in rescuing the Governor-General of Grenada following a Marxist coup. In 1993, it participated in the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, known as the Black Hawk Down incident. In 2001, it unsuccessfully attempted to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, Afghanistan. SEAL Team Six was also responsible for saving Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates after the 2009 hijacking of the merchant ship Maersk Alabama, and a string of other daring hostage rescues in countries including Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Seal Team Six unit insignia

Seal Team Six unit insignia

Although combat jobs have been formally opened to women across the US military, SEAL Team Six presently remains an all-male unit.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle becomes president of the United States at age nineteen, she uses a swarm of flying DNA-analyzing microbots to confirm that terrorist leader Osama bin Laden is hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan. She orders a risky and controversial raid by SEAL Team Six, which captures bin Laden alive. This allows Danielle to have a televised debate with bin Laden, which causes him to renounce terrorism and order al-Qaeda to dissolve.

See entries for Special operations forcesLearn by doingBreak away group from al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Sunni terrorist groups, Microbot, Microbot swarm, DNA identification, Osama bin Laden, and Abbottabad.



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