Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Islamic State

Chronicler of Islamic State ‘killing machine’ goes public

The historian carried secrets too heavy for one man to bear.

By LORI HINNANT and MAGGIE MICHAEL. Dec. 08, 2017

He packed his bag with his most treasured possessions before going to bed: the 1 terabyte hard drive with his evidence against the Islamic State group, an orange notebook half-filled with notes on Ottoman history, and, a keepsake, the first book from Amazon delivered to Mosul.

He passed the night in despair, imagining all the ways he could die, and the moment he would leave his mother and his city.

He had spent nearly his entire life in this home, with his five brothers and five sisters. He woke his mother in her bedroom on the ground floor.

“I am leaving,” he said. “Where?” she asked. “I am leaving,” was all he could say.

He couldn’t endanger her by telling her anything more. In truth, since the IS had invaded his city, he’d lived a life about which she was totally unaware.

He felt her eyes on the back of his neck, and headed to the waiting Chevrolet. He didn’t look back.

For nearly two years, he’d wandered the streets of occupied Mosul, chatting with shopkeepers and Islamic State fighters, visiting friends who worked at the hospital, swapping scraps of information.

He grew out his hair and his beard and wore the shortened trousers required by IS.

He forced himself to witness the many beheading and deaths by stoning, so he could hear the killers call out the names of the condemned and their supposed crimes.

The blogger known as Mosul Eye kept his identity a secret as he documented Islamic State rule.

He wasn’t a spy. He was an undercover historian and blogger .

As IS turned the Iraqi city he loved into a fundamentalist bastion, he decided he would show the world how the extremists had distorted its true nature, how they were trying to rewrite the past and forge a brutal Sunni-only future for a city that had once welcomed many faiths.

He knew that if he was caught he too would be killed.

“I am writing this for the history , because I know this will end. People will return, life will go back to normal,” is how he explained the blog that was his conduit to the citizens of Mosul and the world beyond.

“After many years, there will be people who will study what happened. The city deserves to have something written to defend the city and tell the truth, because they say that when the war begins, the first victim is the truth.”

He called himself Mosul Eye . He made a promise to himself in those first few days: Trust no one, document everything.

Neither family, friends nor the Islamic State group could identify him. His readership grew by the thousands every month.

And now, he was running for his life.

But it would mean passing through one Islamic State checkpoint after another, on the odds that the extremists wouldn’t stop him, wouldn’t find the hard drive that contained evidence of IS atrocities, the names of its collaborators and fighters, and all the evidence that its bearer was the man they’d been trying to silence since they first swept in.

The weight of months and years of anonymity were crushing him.

He missed his name.

From the beginning, Mosul Eye wrote simultaneously as a witness and a historian.

Born in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war in 1986, he had come of age during a second war, when Saddam Hussein fell and the Americans took over.

At 17, he remembers going to a meeting of extremists at the mosque and hearing them talk about fighting the crusaders. “I should be honest, I didn’t understand.”

As for the Americans, whose language he already spoke haltingly, he couldn’t fathom why they would come all the way from the United States to Mosul. He thought studying history would give him the answers.

The men in black came from the north, cutting across his neighborhood in brand new trucks, the best all-terrain Toyota money could buy. He had seen jihadis before in Mosul and at first figured these men would fade away like the rest.

But in the midst of pitched fighting, the extremists found the time to run down about 70 assassination targets and kill them all, hanging enormous banners announcing their arrival in June 2014.

By then a newly minted teacher, the historian attended a staff meeting at Mosul University, where the conquerors explained the Islamic State education system, how all classes would be based upon the strictest interpretation of the Quran.

To a man who had been accused of secularism during his master’s thesis defense just the year before, it felt like the end of his career.

In those first few days, he wrote observations about IS, also known by the acronym ISIS, on his personal Facebook page — until a friend warned that he risked being killed.

With the smell of battle still in the air, he wandered the streets, puzzling over its transformation into a city at war. He returned to find his family weeping. The smell of smoke and gunfire permeated the home.

On June 18, 2014, a week after the city fell, Mosul Eye was born .

“My job as a historian requires an unbiased approach which I am going to adhere to and keep my personal opinion to myself,” he wrote. “I will only communicate the facts I see.”

By day, he chatted with Islamic State fighters and vendors, and observed. Always observed. By night, he wrote in his native Arabic and fluent English on a WordPress blog and later on Facebook and Twitter.

The city turned dark, and Mosul Eye became one of the outside world’s main sources of news about the Islamic State fighters, their atrocities and their transformation of the city into a grotesque shadow of itself. The things IS wanted kept secret went to the heart of its brutal rule.

They were organized as a killing machine. They are thirsty (for) blood and money and women.”

He attended Friday sermons with feigned enthusiasm. He collected and posted propaganda leaflets, including one on July 27, 2014, that claimed the Islamic State leader was a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter. (Muhammad had 2 sons who died in childhood)

Back home, writing on his blog in his other, secret identity, he decried the leaflet as a blatant attempt “to distort history” to justify the fanatics’ actions.

He drank glass after glass of tea at the hospital, talking to people who worked there. Much of the information he collected went up online. Other details he kept in his computer, for fear they would give away his identity. Someday, he told himself, he would write Mosul’s history using these documents.

The most sensitive information initially came from two old friends: one a doctor and the other a high school dropout who embraced the Islamic State’s extreme interpretation of religion. He was a taxi driver who like many others in Mosul had been detained by a Shiite militia in 2008 and still burned with resentment. He swiftly joined an intelligence unit in Mosul, becoming “one of the monsters of ISIS” — and couldn’t resist bragging about his insider knowledge.

Once he corroborated the details and masked the sources, Mosul Eye put it out for the world to see. He sometimes included photos of the fighters and commanders, complete with biographies pieced together over days of surreptitious gathering of bits and pieces of information during the course of his normal life — that of an out-of-work scholar living at home with his family.

“I used the two characters, the two personalities to serve each other,” he said. He would chat up market vendors and bored checkpoint guards for new leads.

He took on other identities as well on Facebook.

Although the names were clearly fake, the characters started to take on a life of their own. One was named Mouris Milton whom he came to believe was an even better version of himself — funny, knowledgeable. Another was Ibn al-Athir al-Mawsilli, a coldly logical historian.

International media picked up on Mosul Eye from the first days, starting with an online question-and-answer with a German newspaper.

The anonymous writer gave periodic written interviews in English over the years. Sometimes, journalists quoted his blog and called it an interview. In October 2016, he spoke by phone with the New Yorker for a profile but still kept his identity masked.

Intelligence agencies made contact as well and he rebuffed them each time.

“I am not a spy or a journalist,” he would say. “I tell them this: If you want the information, it’s published and it’s public for free. Take it.”

First the Islamic State group compiled lists of women accused of prostitution, he said, stoning or shooting around 500 in the initial months.

Then it went after men accused of being gay, flinging them off tall buildings.

Shiites, Christians and Yazidis fled from a city once proud of its multiple religions.

When the only Mosul residents left were fellow Sunnis, they too were not spared, according to the catalog of horrors that is Mosul Eye’s daily report.

He detailed the deaths and whippings, for spying and apostasy, for failing to attend prayers, for overdue taxes. The blog attracted the attention of the fanatics, who posted death threats in the comments section.

Less than a year into their rule, in March 2015, he nearly cracked. IS beheaded a 14-year-old in front of a crowd; 12 people were arrested for selling and smoking cigarettes, and some of them flogged publicly. Seeing few alternatives, young men from Mosul were joining up by the dozens.

The sight of a fanatic severing the hand of a child accused of stealing unmoored him. The man told the boy that his hand was a gift of repentance to God before serenely slicing it away.

It was too much.

Mosul Eye was done. He defied the dress requirements, cut his hair short, shaved his beard and pulled on a bright red crewneck sweater. He persuaded his closest friend to join him.

“I decided to die.”

The sun shining, they drove to the banks of the Tigris blasting forbidden music from the car. They spread a scrap of rug over a stone outcropping and shared a carafe of tea. Mosul Eye lit a cigarette, heedless of a handful of other people picnicking nearby.

“I was so tired of worrying about myself, my family, my brothers. I am not alive to worry, but I am alive to live this life. I thought: I am done.”

He planned it as a sort of last supper, a final joyful day to end all days. He assumed he would be spotted, arrested, tortured. The tea was the best he had ever tasted.

Somehow, incredibly, his crimes went unnoticed.

He went home.

“At that moment I felt like I was given a new life.”

He grew out his hair and beard again, put the shortened trousers back on. And, for the remainder of his time in Mosul, smoked and listened to music in his room with the curtains drawn and the lights off. His computer screen and the tip of his cigarette glowed as he wrote in the dark.

The next month, he slipped up.

His friend the ex-taxi driver told him about an airstrike that had just killed multiple high-level Islamic State commanders, destroying a giant weapons cache. Elated, Mosul Eye dashed home to post it online. He hit “publish” and then, minutes later, realized his mistake. The information could have come from only one person. He trashed the post and spent a sleepless night.

“It’s like a death game and one mistake could finish your life.”

For a week, he went dark. Then he invited his friend to meet at a restaurant. They ate spicy chicken, an unemployed teacher and the gun-toting ex-taxi driver talking again about their city and their lives. His cover was not blown.

The historian went back online. Alongside the blog, he kept meticulous records — information too dangerous to share.

His computer hard drive filled with death, filed according to date, cause of death, perpetrator, neighborhood and ethnicity. Accompanying each spreadsheet entry was a separate file with observations from each day.

“IS is forcing abortions and tubal ligation surgeries on Yazidi women,” he wrote in unpublished notes from January 2015. A doctor told him there had been between 50 and 60 forced abortions and a dozen Yazidi girls younger than 15 died of injuries from repeated rapes.

April 19, 2015: “The forensics department received the bodies of 23 IS militants killed in Baiji. They had no shrapnel, no bullets, no explosives and the cause of death does not seem to be explosion. It is like nothing happened to the bodies. A medical source believes they were exposed to poison gas.

July 7, 2015: “43 citizens were executed in different places, this time by gunfire, which is unusual because they were previously beheadings. A source inside IS said that 13 of those who were executed are fighters and they tried to flee.”

He noted a flurry of security on days when the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, seemed to be in town.

Many in Iraq, especially those who supported the Shiite-dominated leadership in Baghdad, blamed Mosul for its own fate.

Mosul Eye freely acknowledged that some residents at first believed the new conquerors could only be an improvement over the heavy-handed government and the soldiers who fled with hardly a backward glance at the city they were supposed to defend.

But he also wrote publicly and privately of the suffering among citizens who refused to join the group. He was fighting on two fronts: “One against ISIS, and the other against the rumors. Trying to protect the face of Mosul, the soul of Mosul.”

He tested out different voices, implying one day that he was Christian, another that he was Muslim. Sometimes he indicated he was gone, other times that he was still in the city. “I couldn’t trust anyone,” he said.

In his mind, he left Mosul a thousand times, but always found reasons to stay: his mother, his nieces and nephews, his mission.

But finally, he had to go.

“I had to run away with the proof that will protect Mosul for years to come, and to at least be loyal to the people who were killed in the city.”

And he did not want to become another casualty of the monsters.

“I think I deserve life, deserve to be alive.”

A smuggler, persuaded by $1,000 and the assurances of a mutual acquaintance, agreed to get him out. He was leaving the next day. Mosul Eye had no time to reflect, no time to change his mind.

He returned home and began transferring the contents of his computer to the hard drive. He pulled out the orange notebook with the hand-drawn map of Mosul on the cover and the outlines of what he hoped would one day be his doctoral dissertation.

Into the bag went “Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca,” an obscure American satirical novel from 1770 that he had ordered from Amazon via a new shop that was the only place in town to order from abroad online.

It was time to leave.

He wanted to make sure his mother would never have to watch the capture and killing of Mosul Eye.

On Dec. 15, 2015 he left Mosul, driving with the smuggler to the outskirts of Raqqa, a pickup point that alarmed him. From there he and other Iraqis and Syrians were picked up by a second set of smugglers and driven by convoy to Turkey.

They had no trouble crossing the border.

In Turkey, Mosul Eye kept at it: via WhatsApp and Viber, from Facebook messages and long conversations with friends and relatives who had contacts within IS. From hundreds of kilometers away, his life remained consumed by events in Mosul.

By mid-2016, deaths were piling up faster than he could document.

The IS and airstrikes were taking a bloody toll on residents. His records grew haphazard, and he turned to Twitter to document the atrocities. In February 2017, he received asylum in Europe with the aid of an organization that learned his backstory. He continued to track the airstrikes and Islamic State killings

He mapped the airstrikes as they closed in on his family, pleading with his older brother to leave his home in West Mosul. Ahmed, 36, died days later when shrapnel from a mortar strike pierced his heart, leaving behind four young children.

It was only then that Mosul Eye revealed his secret to a younger brother — who was proud to learn the anonymous historian he had been reading for so long was his brother.

“People in Mosul had lost hope and confidence in politicians, in everything,” his brother said. Mosul Eye “managed to show that it’s possible to change the situation in the city and bring it back to life.”

As the Old City crumbled, Mosul Eye sent coordinates and phone numbers for homes filled with civilians to a BBC journalist who was covering the battle, trying to get the attention of someone in the coalition command. He believes he saved lives.

Then, with his beloved Old City destroyed, Mosul Eye launched a fundraiser to rebuild the city’s libraries because the extremists had burned all the books. None of his volunteers knew his identity.

An activist who helped co-found a “Women of Mosul” Facebook group with Mosul Eye describes him as a “spiritual leader” for the city’s secular-minded.

“He was telling us about the day-to-day events under ISIS and we were following closely with excitement as if we were watching a movie. Sometimes he went through hard times and we used to encourage him. He won the people’s trust and we became very curious to know his real personality,” said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she believed she was still in danger.

From a distance, finally writing his dissertation on 19th century Mosul history in the safety of a European city, he continued to write as Mosul Eye and organize cultural events and fundraisers from afar — even after Mosul was liberated.

The double life consumed him, sapped energy he’d rather use for the doctoral dissertation and for helping Mosul rebuild. And it hurt when someone asked the young Iraqi why he didn’t do more to help his people. He desperately wanted his mother to know all that he had done.

He felt barely real, with so many people knowing him by false identities: 293,000 followers on Facebook, 37,000 on WordPress and 23,400 on Twitter.

In hours of face-to-face conversations with The Associated Press over the course of two months, he agonized over when and how to end the anonymity that plagued him. He did not want to be a virtual character anymore.

On Nov. 15, 2017, Mosul Eye made his decision.

“I can’t be anonymous anymore. This is to say that I defeated ISIS. You can see me now, and you can know me now.”

He is 31 years old.

His name is Omar Mohammed.

“I am a scholar.”

In which way this new Islamic State is Islamic?

The conventional wisdom suggests a violent reading of the Quran is at the heart of Islamic State’s political violence – but it’s wrong.
newstatesman.com

It is difficult to forget the names, or the images, of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning and Peter Kassig.

The barbaric beheadings between August and November 2014, in cold blood and on camera, of these five jumpsuit-clad western hostages by the self-styled Islamic State, or Isis, provoked widespread outrage and condemnation.

However, we should also remember the name of Didier François, a French journalist who was held by Isis in Syria for ten months before being released in April 2014.

François has since given us a rare insight into life inside what the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, in a recent report for the magazine, has called the “hermit kingdom” of Isis, where “few have gone . . . and returned”.

And it is an insight that threatens to turn the conventional wisdom about the world’s most fearsome terrorist organisation on its head.

“There was never really discussion about texts,” the French journalist told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last month, referring to his captors. “It was not a religious discussion. It was a political discussion.” (Rare are the ISIS members know much of their religion) 

According to François, “It was more hammering what they were believing than teaching us about the Quran. Because it has nothing to do with the Quran.”

And the former hostage revealed to a startled Amanpour: “We didn’t even have the Quran. They didn’t want even to give us a Quran.”

The rise of Isis in Iraq and Syria has been a disaster for the public image of Islam – and a boon for the Islamophobia industry.

Here, after all, is a group that calls itself Islamic State; that claims the support of Islamic texts to justify its medieval punishments, from the stoning of adulterers to the amputation of the hands of thieves; and that has a leader with a PhD in Islamic studies who declares himself to be a “caliph”, or ruler over all Muslims, and has even renamed himself in honour of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr.

The consequences are, perhaps, as expected.

In September 2014, a Zogby poll found that only 27 per cent of Americans had a favourable view of Islam – down from 35 per cent in 2010. By February 2015, more than a quarter of Americans (27 per cent) were telling the pollsters LifeWay Research that they believed that life under Isis rule “gives a true indication of what an Islamic society looks like”.

Yet what is much more worrying is that it isn’t just ill-informed, ignorant or bigoted members of the public who take such a view. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” wrote Wood in his widely read 10,000-word cover report (“What Isis really wants”) in the March issue of Atlantic, in which he argued, “The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Bernard Haykel of Princeton University, the only scholar of Islam whom Wood bothered to interview, described Muslims who considered Isis to be un-Islamic, or anti-Islamic, as “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion”, and declared that the hand-choppers and throat-slitters of Isis “have just as much legitimacy” as any other Muslims, because Islam is “what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts”.

Many other analysts across the political spectrum agree and have denounced the Obama administration for refusing, in the words of the journalist-turned-terrorism-expert Peter Bergen, to make “the connection between Islamist terrorism and ultra-fundamentalist forms of Islam”. Writing on the CNN website in February, Bergen declared, “Isis may be a perversion of Islam, but Islamic it is.”

“Will it take the end of the world for Obama to recognise Isis as ‘Islamic’?” screamed a headline on the Daily Beast website in the same month. “Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behaviour and that certain religious ideas – jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy – reliably lead to oppression and murder?” asked Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and high priest of the “New Atheism” movement.

So, is Isis a recognisably “Islamic” movement? Are Isis recruits motivated by religious fervour and faith?

The Analyst

“Our exploration of the intuitive psychologist’s shortcomings must start with his general tendency to overestimate the importance of personal or dispositional factors relative to environmental influences,” wrote the American social anthropologist Lee Ross in 1977.

It was Ross who coined the phrase “fundamental attribution error”, which refers to the phenomenon in which we place excessive emphasis on internal motivations to explain the behaviour of others, in any given situation, rather than considering the relevant external factors.

Nowhere is the fundamental attribution error more prevalent, suggests the forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, than in our navel-gazing analysis of wannabe terrorists and what does or doesn’t motivate them. “You attribute other people’s behaviour to internal motivations but your own to circumstances. ‘They’re attacking us and therefore we have to attack them.’” Yet, he tells me, we rarely do the reverse.

Few experts have done more to try to understand the mindset of the young men and women who aspire to join the blood-drenched ranks of groups such as Isis and al-Qaeda than Sageman. And few can match his qualifications, credentials or background.

The 61-year-old, Polish-born psychiatrist and academic is a former CIA operations officer who was based in Pakistan in the late 1980s. There he worked closely with the Afghan mujahedin. He has since advised the New York City Police Department on counterterrorism issues, testified in front of the 9/11 Commission in Washington, DC, and, in his acclaimed works Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad, closely analysed the biographies of several hundred terrorists.

Does he see religion as a useful analytical prism through which to view the rise of Isis and the process by which thousands of young people arrive in Syria and Iraq, ready to fight and die for the group?

“Religion has a role but it is a role of justification,” he tells me. “It’s not why they do this [or] why young people go there.”

Isis members, he says, are using religion to advance a political vision, rather than using politics to advance a religious vision. “To give themselves a bit more legitimacy, they use Islam as their justification. It’s not about religion, it’s about identity . . . You identify with the victims, [with] the guys being killed by your enemies.”

For converts to Islam in particular, he adds, “Identity is important to them. They have . . . invested a lot of their own efforts and identity to become this ‘Muslim’ and, because of this, identity is so important to them. They see other Muslims being slaughtered [and say], ‘I need to protect my community.’” (A recent study found that converts to Islam were involved in 31 per cent of Muslim terrorism convictions in the UK between 2001 and 2010.)

Sageman believes that it isn’t religious faith but, rather, a “sense of emotional and moral outrage” at what they see on their television screens or on YouTube that propels people from Portsmouth to Peshawar, from Berlin to Beirut, to head for war zones and to sign up for the so-called jihad.

Today, he notes archly, “Orwell would be [considered as foreign fighter like] a jihadi,” referring to the writer’s involvement in the anti-fascist campaign during the Spanish civil war.

Religion, according to this view, plays a role not as a driver of behaviour but as a vehicle for outrage and, crucially, a marker of identity. Religion is important in the sense that it happens to “define your identity”, Sageman says, and not because you are “more pious than anybody else”.

He invokes the political scientist Benedict Anderson’s conception of a nation state as an “imagined political community”, arguing that the “imagined community of Muslims” is what drives the terrorists, the allure of being members of – and defenders of – the ultimate “in-group”.

“You don’t have the most religious folks going there,” he points out. Isis fighters from the west, in particular, “tend to have rediscovered Islam as teenagers, or as converts”; they are angry, or even bored, young men in search of a call to arms and a thrilling cause. The Isis executioner Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John” – who was raised and educated in the UK – was described, for instance, by two British medics who met him at a Syrian hospital as “quiet but a bit of an adrenalin junkie”.

Sageman’s viewpoint should not really surprise us. Writing in his 2011 book The Black Banners: the Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, the Lebanese-American former FBI agent Ali H Soufan, who led the bureau’s pre-9/11 investigation into al-Qaeda, observed: “When I first began interrogating al-Qaeda members, I found that while they could quote Bin Laden’s sayings by heart, I knew far more of the Quran than they did – and in fact some barely knew classical Arabic, the language of both the hadith and the Quran. An understanding of their thought process and the limits of their knowledge enabled me and my colleagues to use their claimed piousness against them.”

Three years earlier, in 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was obtained by the Guardian. It revealed: “Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” The MI5 analysts noted the disproportionate number of converts and the high propensity for “drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes”. The newspaper claimed they concluded, “A well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”

As I have pointed out on these pages before, Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, the two young British Muslim men from Birmingham who were convicted on terrorism charges in 2014 after travelling to fight in Syria, bought copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon prior to their departure. Religious novices, indeed.

Sageman, the former CIA officer, says we have to locate terrorism and extremism in local conflicts rather than in grand or sweeping ideological narratives – the grievances and the anger come first, he argues, followed by the convenient and self-serving ideological justifications.

For example, he says, the origins of Isis as a terror group lie not in this or that Islamic book or school of thought, but in the “slaughter of Sunnis in Iraq”. He reminds me how, in April 2013, when there was a peaceful Sunni demonstration asking the Shia-led Maliki government in Baghdad to reapportion to the various provinces what the government was getting in oil revenues, Iraqi security forces shot into the crowds. “That was the start of this [current] insurrection.”

A pro-Isis demonstration in Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014. Photo: Associated Press

Before that, it was the brutal, US-led occupation, under which Iraq became ground zero for suicide bombers from across the region and spurred the creation of new terrorist organisations, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

Isis is the “remnant” of AQI, Sageman adds. He believes that any analysis of the group and of the ongoing violence and chaos in Iraq that doesn’t take into account the long period of war, torture, occupation and sectarian cleansing is inadequate – and a convenient way of exonerating the west
of any responsibility. “Without the invasion of Iraq, [Isis] would not exist. We created it by our presence there.”

The Spy

Like Marc Sageman, Richard Barrett has devoted his professional life to understanding terrorism, extremism and radicalisation. The silver-haired 65-year-old was the director of global counterterrorism operations for MI6, both before and after the 11 September 2001 attacks, and he subsequently led the al-Qaeda and Taliban monitoring team at the United Nations between 2004 and 2013.

Unlike Sageman, however, Barrett partly sympathises with Graeme Wood’s and Bernard Haykel’s thesis that “the Islamic State is Islamic”. He tells me that some Isis followers “are clearly convinced they are following Allah’s will” and he insists: “We should not underestimate the extent of their belief.” However, Barrett concedes that such beliefs and views “will not be the only thing that drew them to the Islamic State”.

The former MI6 officer, who recently published a report on foreign fighters in Syria, agrees with the ex-CIA man on the key issue of what motivates young men to join – and fight for – groups such as Isis in the first place. Rather than religious faith, it has “mostly to do with the search for identity . . . coupled with a search for belonging and purpose. The Islamic State offers all that and empowers the individual within a collective. It does not judge and accepts all with no concern about their past. This can be very appealing for people who think that they washed up on the wrong shore.”

Whether they are unemployed losers or well-educated professionals, joining Isis offers new recruits the chance to “believe that they are special . . . that they are part of something that is new, secret and powerful”.

While Barrett doesn’t dismiss the theological angle in the way that Sageman does, he nevertheless acknowledges, “Acting in the name of Islam means that, for the ignorant at least, the groups have some legitimacy for their actions . . . They can pretend it is not just about power and money.”

This irreligious lust for power and money is a significant and often overlooked part of the Isis equation. The group – often described as messianic and uncompromising – had no qualms about demanding a $200m ransom for the lives of two Japanese hostages in January; nor has it desisted from smuggling pornography into and out of Iraq, according to Louise Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Centre at George Mason University in Virginia. (Shelley has referred to Isis as a “diversified criminal operation”.)

Then there is the often-ignored alliance at the heart of Isis between the so-called violent Islamists, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist regime – an alliance that Barrett has referred to as a “marriage of convenience”.

If Isis is the apocalyptic religious cult that Wood and others believe it is, why was Baghdadi’s deputy in Iraq Abu Muslim al-Afari al-Turkmani, a former senior special forces officer in Hussein’s army? Why is Baghdadi’s number two in Syria Abu Ali al-Anbari, a former major general under Hussein?

“The Ba’athist element was certainly very important . . . as it gave the Islamic State military and administrative capability,” Barrett says. “It also made it possible [for Isis to] take Mosul so quickly and cause defections and surrenders from the Iraqi army. There was and continues to be a coincidence of interest between Islamic State and other anti-government Sunni groups.”

Here again, it seems, is the fundamental attribution error in play. We neglect to focus on the “interests” of groups such as Isis and obsess over their supposedly messianic and apocalyptic “beliefs”. The “end of times” strain may be very strong in Isis, Barrett warns, but: “The Ba’athist elements are still key in Iraq and without them the Islamic State would probably not be able to hold on to the city of Mosul.”

Baghdadi’s appointment as leader of Isis in 2010 was orchestrated by a former Ba’athist colonel in Hussein’s army, Haji Bakr, according to another recent study produced by Barrett, in which he noted how Bakr had “initially attracted criticism from fellow members of the group for his lack of a proper beard and lax observance of other dictates of their religious practice”. Nevertheless, pragmatism trumped ideology as Bakr’s “organisational skills . . . and network of fellow ex-Ba’athists made him a valuable resource” for Isis.

Apparently, Baghdadi’s supposed caliphate in Iraq and Syria was less the will of God and more the will of Saddam.

The Theologian

Perhaps the most astonishing achievement of Isis has been not the sheer size of the territory it has captured, but the way in which it has united the world’s disparate (and often divided) 1.6 billion Muslims against it.

Whether Sunni or Shia, Salafi or Sufi, conservative or liberal, Muslims – and Muslim leaders – have almost unanimously condemned and denounced Isis not merely as un-Islamic but actively anti-Islamic.

Consider the various statements of Muslim groups such as the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, representing 57 countries (Isis has “nothing to do with Islam”); the Islamic Society of North America (Isis’s actions are “in no way representative of what Islam actually teaches”); al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world (Isis is acting “under the guise of this holy religion . . . in an attempt to export their false Islam”); and even Saudi Arabia’s Salafist Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz al ash-Sheikh (Isis is “the number-one enemy of Islam”).

In September 2014, more than 120 Islamic scholars co-signed an 18-page open letter to Baghdadi, written in Arabic, containing what the Slate website’s Filipa Ioannou described as a “technical point-by-point criticism of Isis’s actions and ideology based on the Quran and classical religious texts”.

Yet buffoonish right-wingers such as the Fox News host Sean Hannity continue to refer to the alleged “silence of Muslims” over the actions of Isis and ask, “Where are the Muslim leaders?” Meanwhile, academics who should know better, such as Princeton’s Bernard Haykel, insist that the leaders of Isis “have just as much legitimacy as anyone else”.

Legitimacy, however, “comes through endorsement by religious leaders. If Sunni Islam’s leaders consider Isis inauthentic, then that is what it is,” says Abdal Hakim Murad, who teaches Islamic studies at Cambridge University and serves as the dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, which trains imams for British mosques.

The blond-haired, 54-year-old Murad is a convert and is also known as Timothy Winter (his brother is the Telegraph football writer Henry). Murad has been described by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Jordan as “one of the most well-respected western theologians”, whose “accomplishments place him amongst the most significant Muslims in the world”.

The religious world, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian, is “packed with fringe and fundamentalist groups that claim the mantle of total authenticity”, Murad tells me. To accept those groups’ assertions at face value is “either naive or tendentious”.

He continues: “Just as Christianity in Bosnia 20 years ago was not properly represented by the churchgoing militias of Radovan Karadzic and just as Judaism is not
represented by West Bank settlers who burn mosques, so, too, Islam is not represented by Isis.”

Contrary to a lazy conventional wisdom which suggests that a 1,400-year-old faith with more than a billion adherents has no hierarchy, “Islam has its leadership, its universities, its muftis and its academies, which unanimously repudiate Isis,” Murad explains. For the likes of Haykel to claim that the Isis interpretation of Islam has “just as much legitimacy” as the mainstream view, he adds, is “unscholarly”, “incendiary” and likely to “raise prejudice and comfort the far-right political formations”.

As for Isis’s obsession with beheadings, crucifixions, hand-chopping and the rest, Murad argues: “With regard to classical sharia punishments, the religion’s teachings in every age are determined by scholarly consensus on the meaning of the complex scriptural texts” – rather than by self-appointed “sharia councils” in the midst of conflict zones.

Many analysts have laid the blame for violent extremism among Muslims at the ideological door of Salafism, a regressive and ultra-conservative brand of Islam, which owes a great deal to the controversial teachings of an 18th-century preacher named Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and which today tends to be behind much of the misogyny and sectarianism in the Muslim-majority world. Yet, as even Wood concedes in his Atlantic report, “Most Salafis are not jihadists and most adhere to sects that reject the Islamic State.”

Salafists tend to be apolitical, whereas groups such as Isis are intensely political. Even the traditionalist Murad, who has little time for what he has deemed the “cult-like universe of the Salafist mindset”, agrees that the rise of extremism within the movement is a consequence, rather than a cause, of violence and conflict.

“The roots of Isis have been located in rage against . . . the 2003 occupation of Iraq. Before that event, Salafist extremism was hardly heard of in Syria and Iraq, even though the mosques were full in those countries,” Murad says. “Angry men, often having suffered in US detention, have reached for the narrowest and most violent interpretation of their religion they can find. This is a psychological reaction, not a faithful adherence to classical Muslim norms of jurisprudence.”

In the view of this particular Muslim theologian, Isis owes a “debt to European far-right thinking”. The group’s “imposition of a monolithic reading of the huge and hugely complex founding literature of the religion is something very new in Islamic civilisation, representing a totalitarian impulse that seems closer to European fascism than to classical Islamic norms”.

The Radical

Raised in Toronto, the son of Indian immigrant parents, Mubin Shaikh went from enjoying a hedonistic teenage lifestyle involving drugs, girls and parties to embracing a militant and “jihadist” view of the world, full of hate and anger.

He felt as though he “had become a stranger in my own land, my own home”, Shaikh told PBS in 2007, referring to an identity crisis that helped spark his “jihadi bug”. After 11 September 2001, he wanted to fight in Afghanistan or Chechnya because: “It felt like the right thing to do.”

It is a familiar path, trodden by the likes of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon, as well as Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo attackers in Paris. (A former friend of Chérif said that the younger, pot-smoking Kouachi “couldn’t differentiate between Islam and Catholicism” before he became radicalised by “images of American soldiers humiliating Muslims at the Abu Ghraib prison”, as the New York Times put it.)

Yet Shaikh eventually relinquished his violent views after studying Sufi Islam in the Middle East and then boldly volunteered with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to infiltrate several radical groups in Toronto.

The bald and bearded Shaikh, now aged 39 and an adviser to Canadian officials, tells me it is “preposterous” to claim that the killing of Christians and Yazidis by Isis is rooted in Islamic scripture or doctrine. If it was, “Muslims would have been doing those sorts of things for the past 50-plus years. Yet we find no such thing.”

He offers three distinct explanations for why Isis should not be considered or treated as an “Islamic” phenomenon. First, Shaikh argues, “The claim that Isis is ‘Islamic’ because it superficially uses Islamic sources is ridiculous, because the Islamic sources themselves say that those who do so [manifest Islam superficially] are specifically un-Islamic.”

He points to an order issued by the first and original Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr, which declared: “Neither kill a child, women [nor] the elderly . . . When you come upon those who have taken to live in monasteries, leave them alone.”

Takfiris are those who declare other Muslims to be apostates and, for Shaikh, “It is the height of incredulity to suggest that they [members of Isis] are in fact ‘Islamic’ – an opinion shared only by Isis and [Islamophobes] who echo their claims.”

As for Baghdadi’s supposed scholarly credentials, Shaikh jokes, “Even the devil can quote scripture.”

Second, he argues, it is dangerous to grant Isis any kind of theological legitimacy amid efforts to formulate a coherent “countering violent extremism” (CVE) strategy in the west. “It is quite possibly a fatal blow in that regard because, essentially, it is telling Muslims to condemn that which is Islamic.” It is, he says, a “schizophrenic approach to CVE which will never succeed”.

Third, Shaikh reminds me how the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld often included verses from the Bible at the top of the intelligence briefings that he presented to President George W Bush. “Could we say [Iraq] was a ‘Christianity-motivated war’? How about verses of the Bible [reportedly] engraved on to rifles for use in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars?”

The former radical points out that highlighting only the role of religion in the radicalisation process to the exclusion of, or above, other factors is short-sighted. “Fear, money . . . adventure, alienation and, most certainly, anger at the west for what happened in Iraq . . . [also] explain why people join [Isis],” he tells me.

Shaikh therefore wants a counterterrorism approach focused not merely on faith or theology, but on “political, social and psychological” factors.

The Pollster

What Dalia Mogahed doesn’t know about Muslim public opinion probably isn’t worth knowing. And the former Gallup pollster and co-author, with the US academic John L Esposito, of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, based on six years of research and 50,000 interviews with Muslims in more than 35 countries, says that the survey evidence is clear: the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims reject Isis-style violence.

Gallup polling conducted for Mogahed’s book found, for instance, that 93 per cent of Muslims condemned the terror attacks of 11 September 2001. The 40-year-old Egyptian-American scholar tells me, “In follow-up questions, Gallup found that not a single respondent of the nearly 50,000 interviewed cited a verse from the Quran in defence of terrorism but, rather, religion was only mentioned to explain why 9/11 was immoral.”

The 7 per cent of Muslims who sympathised with the attacks on the twin towers “defended this position entirely with secular political justifications or distorted concepts of ‘reciprocity’, as in: ‘They kill our civilians. We can kill theirs.’”

It is thus empirically unsound to conflate heightened religious belief with greater support for violence. Mogahed, who became the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to hold a position at the White House when she served on Barack Obama’s advisory council on “faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships”, says that she was “surprised” by the results, as they “flew in the face of everything we were being told and every assumption we were making in our counterterrorism strategy”.

As for Haykel’s claim that Islam is merely “what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts”, Mogahed is scathingly dismissive. “If Islam is indeed ‘what Muslims do’, then certainly numbers should be a powerful factor dictating which Muslims we see as representing it,” she says. “Isis is a tiny minority whose victims are, in fact, mostly other Muslims.

“By what logic would this gang of killers, which has been universally condemned and brutalises Muslims more than anyone else, get to represent the global [Muslim] community?”

The former White House adviser continues: “Any philosophy or ideology, from Christianity to capitalism, has normative principles and authorities that speak to those norms. Each also has deviants who distort it to meet political or other goals. If I deny the existence of Christ but call myself a Christian, I’d be wrong. If I say the state should usurp all private property and redistribute it equally among citizens but call myself a capitalist, I would be wrong. Islam is no different.”

Echoing Murad, Mogahed points out, “Islam’s authorities have loudly and unanimously declared Isis un-Islamic.” Because of this, “Making a claim that violates normative principles of a philosophy, as defined by those with the authority to decide, is illegitimate.”

What about Haykel’s claim that Isis fighters are constantly quoting Quranic verses and the hadith, or traditions from the life of the Prophet, and that they “mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion and they do it all the time”? Why do they do that if they don’t believe this stuff – if it isn’t sincere?

“The Quran [and] hadith according to whom?” she responds. “As interpreted by whom? As understood by whom?”

Mogahed, who served as the executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies until 2012 and who now works for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) and runs her own consulting firm based in Washington DC, argues that Isis uses Islamic language and symbols today for the same reason as Palestinian militant groups used the language of secular Arab nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Any organisation uses the dominant social medium of its society,” she says. “Today, the dominant social currency in the Arab world is Islam. More than 90 per cent of Arab Muslims say religion is an important part of their daily life, according to Gallup research. Everyone, not just Isis, speaks in Islamic language, from pro-democracy advocates to civil society groups fighting illiteracy.”

For Mogahed, therefore, “a violent reading of the Quran is not leading to political violence. Political violence is leading to a violent reading of the Quran.”

In a recent despatch from Zarqa in Jordan, birthplace of the late AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and “one of the country’s most notorious hotbeds of Islamic radicalism”, Foreign Policy magazine’s David Kenner sat down with a group of young, male Isis supporters.

“None of them appeared to be particularly religious,” Kenner noted. “Not once did the conversation turn to matters of faith, and none budged from their seats when the call to prayer sounded. They appeared driven by anger at humiliations big and small – from the police officers who treated them like criminals outside their homes to the massacres of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq – rather than by a detailed exegesis of religious texts.”

It cannot be said often enough: it isn’t the most pious or devout of Muslims who embrace terrorism, or join groups such as Isis. Nor has a raft of studies and surveys uncovered any evidence of a “conveyor belt” that turns people of firm faith into purveyors of violence.

Religion plays little, if any, role in the radicalisation process, as Sageman and countless experts testify. It is an excuse, rather than a reason. Isis is as much the product of political repression, organised crime and a marriage of convenience with secular, power-hungry Ba’athists as it is the result of a perversion of Islamic beliefs and practices. As for Islamic scholars, they “unanimously repudiate” Isis, to quote Murad, while ordinary Muslims “universally condemn” Baghdadi and his bloodthirsty followers, in the words of Mogahed.

The so-called Islamic State is, therefore, “Islamic” in the way the British National Party is “British” or the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) is “democratic”. No serious analyst considers the latter two entities to be representative of either Britishness or democracy; few commentators claim that those who join the BNP do so out of a sense of patriotism and nor do they demand that all democrats publicly denounce the DPRK as undemocratic. So why the double standard in relation to the self-styled Islamic State and the religion of Islam? Why the willingness to believe the hype and rhetoric from the spin doctors and propagandists of Isis?

We must be wary of the trap set for us by Baghdadi’s group – a trap that far too many people who should know better have frustratingly fallen for. A former US state department official who has worked on counterterrorism issues tells me how worried he is that the arguments of the Atlantic’s Wood, Haykel, Bergen and others have been gaining traction in policymaking circles in recent months. “It was disconcerting to be at [President Obama’s Countering Violent Extremism summit in February] and hear so many people discussing the [Atlantic] article while the president and others were trying to marginalise extremist claims to Islamic legitimacy.”

Mogahed is full-square behind her former boss’s decision to delink violent extremism from the Islamic faith in his public pronouncements. “As [Obama] recently remarked, giving groups like Isis religious legitimacy is handing them the ideological victory they desperately desire,” she says. This may be the most significant point of all to understand, as politicians, policymakers and security officials try (and fail) to formulate a coherent response to violent extremism in general and Isis in particular.

To claim that Isis is Islamic is egregiously inaccurate and empirically unsustainable, not to mention insulting to the 1.6 billion non-violent adherents of Islam across the planet. Above all else, it is dangerous and self-defeating, as it provides Baghdadi and his minions with the propaganda prize and recruiting tool that they most crave.

Mehdi Hasan is a presenter for al-Jazeera English and an NS contributing writer. Tom Holland will reply to this essay in the next New Statesman.

Andrew Bossone posted this link on FB
March 10, 2015

One of the best analyses I’ve read so far. Certainly better than the weak stuff in the Atlantic.
In summary, IS is more of a criminal enterprise than religious cult.

It attracts losers from abroad who are having an identity crisis and local people who have been abused.

It formed directly as a result of a brutal occupation and through the organizational remnants of Saddam Huessein’s Baathist regime.

Every religious group and individual with any legitimacy as well as the masses of Muslims have denounced the group as un-Islamic, while a handful of wannabe analysts claiming to know the religion from the outside have called it the true face of Islam.

 

 

The Islamic State as an ordinary insurgency

The many examples of the banality of the Islamic State suggest that for all the religious talk, the group’s behavior is familiar and even predictable.

The attention heaped on the Islamic State in Western media and public debate has centered primarily on two issues: its religion and its violence.

On both fronts, the group has left observers aghast with its extremism. Those analysts focusing on the religion try to make sense of the group’s distinctive brand of Islamic ideology as well as the “psychopaths” who choose to become its followers.

Those fixated on the group’s violence posit that its seemingly unlimited capacity to brutalize and terrorize has few parallels among violent organizations, so much so that “even al-Qaeda,” as is repeatedly pointed out, has disavowed the group.

Nevertheless, as Marc Lynch recently argued in the Monkey Cage, putting the Islamic State in a broader comparative perspective shows that the group is hardly unique among armed non-state organizations. This in turn points to ways scholars and observers might most productively study and write about the group.

Much of the media coverage and popular discussion of the Islamic State has focused on the group’s atrocious acts of violence. In their orchestrated murders and in the savvyness with which they broadcast them to the world’s horrified viewers, they are perhaps unmatched in the present age.

And yet, to portray the Islamic State as uniquely brutal or unrivaled in its savagery is to forget our unfortunate history – even recent history – that is filled with episodes of extreme violence against civilians committed in the name of some political goal.

One would be hard pressed to argue that the Islamic State’s actions are more unconscionable than those of the Khmer Rouge who created the killing fields of Cambodia, or Renamo of Mozambique whose fighters specialized in the kidnapping, rape and mutilation of women, men and children, or the systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon in the Bosnian war; or that the group’s staged beheadings are any more appalling than the thousands of “forced disappearances” conducted behind the scenes in the Salvadoran conflict.

The only difference between cases such as these and the Islamic State when it comes to violence is that the latter operates in the age of social media and uses it to the fullest for shock-and-awe effects.

Nor is the Islamic State unique in mobilizing its own interpretation of theology as part of an ideological-political campaign.

The Darul Islam movement sought to found an Islamic state in Indonesia following independence from the Netherlands in 1948, and its fighters launched violent rebellions in various parts of the archipelago.

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Uganda and its predecessor, the Holy Spirit Movement, claimed as their goal the establishment of a theocracy based on the Ten Commandments; the LRA is now responsible for one of the longest running conflicts in Africa.

Nor is the Islamic State unique in its transnational vision to create an Islamic state that rejects existing borders: Darul Islam reemerged in the 1990s in the form of Jemaah Islamiyah, which proclaimed a mission to create an Islamic state spanning Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and parts of Thailand and the Philippines.

The Islamic State certainly is not unique among violent organizations in developing networks of traffickers, dealers, and middlemen to secure enormous wealth from natural resources like oil, and the group is typical among rebel and terrorist organizations to capitalize on the political and institutional weaknesses of host states to launch military operations and take over territory.

Neither does the Islamic State stand out for successfully creating its own civilian governance system in towns it secured.

In places like Raqqa, Syria, it may have collected taxes, built infrastructure, posted traffic police at intersections and kept bakeries running while enforcing strict social codes with threats of severe punishment, including public execution, for deviant behavior.

And so have many other militant non-state groups, as my ongoing research on rebel governance shows. In addition to creating sophisticated governance structures, the Naxalites of India ran their own banking system;

the Eritrean rebels ran a pharmaceutical plant while operating a humanitarian wing that worked with international NGOs;

their neighboring Tigrayan rebels conducted extensive land reform; and UNITA of Angola ran a mail system replete with its own internationally-recognized stamps, all in the midst of intense violent conflict against established states.

Like the Islamic State, many groups, including Uganda’s National Resistance Army and Nepal’s Maoist insurgents, had a code of conduct for their fighters and laid out punishments for violations that included execution for the worst offenders.

Critics may charge that the Islamic State, far from ordinary, is in fact extraordinarily unique in its vision to fundamentally reconfigure the international political order itself as part of its all-encompassing goal to create an Islamic caliphate.

There is no doubt this is a radical aspiration that surpasses other organizations in terms of its revolutionary zeal and global scale. It remains, however, just that – an aspiration – and again, the history of conflict has seen no shortage of aspirations that were deemed as threatening, revolutionary and fantastical in their own time.

Talk is talk, and it is interesting and, as I argue below, indeed important to examine what groups claim about themselves. But putting explanatory stock into the ideologies without considering the instrumentalism behind them can do more to mislead than to inform.

The point here is not to downplay the threat posed by the Islamic State or to “normalize” its behavior by highlighting the group’s ordinariness among violent political groups. It is simply to stress that comparatively speaking, the group is not as exceptional as observers and the media have often characterized it.

Putting the Islamic State into a broader theoretical and historical perspective – that is, beyond the frame of “Islamist terrorism” and beyond the post-9/11 period – is important because there are clear dangers in hyperbolizing the group’s own claims to exceptionalism.

To unduly emphasize the Islamic State’s distinctiveness is to distort its threat, inadvertently boost its legitimacy, and worst of all, to directly play into its leaders’ hands.

Whatever the Islamic State has achieved so far, history has seen much of it before in other contexts. Knowledge of these other contexts can therefore inform both scholarship and policy on this pressing issue.

That the Islamic State’s behavior is so consistent with that of so many other militant organizations – and this, despite all its efforts to establish itself as the only true vanguard of an Islamic State in the making – strongly suggests there is a strategic logic underlying the common behavior. This insight in turn suggests some scholarly approaches to understanding the group may prove more productive than others.

First, the banality of the Islamic State among violent political organizations suggests scholars should first and foremost treat the group as a political actor and seek to identify its political goals, capabilities, incentives and strategic calculations. In other words, scholars ought to engage in actor-centric analysis.

Such an approach has reaped enormous benefits in conflict scholars’ collective efforts to understand phenomena such as insurgency, violence, rebel social service provision, war duration and termination, and foreign interventions in conflict.

It is familiarity with this body of work that makes me not at all surprised that the Islamic State reportedly provides health services, taxes local residents, has an elaborate organizational structure (which looks not so dissimilar from the organigrams of other insurgent groups), enforces strict discipline among fighters and is selective in whom it kills. These are classic behavior on the part of strategic armed non-state actors with some amount of military strength.

All of this means, second, that religion-centric analysis may be less useful, even as regards a group that bases its raison d’être on a religious ideology and whose leaders claim to do everything in its name.

The argument here is not that religion is unimportant – it clearly matters because it helps mobilize people around the group, attracts a stream of new recruits and threatens Islamophobic governments and people in the West in just the way the group might wish.

Careful analysis of its religious ideology is worthwhile in the same way analysis of other war-fighting instruments, from violence, social service provision and propaganda, to alliance formation and compliance with international law, has been highly illuminating in making sense of rebel group behavior.

But always, scholars examine these tools not as an end in and of themselves, but as part of a larger effort to understand how armed group pursue their wartime objectives, recognizing that battlefield fights are but one dimension of conflict.

Likewise, any analysis of the Islamic State’s ideology that does not ask why the group chooses to formulate and propagate its ideology the way it does risks becoming, in spite of itself, detached from politics, and potentially serving as an uncritical endorsement of the group’s own claims.

An actor-centric analysis would have us asking not simply what the Islamic State does and says, but also why, or for what ends.

It sees even extremist, seemingly fanatical leaderships like the one heading the Islamic State as rational and strategic, constantly making decisions based on an assessment of what course of action would best enable the group to achieve its objectives of increased military strength and control of territories, markets, ideas and people.

After all, the Islamic State, when expedient, readily put ideology aside and made alliances with the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

Critically, an actor-centric analysis has the Islamic State leaders exercising full agency over religion, whereas a religion-centric analysis would have religion driving the Islamic State leaders and their rank-and-file as if they were all but blind adherents – as if their ideology were in fact God-given rather than meticulously and tactfully crafted and propagated by the the Islamic State leadership itself.

Finally, conflict scholarship suggests it would be prudent to avoid making unfounded assumptions about why the Islamic State fighters do what they do, and instead allow for diverse motivations.

Foot soldiers will all claim divine inspiration for their daily campaigns of killing and destruction – they can’t do otherwise if they wish to survive – but people may have joined the Islamic State for any number of reasons, including, certainly, religious conviction, but also adventurism, revenge, peer pressure, coercion, bribery and so on.

To conclude that the source of their behavior is their religious devotion is to vastly underestimate human agency and strategic faculties and to baselessly buy into their propaganda.

Not only so, attributing actors’ behavior to their religious or other identities is to revert unproductively to primordial thinking, which has long been abandoned by the bulk of scholars who specialize in identity politics – in fact, the rejection of primordialism is arguably one of the few ideas around which there is now something of a scholarly consensus in this area of inquiry.

People do not do what they do because they are Muslim or Christian or Serb or Hutu, or because Islam or Christianity or any ancient ethnic hatreds dictates them to; they do what they do because they think – note the agency – it helps them achieve specific objectives.

Again, religion-centric analysis would lead us down theological rabbit holes while ignoring the counterfactual question of whether or not actors would, under the same circumstances, behave any differently if they adhered to a different religion or ideology. The many examples of the banality of the Islamic State suggest that for all the religious talk, the group’s behavior is familiar and even predictable.

Scholars now know much about how violent non-state groups behave. They – and policymakers – should use that knowledge to understand groups like the Islamic State and not be sidetracked by its extremism or by those observers who fall right into its propaganda traps by lending credence to the group’s own claims of exceptionalism.

Reyko Huang is an assistant professor of international affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

Andrew Bossone  shared this link by Kareem Shaheen

The many examples of the banality of the Islamic State suggest that for all the religious talk, the group’s behavior is familiar and even predictable.”

 

The many examples of the Islamic State’s banality suggest that for all the religious talk, the group’s behavior is familiar and even predictable.
washingtonpost.com

Public beheadings: Get millions of views

Slaughter is different than beheading: It is like watching a chicken flapping its wings

For the last year, everyone’s been watching the same show, and I’m not talking about “Game of Thrones,” but a horrifying, real-life drama that’s proved too fascinating to turn off.

It’s a show produced by murderers and shared around the world via the Internet.

Their names have become familiar: James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning, Peter Kassig, Haruna Yukawa, Kenji Goto Jogo.

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
ted.com|By Frances Larson
0:44 Their beheadings by the Islamic State were barbaric, but if we think they were archaic, from a remote, obscure age, then we’re wrong. (And the hundreds more currently being shot and beheaded?) They were uniquely modern, because the murderers acted knowing well that millions of people would tune in to watch.

The headlines called them savages and barbarians, because the image of one man overpowering another, killing him with a knife to the throat, conforms to our idea of ancient, primitive practices, the polar opposite of our urban, civilized ways. We don’t do things like that. But that’s the irony.

We think a beheading has nothing to do with us, even as we click on the screen to watch. But it is to do with us. The Islamic State beheadings are not ancient or remote. They’re a global, 21st century event, a 21st century event that takes place in our living rooms, at our desks, on our computer screens.

They’re entirely dependent on the power of technology to connect us. And whether we like it or not, everyone who watches is a part of the show.

lots of people watch. We don’t know exactly how many. Obviously, it’s difficult to calculate. But a poll taken in the UK, for example, in August 2014, estimated that 1.2 million people had watched the beheading of James Foley in the few days after it was released. (Just in the UK?)

And that’s just the first few days, and just Britain. A similar poll taken in the United States in November 2014 found that 9% of those surveyed had watched beheading videos, and a further 23%  had watched the videos but had stopped just before the death was shown. (Why it was shown?)

Nine percent may be a small minority of all the people who could watch, but it’s still a very large crowd. And of course that crowd is growing all the time, because every week, every month, more people will keep downloading and keep watching.

If we go back 11 years, before sites like YouTube and Facebook were born, it was a similar story. When innocent civilians like Daniel Pearl, Nick Berg, Paul Johnson, were beheaded, those videos were shown during the Iraq War.

Nick Berg’s beheading quickly became one of the most searched for items on the Internet.

Within a day, it was the top search term across search engines like Google, Lycos, Yahoo. In the week after Nick Berg’s beheading, these were the top 10 search terms in the United States. The Berg beheading video remained the most popular search term for a week, and it was the second most popular search term for the whole month of May, runner-up only to “American Idol.”  (Remember, they are now called Al Nusra in Syria, and the US support this terrorist faction)

The al-Qaeda-linked website that first showed Nick Berg’s beheading had to close down within a couple of days due to overwhelming traffic to the site. One Dutch website owner said that his daily viewing figures rose from 300,000 to 750,000 every time a beheading in Iraq was shown. He told reporters 18 months later that it had been downloaded many millions of times, and that’s just one website. A similar pattern was seen again and again when videos of beheadings were released during the Iraq War.

Social media sites have made these images more accessible than ever before, but if we take another step back in history, we’ll see that it was the camera that first created a new kind of crowd in our history of beheadings as public spectacle. As soon as the camera appeared on the scene, a full lifetime ago on June 17, 1939, it had an immediate and unequivocal effect.

That day, the first film of a public beheading was created in France. It was the execution, the guillotining, of a German serial killer, Eugen Weidmann, outside the prison Saint-Pierre in Versailles. Weidmann was due to be executed at the crack of dawn, as was customary at the time, but his executioner was new to the job, and he’d underestimated how long it would take him to prepare. So Weidmann was executed at 4:30 in the morning, by which time on a June morning, there was enough light to take photographs, and a spectator in the crowd filmed the event, unbeknownst to the authorities.

Several still photographs were taken as well, and you can still watch the film online today and look at the photographs. The crowd on the day of Weidmann’s execution was called “unruly” and “disgusting” by the press, but that was nothing compared to the untold thousands of people who could now study the action over and over again, freeze-framed in every detail.

The camera may have made these scenes more accessible than ever before, but it’s not just about the camera.

If we take a bigger leap back in history, we’ll see that for as long as there have been public judicial executions and beheadings, there have been the crowds to see them.

In London, as late as the early 19th century, there might be four or five thousand people to see a standard hanging. There could be 40,000 or 50,000 to see a famous criminal killed. And a beheading, which was a rare event in England at the time, attracted even more.

In May 1820, five men known as the Cato Street Conspirators were executed in London for plotting to assassinate members of the British government. They were hung and then decapitated. It was a gruesome scene. Each man’s head was hacked off in turn and held up to the crowd. And 100,000 people, that’s 10,000 more than can fit into Wembley Stadium, had turned out to watch. The streets were packed. People had rented out windows and rooftops. People had climbed onto carts and wagons in the street. People climbed lamp posts. People had been known to have died in the crush on popular execution days.

Evidence suggests that throughout our history of public beheadings and public executions, the vast majority of the people who come to see are either enthusiastic or, at best, unmoved. Disgust has been comparatively rare, and even when people are disgusted and are horrified, it doesn’t always stop them from coming out all the same to watch.

Perhaps the most striking example of the human ability to watch a beheading and remain unmoved and even be disappointed was the introduction in France in 1792 of the guillotine, that famous decapitation machine.

To us in the 21st century, the guillotine may seem like a monstrous contraption, but to the first crowds who saw it, it was actually a disappointment. They were used to seeing long, drawn-out, torturous executions on the scaffold, where people were mutilated and burned and pulled apart slowly.

To them, watching the guillotine in action, it was so quick, there was nothing to see. The blade fell, the head fell into a basket, out of sight immediately, and they called out, Give me back my gallows, give me back my wooden gallows.”

The end of torturous public judicial executions in Europe and America was partly to do with being more humane towards the criminal, but it was also partly because the crowd obstinately refused to behave in the way that they should. All too often, execution day was more like a carnival than a solemn ceremony.

Today, a public judicial execution in Europe or America is unthinkable, but there are other scenarios that should make us cautious about thinking that things are different now and we don’t behave like that anymore.

Take, for example, the incidents of suicide baiting. This is when a crowd gathers to watch a person who has climbed to the top of a public building in order to kill themselves, and people in the crowd shout and jeer, Get on with it! Go on and jump!”

This is a well-recognized phenomenon. One paper in 1981 found that in 10 out of 21 threatened suicide attempts, there was incidents of suicide baiting and jeering from a crowd. And there have been incidents reported in the press this year. This was a very widely reported incident in Telford and Shropshire in March this year.

when it happens today, people take photographs and they take videos on their phones and they post those videos online. When it comes to brutal murderers who post their beheading videos, the Internet has created a new kind of crowd.

Today, the action takes place in a distant time and place, which gives the viewer a sense of detachment from what’s happening, a sense of separation. It’s nothing to do with me. It’s already happened. We are also offered an unprecedented sense of intimacy.

Today, we are all offered front row seats. We can all watch in private, in our own time and space, and no one need ever know that we’ve clicked on the screen to watch.

This sense of separation — from other people, from the event itself — seems to be key to understanding our ability to watch, and there are several ways in which the Internet creates a sense of detachment that seems to erode individual moral responsibility.

Our activities online are often contrasted with real life, as though the things we do online are somehow less real. We feel less accountable for our actions when we interact online. There’s a sense of anonymity, a sense of invisibility, so we feel less accountable for our behavior.

The Internet also makes it far easier to stumble upon things inadvertently, things that we would usually avoid in everyday life.

Today, a video can start playing before you even know what you’re watching. Or you may be tempted to look at material that you wouldn’t look at in everyday life or you wouldn’t look at if you were with other people at the time. And when the action is pre-recorded and takes place in a distant time and space, watching seems like a passive activity. There’s nothing I can do about it now. It’s already happened.

All these things make it easier as an Internet user for us to give in to our sense of curiosity about death, to push our personal boundaries, to test our sense of shock, to explore our sense of shock.

13:20 But we’re not passive when we watch. On the contrary, we’re fulfilling the murderer’s desire to be seen.

When the victim of a decapitation is bound and defenseless, he or she essentially becomes a pawn in their killer’s show. Unlike a trophy head that’s taken in battle, that represents the luck and skill it takes to win a fight, when a beheading is staged, when it’s essentially a piece of theater, the power comes from the reception the killer receives as he performs.

In other words, watching is very much part of the event. The event no longer takes place in a single location at a certain point in time as it used to and as it may still appear to. Now the event is stretched out in time and place, and everyone who watches plays their part.

We should stop watching, but we know we won’t. History tells us we won’t, and the killers know it too.

14:36 Bruno Giussani:  While they install for the next performance, I want to ask you the question that probably many here have, which is how did you get interested in this topic?

Frances Larson: I used to work at a museum called the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which was famous for its display of shrunken heads from South America. People used to say, “Oh, the shrunken head museum, the shrunken head museum!” And at the time, I was working on the history of scientific collections of skulls. I was working on the cranial collections, and it just struck me as ironic that here were people coming to see this gory, primitive, savage culture that they were almost fantasizing about and creating without really understanding what they were seeing, and all the while these vast —

I mean hundreds of thousands of skulls in our museums, all across Europe and the States — were kind of upholding this Enlightenment pursuit of scientific rationality. So I wanted to kind of twist it round and say, “Let’s look at us.” We’re looking through the glass case at these shrunken heads. Let’s look at our own history and our own cultural fascination with these things. BG: Thank you for sharing that.

Military to Military

Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.

Their criticism has focused on what they see as the administration’s fixation on Assad’s primary ally, Vladimir Putin.

In their view, Obama is captive to Cold War thinking about Russia and China, and hasn’t adjusted his stance on Syria to the fact both countries share Washington’s anxiety about the spread of terrorism in and beyond Syria; like Washington, they believe that Islamic State must be stopped.

The military’s resistance dates back to the summer of 2013, when a highly classified assessment, put together by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then led by General Martin Dempsey, forecast that the fall of the Assad regime would lead to chaos and, potentially, to Syria’s takeover by jihadi extremists, much as was then happening in Libya.

A former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs told me that the document was an ‘all-source’ appraisal, drawing on information from signals, satellite and human intelligence, and took a dim view of the Obama administration’s insistence on continuing to finance and arm the so-called moderate rebel groups.

By then, the CIA had been conspiring for more than a year with allies in the UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to ship guns and goods – to be used for the overthrow of Assad – from Libya, via Turkey, into Syria.

The new intelligence estimate singled out Turkey as a major impediment to Obama’s Syria policy.

The document showed, the adviser said, ‘that what was started as a covert US programme to arm and support the moderate rebels fighting Assad had been co-opted by Turkey, and had morphed into an across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.

The so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey.’ The assessment was bleak: there was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the US was arming extremists.

Asad Ghsoub shared this link
Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of…

Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the DIA between 2012 and 2014, confirmed that his agency had sent a constant stream of classified warnings to the civilian leadership about the dire consequences of toppling Assad.

The jihadists, he said, were in control of the opposition.

Turkey wasn’t doing enough to stop the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons across the border. ‘If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic,’ Flynn told me.

‘We understood Isis’s long-term strategy and its campaign plans, and we also discussed the fact that Turkey was looking the other way when it came to the growth of the Islamic State inside Syria.’ The DIA’s reporting, he said, ‘got enormous pushback’ from the Obama administration. ‘I felt that they did not want to hear the truth.’

‘Our policy of arming the opposition to Assad was unsuccessful and actually having a negative impact,’ the former JCS adviser said. ‘The Joint Chiefs believed that Assad should not be replaced by fundamentalists. The administration’s policy was contradictory. They wanted Assad to go but the opposition was dominated by extremists.

So who was going to replace him? To say Assad’s got to go is fine, but if you follow that through – therefore anyone is better. It’s the “anybody else is better” issue that the JCS had with Obama’s policy.’

The Joint Chiefs felt that a direct challenge to Obama’s policy would have ‘had a zero chance of success’. So in the autumn of 2013 they decided to take steps against the extremists without going through political channels, by providing US intelligence to the militaries of other nations, on the understanding that it would be passed on to the Syrian army and used against the common enemy, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.

Germany, Israel and Russia were in contact with the Syrian army, and able to exercise some influence over Assad’s decisions – it was through them that US intelligence would be shared.

Each had its reasons for co-operating with Assad:

Germany feared what might happen among its own population of six million Muslims if Islamic State expanded;

Israel was concerned with border security;

Russia had an alliance of very long standing with Syria, and was worried by the threat to its only naval base on the Mediterranean, at Tartus. ‘We weren’t intent on deviating from Obama’s stated policies,’ the adviser said. ‘But sharing our assessments via the military-to-military relationships with other countries could prove productive.

It was clear that Assad needed better tactical intelligence and operational advice.

The JCS concluded that if those needs were met, the overall fight against Islamist terrorism would be enhanced. Obama didn’t know, but Obama doesn’t know what the JCS does in every circumstance and that’s true of all presidents.’

Once the flow of US intelligence began, Germany, Israel and Russia started passing on information about the whereabouts and intent of radical jihadist groups to the Syrian army.

In return, Syria provided information about its own capabilities and intentions.

There was no direct contact between the US and the Syrian military; instead, the adviser said, ‘we provided the information – including long-range analyses on Syria’s future put together by contractors or one of our war colleges – and these countries could do with it what they chose, including sharing it with Assad.

We were saying to the Germans and the others: “Here’s some information that’s pretty interesting and our interest is mutual.” End of conversation. The JCS could conclude that something beneficial would arise from it – but it was a military to military thing, and not some sort of a sinister Joint Chiefs’ plot to go around Obama and support Assad.

It was a lot cleverer than that. If Assad remains in power, it will not be because we did it. It’s because he was smart enough to use the intelligence and sound tactical advice we provided to others.’

The public history of relations between the US and Syria over the past few decades has been one of enmity. Assad condemned the 9/11 attacks, but opposed the Iraq War. George W. Bush repeatedly linked Syria to the three members of his ‘axis of evil’ – Iraq, Iran and North Korea – throughout his presidency. State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks show that the Bush administration tried to destabilise Syria and that these efforts continued into the Obama years.

In December 2006, William Roebuck, then in charge of the US embassy in Damascus, filed an analysis of the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the Assad government and listed methods ‘that will improve the likelihood’ of opportunities for destabilisation. He recommended that Washington work with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to increase sectarian tension and focus on publicising ‘Syrian efforts against extremist groups’ – dissident Kurds and radical Sunni factions – ‘in a way that suggests weakness, signs of instability, and uncontrolled blowback’;

and that the ‘isolation of Syria’ should be encouraged through US support of the National Salvation Front, led by Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president whose government-in-exile in Riyadh was sponsored by the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another 2006 cable showed that the embassy had spent $5 million financing dissidents who ran as independent candidates for the People’s Assembly; the payments were kept up even after it became clear that Syrian intelligence knew what was going on.

A 2010 cable warned that funding for a London-based television network run by a Syrian opposition group would be viewed by the Syrian government ‘as a covert and hostile gesture toward the regime’.

But there is also a parallel history of shadowy co-operation between Syria and the US during the same period.

The two countries collaborated against al-Qaida, their common enemy.

A longtime consultant to America’s intelligence community said that, after 9/11, ‘Bashar was, for years, extremely helpful to us while, in my view, we were churlish in return, and clumsy in our use of the gold he gave us. That quiet co-operation continued among some elements, even after the [Bush administration’s] decision to vilify him.’

In 2002 Assad authorised Syrian intelligence to turn over hundreds of internal files on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Germany.

Later that year, Syrian intelligence foiled an attack by al-Qaida on the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and Assad agreed to provide the CIA with the name of a vital al-Qaida informant.

In violation of this agreement, the CIA contacted the informant directly; he rejected the approach, and broke off relations with his Syrian handlers.

Assad also secretly turned over to the US relatives of Saddam Hussein who had sought refuge in Syria, and – like America’s allies in Jordan, Egypt, Thailand and elsewhere – tortured suspected terrorists for the CIA in a Damascus prison.

It was this history of co-operation that made it seem possible in 2013 that Damascus would agree to the new indirect intelligence-sharing arrangement with the US.

The Joint Chiefs let it be known that in return the US would require four things:

1. Assad must restrain Hizbullah from attacking Israel;

2.  he must renew the stalled negotiations with Israel to reach a settlement on the Golan Heights;

3. he must agree to accept Russian and other outside military advisers; and

4.  he must commit to holding open elections after the war with a wide range of factions included.

‘We had positive feedback from the Israelis, who were willing to entertain the idea, but they needed to know what the reaction would be from Iran and Syria,’ the JCS adviser told me.

‘The Syrians told us that Assad would not make a decision unilaterally – he needed to have support from his military and Alawite allies. Assad’s worry was that Israel would say yes and then not uphold its end of the bargain.’

A senior adviser to the Kremlin on Middle East affairs told me that in late 2012, after suffering a series of battlefield setbacks and military defections, Assad had approached Israel via a contact in Moscow and offered to reopen the talks on the Golan Heights.

The Israelis had rejected the offer. ‘They said, “Assad is finished,”’ the Russian official told me. ‘“He’s close to the end.”’ He said the Turks had told Moscow the same thing.

By mid-2013, however, the Syrians believed the worst was behind them, and wanted assurances that the Americans and others were serious about their offers of help.

In the early stages of the talks, the adviser said, the Joint Chiefs tried to establish what Assad needed as a sign of their good intentions.

The answer was sent through one of Assad’s friends: ‘Bring him the head of Prince Bandar.’ The Joint Chiefs did not oblige.

Bandar bin Sultan had served Saudi Arabia for decades in intelligence and national security affairs, and spent more than twenty years as ambassador in Washington.

In recent years, Bandar has been known as an advocate for Assad’s removal from office by any means. Reportedly in poor health, he resigned last year as director of the Saudi National Security Council, but Saudi Arabia continues to be a major provider of funds to the Syrian opposition, estimated by US intelligence last year at $700 million.

In July 2013, the Joint Chiefs found a more direct way of demonstrating to Assad how serious they were about helping him.

By then the CIA-sponsored secret flow of arms from Libya to the Syrian opposition, via Turkey, had been underway for more than a year (it started sometime after Gaddafi’s death on 20 October 2011).[*]​*

The operation was largely run out of a covert CIA annex in Benghazi, with State Department acquiescence.

On 11 September 2012 the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed during an anti-American demonstration that led to the burning down of the US consulate in Benghazi; reporters for the Washington Post found copies of the ambassador’s schedule in the building’s ruins.

It showed that on 10 September Stevens had met with the chief of the CIA’s annex operation. The next day, shortly before he died, he met a representative from Al-Marfa Shipping and Maritime Services, a Tripoli-based company which, the JCS adviser said, was known by the Joint Staff to be handling the weapons shipments.

By the late summer of 2013, the DIA’s assessment had been circulated widely, but although many in the American intelligence community were aware that the Syrian opposition was dominated by extremists the CIA-sponsored weapons kept coming, presenting a continuing problem for Assad’s army. Gaddafi’s stockpile had created an international arms bazaar, though prices were high.

‘There was no way to stop the arms shipments that had been authorised by the president,’ the JCS adviser said. ‘The solution involved an appeal to the pocketbook. The CIA was approached by a representative from the Joint Chiefs with a suggestion: there were far less costly weapons available in Turkish arsenals that could reach the Syrian rebels within days, and without a boat ride.’

But it wasn’t only the CIA that benefited. ‘We worked with Turks we trusted who were not loyal to Erdoğan,’ the adviser said, ‘and got them to ship the jihadists in Syria all the obsolete weapons in the arsenal, including M1 carbines that hadn’t been seen since the Korean War and lots of Soviet arms. It was a message Assad could understand: “We have the power to diminish a presidential policy in its tracks.”’

The flow of US intelligence to the Syrian army, and the downgrading of the quality of the arms being supplied to the rebels, came at a critical juncture.

The Syrian army had suffered heavy losses in the spring of 2013 in fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups as it failed to hold the provincial capital of Raqqa.

Sporadic Syrian army and air-force raids continued in the area for months, with little success, until it was decided to withdraw from Raqqa and other hard to defend, lightly populated areas in the north and west and focus instead on consolidating the government’s hold on Damascus and the heavily populated areas linking the capital to Latakia in the north-east.

But as the army gained in strength with the Joint Chiefs’ support, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey escalated their financing and arming of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State, which by the end of 2013 had made enormous gains on both sides of the Syria/Iraq border.

The remaining non-fundamentalist rebels found themselves fighting – and losing – pitched battles against the extremists.

In January 2014, IS took complete control of Raqqa and the tribal areas around it from al-Nusra and established the city as its base. Assad still controlled 80 per cent of the Syrian population, but he had lost a vast amount of territory.

CIA efforts to train the moderate rebel forces were also failing badly.

‘The CIA’s training camp was in Jordan and was controlled by a Syrian tribal group,’ the JCS adviser said. There was a suspicion that some of those who signed up for training were actually Syrian army regulars minus their uniforms. This had happened before, at the height of the Iraqi war, when hundreds of Shia militia members showed up at American training camps for new uniforms, weapons and a few days of training, and then disappeared into the desert.

A separate training programme, set up by the Pentagon in Turkey, fared no better. The Pentagon acknowledged in September that only ‘four or five’ of its recruits were still battling Islamic State; a few days later 70 of them defected to Jabhat al-Nusra immediately after crossing the border into Syria.

In January 2014, despairing at the lack of progress, John Brennan, the director of the CIA, summoned American and Sunni Arab intelligence chiefs from throughout the Middle East to a secret meeting in Washington, with the aim of persuading Saudi Arabia to stop supporting extremist fighters in Syria.

‘The Saudis told us they were happy to listen,’ the JCS adviser said, ‘so everyone sat around in Washington to hear Brennan tell them that they had to get on board with the so-called moderates. His message was that if everyone in the region stopped supporting al-Nusra and Isis their ammunition and weapons would dry up, and the moderates would win out.’

Brennan’s message was ignored by the Saudis, the adviser said, who ‘went back home and increased their efforts with the extremists and asked us for more technical support. And we say OK, and so it turns out that we end up reinforcing the extremists.’

But the Saudis were far from the only problem: American intelligence had accumulated intercept and human intelligence demonstrating that the Erdoğan government had been supporting Jabhat al-Nusra for years, and was now doing the same for Islamic State.

‘We can handle the Saudis,’ the adviser said. ‘We can handle the Muslim Brotherhood. You can argue that the whole balance in the Middle East is based on a form of mutually assured destruction between Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and Turkey can disrupt the balance – which is Erdoğan’s dream. We told him we wanted him to shut down the pipeline of foreign jihadists flowing into Turkey. But he is dreaming big – of restoring the Ottoman Empire – and he did not realise the extent to which he could be successful in this.’

One of the constants in US affairs since the fall of the Soviet Union has been a military-to-military relationship with Russia.

After 1991 the US spent billions of dollars to help Russia secure its nuclear weapons complex, including a highly secret joint operation to remove weapons-grade uranium from unsecured storage depots in Kazakhstan.

Joint programmes to monitor the security of weapons-grade materials continued for the next two decades.

During the American war on Afghanistan, Russia provided overflight rights for US cargo carriers and tankers, as well as access for the flow of weapons, ammunition, food and water the US war machine needed daily.

Russia’s military provided intelligence on Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts and helped the US negotiate rights to use an airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

The Joint Chiefs have been in communication with their Russian counterparts throughout the Syrian war, and the ties between the two militaries start at the top.

In August, a few weeks before his retirement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Dempsey made a farewell visit to the headquarters of the Irish Defence Forces in Dublin and told his audience there that he had made a point while in office to keep in touch with the chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov. ‘I’ve actually suggested to him that we not end our careers as we began them,’ Dempsey said – one a tank commander in West Germany, the other in the east.

When it comes to tackling Islamic State, Russia and the US have much to offer each other.

Many in the IS leadership and rank and file fought for more than a decade against Russia in the two Chechen wars that began in 1994, and the Putin government is heavily invested in combating Islamist terrorism.

‘Russia knows the Isis leadership,’ the JCS adviser said, ‘and has insights into its operational techniques, and has much intelligence to share.’ In return, he said, ‘we’ve got excellent trainers with years of experience in training foreign fighters – experience that Russia does not have.’

The adviser would not discuss what American intelligence is also believed to have: an ability to obtain targeting data, often by paying huge sums of cash, from sources within rebel militias.

A former White House adviser on Russian affairs told me that before 9/11 Putin ‘used to say to us: “We have the same nightmares about different places.”

Putin was referring to his problems with the caliphate in Chechnya and our early issues with al-Qaida. These days, after the Metrojet bombing over Sinai and the massacres in Paris and elsewhere, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we actually have the same nightmares about the same places.’

Yet the Obama administration continues to condemn Russia for its support of Assad.

A retired senior diplomat who served at the US embassy in Moscow expressed sympathy for Obama’s dilemma as the leader of the Western coalition opposed to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine: ‘Ukraine is a serious issue and Obama has been handling it firmly with sanctions. But our policy vis-à-vis Russia is too often unfocused.

But it’s not about us in Syria. It’s about making sure Bashar does not lose. The reality is that Putin does not want to see the chaos in Syria spread to Jordan or Lebanon, as it has to Iraq, and he does not want to see Syria end up in the hands of Isis.

The most counterproductive thing Obama has done, and it has hurt our efforts to end the fighting a lot, was to say: “Assad must go as a premise for negotiation.”’

He also echoed a view held by some in the Pentagon when he alluded to a collateral factor behind Russia’s decision to launch airstrikes in support of the Syrian army on 30 September: Putin’s desire to prevent Assad from suffering the same fate as Gaddafi.

He had been told that Putin had watched a video of Gaddafi’s savage death three times, a video that shows him being sodomised with a bayonet.

The JCS adviser also told me of a US intelligence assessment which concluded that Putin had been appalled by Gaddafi’s fate: ‘Putin blamed himself for letting Gaddafi go, for not playing a strong role behind the scenes’ at the UN when the Western coalition was lobbying to be allowed to undertake the airstrikes that destroyed the regime.

‘Putin believed that unless he got engaged Bashar would suffer the same fate – mutilated – and he’d see the destruction of his allies in Syria.’

In a speech on 22 November, Obama declared that the ‘principal targets’ of the Russian airstrikes ‘have been the moderate opposition’. It’s a line that the administration – along with most of the mainstream American media – has rarely strayed from.

The Russians insist that they are targeting all rebel groups that threaten Syria’s stability – including Islamic State.

The Kremlin adviser on the Middle East explained in an interview that the first round of Russian airstrikes was aimed at bolstering security around a Russian airbase in Latakia, an Alawite stronghold.

The strategic goal, he said, has been to establish a jihadist-free corridor from Damascus to Latakia and the Russian naval base at Tartus and then to shift the focus of bombing gradually to the south and east, with a greater concentration of bombing missions over IS-held territory.

Russian strikes on IS targets in and near Raqqa were reported as early as the beginning of October; in November there were further strikes on IS positions near the historic city of Palmyra and in Idlib province, a bitterly contested stronghold on the Turkish border.

Russian incursions into Turkish airspace began soon after Putin authorised the bombings, and the Russian air force deployed electronic jamming systems that interfered with Turkish radar.

The message being sent to the Turkish air force, the JCS adviser said, was: ‘We’re going to fly our fighter planes where we want and when we want and jam your radar. Do not fuck with us. Putin was letting the Turks know what they were up against.’

Russia’s aggression led to Turkish complaints and Russian denials, along with more aggressive border patrolling by the Turkish air force. There were no significant incidents until 24 November, when two Turkish F-16 fighters, apparently acting under more aggressive rules of engagement, shot down a Russian Su-24M jet that had crossed into Turkish airspace for no more than 17 seconds.

In the days after the fighter was shot down, Obama expressed support for Erdoğan, and after they met in private on 1 December he told a press conference that his administration remained ‘very much committed to Turkey’s security and its sovereignty’. He said that as long as Russia remained allied with Assad, ‘a lot of Russian resources are still going to be targeted at opposition groups … that we support … So I don’t think we should be under any illusions that somehow Russia starts hitting only Isil targets. That’s not happening now. It was never happening. It’s not going to be happening in the next several weeks.’

The Kremlin adviser on the Middle East, like the Joint Chiefs and the DIA, dismisses the ‘moderates’ who have Obama’s support, seeing them as extremist Islamist groups that fight alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and IS (‘There’s no need to play with words and split terrorists into moderate and not moderate,’ Putin said in a speech on 22 October).

The American generals see them as exhausted militias that have been forced to make an accommodation with Jabhat al-Nusra or IS in order to survive.

At the end of 2014, Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German journalist who was allowed to spend ten days touring IS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, told CNN that the IS leadership ‘are all laughing about the Free Syrian Army. They don’t take them for serious. They say: “The best arms sellers we have are the FSA. If they get a good weapon, they sell it to us.” They didn’t take them for serious. They take for serious Assad. They take for serious, of course, the bombs. But they fear nothing, and FSA doesn’t play a role.’

Putin’s bombing campaign provoked a series of anti-Russia articles in the American press. On 25 October, the New York Times reported, citing Obama administration officials, that Russian submarines and spy ships were ‘aggressively’ operating near the undersea cables that carry much of the world’s internet traffic – although, as the article went on to acknowledge, there was ‘no evidence yet’ of any Russian attempt actually to interfere with that traffic.

Ten days earlier the Times published a summary of Russian intrusions into its former Soviet satellite republics, and described the Russian bombing in Syria as being ‘in some respects a return to the ambitious military moves of the Soviet past’.

The report did Not note that the Assad administration had invited Russia to intervene, nor did it mention the US bombing raids inside Syria that had been underway since the previous September, without Syria’s approval.

An October op-ed in the same paper by Michael McFaul, Obama’s ambassador to Russia between 2012 and 2014, declared that the Russian air campaign was attacking ‘everyone except the Islamic State’.

The anti-Russia stories did not abate after the Metrojet disaster, for which Islamic State claimed credit. Few in the US government and media questioned why IS would target a Russian airliner, along with its 224 passengers and crew, if Moscow’s air force was attacking only the Syrian ‘moderates’.

Economic sanctions, meanwhile, are still in effect against Russia for what a large number of Americans consider Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, as are US Treasury Department sanctions against Syria and against those Americans who do business there.

The New York Times, in a report on sanctions in late November, revived an old and groundless assertion, saying that the Treasury’s actions ‘emphasise an argument that the administration has increasingly been making about Mr Assad as it seeks to press Russia to abandon its backing for him: that although he professes to be at war with Islamist terrorists, he has a symbiotic relationship with the Islamic State that has allowed it to thrive while he has clung to power.’

The four core elements of Obama’s Syria policy remain intact today:

1.  an insistence that Assad must go;

2. that no anti-IS coalition with Russia is possible;

3. that Turkey is a steadfast ally in the war against terrorism; and

4.  that there really are significant moderate opposition forces for the US to support.

The Paris attacks on 13 November that killed 130 people did not change the White House’s public stance, although many European leaders, including François Hollande, advocated greater co-operation with Russia and agreed to co-ordinate more closely with its air force; there was also talk of the need to be more flexible about the timing of Assad’s exit from power.

On 24 November, Hollande flew to Washington to discuss how France and the US could collaborate more closely in the fight against Islamic State. At a joint press conference at the White House, Obama said he and Hollande had agreed that ‘Russia’s strikes against the moderate opposition only bolster the Assad regime, whose brutality has helped to fuel the rise’ of IS. Hollande didn’t go that far but he said that the diplomatic process in Vienna would ‘lead to Bashar al-Assad’s departure … a government of unity is required.’

The press conference failed to deal with the far more urgent impasse between the two men on the matter of Erdoğan.

Obama defended Turkey’s right to defend its borders; Hollande said it was ‘a matter of urgency’ for Turkey to take action against terrorists.

The JCS adviser told me that one of Hollande’s main goals in flying to Washington had been to try to persuade Obama to join the EU in a mutual declaration of war against Islamic State. Obama said no.

The Europeans had pointedly not gone to Nato, to which Turkey belongs, for such a declaration. ‘Turkey is the problem,’ the JCS adviser said.

Assad, naturally, doesn’t accept that a group of foreign leaders should be deciding on his future.

Imad Moustapha, now Syria’s ambassador to China, was dean of the IT faculty at the University of Damascus, and a close aide of Assad’s, when he was appointed in 2004 as the Syrian ambassador to the US, a post he held for seven years.

Moustapha is known still to be close to Assad, and can be trusted to reflect what he thinks. He told me that for Assad to surrender power would mean capitulating to ‘armed terrorist groups’ and that ministers in a national unity government – such as was being proposed by the Europeans – would be seen to be beholden to the foreign powers that appointed them.

These powers could remind the new president ‘that they could easily replace him as they did before to the predecessor … Assad owes it to his people: he could not leave because the historic enemies of Syria are demanding his departure.’

Moustapha also brought up China, an ally of Assad that has allegedly committed more than $30 billion to postwar reconstruction in Syria.

China, too, is worried about Islamic State. ‘China regards the Syrian crisis from three perspectives,’ he said: international law and legitimacy; global strategic positioning; and the activities of jihadist Uighurs, from Xinjiang province in China’s far west.

Xinjiang borders eight nations – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – and, in China’s view, serves as a funnel for terrorism around the world and within China. Many Uighur fighters now in Syria are known to be members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – an often violent separatist organisation that seeks to establish an Islamist Uighur state in Xinjiang.

‘The fact that they have been aided by Turkish intelligence to move from China into Syria through Turkey has caused a tremendous amount of tension between the Chinese and Turkish intelligence,’ Moustapha said. ‘China is concerned that the Turkish role of supporting the Uighur fighters in Syria may be extended in the future to support Turkey’s agenda in Xinjiang. We are already providing the Chinese intelligence service with information regarding these terrorists and the routes they crossed from on travelling into Syria.’

Moustapha’s concerns were echoed by a Washington foreign affairs analyst who has closely followed the passage of jihadists through Turkey and into Syria. The analyst, whose views are routinely sought by senior government officials, told me that ‘Erdoğan has been bringing Uighurs into Syria by special transport while his government has been agitating in favour of their struggle in China.

Uighur and Burmese Muslim terrorists who escape into Thailand somehow get Turkish passports and are then flown to Turkey for transit into Syria.’ He added that there was also what amounted to another ‘rat line’ that was funnelling Uighurs – estimates range from a few hundred to many thousands over the years – from China into Kazakhstan for eventual relay to Turkey, and then to IS territory in Syria.

‘US intelligence,’ he said, ‘is not getting good information about these activities because those insiders who are unhappy with the policy are not talking to them.’ He also said it was ‘not clear’ that the officials responsible for Syrian policy in the State Department and White House ‘get it’. IHS-Jane’s Defence Weekly estimated in October that as many as five thousand Uighur would-be fighters have arrived in Turkey since 2013, with perhaps two thousand moving on to Syria. Moustapha said he has information that ‘up to 860 Uighur fighters are currently in Syria.’

China’s growing concern about the Uighur problem and its link to Syria and Islamic State have preoccupied Christina Lin, a scholar who dealt with Chinese issues a decade ago while serving in the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld. ‘I grew up in Taiwan and came to the Pentagon as a critic of China,’ Lin told me. ‘I used to demonise the Chinese as ideologues, and they are not perfect. But over the years as I see them opening up and evolving, I have begun to change my perspective.

I see China as a potential partner for various global challenges especially in the Middle East. There are many places – Syria for one – where the United States and China must co-operate in regional security and counterterrorism.’ A few weeks earlier, she said, China and India, Cold War enemies that ‘hated each other more than China and the United States hated each other, conducted a series of joint counterterrorism exercises.

And today China and Russia both want to co-operate on terrorism issues with the United States.’ As China sees it, Lin suggests, Uighur militants who have made their way to Syria are being trained by Islamic State in survival techniques intended to aid them on covert return trips to the Chinese mainland, for future terrorist attacks there.

‘If Assad fails,’ Lin wrote in a paper published in September, ‘jihadi fighters from Russia’s Chechnya, China’s Xinjiang and India’s Kashmir will then turn their eyes towards the home front to continue jihad, supported by a new and well-sourced Syrian operating base in the heart of the Middle East.’

General Dempsey and his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff kept their dissent out of bureaucratic channels, and survived in office. General Michael Flynn did not. ‘Flynn incurred the wrath of the White House by insisting on telling the truth about Syria,’ said Patrick Lang, a retired army colonel who served for nearly a decade as the chief Middle East civilian intelligence officer for the DIA.

‘He thought truth was the best thing and they shoved him out. He wouldn’t shut up.’ Flynn told me his problems went beyond Syria. ‘I was shaking things up at the DIA – and not just moving deckchairs on the Titanic. It was radical reform.

I felt that the civilian leadership did not want to hear the truth. I suffered for it, but I’m OK with that.’ In a recent interview in Der Spiegel, Flynn was blunt about Russia’s entry into the Syrian war: ‘We have to work constructively with Russia. Whether we like it or not, Russia made a decision to be there and to act militarily. They are there, and this has dramatically changed the dynamic. So you can’t say Russia is bad; they have to go home. It’s not going to happen. Get real.’

Few in the US Congress share this view. One exception is Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii and member of the House Armed Services Committee who, as a major in the Army National Guard, served two tours in the Middle East. In an interview on CNN in October she said: ‘The US and the CIA should stop this illegal and counterproductive war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad and should stay focused on fighting against … the Islamic extremist groups.’

‘Does it not concern you,’ the interviewer asked, ‘that Assad’s regime has been brutal, killing at least 200,000 and maybe 300,000 of his own people?’

‘The things that are being said about Assad right now,’ Gabbard responded, ‘are the same that were said about Gaddafi, they are the same things that were said about Saddam Hussein by those who were advocating for the US to … overthrow those regimes … If it happens here in Syria … we will end up in a situation with far greater suffering, with far greater persecution of religious minorities and Christians in Syria, and our enemy will be far stronger.’

‘So what you are saying,’ the interviewer asked, ‘is that the Russian military involvement in the air and on-the-ground Iranian involvement – they are actually doing the US a favour?’

‘They are working toward defeating our common enemy,’ Gabbard replied.

Gabbard later told me that many of her colleagues in Congress, Democrats and Republicans, have thanked her privately for speaking out. ‘There are a lot of people in the general public, and even in the Congress, who need to have things clearly explained to them,’ Gabbard said. ‘But it’s hard when there’s so much deception about what is going on.

The truth is not out.’ It’s unusual for a politician to challenge her party’s foreign policy directly and on the record. For someone on the inside, with access to the most secret intelligence, speaking openly and critically can be a career-ender. Informed dissent can be transmitted by means of a trust relationship between a reporter and those on the inside, but it almost invariably includes no signature. The dissent exists, however.

The longtime consultant to the Joint Special Operations Command could not hide his contempt when I asked him for his view of the US’s Syria policy. ‘The solution in Syria is right before our nose,’ he said. ‘Our primary threat is Isis and all of us – the United States, Russia and China – need to work together. Bashar will remain in office and, after the country is stabilised there will be an election. There is no other option.’

The military’s indirect pathway to Assad disappeared with Dempsey’s retirement in September. His replacement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in July, two months before assuming office. ‘If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia,’ Dunford said. ‘If you look at their behaviour, it’s nothing short of alarming.’

In October, as chairman, Dunford dismissed the Russian bombing efforts in Syria, telling the same committee that Russia ‘is not fighting’ IS. He added that America must ‘work with Turkish partners to secure the northern border of Syria’ and ‘do all we can to enable vetted Syrian opposition forces’ – i.e. the ‘moderates’ – to fight the extremists.

Obama now has a more compliant Pentagon. There will be no more indirect challenges from the military leadership to his policy of disdain for Assad and support for Erdoğan. Dempsey and his associates remain mystified by Obama’s continued public defence of Erdoğan, given the American intelligence community’s strong case against him – and the evidence that Obama, in private, accepts that case.

‘We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria,’ the president told Erdoğan’s intelligence chief at a tense meeting at the White House (as I reported in the LRB of 17 April 2014).

The Joint Chiefs and the DIA were constantly telling Washington’s leadership of the jihadist threat in Syria, and of Turkey’s support for it. The message was never listened to. Why not?

How Obama faired in his Syrian policies? No involvement achievement?

This may be the most surprising of President Obama’s foreign-policy legacies: not just that he presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions, but that he soothed the American people into feeling no responsibility for the tragedy.

Fred Hiatt Editorial page editor September 6

Starvation in Biafra a generation ago sparked a movement.

Synagogues and churches a decade ago mobilized to relieve misery in Darfur.

When the Taliban in 2001 destroyed ancient statues of Buddha at Bamiyan, the world was appalled at the lost heritage.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

Today the Islamic State is blowing up precious cultural monuments in Palmyra, and half of all Syrians have been displaced —

as if, on a proportional basis, 160 million Americans had been made homeless.

More than a quarter-million have been killed. Yet the “Save Darfur” signs have not given way to “Save Syria.”

One reason is that Obama — who ran for president on the promise of restoring the United States’ moral stature — has constantly reassured Americans that doing nothing is the smart and moral policy.

He has argued, at times, that there was nothing the United States could do, belittling the Syrian opposition as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.”

He has argued that we would only make things worse — “I am more mindful probably than most,” he told the New Republic in 2013, “of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.”

He has implied that because we can’t solve every problem, maybe we shouldn’t solve any. “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” he asked (though at the time thousands were not being killed in Congo).

On those rare occasions when political pressure or the horrors of Syrian suffering threatened to overwhelm any excuse for inaction, he promised action, in statements or White House leaks: training for the opposition, a safe zone on the Turkish border.

Once public attention moved on, the plans were abandoned or scaled back to meaningless proportions (training 50 soldiers per year, no action on the Turkish border).

Perversely, the worse Syria became, the more justified the president seemed for staying aloof; steps that might have helped in 2012 seemed ineffectual by 2013, and actions that could have saved lives in 2013 would not have been up to the challenge presented by 2014.

The fact that the woman who wrote the book on genocide, Samantha Power, and the woman who campaigned to bomb Sudan to save the people of Darfur, Susan Rice, could apparently in good conscience stay on as U.N. ambassador and national security adviser, respectively, lent further moral credibility to U.S. abdication.

Most critically, inaction was sold not as a necessary evil but as a notable achievement:

The United States at last was leading with the head, not the heart, and with modesty, not arrogance.

“Realists” pointed out that the United States gets into trouble when it lets ideals or emotions rule — when it sends soldiers to feed the hungry in Somalia, for example, only to lose them, as told in “ Black Hawk Down,” and turn tail.

The realists were right that the United States has to consider interests as well as values, must pace itself and can’t save everyone.

But a values-free argument ought at least to be able to show that the ends have justified the means, whereas the strategic results of Obama’s disengagement have been nearly as disastrous as the human consequences.

When Obama pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq, critics worried there would be instability; none envisioned the emergence of a full-blown terrorist state.

When he announced in August 2011 that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” critics worried the words might prove empty

Few imagined the extent of the catastrophe: not just the savagery of chemical weapons and “barrel bombs,” but also the Islamic State’s recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters, its spread from Libya to Afghanistan, the danger to the U.S. homeland that has alarmed U.S. intelligence officials, the refugees destabilizing Europe.

Even had Obama’s policy succeeded in purely realist terms, though, something would have been lost in the anesthetization of U.S. opinion.

Yes, the nation’s outrage over the decades has been uneven, at times hypocritical, at times self-serving.

But there also has been something to be admired in America’s determination to help — to ask, even if we cannot save everyone in Congo, can we not save some people in Syria?

Obama’s successful turning of that question on its head is nothing to be proud of.

Syria artefacts under ISIS control: Looted in Syria and sold in London

Click on the original article for viewing the photos

Mark Altaweel is surprised at how easy it is.

A few hours into a hunt around London, the near-east specialist from the UCL Institute of Archaeology has uncovered objects that are “very likely to be coming from conflict regions” in Iraq and Syria.

The items – pieces of early glass; a tiny statue; some fragments of bone inlay – range from the second to fourth centuries BC. Altaweel says they are so distinctive that they could only have come from a particular part of the region: the part now controlled by the so-called Islamic State.

That we were able to find such items openly sold in London “tells you the scale – we’re just seeing the tail end of it,” he says.

This week, Unesco has added its voice to a chorus of concern, warning that looting in Iraq and Syria is taking place on an “industrial” scale – one more sorry aspect to the devastating conflicts in the region.

This Mesopotamian area, the cradle of civilisation, is a giant archaeological site – it’s where the first cities were built, and contains treasures from the Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Islamic periods.

Today, the pillaging of cultural heritage sites shows up on satellite maps that are pock-marked with hundreds of recent, illegal excavations.

Some media reports suggest this income stream is the “second-largest source of revenue” for the group (after oil sales), but in reality it’s impossible to tell. What’s certain is that, while Isis grimly documents its destruction of Unesco sites such as Nimrud, profiteering from plundered antiquities has helped make it the most cash-rich terror group in the world.

Neil Brodie of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) at Glasgow University says that, in the absence of coordinated strategies and concerted efforts, attempts to tackle the problem have thus far been ineffective. “It’s not easy and it’s not cheap,” he says, adding: “If no one was buying, people wouldn’t dig it up. This material sells.”

London, one of the world’s largest antiquities markets, is considered a natural destination for looted goods.

For the purposes of our research around the city, Altaweel is posing as an antiquities collector. He wears it convincingly, but the pose is an uneasy one. Altaweel doesn’t much like antiquities collectors – or rather, the very concept of the trade itself: antiquities, he feels, “shouldn’t be bought and sold in private collections”.

Altaweel’s interest in the region is personal as well as professional: he is an American who was born in Baghdad and has lived in Basra – we trade biographical information within minutes of first talking, as happens when you suspect someone’s surname is from the same region as yours.

Altaweel is related to (and inspired by) the influential Iraqi archaeologist Fuad Safar, who led some of the country’s early excavations and is still widely cited within the profession today.

Although his family left Iraq in the 1980s, when he was seven, Altaweel frequently returned to visit relatives. He has worked in most of the countries that fall within the near east region – from Egypt to Iran, from Turkey down to Yemen and southern Arabia – including numerous digs in both Iraq and Syria.

During our scout for looted treasures, he occasionally notes that he has in the past “dug up” objects exactly like the ones we spot.

After a few tip-offs, an online search and a couple of dead ends, we uncover some small antiquities at dealers in central London.

It takes a lot of scouring through a lot of objects, but Altaweel is fast. His eyes fly over row upon row of items – glass, coins, pottery, small statues, lamps, cylinder seals – and when he lands on an object of interest he lights up: despite the purpose of our search, it is obviously exciting to find and examine these antiquities. (“Do I need to wear gloves?” he asks the first dealer. He doesn’t; the market, unlike the field of archaeology, really isn’t bothered.)

Altaweel’s discussions with sellers brings his expertise to the fore, as he politely adjusts their assessments of their own wares. “This is all Indian,” one trader says. “I think it’s probably near-eastern,” Altaweel quietly corrects. “These items are from the Islamic period,” another offers. “Unlikely,” Altaweel states. It’s like watching a rapid-fire game show premised on calling out archaeological bluff.

Every time Altaweel zones in on something that seems likely to be from an area now controlled by Isis, the dealer we’re talking to grows vague about the item’s origin.

One seller says that some objects, almost certainly Syrian and from the area that Isis declared as its caliphate, were brought in a few months ago, by a private seller who said the goods had come from a family collection.

Another suggests that a small statue – for which Altaweel says every type site is either in Iraq or Syria – was bought at an auction. There is never any paperwork

One dealer, an amiable man in a quiet, small store filled with near-eastern objects, told us that he’d acquired some glass fragments very recently, and that they had likely come out of Jordan.

Later, Altaweel tells me: “It’s obviously not Jordanian, so my suspicion is that it’s coming out of Syria.” The piece he shows us – a fragment of a cup or glass container, selling for £250 – is, he adds, highly distinctive of the area. “It’s very early glass and is concentrated in very few areas,” he says.

Sam Hardy, an expert in conflict antiquities, says such scenarios are typical. A common practice is to fudge provenance by claiming an antiquity has been in the family for a long time – and so could not have recently been smuggled.

Perhaps the person who approached the dealer with a stash of antiquities asked to remain anonymous. Or maybe the items were, until recently, sitting in a private collection in Jordan or Lebanon.

How could you prove that any of these treasures were smuggled out during the current conflict?

“The industry runs on trust,” says Hardy. “By Not keeping any records, dealers make it easier for buyers to convince themselves there is no evidence of any wrongdoing.” That, in turn, makes it harder to enforce laws relating to the trade in stolen antiquities.

According to Syrian archaeologist Amr al-Azm of Shawnee State university in Ohio, when Isis took over swathes of the region, it also took hold of the already existing practice of illegal excavation. Until 2014, looting was carried out by various armed groups, or individuals, or the Syrian regime.

“When Daesh comes in, they take the looting and institutionalise it,” says Al-Azm, using the derogatory Arabic acronym for Isis. “So it becomes part of their admin, their revenue-raising enterprise – it becomes more intensified, escalated and organised.”

Using information gathered by local Syrian activists, Al-Azm found that Isis initially levied 20% taxes on those it “licensed” to excavate.

In mid-2014, the group began to contract out excavation.

But by autumn of that same year, Isis was “starting to hire their own archaeologists, digging teams and machinery – and that’s when we saw a peak of looting activity”.

At that point, the trade was lucrative enough for Isis to invest in it.

All this coincided with the US-led coalition’s bombing campaign against Isis targets, which curtailed other income streams such as oil, livestock and crops from seized areas.

Isis began to enforce punishments for looting without a licence, says Al-Azm. The group started to control the dealers and middle men, getting savvy to the market, scouring the internet to see which artefacts would sell at a higher value.

Trade in looted antiquities is not new. As a result of high-profile raids and trials during the mid-90s, investigators have documented the traditional routes for such objects.

Objects from the near east would usually pass first through Turkey or Lebanon, before being moved into Switzerland, Germany or, less commonly, Italy.

Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist working with the SCCJR, says: “Many antiquities dealers that we now know trafficked and traded in illicit objects were based in Geneva, Basel or Zurich … Germany was also picked as a country where, one way or another, the goals and aims of illegal traders were satisfied.”

These European destinations, says Tsirogiannis, are where illicit goods were typically laundered – changing hands, passing between dealer and conservator in order to create a paper trail that would then be used to sell objects on to auction houses in London and New York.

Today, other experts assume that similar routes are being used for looted goods coming out of Syria and Iraq.

“It’s just the way the market works,” says David Gill, professor of archaeological heritage at University Campus Suffolk. Looted goods are “coming out through Turkey and Beirut and then containered to who knows where”. By the time an object gets to London, he says, it “has paperwork, internally, within Europe”.

(This  is a possible scenario for higher-value objects for which a paper trail is more desirable, but undocumented items still turn up in European markets.)

When the BBC covered the issue in February, they located a go-between in a town in southern Turkey, who gave a Skype interview in which he displayed artefacts that he claimed had been dug up months earlier in Isis-controlled Raqqa in eastern Syria.

He told the BBC that the objects were destined for western Europe: “Turkish merchants sell it to dealers in Europe,” he said. “They call them, send pictures … people from Europe come to check the goods and take them away.”

This same investigation also located a dealer in Beirut who said he had access to genuine Byzantine and Hellenic mosaics, which most likely would have been looted from Syria.

This dealer, the Turkish go-between and the head of Lebanon’s bureau of international theft all told the BBC that Europe was the main market for looted antiquities from the region.

Meanwhile, an undercover investigation by the Sunday Times in 2013 found archaeological treasures from the ancient Roman city of Palmyra (recently taken over by Isis) sold on the black market in Lebanon.

But it’s impossible to know precisely what is being smuggled, to where – or how.

It’s likely that looted goods are being sold online, or though established connections with private collectors.

Sam Hardy, the conflict antiquities expert, says online sellers aren’t bothering to be secretive: “They’re using eBay to establish connections, or making sales using Skype, WhatsApp or Kik,” he says, referring to smartphone instant messaging services.

On top of that, some experts in this field suggest, antiquities collectors can be patient: buyers with deep enough pockets can acquire stolen goods and sit on them for years, releasing them into the market when the heat has died down.

Unesco conventions on antiquities have been in place since 1970.

In February this year, the UN Security Council banned trade in artefacts illegally removed from Syria since 2011 and Iraq since 1990, hoping to choke off a funding source for terrorist groups.

But enforcement is near impossible in both these countries amid the current turmoil. And in the destination countries, it’s up to law enforcers to establish when those objects left conflict zones.

“The lack of evidence either way means that the dealer wins,” says Patty Gerstenblith, a lawyer specialising in cultural heritage at Chicago’s DePaul University College of Law.

This high bar means that authorities often settle for reclaiming objects rather than pursuing cases through criminal courts – so some dealers might assess that, given the overall profits, it’s worth losing the odd artefact to the process.

While we can’t second-guess the context or motives, Gerstenblith cites examples of Egyptian artefacts seized by US officials in Miami, Iraqi items in New York and Cambodian objects in Los Angeles; in each case, there were no attempts at prosecution.

Patty  suggests that less-scrupulous dealers may engage in wilful ignorance over an object’s provenance when a seller approaches them with a story. “They don’t ask a lot of questions, they think, ‘Oh fine, I have your word for it’ – and that’s sufficient to establish that the dealer didn’t know it was illegal.”

But Christopher Marinello, director of Art Recovery International, says that, partly due to recent media attention, dealers now increasingly view objects from Syria as suspect: “Reputable dealers and auction houses are doing the right thing and asking the right questions”, when they come across antiquities with questionable provenance.

Along with other experts, Gerstenblith holds that part of the problem is that law enforcers may not be taking this issue seriously enough.

Perhaps that’s down to a lack of resources, or a lingering assumption that antiquities is a sort of gentlemanly pursuit – but it seems the issue of looted antiquities is not currently viewed as a high priority.

Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit says it has three live investigations into stolen antiquities from Syria. It adds: “In two of these investigations, restrictions have been placed on the articles in question. There have been no arrests to date.”

Meanwhile, buyers are not getting the message that the purchase of such antiquities is enabling war and terror in the Middle East. “These are blood antiquities,” says Altaweel, adding that attempts to make the cultural-heritage case for more action to stop trade in looted goods have not yielded results. “What might work more is to say that this is funding death.”

Trafficking antiquities: following the trail of the loot

Iraq/Syria: Isis capitalised on a pre-existing illegal trade in antiquities, which began during the turmoil in 2012, first charging a 20% tax on “licensed” excavations and then hiring their own archaeologists and equipment to take over the trade itself.

Turkey/Lebanon: Smugglers take looted items across the border to both countries on land. Go-betweens then sell them on to local merchants who field interest from European dealers, and sometimes even sell items over the counter.

Switzerland/Germany: A series of major raids and trials in the 1990s found that items from the near east would often be laundered through mainland Europe. Dealers in Basel or Geneva would falsify a paper trail in concert with conservators before sending them on to their final destinations.

London/New York: Items that have picked up a convincing paper trail can be sold lucratively at auction in the UK or US. But even smaller items that have no such provenance can be found in antique shops, hidden in plain sight among legitimately sourced objects.

Najat Rizk shared this link

No comment. Sad reality.

When Mark Altaweel agreed to hunt for ‘blood antiquities’ in London dealerships, he was expecting more of a challenge. But as the archaeologist discovered, relics…
theguardian.com|By Rachel Shabi

 

 Fertilizers shipped from Turkey to ISIS to prepare suicide car bombs

Red letters on the sacks identified their contents as ammonium nitrate

Mixed with fuel oil, the compound forms an explosive that can be 85 % as powerful as TNT

AKCAKALE, Turkey —

The laborers work all day, piling bags of fertilizer onto carts and wheeling them through the crossing that connects this southern border town AKCAKALE, to Syria.

The Syrian town next door is firmly controlled by the extremists of the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh), as is clear from the black flag flying over downtown.

And while the fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, is widely used for agriculture, it has also been used by terrorists around the world — including the Islamic State — to build powerful explosives.

Few here think the fertilizer is meant to help Syrian farmers.

“It is not for farming. It is for bombs,” said Mehmet Ayhan, an opposition politician from Akcakale who is running for Parliament. But he did not oppose the deliveries, saying they created jobs in his impoverished town.

“As long as the Turkish people benefit from this — regardless of where it goes on the other side — it is a good thing,” Mr. Ayhan said.

The rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in Iraq and Syria has terrified the world.

Europe is struggling to stop its Muslims from slipping off to war; the United States is leading Arab countries in a bombing campaign; and Turkey has vowed to close its southern border to foreign fighters seeking to join the jihad.

But the open transport of ammonium nitrate into Islamic State territory points to lingering questions about Turkey’s commitment to isolating its jihadist neighbors.

Yet for the people here, the cross-border trade offers some relief in an economy that has been battered by the war in Syria.

Analysts said Turkey had recently made efforts to secure its border and to halt the flow of foreign fighters. But the country still allows cross-border trade that gives the Islamic State access to goods from energy drinks to fertilizer.

“Trade continues to go into the north, not just to ISIS, but ISIS is a tangential beneficiary of the trade policy,” said Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute who studies Turkey.

Cross-border connections have long defined Akcakale, which is home to 90,000 Turks and directly across the border from the Syrian town of Tel Abyad. The towns share so many family and trade ties that residents said they used to be like one town.

But the war has split them. Fleeing Syrians now outnumber the Turks in Akcakale; they have opened restaurants, and they work for lower wages. Smugglers who once moved sugar, tea and cement now move items like foreign jihadists.

One Turkish smuggler used to help Syrian rebels transfer goods and people across the border. Then the Islamic State offered him $35 a head to get its fighters into Syria, he said.

He moved 25 in, nearly all of them foreigners, before quitting because he worried that the Islamic State would threaten Turkey.

“I worked for them for two months, and I still regret that I let all those people in,” he said, withholding his name for fear of the jihadists.

Outside the border gate on a recent day, scores of Syrians lined up to return home. Nearby, traders sold sandwiches, drinks and cigarettes, an indulgence banned under the Islamic State.

Also for sale were black gowns for women needing to meet the jihadists’ dress code.

In line, Nasser al-Ali, 30, lifted a cigarette to his mouth with a tattooed arm. The jihadists also oppose tattoos.

“I can throw this away and cover this,” he said with a shrug, pointing to his cigarette and his tattoo.

There was little work in the city of  Raqqa, he said, but life under the jihadists was not bad.

“No one bothers you if you don’t bother anyone,” he said. When asked if the Islamic State would last, he smiled and said, “God willing.”

Four times on two recent days, reporters for The New York Times saw large wooden carts loaded with fertilizer enter the crossing and come back empty a short time later.

The workers then refilled their carts from a pile of sacks as large as a semi-truck in a nearby lot.

Red letters on the sacks identified their contents as ammonium nitrate.

When the reporters arrived at the crossing, the carts stopped moving. When asked what they contained, a City Hall employee who was escorting the reporters replied, “Flour.”

Residents said the shipments began a few months earlier between traders on each side. Some residents said the fertilizer was for agriculture, noting that it is sold legally in Turkey and widely used for farming.

But ammonium nitrate has also been a vital ingredient in some of the world’s most notorious terrorist attacks, including the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 and the bombings of the United States Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.

It has also been widely used by militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the Islamic State.

Turkey, too, has been a victim; bombs made with ammonium nitrate struck Istanbul in 2003, killing scores of people.

Shown pictures of the sacks, John Goodpaster, a forensic chemist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said they were clearly marked as ammonium nitrate.

Mixed with fuel oil, the compound forms an explosive that can be 85 % as powerful as TNT, he said. Twenty pounds of the mix can fill a suicide vest, while 200 pounds can make a car bomb.

A bomb filled with about 45,000 pounds could damage 16 city blocks, Dr. Goodpaster said, adding that there appeared to be at least 55,000 pounds in the pile of sacks waiting to enter the crossing.

“That is a definite concern,” he said.

Turkish officials failed to explain why the substance was allowed to cross.

A spokesman for the Akcakale’s mayor’s office, Mustafa Guçlu, first denied that any fertilizer was crossing, then said that if there was any, it would be for agriculture.

An official in the governor’s office for Sanliurfa Province, which includes Akcakale, said fertilizer was not allowed to cross.

Another official, reached by phone at the crossing, said that about 500 Syrians returned home every few days and that each was allowed 30 or 40 bags of low-nitrate fertilizer, which is less explosive.

“There is no way high-ration nitrate fertilizer can go through, because we have ISIS on the other side,” the official said. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the news media.

Around town, the fertilizer shipments were common knowledge.

“Of course they use it to make bombs,” said Mustafa Kurt, a cafe owner.

Like many, he said he suspected that Islamic State fighters regularly passed through town, facing little interference from the authorities. “How can we tell the difference if they dress normal and aren’t carrying guns?” he said.

But he did not worry that they would launch attacks in Turkey, because that could hurt them in Syria. “They need us,” Mr. Kurt said. “Because if they hurt us, we can close the gate.”

Sabine Choucair  shared this link

Karam Shoumali and I were visiting the Turkish border town of Akcakale when we made a strange discovery: large shipments of fertilizer commonly used to make explosives crossing the border to territory controlled by the Islamic State. Raises questions about Turkey’s commitment to isolating its jihadist neighbors. With Ceylan Yeginsu and Christopher Chivers.

The fertilizer ammonium nitrate, which was used in explosives at the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, has been moving into an extremist-controlled Syrian town…
nytimes.com|By BEN HUBBARD

 

 

Who is ‘Jihadi John’? This Londoner Islamic State slaughterer?

LONDON — The world knows him as “Jihadi John,” the masked man with a British accent who has beheaded several US hostages held by the Islamic State and who taunts audiences in videos circulated widely online.

‘Jihadi John’: Islamic State killer is identified as Londoner Mohammed Emwazi


The Islamic State member who beheaded Western hostages and appeared in widely circulated videos has been identified as Mohammed Emwazi, a young Londoner who was born in Kuwait. (Via AFP/Getty Images)

February 26, 2015

But his real name, according to friends and others familiar with his case, is Mohammed Emwazi, a Briton from a well-to-do family who grew up in West London and graduated from college with a degree in computer programming.

He is believed to have traveled to Syria around 2012 and to have later joined the Islamic State, the group whose barbarity he has come to symbolize.

“I have no doubt that Mohammed is Jihadi John,” said one of Emwazi’s close friends who identified him in an interview with The Washington Post. “He was like a brother to me. . . . I am sure it is him.”

[View: The atrocities of the Islamic State]

A representative of a British human rights group who had been in contact with Emwazi before he left for Syria also said he believed Emwazi was Jihadi John, a moniker given to him by some of the hostages he once held.

Scores of hostages, including Westerners, have been killed by the Islamic State since 2014.

Here are some of the major incidents where the Islamic State killed the hostages.

“There was an extremely strong resemblance,” Asim Qureshi, research director at the rights group, CAGE, said after watching one of the videos. “This is making me feel fairly certain that this is the same person.”

Authorities have used a variety of investigative techniques, including voice analysis and interviews with former hostages, to try to identify Jihadi John.

James B. Comey, the director of the FBI, said in September — only a month after the Briton was seen in a video killing American journalist James Foley — that officials believed they had succeeded.

[Read: Reaction to an identity revealed]

Nevertheless, the identity of Jihadi John has remained shrouded in secrecy.

Since Foley’s killing, he has appeared in a series of videos documenting the gruesome killings of other hostages, including four other Westerners, some of whom he personally beheaded.

[Read: The tactics of Islamic State beheadings]

In each, he is dressed in all black, a balaclava covering all but his eyes and the ridge of his nose. He wears a holster under his left arm.

A spokeswoman for the British Embassy in Washington said:

“Our prime minister has been clear that we want all those who have committed murder on behalf of ISIL to face justice for the appalling acts carried out. There is an ongoing police investigation into the murder of hostages by ISIL in Syria. It is not appropriate for the government to comment on any part of it while this continues.” ISIL is another name for the Islamic State.

Map: Flow of foreign fighters to Syria

U.S. officials declined to comment for this report. Emwazi’s family declined a request for an interview, citing legal advice.

The Kuwaiti-born Emwazi, in his mid-20s, appears to have left little trail on social media or elsewhere online. Those who knew him say he was polite and had a penchant for wearing stylish clothes while adhering to the tenets of his Islamic faith. He had a beard and was mindful of making eye contact with women, friends said.

He was raised in a middle-class neighborhood in London and on occasion prayed at a mosque in Greenwich.

The friends, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation, believe that Emwazi started to radicalize after a planned safari in Tanzania following his graduation from the University of Westminster.

Emwazi and two friends — a German convert to Islam named Omar and another man, Abu Talib — never made it on the trip.

Once they landed in Dar es Salaam, in May 2009, they were detained by police and held overnight. It’s unclear whether the reason for the detention was made clear to the three, but they were eventually deported.

Emwazi flew to Amsterdam, where he claimed that an officer from MI5, Britain’s domestic security agency, accused him of trying to reach Somalia, where the militant group al-Shabab operates in the southern part of the country, according to e-mails that he sent to Qureshi and that were provided to The Post.

[Read: A Brooklyn mother’s struggle to keep her son from Islamic State]

Emwazi denied the accusation and claimed that MI5 representatives had tried to recruit him. But a former hostage said Jihadi John was obsessed with Somalia and made his captives watch videos about al-Shabab, which is allied with al-Qaeda.

The episode was described in the Independent, a British newspaper, which identified Emwazi as Muhammad ibn Muazzam.

Emwazi and his friends were allowed to return to Britain, where he met with Qureshi in the fall of 2009 to discuss what had happened. “Mohammed was quite incensed by his treatment, that he had been very unfairly treated,” Qureshi said.

Shortly afterward, Emwazi decided to move to his birthplace, Kuwait, where he landed a job working for a computer company, according to the e-mails he wrote to Qureshi. He came back to London twice, the second time to finalize his wedding plans to a woman in Kuwait.

In June 2010, however, counterterrorism officials in Britain detained him again — this time fingerprinting him and searching his belongings. When he tried to fly back to Kuwait the next day, he was prevented from doing so.

“I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started,” he wrote in a June 2010 e-mail to Qureshi. But now “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person imprisoned & controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace & country, Kuwait.”

Nearly four months later, when a court in New York sentenced Aafia Siddiqui, an al-Qaeda operative convicted for the attempted murder of U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, Emwazi expressed sympathy for her, saying he had “heard the upsetting news regarding our sister. . . . This should only keep us firmer towards fighting for freedom and justice!!!”

In the interview, Qureshi said he last heard from Emwazi in January 2012, when Emwazi sent him an e-mail seeking advice.

“This is a young man who was ready to exhaust every single kind of avenue within the machinery of the state to bring a change for his personal situation,” Qureshi said.

In the end, he felt “actions were taken to criminalize him and he had no way to do something against these actions.”

Close friends of Emwazi’s also said his situation in London had made him desperate to leave the country. It’s unclear exactly when he reached Syria or how.

One friend said he believed Emwazi wanted to travel to Saudi Arabia to teach English in 2012 but was unsuccessful. Soon afterward, the friend said, he was gone.

“He was upset and wanted to start a life elsewhere,” one of the friends said. “He at some stage reached the point where he was really just trying to find another way to get out.”

Once in Syria, Emwazi contacted his family and at least one of his friends. It’s unclear what he told them about his activities there.

A former hostage who was debriefed by officials upon release said that Jihadi John was part of a team guarding Western captives at a prison in Idlib, Syria, in 2013.

The hostages nicknamed the facility “the box.” Emwazi was joined by two other men with British accents, including one who was dubbed “George.” A former hostage said Emwazi participated in the waterboarding of four Western hostages (a technique accepted by the US as legal torture).

Former hostages described George as the leader of the trio. Jihadi John, they said, was quiet and intelligent. “He was the most deliberate,” a former hostage said.

Beginning in early 2014, the hostages were moved to a prison in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, where they were visited often by the trio. They appeared to have taken on more powerful roles within the Islamic State.

About the same time, Qureshi said, he sent an e-mail to Emwazi.

“I was wondering if you could send me your number,” he wrote. “Inshallah [God willing] it will be good to catch up.”

There was no response.

Goldman reported from Washington. Julie Tate in Washington and Griff Witte and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

Story of another civil war: Syrians on their knees?

Almost 200,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the escalating conflict between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule.

Syria’s bloody internal conflict, which started in 2011, has destroyed entire neighbourhoods and forced more than 9 million people from their homes.  The UN declared that 11 million Syrians (out of 20 million) need urgent aids to survive this catastrophe.

This is the story of the civil war so far, in eight short chapters.

1. Uprising turns violent

Syrian protesters

Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 in the southern city of Deraa after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. After security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing several, more took to the streets.

The unrest triggered nationwide protests demanding President Assad’s resignation. The government’s use of force to crush the dissent merely hardened the protesters’ resolve.

By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets across the country.

Opposition supporters eventually began to take up arms, first to defend themselves and later to expel security forces from their local areas.

line break

2. Descent into civil war

Grieving Syrian man and injured girl

Violence escalated and the country descended into civil war as rebel brigades were formed to battle government forces for control of cities, towns and the countryside. Fighting reached the capital Damascus and second city of Aleppo in 2012.

By June 2013, the UN said 90,000 people had been killed in the conflict. However, by August 2014 that figure had more than doubled to 191,000.

The conflict is now more than just a battle between those for or against President Assad. It has acquired sectarian overtones, pitching the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alawite sect, and drawn in neighbouring countries and world powers. The rise of the jihadist groups, including Islamic State, has added a further dimension.

Syria death toll chart
line break

3. War crimes

Barrel bomb victim

A UN commission of inquiry, investigating alleged human rights violations since March 2011, has evidence that those on both sides of the conflict have committed war crimes – including murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances. Government and rebel forces have also been accused by investigators of using civilian suffering, such as blocking access to food, water and health services, as a method war.

In the city of Aleppo, an estimated 3,000 people have been killed by barrel bombs dropped by the regime on rebel-held areas since December last year. The UN says that in some instances, civilian gatherings have been deliberately targeted, constituting massacres.

The jihadist group, Islamic State, has also been accused by the UN of waging a campaign of fear in northern and eastern Syria. Its fighters have beheaded hostages and carried out mass killings of members of the security forces and religious minorities.

We’re just living on the edge of life. We’re always nervous, we’re always afraid

Mother-of-nine, Mariam Akash, whose husband was killed by a sniper
Getty Images
line break

4. Chemical weapons

Syrians in masks

Hundreds of people were killed in August 2013 after rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin were fired at several agricultural districts around Damascus. Western powers, outraged by the attack, said it could only have been carried out by Syria’s government. The regime and its ally Russia blamed rebels.

Facing the prospect of US military intervention, President Assad agreed to the complete removal or destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal as part of a joint mission led by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The destruction of chemical agents and munitions was completed a year later.

Despite the operation, the OPCW has since documented the use of toxic chemicals, such as chlorine and ammonia, by the government in attacks on rebel-held northern villages between April and July 2014.

Map showing alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria in 2013
line break

5. Humanitarian crisis

Syrian refugees

More than 3 million people have fled Syria since the start of the conflict, most of them women and children. It is one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history. Neighbouring countries have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, with Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey struggling to accommodate the flood of new arrivals. The exodus accelerated dramatically in 2013, as conditions in Syria deteriorated.

A further 6.5 million people, 50% of them children, are believed to be internally displaced within Syria, bringing the total number forced to flee their homes to more than 9.5 million – half the country’s population.

An estimated 10.8 million are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, with 4.6 million living in areas under siege or hard to access.

The UN launched its largest ever appeal for a single crisis in December 2013, seeking $6.5bn (£4bn) to provide medical care, food, water, shelter, education and health services.

Map showing Syrian refugee numbers across the region
line break

6. Rebels and the rise of the Islamists

Nusra Front fighter

The armed rebellion has evolved significantly since its inception, with as many as 1,000 groups commanding an estimated 100,000 fighters. Secular moderates are now outnumbered by Islamists and jihadists, whose brutal tactics have caused widespread concern and triggered rebel infighting.

Capitalising on the chaos in the region, Islamic State (IS) – the extremist group that grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq – has taken control of huge swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria. Its many foreign fighters in Syria are now involved in a “war within a war”, battling rebels who object to their tactics as well as Kurdish forces.

In September 2014, a US-led coalition launched air strikes inside Iraq and Syria in an effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS.

In the political arena, rebel groups are also deeply divided – with rival alliances battling for supremacy. The most prominent is the moderate National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, backed by several Western and Gulf Arab states. However, the coalition’s primacy is rejected by other groups – including the powerful Islamist alliance, the Islamic Front – leaving the country without a convincing nationally supported alternative to the current Syrian regime.

Map showing Islamic State territory across Iraq and Syria
line break

7. Peace efforts

Peace talks on Syria

With neither side able to inflict a decisive defeat on the other, the international community long ago concluded that only a political solution could end to the conflict in Syria. However, a number of attempts by the Arab League and the UN to broker ceasefires and start dialogue have failed.

In January 2014, the US, Russia and UN convened a conference in Switzerland to implement the 2012 Geneva Communique, an internationally-backed agreement that called for the establishment of a transitional governing body in Syria formed on the basis of mutual consent.

The talks, which became known as Geneva II, broke down in February after only two rounds.

The then UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi blamed the Syrian government’s refusal to discuss opposition demands and its insistence on a focus on fighting “terrorists” – a term Damascus uses to describe rebel groups.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the organisation’s long-term strategic objective remains a political solution based on the Geneva Communique.

The new UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura has also proposed establishing a series of “freeze zones”, where local ceasefires would be negotiated to allow aid deliveries in besieged areas.

line break

8. Proxy war

Rebel fighter

What began as another Arab Spring uprising against an autocratic ruler has mushroomed into a brutal proxy war that has drawn in regional and world powers.

Iran and Russia have propped up the Alawite-led government of President Assad and gradually increased their support, providing it with an edge that has helped it make significant gains against the rebels. The regime has also enjoyed the support of Lebanon’s Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement.

The Sunni-dominated opposition has, meanwhile, attracted varying degrees of support from its main backers – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab states along with the US, UK and France. However, the rise of radical Islamist militia in rebel ranks and the arrival of Sunni jihadists from across the world has led to a marked cooling of international and regional backing.

The disappointment caused by the West’s inaction created a fertile recruiting ground for extremists, who told those who had lost their loved ones that they were their only hope

Majed, a 26-year-old civil society activist

adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

July 2020
M T W T F S S
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031  

Blog Stats

  • 1,398,184 hits

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.adonisbouh@gmail.com

Join 745 other followers

%d bloggers like this: