An RT reporter has spent a day with a group of Iraqi Shia fighters amid its final preparations for a battle against Islamic State. Blaming the US for the war and the rise of the militant group, they vow to protect their land and religious sites.
“This is both a nationalistic war and a sacred war, nationalistic in the sense we are defending our land and sacred in the sense that we are defending our religious sites,” Qais Khazali, a leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), an Iraqi Shia paramilitary group, told RT’s Eisa Ali.
The RT reporter traveled to the Taji base north of Baghdad to meet the anti-Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) fighters.
“ISIS we are coming, just wait a few days God willing, we won’t leave one of them alive,” the young militia fighters vowed.
Khazali, the founder and head of AAH, blames the US for the rise of Islamic State because it is Washington, he says, that “created the conditions.”
“They did so with their policy in Syria. But we are present everywhere fighting against ISIS,” Khazali said.
Between 2006 and 2007, Asaib Ahl Haq launched some of the deadliest attacks during the American occupation that lasted eight years, from 2003 to 2011.
AAH troops are said to be trained by Iranian forces and Hezbollah. Khazali was kidnapped by US troops in 2007 for killing American soldiers, but was released in 2010 in a prisoner swap in exchange for four UK citizens who had been taken hostage by AAH in May 2007.
Now Asaib Ahl Haq has been credited with retaking some key territories from IS, including Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.
Apart from Islamic State militants, the group also fought Syrian rebels, as well as Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. When Mosul fell last summer, most of its fighters headed back to Iraq to fight radical Islamic groups there.
It has been almost a year since Islamic State hit the headlines. They invaded huge areas in Syria and Iraq. The militants captured Iraq’s second city of Mosul (population 2.5mn) in June 2014, as government forces retreated from the country’s Sunni stronghold. The city remains in IS hands, with minorities persecuted and people being killed.
IS has seized one-third of Iraq over the past year. It now controls two provincial capitals, as well as the city of Fallujah. Forces have retaken Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad, but many of its residents have been unable to return due to buildings being rigged with explosives.
While both the international community along with Iraq and Syria are struggling to bring Islamic State down, jihadists threaten to seize more territory and improve its fighting efficiency. In May, in its propaganda magazine Dabiq, IS announced it was aiming to develop a weapon of mass destruction (WMD), saying with the pace it was expanding it would buy its first WMD within a year.
Self-interested meddlers sowing chaos: These are our allies in the fight against Islamic State?
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are unreliable allies in the fight against Islamic State
As the war against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) rages on, the US has stepped up its air campaign, combining destructive bombs with anti-ISIS leaflets.
But while US propaganda efforts are ostensibly aimed at disrupting ISIS recruitment, overall US involvement has yielded mixed results at best.
On the one hand, Washington is engaging in a psychological campaign designed to dissuade potential ISIS fighters from joining up, with leaflets depicting grisly images of young men being sent into a meat grinder. On the other hand however, the US continues to exacerbate the situation in both Iraq and Syria by providing material support, both directly and indirectly, to the very groups whom they claim to be fighting.
While the US seems to be engaged in a psychological war against ISIS, it is equally involved in a systematic campaign of sabotage against those forces that are actually fighting ISIS on the ground. And so, as it often does, Washington is playing both sides of the conflict in order to achieve an outcome to its own political advantage, and to the detriment of Syria, Iran, and other interested parties.
The US psychological war against ISIS
Since the emergence of ISIS on the world stage, much has been made of the organization’s ability to recruit fighters, produce propaganda, and effectively get its message across to the young Muslims around the world. There have been countless news stories of Muslim youths from the West eagerly joining up to fight in far flung war zones like Syria and Iraq, seemingly translating their disaffection with their own lives into an ideological identification with ISIS extremism.
But beneath the surface of such ideological explanations is the fact, publicly acknowledged by many counter-terrorism experts, that ISIS propaganda, coupled with the financial benefits the organization offers, is responsible for some of the allure of joining the fight. And so, the US has launched a full scale psychological war for the “hearts and minds” of these naïve youths and poverty-stricken potential fighters.
The Pentagon confirmed that they had dropped tens of thousands of leaflets on the Syrian city of Raqqa in an attempt to dissuade potential recruits from joining ISIS. While this may seem a relatively harmless exercise in counter-propaganda, the reality is that it is at best a poorly conceived, and at worst utterly disingenuous, attempt to counteract ISIS recruitment. Were the US serious about eradicating the cancer of ISIS in Syria, US military officials would be coordinating with their Syrian counterparts in a comprehensive attempt to destroy the organization. For while the US Air Force drops leaflets, the Syrian Arab Army has been fighting ISIS on the ground for nearly three years, paying a very high price in blood to protect its country from the internationally constituted terror organization.
US military planners understand perfectly that it is the Syrian military, not slick propaganda leaflets, which will carry the day in the war against ISIS in Syria. While perhaps useful for the public relations campaign back home, such leaflets will do little to change the tactical or strategic situation on the ground. The same goes for the recently announced expansion of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, the State Department’s attempt at “counter-messaging” ISIS propaganda on social media and in cyberspace generally.
But, while the US presents itself as pursuing a comprehensive psychological war against ISIS, its military and covert actions tell a far different story.
Fighting ISIS by arming them?
The media has been abuzz in recent months with numerous accounts of US weapons and other supplies falling directly into the hands of ISIS, providing the terror group with invaluable material support at a time when it had suffered heavy losses in both Syria and Iraq. As Naeem al-Uboudi, the spokesman for one of the main groups fighting ISIS in Tikrit told the NY Times, “We don’t trust the American-led coalition in combating ISIS… In the past, they have targeted our security forces and dropped aid to ISIS by mistake.”
Indeed, these allegations are supported dozens of accounts of airdropped US weapons being seized by ISIS. As Iraqi MP Majid al-Ghraoui noted in January, “The information that has reached us in the security and defense committee indicates that an American aircraft dropped a load of weapons and equipment to the ISIS group militants at the area of al-Dour in the province of Salahuddin… This incident is continuously happening and has also occurred in some other regions.”
Whether these incidents are simply honest mistakes by the vaunted US military with all its precision bombing capabilities, or they are indications of a more callous attempt to inflict casualties on all sides and prolong the regional war, either way they represent an abject failure of the US strategy against ISIS. But of course, the US policy failure goes much further than just mistakes on the battlefield. Rather, the entire policy of arming so-called “moderates” in Syria has led directly to the growth of ISIS into a regional power.
Since 2012, the US, primarily through the CIA, has been providing weapons and training to terrorists in Syria under the guise of arming “moderates.” Many of these allegedly moderate groups have in recent months been documented as having either disbanded or defected to ISIS, including the little publicized mass defections of former Free Syrian Army fighters. However it has happened, a vast arsenal of US-supplied weapons and other military hardware are now counted among the ISIS arsenal. So much for the US policy of ensuring the weapons don’t “fall into the wrong hands.”
So, while the US has proclaimed to be fighting ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, they have been simultaneously arming and supporting many of the same forces which now make up much of the rank-and-file of these terror groups. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Washington: Peace broker or arms dealer?
Those who follow US foreign policy are likely unsurprised by these revelations of Washington providing arms and intensifying an already dangerous conflict. In Syria, the US has consistently argued that the Syrian government cannot be seen as a partner for peace, and so they must provide weapons to “moderates.” In Ukraine, where the US has a compliant and servile government that executes its diktats, Washington still supplies the arms, talking of peace and stability while exacerbating the war and human tragedy in East Ukraine.
Last week, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed (348-48) a resolution to provide military support in the form of weapons to Ukraine. As Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee stated, “The people of Ukraine are not looking for American troops. They are just looking for the weapons to defend themselves. They don’t have those weapons. We do.”
Indeed, it seems that US policy is to pursue “peace” at the barrel of a US-made, US-supplied gun. As Secretary of State John Kerry explained in his usual self-contradictory manner “To get peace, you have to defend your country,” a devilishly cynical statement from the man who, entirely without irony, explained in 2014 that “you don’t just invade another country on a phony pretext in order to assert your interests.” Perhaps, rather than invading countries, the Obama administration has decided to simply provide the weapons, training, and logistical and material support in order to assert its own interests.
While Syria and Iraq face an existential struggle against the wildfire that is the Islamic State, the United States arrives, gas can in hand, to make peace. As Ukraine slides deeper into civil war, the US provides all the ingredients for a witches’ brew of violence and bloodshed.
For all its talk of psychological war against ISIS, Washington has embraced an aggressive, multi-pronged approach that leaves little doubt as to the thinking of its strategic planners: the enemy of my enemy is both friend and enemy. As Tacitus famously said of the Romans, “They make a desert and call it peace.” So too do the Americans in the blood-soaked deserts of Syria and Iraq.
Violent radicalisation suggests a linear process, a series of incremental steps through which a person eventually comes to accept violence as a political tactic. In reality, becoming involved in a terrorist group is way messier than that.
What makes an 18-year-old boy like Jake Bilardi go to Syria to fight to the death for Islamic State, or British teenage girls Kadiza, Shamima and Amira sacrifice themselves to a life of brutality? This has as much to do with appeal as it does with a process of radicalisation. And it’s about time we recognise this because IS certainly does.
IS is not succeeding in luring our young men and women to their cause because they are making an intellectual argument, but rather because their slick use of social media provides a seductive machinery that successfully taps into the complex and contradictory emotions of youth.
For teenagers such as Jake, the IS narrative makes sense out of a confusing world. Fighting and violence seamlessly merge with concepts of purpose and agency. Others join IS in search of excitement and adventure, or to escape from criminality and reinvent themselves as ‘somebody’ in a world that idolises fame.
British Jihadi John is the perfect example of a young man reinventing himself from a shady past in the UK by becoming one of the most violent popular icons of IS.
For those like the recent perpetrators of the Paris attacks who cannot make the trip to Syria or Iraq, violence turns against the home country in view of achieving a goal that is no longer perceived as virtual.
The appeal of IS lies in its innovative narrative that has eventuated in the physical establishment of a caliphate supported by force of arms and also in an extremely slick and savvy marketing campaign and clever packaging of its extremist narrative.
The marketing approach taken by IS has been efficient as it operates on multiple social platforms, injecting extremist views into mainstream social media. It has an official Twitter account, posts on YouTube and has individual sponsored Facebook accounts. Carefully packaged images and humorous videos promote the romanticism of war, the promise of an idyllic life in the Islamic State and a sentiment of brotherhood and sisterhood. Last year’s marketing campaign aimed at recruiting young Westerners depicted Nutella chocolate spread and cats.
Life with IS is portrayed as not so different to young people’s daily lives in the West. The use of cat memes on IS Twitter accounts banks on their cuteness to distant IS from a more violent image of warfare and to engage with a wider audience. In contrast, videos of fighters riding in the back of trucks with guns give ‘coolness’ to joining IS. The aim is to appeal to young Westerners to join IS ranks but also to normalise anti-social violent behaviour.
Social media offers teenagers both a private and communitarian space in which emotions thrive and where teenage vulnerabilities and behaviours are groomed by IS with their promise of a better place.
The caliphate is no longer a utopian mirage – it can be experienced and visited. The virtual world of the caliphate is now connected with the physical experience of IS. With the establishment of a caliphate, young men and women not only have a sensory experience but also the opportunity to be part of a common project that provides a sense of belonging, meaning and a purpose.
While teenagers used to run away from home as a form of rebellion, they now have the opportunity to embark on the rebellious and dangerous journey of IS.
Like any predator, IS knows its target. They tap into the vulnerabilities of youth in a game of seduction that has devastating effects not only to those targeted, but to their families, communities, and societies at large. Offering youth a non-violent way of meeting their need for belonging and identity, as well as for justice, purpose and action will be key in countering the power of IS. If we don’t address emotional needs we are missing the point.
Understanding this appeal is one of the pressing challenges for governments seeking to counter violent extremism. Understanding the vulnerabilities of those for whom this appeal resonates is the other.
Appeal and vulnerability are issues with a strong emotional component. Emotions are more than just individual reactions: they are an important component of understanding, constructing, and interpreting the world and one’s identity.
Emotions contribute to the development of beliefs and to deciding who or what is a source of credible information. They contribute to the construction of morality and therefore to decisions about what kind of behaviour is considered permissible or not.
Emotions also affect the judgments someone makes about the possibilities of a rewarding life or towards those they see as either facilitating or blocking their chances of achieving this. In short, we all live in complex emotional landscapes and no more so than our youth who are in the process of searching for meaning, purpose and belonging in their lives.
As Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has stated, the fight against IS “will take years, decades, potentially a generation to resolve”. To understand why a person is drawn to the IS project we must understand the interplay between the IS global narrative and locally specific vulnerabilities.
This means not only developing a more sophisticated understanding of the role of social media in seducing people into a life of violence, but also understanding why the message resonates with some young people. Emotions are part of the solution and need to be in the picture. When we attend to this we will be better positioned to debunk the romantic myth of the IS foreign fighter.
Dr Debra Smith is a lecturer in criminology at the Navitas College of Public Safety. Dr Virginie Andre is a research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University.
People stand on the wreckage of a house destroyed by a US drone strike in Yemen. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
The description of the death of Robert-Francois Damiens, the man who attempted to kill Louis XV, is not for the faint-hearted.
On March 2, 1757, in front of a crowd of spectators, Damiens was drawn and quartered, which means that his limbs were tied to four horses that were then urged to gallop toward the four points of the compass.
To discover why six horses were needed in the end and why various additional tortures were inflicted on the convict, you need to turn to the detailed description that opens French philosopher Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, perhaps the most blood-curdling beginning to an academic book ever.
In this 1975 masterpiece, Foucault argued that punishment, which was public and dramatic for much of recorded history, became progressively more hidden during the construction of the modern penal system. As part of this pivotal transformation, Foucault noted, “it is the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that must discourage crime.”
Institutions, in other words, replaced the theater of cruelty. What was once spectacle has become hidden from our eyes.
Is ISIS Medieval?
It’s hard not to view the very public atrocities committed by the Islamic State (ISIS) against the backdrop of this history.
ISIS too has staged horrifying spectacles. It has beheaded journalists and burned a Jordanian pilot alive. It has made films of these events to gather the largest possible audience of spectators. With more of a domestic audience in mind, it has also engaged in less visible but no less gruesome acts, such as crucifixions and mass executions reminiscent of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen.
To a certain extent, these acts are intended as punishment. The victims stand in for all the regional and international forces that are bombing ISIS, killing civilians with drones or imprisoning Muslims in places like Guantánamo. It is not conventional warfare, for ISIS commits many of its atrocities with no particular military objective in mind. Rather, the acts are meant to instill fear and make adversaries think twice about challenging ISIS on the battlefield.
Like the execution that Foucault described, these atrocities also have considerable symbolic meaning. Many commentators and politicians have described ISIS as “medieval” in its outlook. Graeme Wood’s long analysis this month in The Atlantic focuses on the care with which ISIS ties its rhetoric and actions to the millenarian, prophetic traditions of early Islam (a point emphasized as well by Emile Nakleh in his critique of the White House confab on countering extremism).
Or as Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker recently put it, we are “engaged in a religious war at the behest of zealots whose bloodlust boils down to didactic theater. Herein lies a crucial point in our deliberations: To defeat an enemy clinging to the first millennium B.C., it may be necessary to huddle around a single candle and try to think as a Middle Ager.”
Don’t be fooled, in other words, by the thoroughly modern trappings of ISIS: its video editing skills, social media savvy or use of sophisticated weapons. The atrocities they commit are messages from another century using human bodies as the letters. And, according to Parker, we have to put ourselves into that mindset to both interpret the messages and craft the appropriate response.
One person who has adopted that mindset is Anders Breivik, the Norwegian serial murderer who killed more than seventy people in a rampage in Oslo in 2011.
What we saw of his atrocity seemed quite up-to-date. He used a car bomb to blow up government buildings in downtown Oslo, killing eight people. Then he used the latest weaponry to gun down sixty-nine participants at a Labor Party youth gathering on the nearby island of Utoya. Even the reasoning for the attack was modern in its logic, for he didn’t kill the Muslims he so disliked but the political representatives he blamed for the policies of multiculturalism and immigration that had facilitated the diversification of Norway.
But Breivik’s original plan, as revealed in 2012 court testimony, was somewhat different. He was hoping to take hostage top Norwegian Labor Party leaders, including former president Gro Harlem Brundtland, force them to listen to his indictment of their sins and then decapitate them with a bayonet—all filmed on his iPhone before uploading the images to the Internet.
“It is a strategy taken from al-Qaeda,” Breivik explained, though he also cited the importance of beheadings in early Christian Europe. He added, “It is a very potent psychological weapon.”
But thirteen centuries separate us from the psychology of the Middle Ages. We no longer have access to that world and therefore can’t help but project our modern sensibilities onto the past. However much ISIS or Breivik is committed to returning the world to the seventh century, their atrocities have a more complicated genealogy that stretches from the beheadings of the Middle Ages through the tortures of eighteenth-century France all the way up to the present day.
The Transformation of Atrocity
Both ISIS and Breivik stepped outside the law in their efforts to overturn the existing order—Breivik to return Europe to an imagined past of Christian homogeneity and ISIS to return Arabia to an imagined past of Salafist homogeneity.
It’s comforting to think of them as savages who aren’t part of modern civilization. Alas, atrocity is as much a part of our modern experience as it was for our precursors. Indeed, large-scale atrocities define the modern experience (the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the “killing fields” of Cambodia).
But as Foucault and others have pointed out, we’ve transformed our relationship to public displays of violence.
In the modern day, for instance, public atrocities take place outside the rule of law. The burning of heretics in the Middle Ages or the execution of regicides in the Enlightenment period were official acts, sanctioned by governments and institutions like the Catholic Church. They defined the law. But both Breivik and ISIS are considered outlaws—outside national and international law.
Consider the outbreak of lynching that took place in the United States from the second half of the nineteenth century to the Civil Rights era. They very much resembled the public executions of eighteenth-century France. They were gruesome. They were public. And they were meant to send a message. Here, for example, is a description of a lynching in Kirvin, Texas: “three black men, two of them almost certainly innocent, were accused of killing a white woman and, under the gaze of hundreds of soda-drinking spectators, were castrated, stabbed, beaten, tied to a plow, and set afire in the spring of 1922.”
The legal system during the Jim Crow era was heavily tilted against African-Americans, so the lynch mobs didn’t have justice on their minds when they took the law into their own hands. They perpetrated a ritualized atrocity that would burn into the minds of anyone who dared to challenge the rigid racial hierarchies of the time. For many people, this institutionalized racism was “the law.” Transgression required punishment precisely because the official legal system didn’t recognize that an African-American flirting with a white woman—the alleged reason for the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955—was a punishable offense.
Here, then, is the reason for the very public and very graphic violence of ISIS. The rule of law, to the extent that it exists in Iraq and as it is embodied in international norms, does not conform to the implicit standards of the extremist organization. Only through horrifying spectacle can ISIS proclaim and reinforce the rules it lives by.
This is not medieval. In fact, it’s what makes ISIS modern—as modern as a lynch mob, albeit one that’s taken on the trappings of a state.
Foucault on Drones
The theater of cruelty hasn’t been entirely privatized in the modern era. Some governments continue to put violence on display to convey the same messages that the French state promulgated with its execution of Damiens.
The North Korean authorities still hold public executions, for instance, as does Saudi Arabia (along with public floggings). Both countries also maintain prisons, where punishment takes place remotely. But the very public nature of certain punishments suggests that these governments are concerned that significant segments of the population are flouting the official laws and need to be reminded of the state’s awesome power.
If Saudi Arabia and North Korea still follow the example of the eighteenth-century French state, the US use of drones for targeted assassinations represents the new sensibility that Foucault associated with the development of the penal system.
Drone attacks are no less violent or disturbing than the murder of Damiens. But they’ve been placed in a different context that makes them palatable to a majority of Americans (though not to most of the world). They’re not public spectacles. They are the natural extension of an omnipresent surveillance system. And they’re embedded in the rule of law (or so their supporters claim).
This last quality is perhaps the most controversial The US government insists that the use of drones is consistent with both US and international law. Congress passed an authorization to use military force (AUMF) in the wake of the September 11 attacks, which the Bush and Obama administrations have used to justify the use of drone strikes against enemy combatants anywhere in the world. When faced with the legal conundrum of targeting American citizens—such as Anwar al-Awlaki—the Justice Department drafted a memo to justify such strikes as well. In a 2012 speech, Attorney General Eric Holder spelled out the conditions for such strikes: “if the individual poses an imminent threat, capture is not feasible, and the operation were executed in observance of the applicable laws of war.”
Drones are also an extension of the US panopticon, the extensive surveillance system that Washington maintains through satellites, cell phone and Internet monitoring, and other techniques. Foucault argued that the spectacle of punishment before an audience was transformed, under the penal system, into the surveillance of prisoners by the prison administration. We the people no longer needed to see the enactment of punishment. The public gaze had become institutionalized as the panoptical gaze of the prison authorities.
Drone attacks are similarly invisible to the US public but very much part of the panoptical gaze of the national security complex. We almost never see pictures of the victims. The US government does not put videos on the Internet as a warning to all those who might consider joining Al Qaeda or ISIS. The government further reassures us that the right people are being punished. And indeed, if the American public saw videos of innocent people killed in the “collateral damage” of drone attacks, their support for the program would likely decrease substantially.
It’s precisely because these are not public spectacles, at least for an American audience, that Washington can continue to argue that it is a mark of civilization to kill people in this manner.
And yet, drone attacks threaten to undermine the rule of law that the US government has so carefully attempted to employ to justify the program. According to Philip Alston, the former UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, “If other states were to claim the broad-based authority that the United States does, to kill people anywhere, anytime, the result would be chaos.” Just as the judicial system claims the only legal authority to kill people in the United States, the US government has adopted a similar authority internationally.
The Obama administration response to the military interventions of the Bush years was to gradually replace boots on the ground with drones in the air. But this drone campaign has not reinforced the rule of law, has not established fair principles of justice and has certainly not endeared people in the targeted regions to the United States.
What ISIS is doing is reprehensible. But our less visible, more modern and legally rationalized extrajudicial murders, with their inevitable collateral damage, should not make us sleep any better at night.
The authors of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror”, published this month in the US, spoke to dozens of fighters and members of the group to understand its allure and how it justifies its brutal tactics.
In a telephone interview with AFP, one of the authors, Syrian-born journalist Hassan Hassan, said it was vital to understand that some of the group’s core religious beliefs were widely shared.
“It presents itself as an apocalyptic movement, talking about the end of days, the return of the caliphate and its eventual domination of the world,” said Hassan, who lives in Abu Dhabi where he works as a researcher for a think tank.
“These beliefs are not on the margins — they are absolutely mainstream. They are preached by mosques across the world, particularly in the Middle East.
“ISIS takes these existing beliefs and makes them more appealing by offering a project that is happening right now,” he said, using an alternative name for IS.
Hassan’s research along with co-author Michael Weiss — a US-based journalist — gave them a rare insight into IS training camps for new recruits, which vary in length from two weeks to one year.
“Recruits receive military, political and religious training. They are also trained in counter-intelligence to avoid being infiltrated,” said Hassan.
“After they graduate, recruits remain under scrutiny and can be expelled or punished if they show reservations, or sent back to the camps to ‘strengthen their faith’.”
IS uses certain texts and in-house clerics to provide religious justification for their violence, particularly a book called “The Management of Savagery”, which argues that brutality is a useful tool for goading the West into an over-reaction.
The authors outline six categories of IS recruit.
Only two are rooted in religion: the ultra-radicals who dominate the group’s upper echelons, and recent converts to its extremist ideology.
Others are merely opportunists seeking money or power; pragmatists who want stability and see IS as the only game in town; and foreign fighters whose motives vary widely but “are almost always fed by serious misapprehensions of what is taking place in Iraq and Syria”.
The final and most important category of recruit is often under-appreciated by the West — those drawn by the group’s political ideology.
Many Sunni Muslims in the region feel threatened by Shias led by a resurgent Iran.
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“Across the region, Shias are confident, bold and on the rise, while Sunnis feel insecure and persecuted,” said Hassan.
“Many disagree with ISIS on ethical grounds but they see them as the only group capable of protecting them.”
The authors also emphasise that IS is not new, but rather emerged from the ashes of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), one of the most brutal foes of the Americans following their 2003 invasion.
AQI was largely defeated after the US convinced local tribes to rise up against them — a strategy known as “The Awakening”, which has deeply influenced IS strategy.
“From the beginning, they’ve been obsessed with the Awakening,” said Hassan.
“They’ve done everything to prevent it happening again: built sleeper cells, bought loyalty, divided communities.
“They’ve succeeded in making internal resistance practically impossible. No tribe will fight them, because they will find themselves fighting their own brothers and cousins.”
Revenge of Saddam
The authors also depict IS as the revenge of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime more than a decade after the late Iraqi dictator was thrown out of power.
Most of the top IS decision-makers served either in Saddam’s military or security services, the book says.
Although the Baathists were originally a secular movement, Saddam introduced a “Faith campaign” in the 1990s that sought to Islamise society.
“Very few people have focused on the impact of that campaign,” said Hassan.
“It radicalised many Baathists and they combined the violence of the regime with that of jihadism, making them even worse than Al-Qaeda.”
Indeed, Osama bin Laden famously fell out with AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi over his horrific brutality and sectarian attacks on Shia Muslims.
Zarqawi, who was killed by a US missile strike in 2006, was so fanatical that he made bin Laden look like a moderate, and it is his mantle that has been picked up by IS.
Hassan remains pessimistic about Western counter-insurgency efforts.
“I keep hearing this argument that you can fight ISIS with propaganda, that this is an information war.
“But they have combined religion, geopolitics, economics and much more in their ideology. It’s not a fragile ideology — it has mass appeal.”
ON A chilly night, bearded militants gathered at a stage strung with colourful lights in Darna, a Mediterranean coastal city long notorious as Libya’s centre for jihadi radicals. With a roaring chant, they pledged their allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State group.
With that meeting 10 days ago, the militants dragged Darna into becoming the first city outside of Iraq and Syria to join the “caliphate” announced by the extremist group.
Already, the city has seen religious courts ordering killings in public, floggings of residents accused of violating Shariah law, as well as enforced segregation of male and female students. Opponents of the militants have gone into hiding or fled, terrorised by a string of slayings aimed at silencing them.
The takeover of the city, some 1,600 kilometres from the nearest territory controlled by the Islamic State group, offers a revealing look into how the radical group is able to exploit local conditions.
A new Islamic State “emir” now leads the city, identified as Mohammed Abdullah, a little-known Yemeni militant sent from Syria known by his nom de guerre Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi, according to several local activists and a former militant from Darna.
A number of leading Islamic State militants came to the city from Iraq and Syria earlier this year and over a few months united the most of Darna’s multiple but long-divided extremist factions behind them.
They paved the way by killing any rivals, including militants, according to local activists, former city council members and a former militant interviewed by The Associated Press. They all spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their lives.
Darna could be a model for the group to try to expand elsewhere. Notably, in Lebanon, army troops recently captured a number of militants believed to be planning to seize several villages in the north and proclaim them part of the “caliphate.” Around the region, a few militant groups have pledged allegiance to its leader, Iraqi militant Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But none hold cohesive territory like those in Darna do.
The vow of allegiance in Darna gives the Islamic State group a foothold in Libya, an oil-rich North African nation whose central government control has collapsed in the chaos since the 2011 death of longtime dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi.
Extremists made Darna their stronghold in the 1980s and 1990s during an insurgency against Gadhafi, the city protected by the rugged terrain of the surrounding Green Mountain range in eastern Libya. Darna was the main source of Libyan jihadis and suicide bombers for the insurgency in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion. Entire brigades of Darna natives fight in Syria’s civil war.
This spring, a number of Libyan jihadis with the Islamic State group returned home to Darna. The returnees, known as the Battar Group, formed a new faction called the Shura Council for the Youth of Islam, which began rallying other local militants behind joining the Islamic State group. In September, al-Azdi arrived.
Many of Darna’s militants joined, though some didn’t. Part of Ansar al-Shariah, one of the country’s most powerful Islamic factions, joined while another part rejected it.
The main militant group that refused was the Martyrs of Abu Salem Brigade, once the strongest force in Darna. The fundamentalist group sees itself as a nationalist Libyan force and calls for a democratically formed government, albeit one that must enforce stricter Shariah law.
For the past months, it has battled the al-Battar fighters and the Shura Council. Al-Battar accused the Abu Salem militia of killing one of its top commanders in June and threatened in a statement to “fill the land with (their) graves.”
Meanwhile, a militant campaign of killings in Darna targeted the liberal activists who once led sit-ins against them, as well as lawyers and judges. Militants also stormed polling stations, stopping voting in Darna during nationwide elections in March and June.
In July, a former liberal lawmaker in Darna, Farieha el-Berkawi, was gunned down in broad daylight. Her killing in particular chilled the anti-militant movement, said a close friend of el-Berkawi. “People had done their best (to force out militants) and got nothing but more bloodshed,” she told the AP.
Those who stayed tried to coexist. Some submitted letters of “repentance” to the Islamic militias, denouncing their past work in the government. Militant group Facebook pages are dotted with letters of repentance submitted by a traffic police officer, a former militiaman and a former colonel in Gadhafi’s security apparatuses.
With opposition silenced, militant factions first came together on October 5 and decided to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi and form the Islamic State group’s “Barqa province,” using a traditional name for eastern Libya. After the gathering, more than 60 pick-up trucks filled with fighters cruised through the city in a victory parade.
Last week, a second gathering in front of a Darna social club saw a larger array of factions make a more formal pledge of allegiance. Al-Azdi attended the event, according to the former militant. The militant himself did not attend but several of his close relatives who belong to Ansar al-Shariah did.
Now, government buildings in Darna are “Islamic State” offices, according to the activists. Cars carrying the logo of the “Islamic police” roam the city.
Women increasingly wear ultraconservative face veils. Masked men have flogged young men caught drinking alcohol, a former city council member told the AP.
Militants have ordered that male and female students must be segregated at school, and history and geography were removed from the curriculum, according to two activists in the city. New “Islamic police” flyers order clothing stores to cover their mannequins and not display “scandalous women’s clothes that cause sedition.”
Opposition to the militants, already scattered, is under threat. During the extremists’ first meeting, a colleague recounted how Osama al-Mansouri, a lecturer at Darna’s Fine Arts college, stood up and asked the bearded men: “What do you want? What are you after?”
Two days later, gunmen shot al-Mansouri dead in his car.
Politics in a different key
On economic reform and now on national security, New Zealand can see beyond scare campaigns and political opportunities – unlike their cousins across the ditch, writes Barrie Cassidy.
There’s no doubt about the Kiwis. Sometimes – well often in fact – they show a political maturity streets ahead of their cousins across the ditch.
Just this week Prime Minister John Key delivered a speech to the Institute of International Affairs on national security and the IS threat.
In that speech he talked about his obligations to secure the country and to support stability and the rule of the law internationally, and that’s just as you would expect.
But Key – the leader of the conservative National Party – and prime minister since 2008 – spoke at length as well about a longer term strategy; dealing with the root causes of extremism; and that’s something that gets precious little attention from the major parties in Australia.
Key said defeating IS (also known as ISIL) “will mean winning the hearts and minds of those vulnerable to its destructive message.”
“There is little doubt,” he said, “that a lack of movement towards a two-state solution in relation to Palestine, and the recent high number of civilian casualties in Gaza, serve to make the task of recruiters to extremist causes a significantly easier one.
“The unresolved issue of Iran’s nuclear capabilities hangs over the region as well.
“We also need to redouble efforts towards reaching a political solution to the violent stalemate in Syria. This has been another cause of ISIL’s rise, and has seen almost 200,000 killed, and led to more than three million Syrians fleeing their country.”
He went on to say that “the seeds of ISIL’s success lie in the failure of the Maliki regime to adhere to acceptable standards of governance, and to treat all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion, with respect.”
Key emphasised that military support is one thing, but the new al-Abadi government will need significant international backing if they are one day to fight their own battles.
In Australia, Tony Abbott talks incessantly about a “death cult”, or if you’d prefer, just this week, “an apocalyptic millennial extremist ideology”, that essentially beheads and crucifies people simply because they don’t like us. He likes to keep it simple. And the Labor opposition too steers away from sophisticated discussion about root causes for fear something they say might be interpreted as a lack of bi-partisanship. That could cost votes.
But then again, New Zealand is the country that introduced a GST at 10 per cent in 1986, increased it to 12.5 per cent in 1989, and then finally to 15 per cent with big personal tax cuts as compensation. And then Key got re-elected. In Australia, a GST was introduced in July 2000, at 10 per cent, and both the base and the rate have stayed the same since.
The debate in New Zealand was not particularly acrimonious and the public broadly, if not grudgingly, embraced each increase. Why? Partly because the politics being played out was not as self serving and destructive as that experienced here whenever the issue is raised. The electorate apparently understood they were not being asked to pay more taxes; but rather to accept a more efficient and sustainable mix of taxation.
On economic reform – and now on national security – they can see the issues beyond scare campaigns and political opportunities. The New Zealanders somehow manage to find a place in the world that is commensurate with their size and influence, and at the same time, retain a strong degree of independence.
And just by the way, the threat of a terrorist attack in New Zealand is officially “possible but not expected