Book Review: Jihad and Death-The Global Appeal of the Islamic State by Olivier Roy

I first read this book in the summer of 2017. I was quite impressed with it then but I was busy with other things at the time and I never got around to writing up a review. Almost two years later, Olivier Roy‘s work holds up and I’d like to draw people’s attention to it.

At a slim 100 pages, Roy’s English work is very readable and is not too heavy on theory. Its slim profile should not be taken to mean it does not contain some good analysis and new ideas, for it most certainly does. Rather than covering the group in its worldwide dimensions, Roy’s work is a sociology of Francophone jihadis, based on some 100 individuals known to have carried out terrorism or to have traveled to engage in international jihad. Roy limits his dataset to jihadis from France and Belgium, and it is here in his wheelhouse that his work is at is best. When Roy strays from this base, the work goes down in quality.

If one thesis sums up Roy’s sociological argument, it is his exploration of “the Islamization of radicalism” instead of the “radicalization of Islam” (p.6). Put another way, as Roy does on p.8, violent radicalization is not the product of religious radicalization.  Inverting the description here fundamentally changes the place of Islam in his analysis. We’re not talking about or trying to understand a shift in religious belief, at least for these Francophone jihadis. Roy finds they have lived lives full of sin, drinking, gambling, and engaging in petty crime. Their embrace of Islam happens most often after a stint in prison or right before they act on their desire to be involved in jihad. Roy calls most of these jihadis “born-agains.”  Similarly, there is a relatively high percentage of converts, more so in France than in Belgium (p.20).

Roy finds “generational revolt” and “youth culture” to be keys in understanding why these young jihadis radicalize.  He finds that a core social group, either brothers or friends from school, or maybe from prison most often forms the center of those who radicalize together. There is, at least according to Roy, an over-representation of sets of siblings (brothers) among these jihadis, something not characteristic of other “radicalisms” alongside which Roy places these Francophone jihadis. When their age is taken into account, Roy ties this to his broader argument about “youth culture” being a key part of understanding this phenomenon of radicalization.

In the first two chapters, Roy is really running on all cylinders. His description of the European environments should be wrestled with by policymakers and fellow scholars alike. Among his notable claims and observations:

  • Terrorism is not a result of unsuccessful integration into society (p.34)
  • Radicalization precedes recruitment (p.38)
  • Britain and Denmark stand out from the others as there is a network of extremist mosques in those countries seemingly acting as hotbeds of radicalization (p.31)
  • Throughout Europe, “Maghrebans” (Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans) are over-represented in jihadi ranks while Turks are underrepresented (p.21)
  • The first and third generations in the diaspora are underrepresented, while the second generation is over-represented (p.20).
  • Working class suburbs are over-represented because of the concentrations of second generation youth (p.33)
  • Almost no jihadis return to their parents’ countries of origin to wage jihad, a point Roy uses to argue their present is far more important to their radicalization than anger/ resentment over colonialism (p.46).
  • There are no documented cases where jihadis were politically active in Palestine solidarity or anti-Islamophobia campaigns before joining Daesh. (p.67) Indeed, Roy argues they are not protesting against Islamophobia because they also believe that Islam and the West are incompatible.

Readers can see where Roy’s argument is going, questioning much of our received wisdom about why jihadis do what they do. There is a political argument of sorts that Roy is at pains to rebut. It roughly goes that young men in the diaspora radicalize in response to repression, failed integration, and the crimes of colonialism committed against their countries of origin. Politically, one can agree that all those phenomena are horrible and need to be addressed with reparations and still accept Roy’s argument that Francophone jihadis are not pushed by these issues to radicalize. By this logic, as Roy points out, the parts of the world that have experienced some of the worst such violence (Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan) would be at least proportionally if not over-represented among the ranks of European jihadis joining Daesh. This is not the case. Roy hammers this point home on p.67:

“Those who view radicalization, whether religious or political, as a consequence of colonialism or racism do not realize that the divide does not lie between “those of Muslim origin” and “ethnic French.” The  divergence is about opinions and not origins.”

Roy instead places the lion’s share of the blame with French laicite (secularism coming from the French revolution), as that which best explains the over-representation of Francophone jihadis in Daesh. Laicite “decultures” the religious sphere the most, without filling the void. An over-simplified jihadi fundamentalism can find space in this void, appealing to youth in search of a cause.  Roy skates on increasingly thin ice when he discusses the transition of Leftist figures to Islamism, strangely arguing that “the Islamo-Leftist synthesis produced Hezbollah” without developing the argument. The party’s origin is certainly an interesting  topic but it can hardly be captured in such an argument. Certainly, any attempt to address this question would have to address Hezbollah as a Shi’i party, as Shi’ism is arguably farm more compatible with Leftist ideas than Sunni Islam is. Yet Roy does not address the fact that he’s been writing exclusively about Sunni jihadis and throws in a point about a Shi’i political party.

In Chapter Four, Roy covers ISIS in the Levant and Iraq and appears farthest from his strengths to this reviewer. The section comes off quite average, largely echoing other writers as Roy has few if any insights to add here. At the end of the chapter, he returns to what he does much better, and his discussion of the place of imams in French society and French Muslim communities is once again nuanced and interesting.

To this reviewer, one noticeable missing piece is a development of the overwhelming masculinity of the jihadis in question. Roy covers it briefly, all too briefly, and then moves on (p.51). It should really be the third central piece alongside youth culture and generational revolt; instead, he subsumes it under a fascination with violence. Moreover, much of Roy’s work finds parallels with other “radicalisms” but he barely touches the question of parallels to the far right. Instead, most of his other examples of radicalism are leftists, which is interesting in its novelty but under-developed (to be generous). Instead, I argue there are very strong parallels between jihadis and neo-nazis, evidenced in prison radicalization and toxic masculinity being central facets of both. Roy mentions prison radicalization but says that another author has already covered it extensively. This is unfortunate, for it seems a strong facet of what he’s describing. Arguably Chapter Four should have fallen under this category of “things someone else has written about extensively that I won’t touch.”

The volume as a whole is easily engaged with by non-experts, a testament to Roy’s solid writing. Anyone convinced that Islam is the problem or even at the center of the problem should read Jihad and Death to imbibe Roy’s insights and important argument. With the rising wave of right populism and nationalist extremism targeting European Muslims in their communities, rebutting the oversimplified ideas that these people won’t integrate and they are fundamentally radical is of the utmost importance. If Roy is correct, the Islamization of radicalism stems from generational revolt and youth culture and is thus not “religious radicalization,” pointing to a political/social solution to address that which has placed them in such different milieux than their parents. As I argued above, toxic masculinity and prison radicalization are both part of this picture as well, and must be addressed in any CVE policy. In this vein, we need comparable studies of the different countries producing large jihadi populations to systematically think about how their reasons for radicalization do or do not parallel Francophone jihadis and what that means for Daesh’s overall composition.

If it were up to me, I would rename the book to better represent what the strengths of the work. Jihad and Death can stay, but it should be followed by A Sociology of Francophone Jihadis instead of The Global Appeal of the Islamic State as Roy does not cover Russia, Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, etc etc. Even with the other issues critiqued here, the work is well-worth reading, especially for non-experts who want to know more than what the news is telling them.

The Collateral Damage of Fighting ISIS: Families, Children, and the Future

At the center of terrorism, on the level of ideas, is a classification. The terrorist is the person beyond humanity, beyond the law, and beyond reason. S/he has crossed the threshold. In the US War on Terror, for example, those charged with terrorism offenses are kept out of civilian courts, and thus the standard justice system, and instead tried in military courts, with less rights and protections. In Iraq, such trials are swift and haphazard, surrounded by uncertainty. Children are also supposed to be excluded from the adult justice system, but for their own protection, not because they’re exceptional. At the crux of these issues, the actions to weed out ISIS from Iraqi society are catching families and children in a broad net with damaging long-term consequences. Collective punishment and rushing children through the adult justice system will not achieve transitional justice.

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screenshot from this VICE news report

The family members of accused ISIS fighters face a tumultuous road ahead with no clear end. Iraq has set up camps to detain returning family members of ISIS suspects, but the numbers of people being transferred and held in the camps are not clear, nor are the criteria for detention. Their long term fate is even murkier. In addition to the crime of collective punishment (i.e punishing someone because their family member was in a terrorist group) there seems to be no distinction made between children and adults. State seizure of the children from their parents is fraught with pitfalls and does not present a working alternative to detention of the entire family.   How might such detention impact children? It certainly is not good for the children’s welfare, and may well traumatize them further. While easier said than done, an alternative method must be found to deal with the families of ISIS fighters.

A recent Jerusalem Post story detailed the escape of an Iraqi minor whose family died when ISIS raided their hometown several years ago. His life from age 11 until age 16 was lived under ISIS rule. In the best case scenario, he can be reunited with extended family members in Iraq, but he will need years of help to deal with the trauma he experienced. So far, he seems to have avoided accusations of having fought for ISIS, but many other children deal with these accusations today.

Indeed, Iraqi and KRG authorities are detaining and in some cases torturing children whom they allege to have been ISIS fighters. Even once released from custody, these youth  have said they fear returning to their homes because of the possibility of further scapegoating as being tied to ISIS, or potentially being re-arrested.  Some of the children are foreigners, but many are Iraqis; HRW estimates that around 1,500 children remain in detention for alleged connections to ISIS. A comprehensive system needs to be put in place to handle youth caught up in the war or with ISIS. If they fought as child soldiers, their age makes them victims under international law and they should not be prosecuted as terrorists. A haphazard approach to the fight to stabilize Iraq and vanquish ISIS risks planting the seeds of yet more problems in the future. The UN writes in detail here about what’s at stake with regard to the reintegration of child soldiers into society:

“Providing reintegration opportunities for children affected by conflict is not only a moral and legal obligation to protect children and put their best interests first, but it is also an important pillar to create sustainable peace. Failing to follow this trauma with healing and helping services will result in negative long-term effects for these children and their communities, and will have broader impacts on economic development and social cohesion. Stigmatization of the returning children may also lead to further exclusion and violence when programmes are not well adapted to the communities, the context and to the children’s needs.”

Understandably, some Iraqis have no patience for concerns about how suspected ISIS fighters or their families are treated given the atrocities Iraq suffered through. A strong desire for vengeance against ISIS animates haste and fuels retribution in some cases, but Iraqi authorities must keep their eyes on a key long term question, namely how to reintegrate these family members and children.  In the process of putting this blog together, I found photos labeled to be the children of ISIS fighters in which their faces were recognizable; I chose not to use these photos because I cannot authenticate them nor should the children’s faces be visible even if they are genuinely children of ISIS fighters.  How might such photos impact their future? The children of ISIS fighters must not be punished for their parents’ deeds, assuming their parents are actually guilty of being ISIS members. Those who fought as child soldiers need help to see the error of their ways and help with reintegration into Iraqi society. They cannot be expelled (who will take them?) or locked up forever.

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Photo from National Geographic Kids.

The children pictured above are Iraqi children playing at school, nothing more and nothing less.

 

 

Where Media Meets Statecraft: Daesh Promotion of Governmental Competence through its Media

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!

Zakat graphic al naba 31

Here I have included one of the Daesh infographics I studied- you can read about my analysis of it by following the link above.

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.