Daesh attacks Tehran: Why Iran, Why Now?

Early on the morning of 7 June 2017, Tehran was rocked by news of an attack at the Iranian Parliament building. Soon, separate reports came in of an attack carried out at Khomeini’s shrine some distance away, as well as in a metro station in another district of Tehran. It became all too clear that these terrorist attacks were coordinated, but it remained unclear who was responsible. As often happens- the last report turned out to be false, the attacks were concentrated in the first two sites, with six total attackers, one woman and five men.

I logged off twitter, as it was late at night in Seattle, only recently having seen the first strange reports of Daesh claiming responsibility. They were strange because they didn’t take the normal form we’ve come to associate with Daesh media, but by the time I woke up the next morning in Seattle no doubt remained. Daesh claimed the attacks clearly through their official media channels, and the Iranian government confirmed the attackers were indeed from Iran. With those facts laid out, the gravity of the attack was confirmed: Daesh had carried out its first large coordinated terrorist attack in predominantly Shi’ite Iran.

While largely surprising, those following Daesh and their media closely had seen indications for some time that the organization has been attempting to reach Sunni Muslims inside Iran. A good report about the Persian language Daesh video can be found here. Another good report that details Daesh’s growing propaganda in the weeks leading up to to today’s attacks can be found here; it appeared before the attack. Not content to let media outlets report on the Tehran attack, Daesh uploaded video to their Telegram channel as it was happening, apparently the first time they’ve done this since an attack in Bangladesh (h/t Rukmini Callimachi).

When the attack was finally over, at least 12 people were dead and 46 more were injured. The IRGC, or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, were quick to blame Saudi Arabia for the attack but have not provided any proof for this allegation. While the identities of the attackers remain unknown, it fits with a “truth” many have already accepted, that Daesh is at least funded, if not actively supported by the Saudi state.  I would urge extreme caution in making these kinds of claims, not because I want to defend the Saudis, and certainly not because I have an agenda. I take very seriously claims of fact and use of evidence;  I haven’t seen conclusive proof these allegations are true.

Significantly to the west, another event passed largely unnoticed in international media. A Daesh attack in a Shiite neighborhood in Beirut was foiled by Lebanese security services. Thankfully they weren’t successful, but it wasn’t the first time- Daesh bombed Dahiyeh in late 2015. When I saw this, a day before the Tehran attacks, I thought to myself, ‘they’re really trying to start a larger sectarian war.’ Lebanon has so far avoided slipping into an abyss of sectarian violence, now 27 years after the end of its own civil war, but Daesh clearly wants to rip that open.

The Overarching Questions: Why Iran, Why now?

It’s not Saudi Arabia; It’s not the Qatar Crisis; It’s not Trump’s recent visit. Instead, the answer here begins with major territorial losses for Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Mosul is almost completely liberated from ISIS after months of painful and bloody siege. Not only does Daesh have to deal with the materials losses- death, lost territory,  less seized resources- but it loses momentum, arguably the most important part of the group’s success. As we have seen since the group’s shocking seizure of Mosul in the summer of 2014, victories not only win spoils like weapons, new oil fields, bases, etc but they also serve to attract more recruits. Daesh needs war to legitimate itself (in the eyes of its followers), to achieve its genocidal aims, and to keep its flows of recruits coming.

Thus the context Daesh finds itself in is more than sufficient to explain their choice to attack Iran now. As Daesh is really on the ropes, what I see is that Daesh wants to start a much larger regional conflagration. When I saw the news about the Tehran attacks, I immediately thought back to the story about the foiled attack I’d seen barely 24 hours earlier about Beirut. This strategy of attacking Beirut and Iran and trying to draw all Shiites into war with Daesh is like the one pursued by Zarqawi (arguably the founder of Daesh), targeting the Golden Mosque in Samarra. Igniting a larger war would potentially benefit Daesh in multiple ways:

  • Relieve pressure on Raqqa and Mosul by drawing new actors into the war, if it spread to Lebanon/ parts of Iran and or drew Hizbullah deeper into confrontation with Daesh
  • This would create “momentum” for the group, news of successful attacks is sadly red meat for their base.
  • Momentum would translate into increased numbers of recruits as it did earlier, especially if Daesh can convince more that Shiites need to be targeted and killed

In conclusion, parts of the Middle East that are currently not engaged in the war engulfing Syria and Iraq are sadly ripe for sectarian provocation. They haven’t always been this way- barely 50 years ago the region’s political spheres were still dominated by political ideologies like Arab Nationalism and Communism. Those ideologies are largely if not completely gone and sectarianism has been a daily reality since 2003, with longer roots stretching back before that. Daesh’s attempts to throw gasoline on a fire that is relatively shrinking if still not extinguished must not be allowed to ignite the larger regional conflagration the group wants. Unfortunately, as many have pointed out, the GCC’s blockade of Qatar is basically a casus belli, and today news came that Turkey is sending troops to Qatar. May this all pass and cooler heads prevail, otherwise Daesh will likely be the “winner” and get what it wants: more bloodshed.

A tiny glimpse of the pain in Mosul

For some time, I’ve wanted to write about Mosul in detail. I’ve never felt I had anything to add but that’s led to a silence on this blog I am not ok with. Let this video, and those it focuses on, be a small glimpse of the destruction Daesh has wrought in Mosul. I found the original video on this facebook page: May the residents of Mosul, and of all regions terrorized by Daesh, finally know peace again.

Daesh Takes on Conspiracy Theories in Dabiq Magazine

There is no shortage of conspiracy theories about the roots of Daesh. As I am sure readers have seen for themselves, some think a FOIA document from the Department of Defense proves that the USA wanted ISIS to establish a “caliphate.” This document has been widely shared and written about, but I pick that claim apart here. Still others think the USA deliberately sowed chaos in Iraq, rather than charging in arrogantly and leaving a trail of destruction. Some think the entire war in Syria was instigated by the CIA to overthrow Assad because of pipeline politics (the linked piece has 4.1k shares on fb alone). Asad Abu Khalil recently insinuated that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself is a Mossad plant, as ridiculous as that is. Being the subject of so many of these theories apparently got on the nerves of some inside Daesh, and they decided to try to convince their Muslim brethren (or those who will actually listen to them) that conspiracies are flawed.

“Grand conspiracies consist of so many factors only controllable by Allah (ta’ālā).” This is the central argument of the piece I focus on here, published in the ninth installment of Daesh’s now-defunct Dabiq magazine. Frustrated with what they perceive to be the spread of conspiracy theories among Muslims, this piece set out to push back and convince readers to give up this style of thinking. The group employs its discursive terms for shaping the world, labeling some as sahwat / صحوات and others as murtad / مرتد, meaning an apostate. Much of theirScreen Shot 2017-05-17 at 3.44.44 AM presentation of history has a unique lens, to say the least, and other parts slip into pure denial. Take this passage to the right, for example. As has been established from so many angles by now, the USA did indeed support Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the USSR. That isn’t to say the USA created these people out of thin air, but there was certainly material support. Throughout the piece, the author (authors?) continually talk about kuffar /كفار, a common term used among jihadis that refers to infidels.  This framing not only shapes the question of who is right and who is wrong, but also the Muslim audience, though the vast majority of Muslims don’t walk around labeling people Kuffar.

While never voiced so explicitly, much of the evidence and anecdotes provided by the author points to a feeling that the agency- and therefore achievements- of the Muslims is undermined by conspiracy theories. A quote below from the piece illustrate this well. Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 11.56.21 AM

Interestingly, the author also says that many “Islamic” leaders, scholars, etc have fallen into a pattern, “in imitation of the nationalists before them…” The author calls up multiple examples, some recent, others ancient, in which Muslims shouldn’t doubt their power. S/he cites 9/11, discussing it as a jihadi accomplishment that should not be doubted or undermined by conspiracy theories:Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 4.45.37 PM

Returning to the central point, the author sees all knowledge and control ultimately resting with God. Conspiracies, the author argues, assume that humans have this level of power to influence without others realizing, thus Daesh equates this with shirk. Shirk is a term referring to polytheism, also in the form mushrikeen / مشركين  in Arabic. In a more literal use, it would refer to a religion like hinduism that believes in multiple deities, or Yezidis in Iraq.

There is something more to be found in the word shirk. It’s awkwardly close to the word kufr / كفر as in “unbelief” because shirk means that one has denied tawheed/ توحيد, or the oneness of God. As this is a pillar of belief in Sunni Islam, engaging in shirk, assuming this is indeed the case, means one is not fulfilling the basic conditions to be a Muslim. This is where kufr comes in, as takfir/ تكفير is the practice of casting people out of the religion, or labeling them kuffar.

Moreover, as is well known, Daesh has been engaging in takfir on a wide scale based on Muslims not engaging in jihad. Since they’ve set themselves up as the Muslims, any other Muslims who fail to support their jihad are failing to engage in jihad as they’re required to (an extremist interpretation) and therefore can be labeled kuffar. In Daesh’s eyes, that is equivalent to labeling someone the enemy; this salafi-jihadi interpretation of Islam affords no protections to them whatsoever.

Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 9.46.27 PMTowards the end of the piece, this understanding of shirk is spelled out explicitly, shown to left here. The aggressive and takfiri use of the word shirk / شرك aside, the basic insecurity here is one in which a jihadist writing in Daesh’s name wants credit for what s/he perceives to be the organization’s accomplishments. It fits well with broader sociological analyses that ask why young men (more on this to come from me soon!), whether marginalized or not, seek to join a group like Daesh- or extremist groups more broadly: they feel humiliated and want a modicum of power.  This emphasis is given voice in the end of the piece, shown below. Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 9.59.34 PMThat’s what I see here- jihadis who sought power  in their radicalization feel like they found it, only to see it undermined by conspiracies in which the kuffar retained the power.

Conspiracy theories thus recreate the exact power imbalance that many joined Daesh to attempt to upend.

nb* a number of my Muslim friends helped me by answering a bunch of my questions about shirk- thanks Gulşah, Sajjad, Akbar, Sid, and others:)


Daesh Media Points: A glimpse of how Daesh does PR and media for the public in its territories

While researching for a workshop presentation at UPenn’s CARCG about Daesh media, I came across an interesting and so far overlooked aspect of life under Daesh in Syria and Iraq. In the photo and article, taken from an issue of the Arabic-language النبأ, an unknown author writes on behalf of Daesh about “نقطة إعلامية” . They lay out the history of the “media point” as this translates to, saying that it first appeared in the rural area outside of Aleppo. In the image, we see several dozen people sitting in what resembles a small theater, watching a large digital screen. On the roof above the screen, is the Arabic title mentioned above and a series of media logos. What are these media points and why would Daesh build them?

nuqta ilamiyya naba 21
image from al-Naba issue 21.

First, the point above is apparently one of sixty such media points spread throughout Daesh territory. The group laments the difficulties of mass communication, saying that it was hard to reach all of “the Muslims.” They discuss how CDs became the standard but that at a certain point, these were replaced by smartphones.  The problem of reaching people without the hardware to use CDs or smartphones remained; the media point is their attempt to bridge the gap between their digital displays of prowess and ideology and the margins of its “caliphate.”

In the article, which appeared in النبأ number 21, Daesh explains how these media points are part of a larger project to confront the “crusader media” and the media of the “tyrants” or طواغيت (I have written about this discourse here). They see these points as a success, and describe how crowds gather around them to watch when new media releases come out. One example of such an event they list was the execution of Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot. The discuss how the points are customized relative to the density of residents, and that they were pleased that many residents had “chosen the path of jihad” after watching videos at the points.

Daesh interviewed a number of different media workers to outline local specificities. For example, Abu Bara al-Furati speaks about his work in Raqqa, describing that there are currently six media points there but that they are not enough to meet the needs of the large city and that more are planned as well as updating the existing ones. They also say that they have deliberately spread points in urban and rural areas, claiming that there are 6 points each in rural areas to the north, west, and east of Raqqa. Several of the points have local names corresponding to the traffic circles where they are located. Interestingly, they talk about how they made a wide variety of languages available, which they list as including Arabic, English, Turkish, Kurdish, Farsi (yes, really), French, and others. This would lead one to deduct that Daesh members on both sides of its foreign/local divide are consuming media at the points. ِAbu Hajar Musab lays out his view that he too engages in jihad through his media activities, a trope that appears elsewhere about Daesh media.

nuqta ilamiyya 2 naba 21
image from al-Naba issue 21

Abu Anas al Faluji hammered home the ideological value of the media points, saying that the public needs to take advantage of the points in the correct way to raise awareness of the people and point them to the truth of what’s going on around them. One man in his 60s spoke of the pride he felt watching the images on TV at a media point, but as this was quoted by Daesh it’s impossible to know how genuine he was, or whether he was just telling them what they wanted to hear.

What I see so far, based on this limited source, I won’t try to theorize too deeply. I hope to find more empirical details about the points and hopefully some discussion of them will appear in testimony by those who have been on the inside and escaped. Clearly, Daesh sees an opportunity to get more of its propaganda and ideology in front of citizens who otherwise can’t access these media by building these points. They also claim they’re very popular, which may well be true. I’ve also seen that Daesh media is highly selective, does not report major losses, and exaggerates their institutional capacity.  I will post more soon if I find more and better sources on this topic.


How conflict affects land use: agricultural activity in lands seized by the Islamic State

An article I helped co-author along with Lina Eklund, Martin Brandt, Alexander V Prischepov, and Petter Pilesjö has been published in Environmental Research Letters. Lina approached me some time ago while I was a visiting scholar in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University and proposed this idea. Many iterations later, it’s published!

Follow this link to get to the publication itself: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa673a/meta

Daesh floods YouTube with violent videos

For some time, Twitter and YouTube, among others, have fought to keep the organization’s content off their platforms. A week ago I would have told you that it seemed that Daesh had been effectively banned from YouTube and one couldn’t find their propaganda there. Yet just this week, that has apparently been upended.

A recent change in tactics has Daesh temporarily on the (digital) offensive, as they managed to upload so many of their videos to YouTube that the site couldn’t take them all down quickly enough. This latest wave of uploaded videos followed the attack in Westminster, London last week when an attacker managed to kill several and injure dozens. Khalid Masood’s story has led to many debating whether he acted alone or was guided by Daesh, as well as questioning how and when he was radicalized (here, here and here).

Whatever the answers to those questions about Masood’s radicalization are, it is interesting to see Daesh launch this new kind of attack with their media. For at least the last six months, the availability of the group’s videos and propaganda has been in steep decline, with many platforms and websites having adapted to ban the group’s content. Twitter has seen a marked decline in the number of ISIS accounts due to its efforts to shut them down.

Telegram has apparently become the encrypted messenger of choice, but it too took steps to delete large “channels” on its service to hinder Daesh spreading its message. Since that was 18 months ago, and the group still successfully uses Telegram, we can see that platform’s efforts have not been successful.

From the US government’s perspective, it has sought to create counter-messages to Daesh’s slick propaganda with weak results, to put it nicely. I’ve linked to an interesting account of the US State Department’s attempts in this regard below: