I am pleased that a piece I have been working on in conjunction with JINCS (JIhadi Networks of Culture & CommunicationS) through the Annenberg CARCG at the University of Pennsylvania is online. It was published through Global-E and can be found here. A big thanks to Marwan Kraidy and Marina Krikorian as well as all the other participants and contributors for their feedback on my initial presentation that helped shaped this piece! Another big thank you to Victor Faessel at Global-E!
Here I have included one of the Daesh infographics I studied- you can read about my analysis of it by following the link above.
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?
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.
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.
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
A recent news story might on the surface seem relatively inconsequential, but it likely is one of the first of many of its kind to come. It marks a transitionary period, one that has yet to begin in many places, that of areas conquered by Daesh being liberated and attempting to return to normal. In the case, an American man who defected from Daesh is facing charges from federal prosecutors in the USA for “material support of terrorism.” The man, Mohammad Khweis apparently fled Daesh of his own accord and handed himself over to Kurdish Peshmerga forces. So far, he is not connected to acts of violence or terrorism while a member, yet he faces charges nonetheless.
The Guardian articlewhich brought my attention to this raises interesting questions, but they’re entirely framed inside of the present: how should this be handled so that it can be of benefit for deterring others from joining Daesh? Is that done by prosecuting him, as federal officials seem convinced, or will that potentially deter some who have joined Daesh from defecting, or push them into defecting without handing themselves over to other forces? There are no clear answers.
As more and more battles play themselves out, many may fight to the death, but what of those captured alive, or who refuse to fight? Will all remaining members be incarcerated in their countries of origin? Given the instability in Syria it seems far more likely that Iraq may actually be in a position to use its justice system for former Daesh fighters- but Mohammed Khweis, pictured above, wasn’t a fighter by most accounts. Since merely going to Daesh territory is illegal for Americans, he is being prosecuted. I certainly wonder how effective putting him in prison can be, given that radicalization inside prison remains a troubling phenomenon we don’t know enough about (and one I wrote about in my last post, btw). It is very possible that Khweis would be welcomed by radical jihadis inside prison and venerated for his role fighting with Daesh. One could also see why he might not want anything to do with them given his choice to leave and reported arguments over ideology with other Daeshis, but the harsh realities of prison often force people to embrace groups they’d otherwise want to avoid. This question- how to deal with surviving members of Daesh and the manners in which these issues are resolved will have a lasting impact on the societies in these areas of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and others.
Rupture and Transition As pointed to above, different areas are already experiencing the rupture of Daesh rule, I’ll call it sovereignty here for more clarity, and the immediate attempts to (re)impose the sovereignty of other actors over those areas. In parts of Iraq, Kurdish forces are the ones seizing control, while in Anbar as we’ll see below, it’s the Iraqi government and the Hashd militias that are imposing their rule post-Daesh. As Juan Cole noted recently, “(Y)ou have nationalist Kurds, hopeless Sunni Arabs and militantly nationalist Shiites. The Shiites, at 60% of the country, probably have the social and economic weight to keep at least the Arab areas together. But it could be a sullen, cold-shoulder unity.” Just as there was tremendous instability and uncertainty when the United States overthrew the Iraqi government, there lurks here the possibility of renewed instability and different, more chaotic forms of violence.
Daesh had formed what can be called a “network of violence,” a term I take here from Samer Abboud’s work on Syria, and arguably even became a state. This involved moving to monopolize the use of coercive force, something Daesh largely if not completely succeeded in doing. By this, I mean that violence was pushed to its borders- the sites of confrontations with other militias, and that inside the territories Daesh was the only organized actor using force to coerce or enforce law. That raises the question- what laws will be enforced post-Daesh? How will this be done? And until a complete monopoly on coercive force is achieved, which may take some time, who will enforce law? As readers might already have surmised, the struggles to (re)establish sovereignty can themselves be prolonged, violent, and usher in major changes, the nature of which is almost impossible to foresee.
To begin to venture answers to these questions, a recent VICE news report showed fascinating footage I expect to become an important part of Iraq’s history. Militias working for the Iraqi government moved into villages and towns surrounding Fallujah in the Anbar Province after Daesh fighters had been forced out. What the video shows, however, is dealing with the remnants of Daesh. Soldiers remove their flags, paint over their graffiti, and allow some residents to return to their homes that Daesh had seized. Most interesting and important, by far, were the open-air tribunals carried out by these militias. They had rounded up a number of men who were accused of being Daesh supporters in various ways. They brought these men before a gathering of village elders and local leaders (all men from what I can see), and asked in front of everyone- was this man with Daesh? Different people speak up affirmatively or negatively and are asked to provide evidence-how do you know? What did you see him do? Those determined to be Daeshis- some of whom are more easily spotted because they’re foreign and their accents give them away- are taken into custody and we are not privy to their fate.
(screenshot taken from VICE News video linked below)
The manner in which these tribunals are carried out will have long-term implications for stability and reconstruction in areas Daesh controlled. One can see there is hesitation at times, people are either unwilling to speak up or gauging the tone of others before doing so. One can only imagine how tense those present must feel- they know the man’s fate and freedom hang in the balance. There are clearly power dynamics, potentially never voiced, but understood- about who is condemning whom and who does or doesn’t speak on a man’s behalf. This manner of extracting “truth” through public denunciation not only leaves the formal judicial hierarchy but remains highly questionable as we can see. In another scene, the Iraqi Colonel is notified of where men who collaborated with Daesh live, and we see him sitting in what I presume is their house, chastising them for what he says they did- they meekly deny it, but their guilt is presumed. Given the ad hoc and informal nature of these proceedings, combined with the very real and long-term nature of the results, those potentially wronged in this process will struggle to reverse them or prove their innocence.
This brings us to a point where I would like to draw on a basic framework for transitional justice drawn up by the ICTJ. They outline the four most important aspects of transitional justice to be criminal prosecutions, reparations, institutional reform, and truth commissions. We’ve already touched on the prosecutions above, with a hint of truth commissions, but reparations and institutional reforms are yet to be addressed. What might they look like? I imagine that reparations will have to deal with the large number of displaced citizens, though I fear addressing all the refugees forced to flee outside of their countries because of Daesh may prove too large. They will also have to happen in a much more formal and systematic manner than we see in the video. Addressing the needs of internally displaced citizens could be a means to make sure that the homogenization and sectarianisation do not cement in place. Those familiar with Lebanon after its Civil War know just how much the composition of so many neighborhoods changed, and how those neighborhoods are very different places today because undoing all that displacement proved too difficult. I think the state will have to do more than the ad hoc truth commissions it has taken so far, and doing so without some form of amnesty will prove very difficult.
All this being said, I certainly understand the desire to carry out this transitional justice quickly and efficiently, removing whatever remaining elements of support Daesh has. This is not the exclusive path forward. As my colleague Onur Bakiner pointed out while reading a draft of this piece, Turkey, for example, offered a form of amnesty to PKK fighterswho were not implicated in crimes. Yet, the Iraqi state pursues a complete military victory. In this sense, the state, insecure because of prolonged weakness and crumbling sovereignty, reasons that no mercy can be shown to Daesh. Onur likewise pointed out to me that the combination of seeking complete military victory, no amnesty, and quick ad hoc trials on the ground comes dangerously close to victors’ justice. Combined with the factors I cited from Juan Cole above, this may undermine the very gains the Iraqi state sought by acting quickly.
Waiting to carry out this transitional justice, on the other hand, is not without pitfalls. Carrying out high-profile trials, especially ones where there may be domestic or international elements supporting those on trial, can test the strength of any state. How many of these would the state have to carry out? My guess is easily more than 2,000, depending on how many former Daesh fighters were part of each case. It would not be unforseeable for remaining elements of Daesh to attempt attacks on courtrooms, on institutions more broadly, to attempt to interrupt or stop trials in progress. The failure to achieve justice in those trials could mobilize thousands against the state. Lebanon, for example, could not carry out the trial of Rafiq Hariri’s accused killers on its own; Iraq managed to with Saddam Hussein but his trial saw a judge replaced for appearing too soft on defendants. Thus it is far from certain the Iraqi state is strong and stable enough to carry out the necessary trials against accused members of Daesh.
In summation, neither of the broad paths forward I sketched here is without problems; it will be a question of mitigating the downsides of whichever path is taken. The fighting that might bring an end to the war is sadly far from the end of the conflict. Major dimensions of Iraq and Syria’s futures remain undecided even after Daesh is defeated militarily. While Iraq remains fragile and the topic of partition is once again on the lips of many, Syria remains torn (to say the least) about Bashar al-Assad’s rule. If Iraq is seen as corrupt, inefficient, and weak, Assad is tainted with the legacy of his war on Syrian society and has no legitimacy to lead the country through the painful postwar transition and rebuilding, assuming he is potentially still in power. If he isn’t, Syria can move past his brutal rule but will have its own very painful transition period before that can be finalized.
On the upside, videos like this one show us the joy that people express once they’ve been liberated from Daesh rule. It is truly beautiful to see their happiness and cheer. This happiness can be a tonic for now in light of all the uncertainty, but sadly there’s much more still to be done.
I would like to thank Onur Bakiner for his insightful comments on a draft of this blog:)
About a year ago, a documentsurfaced on the internet that spurred all kinds of chatter about links between the US government and ISIS. I heard about it from many different people, asking what I thought about it. It received attention here and here, among many others.I meant to write about it some time ago, but never got around to it. Here’s the quick rundown of my take:
A) The documents in question were released under FOIA, a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
B) Thus, there is every reason to believe they are real. Other times, documents of questionable provenance emerge through leaks and claim to be real, but their authenticity is unverifiable.
C) The document comes from the Department of Defense, and is listed in the original as “Information Report: Not Finally Evaluated Evidence.” This is on page 2 of the PDF.
D) The report is from Aug 12, 2012- though I can only find the 2012 part in a report about the document, not in the document itself.
E) The report itself is about Iraq and discusses events in Syria next door as they potentially threaten Iraq.
F) The passage in question is here:
This comes under subheading 8, “The Effects on Iraq” and starts with a conditional, “if the situation unravels, there is a possibility…”. When read in conjunction with the rest of the report, linked above and here, it becomes clear this is a threat estimate, not a policy prescription. What gives this even more context, is the section that preceded it, where the report lists the stability of the Syrian regime, with no such “Salafist principality” :
Note that I deliberately screenshotted the continuity of the report to show that I left nothing out, but again if you don’t believe me just go back to the original for yourself. Point A clearly lists the possibility that the regime solidifies and survives, while B lists the potential for a proxy war. This again supports my conclusion that this is a threat estimate, not a policy prescription. Along with the labeling of the document at the top saying it was “not finally evaluated evidence”, making claims that this proves the USA and other opposition powers brought ISIS into being are not supported by this document. To be clear, this document doesn’t prove the opposite, that the USA had nothing to do with the emergence of ISIS in Syria. It proves neither.
G) The larger questions of who wrote this document, who it was sent to, and what other exercises it was tied to are not clear and should likewise preclude any jumping to conclusions. There is coded information at the top of the document I don’t have the insider knowledge to pick apart. We don’t know, for example, if this document was responded to, embraced, rejected, ignored, etc. This is a key for archival research. Singular documents rarely tell the whole story, they must be triangulated with many others to get the full picture. Thus, even without the points I made about what the document says, the conclusions being drawn from one subsection of this document cannot be supported.
H)Finally, why would the document be released if it actually proved what many think it proves? The US government is notorious for releasing documents through FOIA that are so heavily redacted they become unreadable. There is no explanation for why this would be released if it was actually so incriminating.
Just so that it’s clear, no, I am not defending the US government or the DOD. I am a regular critic of American foreign policy and especially all the ways American military force is used around the globe. I am also a regular critic of President Obama, again especially on foreign policy. One need not like these policies in any way to point out what I am pointing out here.
It might seem strange to open this essay by speaking about circulation and vitality in regard to Daesh. Yet when we think of a nation-state, circulation is rarely the first thing that comes to our minds. Imagine a room where air doesn’t circulate well. Think of that stale, musty smell. Perhaps blood flow in the body might best encapsulate the importance of circulation, for once blood stops flowing the person will die. In a more tangible sense, states deliberately construct and maintain infrastructure to facilitate circulation of goods and people- think railroads, freeways, and postal systems, among others. Despite this importance, circulation is rarely part of how states are analyzed. Instead, territory, language, shared history, culture, religion, and central governments have all been part of how we most often try to think about nations and nation-states. But is Daesh a state, you ask? While many have been loathe to recognize it as such, the way it conducts itself inside the areas it governs cannot be called anything but a state. As Leif Stenberg pointed out in a seminar I was part of at the CMES Lund University, the Islamic State is perhaps more of a state right now than either Iraq or Syria.
It is not just among scholars and journalists that questions of statehood and territory have been important. Jihadists have been arguing vehemently amongst themselves for years about these very questions. Since the mid 90’s, many jihadists were eager to seize territory, some were actually willing and able, while others remained convinced it was a bad idea if they couldn’t actually hold it. This split arguably was central to the difference between ISIS and Al-Qaeda: where Al-Qaeda veterans were often unwilling to seize territory and pointed to the failures to govern or hold territory, ISIS refused to listen, seized territory, and declared “the caliphate” to much “success”. Al-Qaeda’s approach most definitely changed after the emergence of Daesh, as can be seen in Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Recently released documents show that Osama Bin Laden remained against seizing territory up until his death and warned an Islamic State would fail. Instead of asking about how ISIS views the concept of seizing territory, in abstract, I want to explore the reality on the ground, especially through the lens of circulation- who moves in Daesh territory? How do they do it? What kinds of movement does Daesh facilitate and what kinds does it control? While the group’s motto of sorts is الباقية و التمدد, meaning “remaining and expanding”, the issue of circulation is seemingly ignored. I will argue that Daesh must prioritize circulation because of structural constraints on its ability to act like a state in the international arena.
Daesh Statebuilding: A lot of scraps, necessary imports, heavy doses of violence
First, Daesh isn’t building a state from scratch. They aren’t even building institutions from square one, but rather drawing on a wide variety of existing institutions and infrastructure. Some of these include dams, roads, oil fields, schools, prisons, and border crossings. Daesh has benefited handsomely from seizing military materiel and arms too. Since it grew in strength in fog of the Syrian War, especially in late 2013 and early 2014, Daesh has been successful at attacking and seizing many of these kinds of existing infrastructure. It has destroyed others, and it has strategically withdrawn from territory when necessary. The group also has benefitted from a lot of institutional knowledge, getting key individuals to bring their skills from the Iraqi state with them. We need to be willing to place ourselves in their shoes to try to understand their approach, and I definitely don’t mean that to justify the way they treat people, but rather their strategic thinking. Rather than a set blueprint based on ideology, Daesh’s actions fit a very different template, one that is primarily geared toward ensuring circulation. I mean that Daesh seems to have sized up what already existed in terms of assets and infrastructure, and made decisions about what territory it could go after and why, rather than attempting to seize as much land as possible. Daesh especially valued roads which are vital to its ability to move goods and people.
Beginning in early January 2014, while Daesh was increasingly operating in Iraq to seize areas in Anbar, it had to withdraw from multiple regions of Syria during intense fighting with other rebel factions. Daesh lost control of multiple municipalities in these first two weeks, but made efforts to hold on to Raqqa (Lister 2015, 90). It likewise concentrated efforts on keeping a number of areas close to the border with Turkey, like al-Bab, Jarablus and Manbij (Lister 2015, 194). These three are marked in the interactive map below.
While there were strategic withdrawals at this time, Daesh also succeeded in capturing all of Raqqa in January ’14, forcing Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham out of the city after intense fighting (Lister 2015, 195). By mid-March 2014, Daesh had withdrawn from Latakia, Idlib, and western Aleppo (Lister 2015, 208), concentrating as mentioned before in Manbij, Jarablus, and Raqqa. It would not give up on the areas it withdrew from, apparently aiming to connect territories it had conquered. It largely conquered the areas between Raqqa and Deir al-Zour, and on towards the border town of albuKamal. Its seizure of Mosul in June 2014 shocked the world, but apparently it shouldn’t have. As has been shown throughout the conflict, the border with Turkey is a real lifeline for the group. If Daesh was truly unable to benefit from circulation of goods and people through this border, it would shrivel and eventually die. It would have to establish a second major supply route, and its not clear where that would come from in its immediate vicinity. Mountainous territory to its north and east combined with harsh deserts to the south west are formidable barriers to effectively moving goods or newly-arriving jihadis. But what about inside the areas it has consolidated? How does the organization manage the movement of people and goods?
Circulation and Distinction inside Daesh Territory
Inside of Syria and Iraq, there have been movements of people brought about by the extreme violence since the arrival of Daesh. In Syria, many fled areas gripped by war and went either to areas captured by Daesh or areas under firm control of the regime. We shouldn’t assume this split follows religious or ideological lines, most likely moved as quickly as possible, seeking shelter and stability. Daesh actually claimed that many farmers came to its territories because they were escaping the violence and robbery that plagued them outside. In doing so, it explicitly presents itself as a place of refuge for Muslims. That theme stretched more broadly to other propaganda released which denounced refugees who fled the war for Europe or other parts of the West, since Daesh wanted them to come join the Caliphate. Their unwillingness to do so doesn’t reflect well on the image Daesh works so hard to polish and present, a key part of attracting more recruits from abroad. Finally, Daesh has equated moving out of the territory with apostasy, so people literally have to escape clandestinely. Whereas the organization is willing to strategically withdraw from territory when necessary, it has shown itself unwilling to let those who have joined leave with their lives, if it can help it.
To operationalize this control of movements in and out of the territory they occupy, Daesh has a department that specifically handles questions of border management. The organization controlled the Tal Abyad border crossing for some time, and it made it far easier for them to facilitate passage in and out. Several bus companies based in Raqqa and Mosul opened up which serviced this route. Asma, interviewed in the NYT, described her role in the Al-Khansaa Brigade, where she would travel to the border to meet new female recruits and bring them back to Raqqa. Women experience significant limitations on their movement. Ithas been decreed that women are not to travel without a male guardian, or mahrim.
Checkpoints distributed throughout Daesh territory serve to control internal movement, and passes have been developed to regulate the differential ability of some individuals to move more freely, or even leave the territory without being labeled an apostate. For example, one citizen of the “Caliphate” got this permission slip to travel to Kuwait ( see Tamimi Archive, 2J). Another document demonstrates official permission given to a member of the Shaitat tribe to return to his home. This needs to be read in the context that Daesh seizes the property of those who flee, and also in light of the revolt by this tribe which was crushed by Daesh, resulting in the deaths of several hundred of its members. As the document is undated, it is unclear if it predates or postdates the Daesh massacre of members of the same tribe. In this same vein, Daesh did not want its soldiers moving around as they please, so it posted this sign telling truck drivers NOT to give them rides:
No matter how much they might deny it, there is something very imposed and foreign about Daesh. In a weird reversal, the foreigners inside Daesh territory have status and power. This is part of a peculiar hierarchy inside the organization, where many of the top echelon are all ex-Ba’thists, but besides this, foreigners generally enjoy a privileged status inside the “Caliphate”. Several interviews with people who left have all testified to this hierarchy, and it apparently privileged foreigners in things as diverse as salary, internet access, and freedom of movement. A recent report from Mosul described how a foreign fighter in Daesh accosted an old Iraqi man for having trimmed his beard too short, and the man was in no mood to listen, shouting back. Six Iraqi Daesh fighters intervened on the old man’s behalf, and beat the foreign fighter who had accosted him, throwing him into their car and driving away. Daesh also took steps to keep the two groups apart:
“But both within their unit and more broadly across Raqqa, the Organization had issued a strict decree: No mingling between natives and foreigners. The occupiers thought gossip was dangerous. Salaries and accommodations might be compared, hypocrisies exposed.” (NYT -ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish and Escape11/21/15)
Daesh did attempt to paper over this division by getting some new arrivals to symbolically burn their passports upon arrival. Afterwards, however, they seem to have realized the value of these passports and they stopped burning them, and instead kept them at the HR department. Just as happens in other parts of the world, it is far easier to use a real passport of someone you resemble than it is to counterfeit it completely. Especially for countries with chips that scan digitally, producing fake passports can be very difficult. Reports have also emerged that Daesh has the ability to make new Syrian,Libyan and Iraqi passports, though this comes from government sources who have provided no independently verifiable proof this is true. Circulation needed to be facilitated in ways beneficial to the state, and controlled in those it deemed dangerous. At the same time Daesh must facilitate the movement of oil both within and outside of its territories. These exports are vital sources of revenue. The map in this report by FT about the Daesh oil trade is the best one I have seen, and it shows the supply routes the oil follows in detail. Finally, a great new investigation about the supply chains of parts used by Daesh to make car bombs shows just how globalized it really is, drawing on 51 companies from 20 countries.
It All Comes Back Around to Circulation
After the key victory in late 2015 which saw the Kurdish YPG retake control of Sinjar, Daesh struggled to continue to move goods and people as it had before. Daesh immediately began trying to create a new connection, not only by fighting to regain control but by building a new road. A new path through the desert was actually found by truck drivers, reconnecting Mosul with Raqqa, showing the vital importance of this connection to Daesh and the people who live in Mosul, especially. There is no other major trade route to get basic goods into Mosul because of how it is isolated from Baghdad, and Daesh is dependent on the Turkish border as has been outlined.
Most recently, Daesh lost control of Shadadi in northeastern Syria, another key city linking Syria and Iraq. As can be seen on the map it is due west of Sinjar. Not long after the ceasefire was implemented across Syria, Daesh tried to seize the Tal Abyad border crossing between Syria and Turkey which it lost to the Kurds. Because of the long and porous nature of the border between Turkey and Syria, goods from Turkey have not been completely cut off to Daesh, as smugglers find other ways, but control of that central artery clearly helps facilitate circulation. Daesh still controls some of it to the west much closer to Aleppo, but the Kurds have control of the border on the Syrian side in the entire northeast of the country. Blood is still moving in the Daesh circulatory system, but not as efficiently as before. There have been rumors that Daesh actually wants to seize parts of northern Lebanon (Akkar) to access the Mediterranean, something that American and Lebanese military planners are anticipating and planning for. If Daesh could operate a functioning port, it would fundamentally change what it can get to its territories and spread the clashes between its fighters and foreign nations onto the Mediterranean Sea.
A Permanently Incomplete State?
At this point, some of you might be thinking, everyone wants to control supply routes during a war. Nations and their borders are born out of wars and violence that break down and reconstitute networks of violence. The networks that are successful in establishing a hegemony on the use of coercive violence in a territory can potentially solidify into a state. Isn’t that what you’re outlining here? Yes, yes and yes. The difference is that at this point, Daesh is stuck in an in-between ‘state’- it constitutes a state in important ways but doesn’t (and can’t any time soon) in other crucial ways. It’s not an army fighting on behalf of a state to preserve an existing state, but rather one trying to leech vital elements out of two crumbling states (Iraq and Syria) and cobble them together into a new one. They produce tons of shiny propaganda in a litany of languages to draw new fighters, because that’s necessary. Just as they need a flow of goods from outside, they need a constant, renewing flow of fighters. They have been pushing fighters NOT to have kids; the organization worries that they’ll be unwilling to carry out suicide missions if they get attached to new families. Thousands of their jihadis have died and others have left, disillusioned. They can tax the population heavily in the areas they control, but they cannot effectively conscript them. Where other nation-states are dependent on migration for labor, Daesh depends on it for fighters, because it exists in a constant state of war. Moreover, many fighters are killed or incapacitated and the state experienced significant brain drain, especially among doctors. All of these issues compound the fact that they’re limiting expansion of the population through birth control. Daesh needs new fighters and skilled workers to travel to join them, and this movement can only effectively come from Turkey south into Syria.
The problem with all of the above is that Daesh remains too unstable to begin policies meant to stimulate any growth in the manner other states can. These battles to control key arteries will only keep circulation flowing, they will not stabilize the “caliphate”. As pointed out above, Daesh apparently has the ability to make Syrian and Iraqi passports, but not their own that will be recognized internationally. This is representative of where they stand, effectively constituting a state but unable to finalize a number of details that other states can to participate in the global economy. Just as it struggles with passports,neither can it make an internationally recognized currency, despite its attempts to do so. A currency that cannot be exchanged for other currencies is fatally fragile. I think that was exactly why they insisted on using gold and silver, because those metals have value independent of the state.
Yes, they claimed it was about undermining Western economic hegemony, but I think it was much simpler than that. Their minting of coins apparently fell apart after its presses were seized (in southern Turkey no less) and reports since have no more use of the gold and silver coins. That means it remains dependent on foreign currencies, especially American dollars, Iraqi dinars, and Syrian dinars to use as currency in its territories. This dependency is demonstrated in an administrative decree from 30 September 2015 where Daesh informs all shopkeepers not to accept or circulate new 500 and 1000 Lira notes from the Syrian government. It seems to me, again, to be a feeble policy meant to control money supply in a state that can’t actually print its own money. Absent these abilities, Daesh is even more dependent on circulation it can facilitate of goods and fighters.
Thus, the unique situation of permanent war circumscribed by a variety of factors fundamentally limits Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Even if they can keep circulation flowing and new recruits coming, it is an unsustainable venture as is. I have no way of predicting how long it will last, I don’t think anyone does, but absent a fundamental transformation in the factors described above, I don’t see any way Daesh can overcome these limitations. More broadly, they can potentially develop statelets in other parts of the world, as they are already beginning to, but I don’t see those becoming anywhere near as developed as the base in Syria and Iraq.
I would like to thank Spyros Sofos for expanding my thinking in regard to these topics! The quick discussion of the argument inside Al-Qaeda about seizing territory is a nutshell distillation of William McCants’ work, find my full review of it here.
In the last few days a trove of new personnel files were leaked by a former member of Daesh containing thousands of personnel files on fighters. Sky News was at the center of the leak and has their very sensational account of their importance here. Yet what started with a splash may turn out to be far less exciting than Sky is making it out to be. Some are already pointing out that the files likely contain very little new information as they are several years old- (here too). So what’s worth paying attention to? I think the metadata of these docs, once fully analyzed and collated, can shine light on questions of radicalization.
The image above is just one example of the documents in question. The red watermarks were added by the media company who published the docs and are not part of the original. I agree with Aymenn Tamimi about several things- these docs do not resemble any of the other docs that have been leaked and determined to be original so far. That doesn’t mean it’s fake, but it must be taken into consideration. On top of this, one can see the outdated logo at the top right which still reflects the name ISIS before the shortened it. That is consistent with the dates of entry I have seen so far, but there’s way too many docs here to claim that standard holds across them all. One must ask, why would someone go to the length of faking thousands of these records? If it were a single fake document that had a very explicit falsehood, one with political consequences, I could see the potential motivation. With this trove, it’s not so clear why anyone would do that.
The list of questions on the form is quite straightforward in the beginning. I don’t think we really lack for data about which countries jihadis are coming from, but there’s always room for more accuracy and transparency. We see, at least from reports I’ve read, that the Turkish border has been the entry point of preference, but that was basically known already. Aside from these, there are some interesting categories here that deserve more scrutiny. First, question number 15 asks if the person has taken part in jihad before- and if so, where? The example I have above is just a straight ‘no’, but the ability to derive statistics from this and classify exactly how many of these fighters were rookie jihadists as opposed to how many were seasoned would be very interesting. Right now, we can only look at forms individually.
Second, I think question number 10 opens a very interesting window into the rest of the jiahdi’s life. It asks what profession the person had before coming. In the example above, it says he had no work before, itself a telling answer. The data for the entire set would go a long way to answering some burning questions that scholars and pundits have been arguing over- what pushes people to join jihad? How much is poverty or lack of work a factor in that? For those who think poverty is the main driving force behind radicalization, economic development becomes the prescription that will minimize terrorism and violent radicalization. If however, the data show that many are not materially deprived, the keys to their radicalization cannot be so simply boiled down to failures in economic development.
I should say I don’t think we’ll ever get one overarching theory explaining radicalization; I think there are too many unique circumstances in the lives of different individuals as well as different countries. I think we’ll find with more research that the reasons that a Belgian radicalizes will most often not align with those of a Saudi, for example. There is also an interesting, if controversial, debate about whether engineers are more prone to becoming jihadis than others. Finally, I am curious to see if the identities here can be verified and to what extent the information Daesh had for its bureaucracy was accurate. I hope some of this metadata about these files becomes available soon, and you can trust that once it does I will write about it.