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!
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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:

Review of The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from “Islamic State”

As accounts and interviews with those who have lived under Daesh rule in Syria and Iraq emerge, I have eagerly sought them out. It is one thing to study Daesh, to seek to understand its structures, its finances, its media, its violence. It is another, however, to understand the impact it has on people’s lives. Headlines that talk about capturing a new city, or losing control of one for that matter, obscure so much of the pain and violence that comes along with those noteworthy events. Their shocking nature also pushes us to dehistoricize, to forget what came before, all too easily slipping into assumptions that things there have been this way for some time. The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from “Islamic State” is a powerful antidote to these assumptions, generalized by those far away about events they only know through already simplified headlines.

The book is the result of the brave writing by a young man who lived under Daesh rule in Raqqa, the group’s organizational hub in Eastern Syria. With the help of Mike Thompsen, a BBC journalist, “Samer” the activist managed to smuggle his accounts out of Syria, to a third country, where they were translated and edited for presentation in this book. The end result is easy to read and accessible, at least on a literary level. On an emotional level, it is anything but easy to read, and is in fact very challenging. Readers will find it hard not to imagine themselves in Raqqa with Samer, experiencing the pain and trauma through his words.

Samer’s narrative of his life in Raqqa chronicles three broad periods to acquaint readers with Syria. Through memories, Samer discusses growing up under the Assad regime. He chronicles how his father had problems with regime intelligence services, and disappeared for some time (p.39). Readers see the toll this takes on Samer’s family. It turns out Samer’s father had been reported to the Assad government as a political dissident by his manager at work and had been detained. His family ultimately had to bribe the boss who had leveled the charges against Samer’s father. Samer’s mother sold her jewelry and a small piece of land they owned to get him out, but even in freedom Samer’s father had already lost so much. “I couldn’t understand how someone could take everything we knew from us like this” Samer says on p.46. “Not only was all this happening under the eyes of the (Assad) government, it had their complete support.” Additionally, Samer mentions the 1982 Hama Uprising and how it was crushed by government violence. Because it was not covered in the media, Samer states that Syrians have learned from this and approached things differently this time, making sure to film and put images online of government actions (p. 47).

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image taken from the book p.48-49

Once the uprising began in Syria several months after the initial movements of the Arab Spring, events in Syria snowballed from peaceful protest marches to violent escalating clashes with the Assad government, recalcitrant in power. Samer describes his arrest, interrogation, and torture at the hands of the regime (p.50). “This didn’t stop me,” he states. “If anything, it made me more rebellious.”

The final period the book details, as its name suggests, is life under ISIS rule once the organization seized control of Raqqa. I won’t quote the details here, but Samer describes many of the repressive and violent realities he was exposed to. The public sphere loses its vitality, and becomes a place where bad things happen. Samer and others want to stay home just to avoid interactions with Daesh. The store Samer’s family ran for years can’t make money anymore, it is too hard to move goods through the war zone and they reach Raqqa with very high prices. These give a tiny glimpse into the very real changes Daesh rule brought to Raqqa.

On specific anecdote about life under Daesh in Samer’s account caught my attention. While walking home, Samer was warned, cryptically, not to walk down a given street. He had an idea what this meant, but his human curiosity got the best of him. What he saw was shocking enough I will leave it out of this review. Even if he hadn’t been warned, such a sight would shock and traumatize anyone, but the human element of his inability to stay away was the most telling to me. Everything Samer had experienced was easily enough to make him avoid such sights, to take the advice of his friend. Yet those who live under ISIS rule are just as human as anyone, in all their virtues, vices, tendencies and shortcomings.

This account should be considered a primary source for the study of life under ISIS, and as such I highly recommend it. It brings the humanity, emotions, and trauma of those who have experienced life under ISIS into detail on its pages. Where other works I have read mostly deal with the history leading to the group’s emergence, this work is head and shoulders above the others to give one a sense of human life in Syria before the uprisings, during the Syrian War, and finally under Daesh rule.

 

Islamic State(craft): Little Explored Details of ISIS Rule

This is a talk I gave at my home institution, the University of Washington, in November of 2016, organized by the Middle East Center of the Jackson School of International Studies (JSIS). In this talk, I focus on banal details of ISIS rule that are often ignored. As I say in the intro, I am not trying to legitimize their rule, but rather I want to analyze it. I do so to try to push our collective knowledge about the ISIS terrorist organization. I’d be happy to try to answer questions or comments in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Daesh forced out of Dabiq, where they expected apocalyptic confrontation

Sunday, 16 October 2016 is proving to be a watershed day in the developing history of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Today, Syrian rebel forces (the FSA) clashed with and drove ISIS out of Dabiq in northern Syria. The Turkish military played a role, carrying out airstrikes on Daesh and helping the fighters on the ground to take the villages of Ghaitun and Irshaf.

The video above shows fighters announcing the liberation of Dabiq and that hopefully soon they will take Raqqa as well. The village, in its location to the north of Aleppo, rests just between the Turkish border and the town that has become the center of the Syrian War. For Daesh, its location was an important part of taking advantage of the porous border between Syria and Turkey to smuggle fighters, goods, and weapons into Syria. Similarly, Daesh fighters leaving to go carry out attacks in Turkey and Europe potentially moved through here.Daesh had situated some 1,200 fighters there. In practical terms, today’s military victory by Syrian rebels will help shut off this flow of goods and fighters, but the victory has a large symbolic importance as well.

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The Symbolic Importance of Dabiq

In addition to its brutal violence, seizing of territory, and taking sexual slaves from populations of minority groups like Yezidis, Daesh leaders have emphasized the importance of the town of Dabiq, where they believed an apocalyptic confrontation would take place. The prophecy comes from a Hadith of Abu Hurayrah, which describes a battle between Muslim forces and a large group of non-Muslims.  This hadith was reproduced on the back page of ISIS propaganda as written about by another blogger I am otherwise unfamiliar with, Zen Pundit. As the prophecy was well known to Daesh fighters and supporters, the organization scrambled to address the fact that its prophecy seemed to have fallen flat:

 

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This screenshot was shared by a social media user, I am looking for a legit link for this and will upload it if I find it. It may be satire, which would be quite fitting.

As one might expect, there was a lot of celebration among US leaders, represented here by Brett McGurk:

Others had more sarcastic takes on the defeat:

I expect Daesh to make attempts to reconquer this space, so I will update this as necessary.

 

A Failed Coup in Mosul against ISIS

Reuters reports today that a planned coup was nipped in the bud before it could be carried out. An aide close to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was apparently among those who planned the action, in which weapons had been hidden in numerous locations around Mosul. Once outside forces invaded, these plotters apparently would have joined them. Daesh reportedly executed 58 people suspected of being part of this and buried them in a mass grave outside the city.

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What struck me is that this sounds strikingly like the way that ISIS would target cities in Syria for being taken over. They would send someone, months in advance, who would rent apartments and covertly fill them with weapons and supplies. Once the attack on the city started, ISIS fighters knew exactly where to find stores of weapons to bolster their fight. (see “How ISI Came to Syria” in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror  by Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss, p 149-150 and “Secret Files Reveal the Structure of the Islamic State” by Christoph Reuter, Der Spiegel 4/18/2015)

Whether that is the model being used here or not, it comes not that long after news came out that an underground opposition movement existed in Mosul. Named Kitaeb Mosul, the group would spraypaint an “M” for muqawwama, meaning “resistance” on walls in the city.

The IB Times covered the story here as did الزمان in Arabic. I will update this as more info becomes available.

Iraq expels families with ties to Daesh as part of transitional justice

This is the third installment of a series I write here on my blog about transitional justice in areas liberated from the Islamic State (Daesh). Iraq is facing the tough task of transitioning certain areas back to normal after Daesh was forced out, but it’s proving complicated. For one, the organization still exists and fights in other parts of the country (and the region more broadly). In many other cases, transitional justice is a postwar phenomenon, where once a treaty is reached or one side is defeated, the transition begins. Iraq is in the awkward position of having to begin this transition before the victory is complete, and indeed, without certainty of when (or if, scarily enough) it will come.

In these communities that are now under the control of the Iraqi state once again, residents know which families cooperated and aided Daesh, and which of these individuals remain. In the first installment, we looked at how informal tribunals held by Iraqi forces asked villagers to identify those who had collaborated with Daesh.

This method of relying on statements and not carrying out actual trials in court was likewise used in Dhuluiya and Hit, both small cities where several hundred residents related to Daesh fighers (or so they’ve been labeled by the state) were forced to leave. In the case of Dhuluiya, Daesh was actually forced out 2 years ago, but the follow-up action to force out these families only came recently.

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Reuters 9/9/16  

This raises a different question, where does the state expect these families to go? The Reuters report says some moved to neighboring cities and villages with family members, and that others may have left for Kirkuk province. One wonders how residents in those places will receive them, or if there will be any governmental program to notify residents? Will different governorates communicate with each other about these moving families? Have they already? It seems as though the Iraqi state is not willing to take the step of exiling them completely, as the first question would be, to where exactly?

The Iraqi constitution guarantees residents the freedom of living and settlement, as a Iraqi government official told Reuters. This same official, from the Ministry of Migration and Displacement, condemned forced expulsions as oppressive but would not comment on whether he knew they were happening.

Sadly, families being forced to move by the state in this fashion is not new in Iraq. The Ba’th government began policies of this kind, to my knowledge, in the late 1970s targeting  members of the Iraqi Communist Party as well as those the state labeled as تبعية إيرانية which loosely translates to “Iranian loyalty”. From what I have seen in archival research at Hoover, this included Kurds as well as Iraqi Shiites and these individuals and families were deported to Iran.

The tables have turned, with the “help” of the US invasion that overthrew Saddam, so that a Shiite-led government is now the one forcing some Sunni families to move because of their affiliation with Daesh. Sadly, the inexact nature of the process used by the state has almost certainly caught some in its web that shouldn’t be there. A representative of the UN Commisioner for Human Rights in Iraq, Francisco Motta, stated as much, worrying that “(P)eople who may have nothing to do with ISIL are effectively being punished for what a family member may or may not have done.”  Depending on how widely it is applied, this could become a huge factor in trying to stabilize the state and get Iraq back to normal. Only time will tell.

I have taken all information and quotes from this Reuters article.