Last night the Islamic State released a revolting video in which they beheaded the American journalist James Foley, who has been missing since Thanksgiving Day (November 22) 2012. The most grisly part of Foley’s murder—namely the process—was thankfully omitted from the video, but in many ways the most disgusting thing I.S. did to Foley was while he was alive, making him read a statement that inter alia said, directed at Foley’s brother, a U.S. Air Force pilot, “I died that day John, when your colleagues dropped that bomb on those people, they signed my death certificate.” This is a straightforward attempt to shift blame for this murder, and it has to be hoped that nobody is taken in by it (though I await Seumas Milne’s inevitable attempt to say that the Zarqawi’ites have a point.)
Two further things were extremely alarming about the video. First, it closed on a threat to another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, who was kidnapped on or about August 4, 2013, saying, “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision.” The jihadist who spoke those words did so in English and with a British accent (South London as best I can tell.) The threat from Euro-jihadists in the Fertile Crescent, who can easily transit back into Turkey and thence to anywhere in borderless Europe and very easily to the United States, has been obvious for a very long time and is the primary focus of domestic intelligence agencies in Europe—not always with absolute success. The rough consensus is that 400 to 500 British jihadists are in Syria and Iraq but that number could be as high as 1,500 in reality. The rule of thumb is that between five and ten percent of holy warriors commit terrorism when they return home. No informed person can believe that British intelligence is that good (or that lucky) to stop 150 people determined to incinerate themselves to murder their fellow citizens. Even if that number were forty or twenty, the chance that one would get through the security services’ grip seems very likely.
If this finally convinces Western governments, namely the United States, that it was a mistake to let Syria run, and the limited intervention in Iraq should be expanded to blitz I.S. positions in Syria, so much the better. I have had my doubts about U.S. anti-I.S. strikes in Iraq. The Iraqi government is effectively a creature of Iran at this stage, there is a danger that being seen to intervene on its side would make things worse, and there is also the matter of I.S.’s crisis of legitimacy. I.S. broke its baya (oath of allegiance) to Ayman az-Zawahiri and announced a Caliphate when virtually all the jihadist scholars say that this is still the jihad phase. I.S.’s use of takfir has compounded this. But U.S. strikes can give it legitimacy. The Arab world has a way of taking to figures—like Saddam Hussein and Hassan Nasrallah—who walk out of the rubble after a brush with Western power, who derive legitimacy merely by surviving. Power itself, however, has a decisive logic in this region and if I.S.’s Caliphate were unravelled by U.S. power, the group would have a much harder time bouncing back: you cannot just declare a Caliphate every other week, and it would appear to vindicate Zawahiri. While this might not be a standard definition of success in U.S. foreign policy, al-Qaeda was a problem anyway, before the Zarqawi’ite Caliphate was in place, so it would be a return to “normal”.
These complications in Iraq are largely absent from Syria—at least in public. As Frederic Hof, the former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, explained last month:
“As the [Obama] administration struggles in Iraq … it might consider hammering ISIS unmercifully in Syria. Yes, the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia all need ISIS alive and well in Syria to help crush Assad’s opposition. Yes, they would all be quietly appalled by such a step. Yet how could they possibly object publicly or even privately to the United States obliterating key pieces of the terrorist entity they all publicly decry? … [And] would not the battering of ISIS in Syria have salutary effects in Iraq as well?“
It is Hof’s mention of the Assad regime’s need to keep the Islamic State alive that is the under-emphasised aspect of the Foley story. When even supposedly-informed journalists can say that since I.S. opposes Assad it is therefore part of the rebellion, it is easy to see how Western publics acquire the idea that I.S. is on the rebels’ “side”. This is belied by the fact that in this (at least) six-sided war, I.S. are at war with the rebellion and al-Qaeda (Jabhat an-Nusra) are scarcely more friendly to the nationalist and even the Salafist Syrians. But the corollary is taking inchoate form in the popular mind, and has been for some time on official minds in the West: that Assad is therefore our ally in confronting the takfiri menace.
This has been the Assadist (and Iranian and Russian) narrative all along: this is a terrorist rebellion, a common foe of Damascus and the West, and whatever Assad’s faults at least he isn’t as bad as these lunatics. But it isn’t true. It is Assad’s presence that is the greatest spur to Salafi-jihadism in the world: his Alawi tyranny, backed by Shi’a Iran, slaughtering a Sunni-majority population in one of the most sacred places, historically and religiously, of Islam, while the West watches on indifferently, is what gives the jihadist recruiters the material to work with. Furthermore, the regime took considerable steps to ensure that the Islamic State and other extremists were the most powerful elements in the insurgency, and it is strategically allied with I.S. on one major point: the only opposition to Assad should be I.S. Both the regime and I.S. have made a priority of destroying the nationalist rebels, and have largely left each other alone. (There have been signs of change in the last few weeks as I.S. becomes a threat to Iran’s client in Baghdad but it is still limited.)
There are reasons to believe that the Assad regime is implicated in this crime too. As the entire world is up in arms—rightly—about Foley’s murder, all attention has been diverted to I.S. and away from the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Assad has even decided to hit a few I.S. positions inside Syria, just to “show the Americans that it is also capable of striking the I.S.,” and Iran continues its efforts, as described by Tony Badran and Michael Doran among others, to convince the U.S. of its strategic utility against Sunni jihadism; its own Shi’a jihadism and State power and bid for nuclear weapons all being played down in this picture. The cui bono question can lead down some very dark alleys but it is not the only suggestive thing in this picture.
In May 2013, the CEO of GlobalPost, for which Foley worked, Philip Balboni, made the following statement on behalf of himself and Foley’s parents:
“We have obtained multiple independent reports from very credible confidential sources … that confirm our assessment that Jim is now being held by the Syrian government in a prison … under the control of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence service. … [I]t is likely Jim is being held with one or more Western journalists, including most likely at least one other American.”
This other American is probably Austin Tice, a journalist for McClatchy, who has been missing since August 2012. The video of Tice’s kidnapping is very strange. There’s something about the pristine condition of the supposed-jihadists’ clothes, the lack of professional quality of the video (something at which I.S. has excelled), and the noticeable—even to a non-Arabic speaker—discomfort of the kidnappers with the words “takbir” and “Allahu Akbar” that just doesn’t feel right. Joseph Holliday, an analyst who wrote indispensable papers in the early days of the uprising for the Institute for the Study of War, was quoted at the time saying:
“[The video is] like a caricature of a jihadi group. … My gut instinct is that regime security guys dressed up like a bunch of wahoos and dragged [Tice] around and released the video to scare the U.S. and others about the danger of al-Qaeda extremists in Syria. It would fit their narrative perfectly.”
We have been here before in Algeria. There are disagreements as to the extent of influence Algeria’s powerful intelligence service (DRS) had over the insurgency, which came eventually to be led by the takfiris of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), but it is admitted by all that the DRS used dirty tricks in defeating the insurgents. One such trick was to have the State security agents dress as Islamists and massacre whole villages. As an Algerian regime defector explained, “During the massacres, the inhabitants of the first houses were deliberately spared to enable survivors say they recognised the Islamists.” These and other horrors discredited the insurgency and the Islamist cause, and caused the population to seek shelter behind the State as the lesser evil.
It does not take very much to get takfiris to engage in self-destructive behaviour. In the case of Foley, all it would have taken was for the Assad regime to allow I.S. to get their hands on him; Assad could trust the zealots to do the rest unprompted.
This is now the key question: Was Foley taken by the Assad regime? If he was, then those who believe that Bashar al-Assad is a bulwark against takfirism have yet another question to answer about their thesis.
UPDATE: Interesting straw in the wind from the Washington Post: “For the first year of his captivity, GlobalPost and Foley’s family were sure he was being held by the Syrian government … But last fall, they announced that they no longer believed that to be the case and said they would make no further comments on his situation” (italics added). In other words, GlobalPost’s information, derived as far as we can tell from sources inside Syria, changed at a certain point around the fall of 2013. Add to that the FBI’s statements on Foley being abducted by an “organised gang,” which gave GlobalPost a “high degree of confidence” that pro-regime elements held Foley, and it adds up rather suggestively.