This is an extraordinary piece of work from Vice News. Earlier this month they released a five-part film after one of their journalists, Medyan Dairieh, embedded with the Islamic State (I.S.), formerly ISIS, in Raqqa City, the de facto headquarters of I.S. in north-eastern Syrian. It’s an extraordinarily brave thing to do given the number of journalists I.S. has kidnapped, the number of journalists killed in Syria (at least sixty), and of course the penchant of the Zarqawi’ites for beheading Westerners on video, as gruesomely underlined again with the murder of James Foley.
Dairieh is given his access by Abu Mosa, the I.S. press officer, who seems to be a Syrian. Mosa’s fanaticism is summed up when he tells the camera:
“I don’t return home for pleasure, I only go when it’s important or I’m sick. … I don’t go at all. … The family, honestly, is the least important thing. There is a higher purpose. No one would defend Muslims if we all sat at home with the family.”
So much for family values.
An intricate system of dawa (missionary work) is in place to indoctrinate the people of Raqqa, and especially young boys. No doubt I.S. feel it a triumph but women have been completely erased from view in Raqqa City. The effect is still faintly creepy—and the record of religious institutions on this matter is not exactly stellar. The I.S. are taking mass-conversions essentially, mass pledges of allegiance (baya) to their Caliph, Emir al-Mumineen (variously “Commander of the Faithful” or “Prince of the Believers”), Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, or Ibrahim as he is now known, in mosques and at rallies. At sermons the I.S. constantly stress the supposed Qurayshi tribe origins of Baghdadi, a key symbolic point in his legitimacy to be Caliph. They also say things like: “You have to support [Caliph Ibrahim] by paying your money, sacrificing your life, and anything you can do.”
Vice meet with Abdullah al-Belgian, who has brought his son to Syria and runs a preaching van, handing out jihadist literature to children. The son looks confused as his father has him repeat that they don’t want to be in Belgium because of the kuffar (infidels). He then asks the boy if he wants to be a suicide bomber or a jihadist, and the boy says a jihadist. When foreigner jihadists came to Iraq while America was there, and I.S.’s predecessor (al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, AQM) processed them, they would choose between being with the mujahideen (holy warriors) or the intihari (the suicidals). The boy is then made to recite the crimes of the kuffar, namely that they kill Muslims. It is extraordinary to see the father then get very weepy while threating to invade the West, enslave its women, and make orphans of its children—all, apparently, crimes committed against “Muslims,” whom “The Belgian,” in his modesty, claims to speak for.
The Islamic State’s focus on children is very clear. Minors under-15 go to shari’a camp to learn the I.S.’s version of religion; those over-16 go to the military camp. Osama Ibn Zaid, an adopted son of the “prophet” Muhammad, led an army when he was 17- or 18-years-old, and this is all the justification needed for the recruitment of child-soldiers. There are constant invocations against the kuffar and murtad (apostate), a very recognisable pattern of inculcating hatred against outsiders and internal doubters, and with the mass-rallies, the summer camps, the endless slogans, the mind-numbing recitations, the love of violence, and the cult of death the whole picture becomes very recognisable. The word is Fascism, incidentally.
The I.S. have come up with a system for “governing every aspect of daily life,” as Dairieh puts it, a clear intention to totalitarianism, limited, as in the case of the Taliban, only by the primitivism of those trying to enforce it. When asked about this seeming waste of energy—telling women their full body covering is made of the wrong material, say, or having colourful advertising boards taken down—especially while there is a war going on, Mosa explains that it is a “positive intervention“. I.S. don’t want to go back to the “time of the carrier pigeon,” he says, but want to develop in a way that “doesn’t contradict religion“. As always, he is very insistent that I.S. is not just another jihadist organisation but a State. I.S.’s enemies, specifically al-Qaeda, have long-called it Jamaat ad-Dawla (the Group of the State) deliberately to deny it this claim.
On the evidence, however, one would have to say that the I.S. are running a proto-State. The virtual ministries the jihadists developed in cyberspace have been uploaded in a serious way to reality. It’s not just the complex and vast dawa system but a whole bureaucracy for redistributing wealth, the Zakat Bureau, which gives taxes from the rich to the poor ($13 per child, apparently). There is a court system with specialised judges for each case, from a cousin who won’t hand over a fair share of the harvest (which is mediated) to the man who has murdered somebody (he is crucified). There is even an Office for Non-Muslims Affairs, for the Christians who are “still here,” as one judge puts it. The room reserved for this delicate matter was sparsely populated; if brutally honest it was empty and looked unused. If one had to guess why so few Christians had taken advantage of the services being offered by the medievalists, Abu Abdullah, an I.S. judge, provides a clue: the Christians were offered the choice between paying the jizya otherwise “there is nothing left between us but killing“. The Christians chose to pay the jizya, at least until they could get out of the city. Another clue as to why there was a Christian exodus is the treatment of the Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs, which is now an I.S. preaching centre. The “cross was worshipped instead of god,” says an I.S. fighter, so I.S. took it down. Abdullah is translated as referring to “non-Muslims” but the word he uses is dhimma, which more accurately describes the I.S.’s view.
The only problem with the film is highlighted by the vox pops. The prisoners, for example, to a man have seen the error of their ways, and are grateful to the Islamic State for bringing piety to them. When the Vice reporter is taken to watch I.S. demolish the Iraqi-Syrian border, everyone coming past seems to have never had it so good: The government of Nouri al-Maliki is said to be thuggish and repressive, which is true, but they all seem grateful in an out-size was to the I.S. for opening up the route for them. It doesn’t take dire cynicism to suspect both that I.S. managed who Vice got to speak to, and that even where it did not, the people are so terrified of the possibility of being on camera denouncing the takfiris that the population says what it thinks the zealots want to hear. This doesn’t impact the overall credibility of the film because what I.S. want the world to see is revealing enough; its target audience is attracted by things that repulse Westerners. It just means that some scepticism about the apparent grass-roots support for I.S. should be exercised.
I.S. is shown engaged in veritable trench warfare around Brigade Base 17 in Raqqa, which had been one of the final outposts of the regime in the province until its fall on July 25. But I.S. expresses clear global ambitions. They issue a “clear threat” to the Turks, saying Ankara must let more water pass through Atatürk Dam because the reduction in hydroelectric power is affecting the Islamic State’s ability to rule. And Mosa says:
“Don’t be cowards and attack us with drones. Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, god willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”
Mosa is now dead, so will never see the flag of I.S. raised over the White House, should such a horrible thing ever come to pass. But the point he made stands. It has been pointed out that in the Greater Middle East drones are considered “sneaky, nasty, and deeply unmanly“. While drones are useful, Western awe is essential in this conflict, and it is known by our enemies that things like drones and Stuxnet are the choice of the weak; of people unprepared either to inflict real casualties or to take them. This inspires contempt not respect from the holy warriors: not something the West can afford.
One of the major thoughts the film leaves the viewer with is that these people are not psychopaths—or not most of them. They are playing in the river with their children and in many cases have travelled from half a world away to be here and have now devoted their lives to this project. The question is why, and the obvious answer is that within the framework of their conception of their religion, what they’re doing is quite rational.
Dr. Mohammed Habash, a religious scholar and a former member of the Syrian parliament, has said:
“We [religious preachers] did not speak about the Caliphate as a political system that is fallible. No, we spoke about it as a sacred symbol of unity and that anything—even values and principles—has to be subordinate to the realisation of it … [The Islamic State] did not arrive from Mars; it is a natural product of our retrograde discourse. Talk about the Caliphate has always provided a way to justify our defeats, failure, losses and inability to catch up with the rest of the world.”
Children in the region imbibe the message that the restoration of the Caliphate is the greatest thing that could happen, thus a group that claims to have brought this off is playing with a very powerful temptation. Habash laments that what is needed is a move “away from the sacredness of the Caliphate … to a political system that simply governs the affairs of people.”
Hicham Bou Nassif, a lecturer and PhD candidate at Indiana University, adds to this that the “vehement displays of innocence” from Muslims around the world after each I.S. atrocity was unsustainable in light of the Qur’an. “Anyone who takes time to actually read the Quran … will find that similar verses [on the legitimacy of converting, subjugating, or destroying Christians and Jews] abound,” Nassif wrote, and such verses “have direct implications on how jihadists think and behave. Arguing, therefore, that Islam has little to do with atrocities committed in its name is simply unconvincing.” It is not as if the “sporadic outbursts of anti-Christian violence” in the Arab world are isolated phenomena; the “everyday discrimination” against non-Muslims has its roots in the same text. Nassif draws the analogy with Nazism, which gave a “nationalistic and ethnic twist” to antisemitism, but Christianity was still the “original pillar” from which the Nazis worked; without the centuries of hatred inculcated against “Christ killers” the Nazis would never have been able to mobilise such large numbers of Europeans to take part in the Final Solution. So it is with I.S., which “simply push[es] an already existing bias into its extreme end“. Fouad Ajami once noted—when I.S.’s predecessors were waging an all-out war against the Iraqi Shi’a—that “[t]he extremist is never alone; the terrorist on the fringe of political life always works with the winks and nods of the society that gives him cover.” Nassif concurs, concluding: “the ‘Islamophobic’ smokescreen should not be thrown at anyone arguing that the roots of the problem go well beyond ISIS alone. For this is a mere fact.”
The argument that Islam is untainted by the Islamic State’s crimes is seductive. It denies I.S. the legitimacy it craves by refusing it the mantle of Islam. Often implicit in this line of argument too is the fear that if I.S. is agreed to represent Islam in any way this might bring a backlash on Muslims. This is a decent motive but it is not analysis; it is based on emotion and the wish is father to the thought. This is not, of course, to say that I.S. is the only version of Islam, but it is impossible to say they are not a version of Islam. Among other things, to deny that they are Muslims would legitimise takfir, and if heresy declarations are legitimated it will not be the moderates who win.
Moreover, the argument that religion is not motivating I.S. is simply laughable. Robert Pape has infamously tried to give an intellectual stamp to this thesis. By Pape’s reckoning, suicide bombing is an extreme nationalist tactic against occupation. In some quarters it seems to be believed that Pape’s view is mainstream in academia; it isn’t. It is a serially debunked thesis, inter alia because such a vast majority of then-AQM’s suicide attacks in Iraq were directed, by foreigners, at Iraqis.
I.S. has inspired revulsion with its tactics—so much so that even very extreme Salafist groups and al-Qaeda have called it khawarij, an extremist sect. It is noticeable that these most theologically-based groups have not accused I.S. of heresy: part of their campaign to delegitimise I.S. is exactly to draw attention to the Zarqawi’ites use of takfir. But revulsion at tactics is a practical consideration; I.S. are considered merely the wrong group to implement the Caliphate and the Holy Law, while the implementation itself remains a widely-shared goal.
I.S. has been immensely helped by the actions of the Assad regime and by the Maliki government. The story of Assad’s helping-hand to the takfiris in Syria is now well enough known. I have argued that Maliki’s authoritarianism and sectarianism alienated the Iraqi Sunni Arabs and created the space in which the I.S. could manoeuvre in Iraq because I.S. was seen as less of a threat than the government. Others have argued that if Maliki had conducted a successful military campaign Iraqi Sunni Arabs would have followed him, especially given that the Sahwa (Awakening) forces, especially the shaykhs in Anbar, already opposed I.S. In either case, Maliki’s heavy-handed, indiscriminate campaign to try to restore order after I.S. pushed into Anbar in January 2014, which included the use of barrel bombs, has neither calmed sectarian passions to a point where Sunni Arabs could politically accommodate a compromise nor achieved a military victory where the Sunni Arabs could plead the necessity of making peace with the order of things.
The Islamic State is now “more powerful now than al-Qaeda was on 9/11“. Some estimates say the I.S. has 17,000 fighters. I.S. still controls the Haditha Dam, and its control of resources like oil, combined with the U.S.-made weapons it looted from the Iraqi Army and its stocks of hard currency stolen from banks and taken by extortion, either direct racketeering or “taxes” from a population of maybe six million under I.S.’s control, give it a larger and more diversified—thus tenable against attack—revenue stream than al-Qaeda ever had, making it both a powerful conventional army of an ersatz State and a formidable terrorist organisation. The ostentatious barbarism that I.S. revels in—the crucifixions, beheadings, and suicide-bombings—and the widely disseminated videos of these atrocities by a massive media apparatus gives the impression of a ubiquitous and invulnerable force. The clear lack of fear of death among its fighters gives credence to this, and the feeling of inevitability boosts I.S. morale very greatly (and damages that of its opponents).
But if this film renders any one service it is showing that this should not be overstated: I.S.’s fighters are not ten-feet tall; they are men, and banal men at that, primitives and fanatics. I.S.’s heavy weaponry, which has allowed it to do extreme damage to the Syrian rebellion on the Eastern Front, makes it highly vulnerable to air attacks. I.S.’s weaponry is out in the open, its supply-lines exposed, and its manpower stretched thin. Meanwhile, I.S.’s savagery is uniting its enemies. Indeed just in the last few days the Syrian rebellion and the Kurdish forces in Syria, the YPG, have combined to resist I.S. in Aleppo. This is especially noteworthy since the rebel commander is Abdul Jabbar al-Akidi who a year ago accused the YPG of being regime agents. The critics of the present U.S. campaign of air strikes in Iraq point out that this cannot tip the balance against the I.S., and this is correct. But on the ground are forces, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and the Syrian rebels, who can act as the ground forces for the West in uprooting this Caliphate. Since the Islamic State are irreconcilables, the counter-terrorism policy here is very simple: elimination. This is especially important for the European passport-holders: dealing with them after they return home is a complicated legal matter; dealing with them in the Fertile Crescent by airstrikes or supported ground forces is easy. Takfirism, like Fascism, always ends in self-destruction, but with a little effort the destruction of the takfiris can be speeded and the damage to everything else limited.