In 1534, shortly after the onset of the Protestant Reformation, a radical sect from this new movement, the Anabaptists, seized the city of Munster in Germany and governed it for sixteen months as a millenarian cult in a manner so alarming it managed to bring together Catholic and Lutheran forces to put it down. The experience had a profound influence not on the development of Anabaptism thereafter, but on the manner in which the Reformation more generally unfolded. Continue reading
Al-Qaeda’s General Command released a statement on 29 June 2020 through its As-Sahab Media, entitled, “A Message For The Oppressed Masses In The West”, which seeks to capitalise on the recent unrest in the United States by offering Islam as the solution to racial divisions. Al-Qaeda, of course, diagnoses the root cause of America’s problems in its greed “Jewish overlords”, an antisemitic conspiracy theory that is common to most jihadists. The text of this message is reproduced below. Continue reading
Early in his new book, Your Sons Are At Your Service: Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad, The Washington Institute’s Aaron Zelin quotes a pair of sociologists who note that ‘where theories are plentiful … ideas are vacuous’. The book is in many ways the antithesis of this approach. It is not without theoretical content; where social movement theory arises as a means of understanding jihadism, say, the author gives an overview of the literature to contextualise it for the reader. But the general approach is historical, empirical, and detail-rich, so that by the time Zelin summarises his findings in the various sections there can be no doubt about the evidentiary basis. Continue reading
Book Review: Carter Malkasian, ‘Illusions of Victory’, Oxford University Press, 2017. pp. 280.
Carter Malkasian sets out in Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State to upend the conventional understanding of the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) movement, known at the time as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), in Anbar province of western Iraq. Continue reading
Review of ‘Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror, 1801-1805’, by Joseph Wheelan
“The Terror,” raids by pirates who believed themselves to be on a holy mission, were “an accepted hazard of conducting foreign trade, much like hurricanes”. So notes Joseph Wheelan in his 2004 book, Jefferson’s War. That changed after a naval expedition by the United States put down the trade in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Continue reading
The latest edition of the Islamic State’s newsletter, Al-Naba 108, released on 1 December 2017, has a profile on page 7 of a fighter named Abu Sulayman al-Libi, a Libyan jihadist who came to Syria soon after the caliphate declaration in June 2014 and became the senior religious official in Homs. Abu Sulayman was killed in the fighting between IS and the pro-Asad coalition in the deserts of eastern Homs Province, near the T3 oil pumping station. This probably means Abu Sulayman was killed in the last days of September or the first few days of October during the IS counter-attack to the regime coalition’s push into Deir Ezzor. A rough translation of the Naba obituary is published below. Continue reading
Book Review: The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (1967) by Bernard Lewis
The fourth Caliph, Ali, was assassinated during a civil war that his supporters, Shi’atu Ali (Followers of Ali), lost to the Umayyads, who thereafter moved the capital to Damascus. The Shi’a maintained that the Caliphate should have been kept in the Prophet’s family; over time this faction evolved into a sect unto themselves, which largely functioned as an official opposition, maintaining its claim to the Caliphate, but doing little about it. Several ghulat (extremist) Shi’a movements emerged that did challenge the Caliphate. One of them was the Ismailis. Calling themselves the Fatimids, the Ismailis managed to set up a rival Caliphate in Cairo from the mid-tenth century until the early twelfth century that covered most of North Africa and western Syria. A radical splinter of the Ismailis, the Nizaris, broke with the Fatimids in the late eleventh century and for the next century-and-a-half waged a campaign of terror against the Sunni order from bases in Persia and then Syria. In the late thirteenth century the Nizaris were overwhelmed by the Mongols in Persia and by the Egyptian Mameluke dynasty which halted the Mongol invasion in Syria. The Syrian-based branch of the Nizaris became known as the Assassins, and attained legendary status in the West after they murdered several Crusader officials in the Levant. Attention has often turned back to the Assassins in the West when terrorist groups from the Middle East are in the news, but in the contemporary case of the Islamic State (ISIS) the lessons the Nizaris can provide are limited. Continue reading
The Nizari Ismailis did not invent assassination, of course; only lent it their name. The Ismailis were “part of a long tradition that goes back to the beginnings of Islam … of popular and emotional cults in sharp contrast with the learned and legal religion of the established order.” Still, the Nizaris did rely on the Holy Law. The ideal of Islamic governance might be authoritarian, but it is not arbitrary; if a ruler crosses the shari’a it becomes a duty to resist. This element became gradually more marginal as the religion formed into a State and Empire, but it was there and many other sects had called on it in their opposition to the prevailing regimes. The Nizaris were the first to call up this tradition of righteous rebellion and combine it with an effective opposition organization.
In their use of conspiracy, assassination, and even the ceremonial nature of the murders and the weapon-cult, the Assassins were hardly unique. But they might well be the first terrorists: those who, at an overwhelming disadvantage in conventional terms, used unconventional means in a planned, long-term campaign of targeted violence as a political weapon with the intention of overturning the established order. Continue reading
This is the complete review. It has previously been posted in three parts: Part 1 on the question of whether the 1915-17 massacres constitute genocide; Part 2 on the post-war trials and the Nationalist Movement; and Part 3 gives some conclusions on what went wrong in the Allied efforts to prosecute the war criminals and the implications for the present time, with Turkey’s ongoing denial of the genocide and the exodus of Christians from the Middle East.
A Question of Genocide
The controversy over the 1915-17 massacres of Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Empire is whether these acts constitute genocide. Those who say they don’t are not the equivalent of Holocaust-deniers in that while some minimize the figures of the slain, they do not deny that the massacres happened; what they deny is that the massacres reach the legal definition of genocide. Their case is based on three interlinked arguments:
- Unlike the Nazi Holocaust when a defenceless population was murdered only for its identity, the Armenians were engaged in a massive armed revolt, and this is why the Ottoman government decided to deport them.
- The intent of the Ottomans was not massacre but the removal of the Armenians, who had sided with one foreign invading power (Russia) and who were showing signs of collaborating with another (Britain), from the militarily sensitive areas as Turkey suffered a two-front invasion in early 1915.
- While terrible massacres, plus starvation and the cold, took maybe a million lives during the deportations, when the Armenians reached their destinations in Syria and Iraq, which were also part of the Ottoman Empire, they were well-treated and allowed to rebuild their lives, which would not have been the case had the Ottomans intended their destruction.
Taner Akcam’s A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility presents evidence to undermine every one of these arguments. Continue reading