Daesh attacks Tehran: Why Iran, Why Now?

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

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

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

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

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

The Overarching Questions: Why Iran, Why now?

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

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

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

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

A tiny glimpse of the pain in Mosul

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

Daesh Takes on Conspiracy Theories in Dabiq Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.