Daesh in US Courts… Under What Circumstances? The Forgotten Lessons from the War on Terror

In the twilight of the failing and ongoing War on Terror, legal questions surrounding Daesh militants and those accused of aiding the group remain fraught. I previously wrote about informal tribunals in Iraq being used to deal with accused Daesh fighters, highlighting the deeply questionable practices being employed. I wrote a second piece at Medium.com exploring different instances of the same troubling phenomena.  More recently, Human Rights Watch (HRW) raised questions about cases where Iraqi forces were accused of human rights violations in dealing with accused Daesh fighters. HRW angered people with its defense of what many perceived to be the indefensible, prompting some to call the organization “Daesh Rights Watch.” The case I will detail below raises questions about the nature of “enemy combatant” status, the relationship between US courts and US citizens, and finally about negotiated leniency in sentencing for jihadis to facilitate both defection from jihadi groups and the fight against radicalization.

A recent story about the ACLU suing the DOJ on behalf of a Daesh member caught my eye. However, that is the tail end of the story. The story began when a US citizen was seized and handed over to US forces in Syria by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The name of the US citizen in question has not been released, and he was being held without access to a lawyer as an “enemy combatant.” He apparently holds a second citizenship, which has not been specified. Several months ago, when the Washington Post reported on this case, they reported that USDOJ officials did not believe they had enough evidence to charge him and that he was being held in a “short-term facility” in Iraq. Why had he been given the “enemy combatant” distinction? The vague details of the case leave too many such questions open. This is when the ACLU sued the US government on this man’s behalf and a judge agreed, saying that the detainee could not be denied access to a lawyer. Hanging over all of this was the fact that the unnamed detainee was the first such capture since Donald Trump entered office as the POTUS.

Daesh in US courts... Under What Circumstances? The Forgotten Lessons from the War on Terror

screenshot of Mohamad Khweis from Kurdistan24.net

 

A different case that made headlines can help illuminate a different angle of issues surrounding Daesh and “enemy combatant” distinctions. Mohamad Khweis was tried for having joined ISIS before fleeing of his own accord. Khweis turned himself over to Kurdish forces and was brought back to the United States to face trial. Khweis claims to have not participated in any violence but prosecutors found this dubious. The judge ultimately believed him, stating that he (the judge) “…believe(d) you left because you became disillusioned…you didn’t kill anyone… you left of your own volition.” Khweis was sentenced to twenty years in prison, a sentence around which there was no agreement. His defense attorneys asked for five years, while prosecutors pushed for thirty-five years, saying that Khweis had lied repeatedly and that he did not show true remorse for his actions.

Khweis’ case displays the governmental and judicial transparency that should accompany any case, while the aforementioned case of the unnamed “enemy combatant” begs the question: what was the nature of the evidence for classifying this man as an enemy combatant? The secrecy clouds the distinction and makes one wonder, is it all happening again? Could an innocent man have been railroaded by a justice system rigged against him if the ACLU hadn’t intervened?

One person who helped answer this question was Seamus Hughes, a fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism (GWPoE) who follows US court cases involving Daesh closely. He explained that some accused jihadis have been declared “enemy combatants” after capture before having that distinction removed so a civilian trial could proceed. To his knowledge, this is the first case he has seen where the state did not drop the “enemy combatant” distinction.

Spencer Ackerman raised a related question: shouldn’t governments be trying to encourage Daesh members to defect, and does this “enemy combatant” distinction for someone with apparently little evidence against him undercut that? Defectors are perceived to be weapons in the fight against radicalization domestically but if these defectors are thrown in jail with no remorse, what incentive do they have to cooperate? Such choices would force defectors underground, a situation that does not help them or governments in their fight against Daesh.

There are few easy answers to the fight against Daesh which tests legal systems where ever it is fought. The desire to label jihadis as exceptional, sub-human, lacking basic rights tests human nature and our belief in the power of human rights. Even those whom we despise and are guilty of awful crimes must be protected by basic human rights for the concept to be of value. Onur Bakiner emphasized this to me through an historical example. Onur is a political scientist at Seattle University who studies courts and their politics in Latin America as well as Turkey. He discussed how the spirit of the Nuremberg Trials at the end of WWII showed the value of due process guarantees for war criminals. Allied forces could have executed the captured war criminals, but chose instead to put them on trial.

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Nuremberg Trials- Nov 22, 1945. photo from National Archives and Records (NARA) College Park, Md.

This lesson of the Nuremberg Trials is one that key people in the US government forgot or deemed outdated. The US showed over the last two decades in its “War on Terror” that it would detain and torture anyone the system deemed a combatant. The US scooped under hundreds of innocent people, and more than 700 of those who were detained at Guantanamo were eventually released. While most cases for American Daesh fighters are apparently being resolved in civilian courts, the case detailed here of the unnamed combatant represents a serious step backward for the USDOJ which seems to coincide with Donald Trump’s presidency and Jeff Sessions’ time running the USDOJ. Mohamad Khweis’ case, detailed above, shows us that trials for Daesh members in civilian courts are not only possible, but the best path. If the US continues to declare fighters to be “enemy combatants” while denying them basic due process in a court of law, this will not help defeat Daesh, but it will ensnare innocent people.

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?

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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.

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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!
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.