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 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

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

Book Review: Hunting Season by James Harkin

“By the time it was rolled out, ISIS wasn’t so much a meeting of jihadi minds- one buttressed by networks of recruits that had already been established in Europe.” (p.94)

Such are the kinds of insights that pepper Harkin’s work on the wave of kidnappings of foreigners in Syria in the first two years of the war in Syria. By tracing a series of kidnappings of journalists and the mystery that followed, Harkin is able to follow an important, if largely ignored thread of the story about Daesh. Yet it is just that: a thread. Readers looking for a work that explores the history and development of Daesh in the manner of works by Gerges or Weiss and Hassan have come to the wrong place.  Harkin’s work succeeds inside its circumscribed limits:

“{B}ased on his reporting for Vanity Fair, James Harkin’s groundbreaking book investigates the abduction, captivity, and execution of American journalist James Foley and the fate of 23 other ISIS hostages.”

Through interviews with some of the released hostages, Harkin is able to provide descriptions about the treatment of hostages by the ISIS captors, details about how they were moved multiple times, and details about the coping strategies the different hostages used. With the lens focused on the captives, Harkin brings in details from the broader war that help illuminate the context surrounding their captivity. He also mentions something I have repeatedly pointed to in this blog, prison radicalization for  jihadis:

“When he taught Arabic in a prison near Antwerp, Pieter Van Ostaeyen saw petty criminals morph over the space of a few months into zealous Islamists under the influence of powerful Salafi preachers. The way he sees it, puritanical Islamism has become just another prison gang culture, just like the Aryan Nation in the United States.” (p.101, emphasis mine)

Harkin’s work, while definitely journalistic and not academic, nonetheless is able to tie in useful details about changes in ISIS as an organization. He barely touches upon it, but read alongside a recent work about ISIS “Emni” branch, a very clear picture comes together.

This lens  Harkin uses also becomes a very interesting one in relation to international dynamics and intervention in the conflict in Syria. All of the journalists kidnapped by ISIS had varying chances of ever being released, largely if not completely determined by the government’s willingness to pay ransoms in kidnapping cases. Italy, France, Spain and others all were willing to pay ransoms albeit as secretly as possible. The United States and the UK, however, refuse to pay ransoms as policy, which they claim takes away the financial motive to kidnap their citizens. It’s highly controversial, and families of the kidnapped understandably don’t like it.



Harkin and others ran headlong into these issues at the beginning of the wave of kidnappings. The only clue to the abnormal nature of the kidnappings was the absence- of clues, of demands, of any info. Indeed, for some time, many were convinced that the Shabiha (regime thugs- literally “ghosts”) had kidnapped them as no traces of them were found among rebel groups. Only later, some time after many had already disappeared for some time, did it become clear that all the kidnappings were by the same people.

Harkin argues there was “an effective conspiracy of silence” even among governments who do pay ransoms as it was thought that higher profile cases would command higher ransoms. ISIS, unlike others, didn’t even announce it had the hostages or make any demands publicly, so Harkin argues the silence about their kidnappings- by the families, governments, and ISIS didn’t help the situation (p.78). Harkin argues it failed to notify other journalists about the situation and those who went in later were in greater danger.

This kidnapping industry, or K&R (kidnapping and ransom) that emerged in Syria from 2012 on also supported a whole range of shady actors. Given the instability of the war, it was not possible for families to easily reach Syria to investigate and a small industry of individuals popped up who attempted to fill this need. Many, as Harkin demonstrates, had no real leads or info and were out to scam the families looking desperately for traces of their loved ones.

recent report by FT corroborates Harkin’s account that as the war has shifted, so has the K&R industry in Syria. Whereas Harkin shows how ISIS began kidnapping foreigners before it gained larger notoriety, FT’s report shows that ISIS defectors have become common kidnap victims by other rebel militias in Syria. FT interviewed a rebel commander named Abu Yazan, who insisted that every rebel faction trades in ISIS fighters. Once these men and women flee ISIS, they’re on their own, and the K&R industry actually ransoms some of them back to their nation of origin.

FT 1/9/17

In equally clear yet depressing fashion, Harkin’s work details John Cantlie’s time in captivity, his bond and quarrels with James Foley, all leading up to him being the very last remaining captive. Since 2014, Cantlie has been known to the outside world as the man who appears in ISIS propaganda from time to time, describing how things in Mosul were not as western media portrayed them, among other things. It sparked questions, did he have Stockholm Syndrome, was he pretending for his own survival, or something else? For this reader, Harkin’s book gave a backstory to Cantlie’s survival, how he avoided being beheaded alongside Foley and others, yet remains trapped.

Finally, Harkin’s work is an easy read given his journalistic approach and good editing overall. As I said in the beginning, it’s not academically rigorous and there are better works to learn a comprehensive picture of ISIS, but it doesn’t need to be. Read alongside those, this book is an interesting and easy to read supplement. On those terms, I recommend it.

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.


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.

The curious case of Harry Sarfo, former ISIS militant

There has been a stream of foreigners making their way through Turkey to Syria to join Daesh for some time. As the organization faced losses of territories and mounting death tolls of dead fighters, the number leaving the same way they came in has picked up as well. As we know, some of these fighters had not disavowed their ties to ISIS, but wanted to carry out attacks and were acting with explicit support from Daesh. Others had to sneak out, since leaving without the group’s permission has been equated with apostasy from Islam, and thus death.

One of these men has proven particularly talkative. Harry Sarfo, a German of Ghanian origin fought with Daesh before apparently having a change of heart. He fled back through Turkey and flew back to Germany, where he was arrested on arrival. He was tried and convicted of terrorist activities and sentenced to 3 years in jail, but questions remained about his activities while a member of Daesh. Sarfo denied taking part in any crimes and insisted he had been against Daesh violence before he finally quit and fled. The ensuing controversy around his story has grown and is outlined below.

His case might not have drawn much attention had he not been so willing to talk. He has been quoted in media around the world, from Russia to the USA, UK, Germany, and Ghana, where he was apparently born. The picture he paints fits with what many other defectors have described, and apparently prison officials as well German intelligence officials tasked with interrogating him found him credible. Others cast doubt on his credibility.

Sarfo’s multiple statements

Much of what Sarfo has to say portrays the organization as not merely brutal, but as going against Islam. In the NYT interview video linked below, Sarfo says he was drawn by the appeal of living in a place where Shari’a law was implemented, but that it took him barely one week to realize just how big of a mistake he had made by joining the group. He describes not only shocking things like children participating in war, but also the brutal punishments he saw meted out by Daesh. “The Islamic State is not just un-Islamic,” Sarfo stated, “it is inhuman. A blood-related brother killed his own brother on suspicion of being a spy. They gave him the order to kill him. It is friends killing friends.” These are the kinds of statements that are likely effective at dissuading potential recruits.

Sarfo claims to have been recruited for a specific branch of Daesh meant to carry out attacks abroad called “emni” or “أمني” in Arabic. A recent NYTimes article based on interviews with Sarfo describes the recruiting process in detail. Its soldiers have apparently been dispatched to Austria, Germany, Lebanon, Spain, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Tunisia and Malaysia, according to the NYTimes. He is the first I’ve seen to speak of “clean men” who are recently converted Muslims living in various parts of Europe helping Daesh terrorists on the ground. Sarfo described his interview and vetting process that Daesh put him through when he arrived in Syria, and he also describes how many would-be terrorists in England had backed out of their assignments, a constant problem for Daesh in its attempts to remotely plan attacks. Overall, his story and claims seem to corroborate other accounts from defectors.

Sarfo’s Radicalization

Sarfo’s past and path to joining Daesh, it must be mentioned, are actually quite common. An interview he gave to The Independent in the UK talked extensively about his past. Sarfo was not Muslim from birth, he converted around age 20. He was involved with crime and drugs as a youth, and met a jihadist recruiter in prison. Upon release, he joined a “radical” mosque in Bremen, and sought to travel to Syria to work with an aid organization, but was arrested multiple times and found himself back in Germany. This part seems questionable, as Sarfo had already shown signs of radicalization but was merely traveling to Syria to work in aid? It’s possible, but questionable. In her interview with him, Rukimini Callamachi of the NYT asked him these questions, and he responded that some elements of the mosque in Bremen turned him off, especially having to stop associating with non-Muslims. Upon his return, Sarfo  had to report to police while under watch for potential radicalization. His home was repeatedly raided by police and his passport was taken. He claims that this mistreatment at the hands of German police pushed him to join ISIS in April 2015.

Sadly, these patterns of radicalization are already documented and not unique to him. Sarfo’s path to becoming a jihadist after conversion in adulthood, as well as a life of crime, and time in prison are common themes for jihadists. I have written about this previously here. In summary, a fairly common example of radicalization supposedly culminated in Harry Sarfo feeling overwhelmed in Syria with ISIS, and he fled to escape with his life. Yet if that were all that happened, or indeed what happened at all, Sarfo’s story wouldn’t be so curious.

A Seemingly Incriminating Video
This week, Sarfo’s public story took an unexpected turn when the Washington Post published a video it claims was leaked to them from inside Daesh territory. The video is a series of clips of Harry Sarfo while he was a member, and it seems to contradict his testimony that he never participated in Daeshi violence. I say it seems because the video shows Sarfo pull out a handgun, point it at a group of regime soldiers who were already being fired upon, and shoot at them. Given how much they had already been shot at, there’s a good chance they were already dead. We can’t see this for certain, though, because another person moves in front of the camera right at the moment Sarfo seems to fire his weapon. The video cast clouds over the claims of Sarfo, as well as his loquacious appearances in media talking about what he claims to know. Sarfo’s attorney refused to comment other than saying “I can’t say anything about this…this is a surprise to me.”

Even more interesting, however, is the video itself. Given the proximity of the filming in the very beginning, it seems safe to assume that the filmer was a fellow Daesh member, but this is not so clear later in the video. How could someone who wasn’t a fighter or with Daesh get that shot? I think that largely rules out the idea that a civilian inside who isn’t part of Daesh filmed this and released it. Moreover, Daesh releases propaganda constantly. If they wanted to embarrass Mr. Sarfo and cast doubt on his stories, why not just put it in their own propaganda? To this author, it really seems that something just isn’t right. Why would someone on the inside of Daesh leak this video to the Washington Post? The murky nature of the motivations behind the release, and its exceptional nature lead me to explore some potential explanations.

A) One scenario would be that Daesh knows realistically that much of its propaganda is censored and taken offline before it is widely disseminated. Taking this into account, they decide to leak the footage to a source that wouldn’t be censored, the Washington Post. Strangely, there are no logos or watermarks added to the footage, despite the fact that Daesh regularly adds these. Moreover, the footage isn’t that incriminating to this author’s mind, so I wonder what they would have expected this to achieve? update: I realized I can’t think of a single time Daesh supposedly leaked anything to the press, so this would be unprecedented if that’s what really happened.

B) Another scenario is that the person on the inside who leaked it to the Washington Post is some kind of foreign informant/agent. There is a high probability that foreign intelligence agencies have sent agents  to join Daesh disguised as recruits. Think about it for a second- if it is sadly so easy for Daesh fighters to sneak into Europe, and Daesh is accepting hundreds of new fighters a week, how easy would it be for a foreign intelligence organization to get a spy inside, disguised as a recruit? It would be dangerous to say the least, but very possible. If someone on the inside wanted to get this information out to impact Sarfo’s trial, how would they do it? It seems that if the video was given straight to the German government, its provenance would come under question, and it would become clear the German government had some kind of spy on the inside, likely initiating a search for the person. Instead, it is given by the agent/s to journalists, who may or may not know who this person is, and they may genuinely think s/he is a Daesh member.

C) It is always possible that personal feuds not publicly known could be the reason that someone on the inside wants Sarfo, now escaped, to face more jail time.

D) Finally, it would also be possible that Daesh is very angry about what Sarfo has revealed and wants to try to call his credibility into question by releasing this footage that seemingly undermines his own story. Rather than trying to ensure he gets more prison time, they might want to cast doubt on his statements about life on the inside as well as the way the “emni” branch operates. For me, this still loops back to the doubts I expressed above.

Whatever the truth is, all of this has turned into a spat between the reporters at the Washington Post and Rukmini Callamachi at the NYTimes.

I think this tension between the reporters is unfortunate, because I don’t think reporter complicity with Daesh is what is going on. My hypothesis, outlined above, would explain this in a manner that didn’t involve any complicity by the Washington Post, and I also wonder whether active Daesh members would actually be willing to work with them. In the ensuing back and forth, a number of people accused Rukmini Callamachi of being too easy on Sarfo and basically accepting his lies.

There isn’t enough evidence to say definitively, so I have made clear that my points above are merely conjecture. I will update the story if new information becomes available. Point B in particular raises the points that the Washington Post focused on when they released the video, namely that German authorities were in a difficult position to deal with Daesh defectors like Sarfo when they can’t establish what the person did or didn’t do while in Syria or Iraq. That points to long-term issues with transitional justice that will likely lean on the lenient side as Mr. Sarfo’s 3 year sentence seems to indicate. But, also in relation to point B, what if German intelligence has information it gathered in secret that would affect a trial of a Daesh defector? Or another foreign intelligence agency?  How, if at all, would that info enter into the trial? There are sadly more questions than answers for now.