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:

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).

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

What’s Behind the Recent Wave of Attacks by Daesh?

With the latest attacks in Baghdad, the most recent bombing spree by Daesh/ISIS reached a level few others have. Bombings and attacks tore through Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, with several more in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia as well that aren’t clearly the work of Daesh yet. This dubious record, bringing multiple mass-casualty terror attacks in a string, has shocked the world and placed many on edge. If the attacks Qatif and Medina prove indeed to be the work of ISIS, I can only say it will be a turning point. Juan Cole already wrote a great piece on why Daesh would want to target Saudi Arabia, so readers should check that out.


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photo courtesy of Hayder al-Shakeri.

Here’s some of the basics we know that have received a lot of attention on social media:

• Many have pointed out this intense wave of attacks takes place during Ramadan, calling into question just how holy those carrying out the attacks really see the month to be.

• These attacks didn’t just happen during Ramadan- they come during a period where ISIS is losing territory and has been largely forced out of Fallujah in western Iraq for the first time since they seized control of it in January 2014.

• A sad pattern has emerged whereby victims in places like the USA, Belgium, and France receive far more attention and solidarity than those in Turkey, Bangladesh or Baghdad. It must be paired with the truth many in the USA and Europe don’t want to acknowledge- that the vast majority of victims of terror are Muslims.

• In Iraq, Baghdad residents pelted the PM Haider Abadi’s car and motorcade in anger over their perception that he was failing to secure the city.

• In Turkey, we know the Turkish state has at least indirectly fueled these attacks through its passive policies towards ISIS over the last two years. It moved on from the attacks in shockingly quick fashion, bypassing calls for a thorough investigation.

• In Dhaka, details emerge about the attackers that are not what most expected: the attackers were elite young men who came from wealthy families and had attended elite schools.

Through these points, we can now go beyond merely repeating them and dig into the details underlying them. The spate of attacks in Ramadan seems to me a continuation of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s tactics- where anything goes. Zarqawi had no issues about targeting Shiites and Sunnis who refused to take part in jihad rather than focusing solely on attacking the USA and the West more broadly. He was more extreme than Bin Laden or Zawahiri and stopped listening to them. Both OBL and Zawahiri told Zarqawi that his tactics were out of control and causing more harm than good, but he continued, and his influence sadly lives on (If you’re curious to read more about this I’d suggest this by Fawaz Gerges, I’ve been reading it lately and I’m thoroughly impressed). These attacks are the beginning of death throes of Daesh as an organization that controls territory. With each loss where Daesh is forced to flee, it needs to show strength somewhere else. I’ve written in this blog about the beginnings of transitional justice in areas Daesh was forced to leave. Now, these attacks likely have been in the planning stages for some time, so their confluence may not have been planned exactly as it is happening.

Iraq and Turkey both showcase an element of these attacks that has received a lot of academic attention and has also been the source of countless conspiracy theories. It has received comparably little attention from popular media more broadly, but states are sadly complicit in much of what happens with ISIS in various parts of the world. The Iraqi state, for example, has proven painfully inept, corrupt, and unwilling to put the interest of Iraqi citizens first. This isn’t lost on those who threw rocks at their PM’s motorcade. Huge protests targeted corruption in Baghdad last summer when residents had to deal with heat waves while there were major, and inexcusable power cuts. Barely six weeks ago massive protests happened again, targeting the Green Zone in Baghdad. Despite those large, non-sectarian protests, the problems remain largely unsolved.

Turkey on the other hand has spiraled downward over the last several years. This is predominantly because the AKP and President (formerly PM) Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been consolidating their power, pushing Turkey closer to autocracy every step in the process. The war next door in Syria also played a large role in these ongoing issues in Turkey. To solidify his rule, Erdogan reignited a long-dormant war between the state and the PKK, a militant Kurdish organization, and in the process has done next to nothing to stop Daesh-neither those entering Turkey to travel to join Daesh in Syria nor their supply of arms. Other highly contested reports had the Turkish intelligence services sending weapons to ISIS. In an example of how Turkey is becoming more authoritarian, the journalists who exposed this were put on trial. Yet it’s not just Turkey that has questionable relationships to jihadists; Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Qatar and the CIA have all been tied to funding Sunni jihadists in the region, as have private donors in Saudi and Kuwait.

The empathy deficit in regards to the victims of terrorism has become clearer and clearer in the last couple of months. It is not new, however. It is the latest manifestation of global trends that have consistently placed no value on the lives of those who live in the Global South, their lives merely statistics to all too many. Even with powerful voices trying to draw attention to the victims in different places like Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, Kenya, Somalia and others, their deaths still evoke comparably little reaction in the Global North. It’s important to emphasize that this sentiment is part of what drives radicalization- it’s not just a superficial thing. It’s tied to deep feelings of being dominated, humiliated, and having no value given to one’s life. The way the USA, Israel, and most recently, Assad, Russia, Turkey and Daesh can all kill large numbers of Muslim civilians with seemingly no major repercussions all strike a raw nerve with Muslims around the world. The abuses of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib both added to this feeling that those who speak of human rights clearly don’t think of Muslims when they push those platitudes. Perhaps no other place has experienced this glaring contradiction in western values and actions more than Iraq.

Dhaka sadly shows a different facet of the Daesh phenomenon, one that shows us that Daesh appeals to many different people for many different reasons. I’ve already written about these questions of radicalization elsewhere. There seem to be several very different archetypes of men who join Daesh, not to speak of the reasons women join. First, there are people who seem to have no economic issues whatsoever. I think most of these people are pushed by phenomena like those described above- and it’s likely the culmination of many of these events rather than a reaction to any single one that eventually radicalizes them. Second, there are reports from both Syria and Iraq about the men who join to get a salary, not necessarily for ideological reasons. Given the larger collapse of the economy and state institutions, many struggle to get by and will join eventually. The third group seems to be those who had lives as criminals of various kinds. These people often, though not exclusively, find Islam in prison. It seems, and to be clear, I am venturing a guess here, that these people find repentance from the wrong ways of their past in conversion but also a means to continue them in what they now see as a righteous cause. It’s hard to otherwise explain both conversion and radicalization. I think this phenomenon, rather than people instrumentally claiming to be Muslims only as a front, explains their “un-Islamic” behavior. They’re new to the religion, they don’t have a lifetime of experience with Islamic holidays or practices, and thus might have no compunctions about carrying out attacks during Ramadan, or, it may turn out, carrying out an attack in Medina.

May the victims rest in peace and may their families and friends find solace.


A glimpse into the Post-Daesh


A glimpse into the Post-Daesh

A recent news story might on the surface seem relatively inconsequential, but it likely is one of the first of many of its kind to come. It marks a transitionary period, one that has yet to begin in many places, that of areas conquered by Daesh being liberated and attempting to return to normal. In the case, an American man who defected from Daesh is facing charges from federal prosecutors in the USA for “material support of terrorism.” The man, Mohammad Khweis apparently fled Daesh of his own accord and handed himself over to Kurdish Peshmerga forces. So far, he is not connected to acts of violence or terrorism while a member, yet he faces charges nonetheless.
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The Guardian article which brought my attention to this raises interesting questions, but they’re entirely framed inside of the present: how should this be handled so that it can be of benefit for deterring others from joining Daesh? Is that done by prosecuting him, as federal officials seem convinced, or will that potentially deter some who have joined Daesh from defecting, or push them into defecting without handing themselves over to other forces? There are no clear answers.

As more and more battles play themselves out, many may fight to the death, but what of those captured alive, or who refuse to fight? Will all remaining members be incarcerated in their countries of origin? Given the instability in Syria it seems far more likely that Iraq may actually be in a position to use its justice system for former Daesh fighters- but Mohammed Khweis, pictured above, wasn’t a fighter by most accounts. Since merely going to Daesh territory is illegal for Americans, he is being prosecuted. I certainly wonder how effective putting him in prison can be, given that radicalization inside prison remains a troubling phenomenon we don’t know enough about (and one I wrote about in my last post, btw). It is very possible that Khweis would be welcomed by radical jihadis inside prison and venerated for his role fighting with Daesh. One could also see why he might not want anything to do with them given his choice to leave and reported arguments over ideology with other Daeshis, but the harsh realities of prison often force people to embrace groups they’d otherwise want to avoid. This question- how to deal with surviving members of Daesh and the manners in which these issues are resolved will have a lasting impact on the societies in these areas of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and others.

Rupture and Transition
As pointed to above, different areas are already experiencing the rupture of Daesh rule, I’ll call it sovereignty here for more clarity, and the immediate attempts to (re)impose the sovereignty of other actors over those areas. In parts of Iraq, Kurdish forces are the ones seizing control, while in Anbar as we’ll see below, it’s the Iraqi government and the Hashd militias that are imposing their rule post-Daesh. As Juan Cole noted recently, “(Y)ou have nationalist Kurds, hopeless Sunni Arabs and militantly nationalist Shiites. The Shiites, at 60% of the country, probably have the social and economic weight to keep at least the Arab areas together. But it could be a sullen, cold-shoulder unity.” Just as there was tremendous instability and uncertainty when the United States overthrew the Iraqi government, there lurks here the possibility of renewed instability and different, more chaotic forms of violence.

Daesh had formed what can be called a “network of violence,” a term I take here from Samer Abboud’s work on Syria, and arguably even became a state. This involved moving to monopolize the use of coercive force, something Daesh largely if not completely succeeded in doing. By this, I mean that violence was pushed to its borders- the sites of confrontations with other militias, and that inside the territories Daesh was the only organized actor using force to coerce or enforce law. That raises the question- what laws will be enforced post-Daesh? How will this be done? And until a complete monopoly on coercive force is achieved, which may take some time, who will enforce law? As readers might already have surmised, the struggles to (re)establish sovereignty can themselves be prolonged, violent, and usher in major changes, the nature of which is almost impossible to foresee.

To begin to venture answers to these questions, a recent VICE news report showed fascinating footage I expect to become an important part of Iraq’s history. Militias working for the Iraqi government moved into villages and towns surrounding Fallujah in the Anbar Province after Daesh fighters had been forced out. What the video shows, however, is dealing with the remnants of Daesh. Soldiers remove their flags, paint over their graffiti, and allow some residents to return to their homes that Daesh had seized. Most interesting and important, by far, were the open-air tribunals carried out by these militias. They had rounded up a number of men who were accused of being Daesh supporters in various ways. They brought these men before a gathering of village elders and local leaders (all men from what I can see), and asked in front of everyone- was this man with Daesh? Different people speak up affirmatively or negatively and are asked to provide evidence-how do you know? What did you see him do? Those determined to be Daeshis- some of whom are more easily spotted because they’re foreign and their accents give them away- are taken into custody and we are not privy to their fate.
Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 2.00.47 PM(screenshot taken from VICE News video linked below)

The manner in which these tribunals are carried out will have long-term implications for stability and reconstruction in areas Daesh controlled. One can see there is hesitation at times, people are either unwilling to speak up or gauging the tone of others before doing so. One can only imagine how tense those present must feel- they know the man’s fate and freedom hang in the balance. There are clearly power dynamics, potentially never voiced, but understood- about who is condemning whom and who does or doesn’t speak on a man’s behalf. This manner of extracting “truth” through public denunciation not only leaves the formal judicial hierarchy but remains highly questionable as we can see. In another scene, the Iraqi Colonel is notified of where men who collaborated with Daesh live, and we see him sitting in what I presume is their house, chastising them for what he says they did- they meekly deny it, but their guilt is presumed. Given the ad hoc and informal nature of these proceedings, combined with the very real and long-term nature of the results, those potentially wronged in this process will struggle to reverse them or prove their innocence.


This brings us to a point where I would like to draw on a basic framework for transitional justice drawn up by the ICTJ. They outline the four most important aspects of transitional justice to be criminal prosecutions, reparations, institutional reform, and truth commissions. We’ve already touched on the prosecutions above, with a hint of truth commissions, but reparations and institutional reforms are yet to be addressed. What might they look like? I imagine that reparations will have to deal with the large number of displaced citizens, though I fear addressing all the refugees forced to flee outside of their countries because of Daesh may prove too large. They will also have to happen in a much more formal and systematic manner than we see in the video. Addressing the needs of internally displaced citizens could be a means to make sure that the homogenization and sectarianisation do not cement in place. Those familiar with Lebanon after its Civil War know just how much the composition of so many neighborhoods changed, and how those neighborhoods are very different places today because undoing all that displacement proved too difficult. I think the state will have to do more than the ad hoc truth commissions it has taken so far, and doing so without some form of amnesty will prove very difficult.

All this being said, I certainly understand the desire to carry out this transitional justice quickly and efficiently, removing whatever remaining elements of support Daesh has. This is not the exclusive path forward. As my colleague Onur Bakiner pointed out while reading a draft of this piece, Turkey, for example, offered a form of amnesty to PKK fighters who were not implicated in crimes. Yet, the Iraqi state pursues a complete military victory. In this sense, the state, insecure because of prolonged weakness and crumbling sovereignty, reasons that no mercy can be shown to Daesh. Onur likewise pointed out to me that the combination of seeking complete military victory, no amnesty, and quick ad hoc trials on the ground comes dangerously close to victors’ justice. Combined with the factors I cited from Juan Cole above, this may undermine the very gains the Iraqi state sought by acting quickly.

Waiting to carry out this transitional justice, on the other hand, is not without pitfalls. Carrying out high-profile trials, especially ones where there may be domestic or international elements supporting those on trial, can test the strength of any state. How many of these would the state have to carry out? My guess is easily more than 2,000, depending on how many former Daesh fighters were part of each case. It would not be unforseeable for remaining elements of Daesh to attempt attacks on courtrooms, on institutions more broadly, to attempt to interrupt or stop trials in progress. The failure to achieve justice in those trials could mobilize thousands against the state. Lebanon, for example, could not carry out the trial of Rafiq Hariri’s accused killers on its own; Iraq managed to with Saddam Hussein but his trial saw a judge replaced for appearing too soft on defendants. Thus it is far from certain the Iraqi state is strong and stable enough to carry out the necessary trials against accused members of Daesh.
In summation, neither of the broad paths forward I sketched here is without problems; it will be a question of mitigating the downsides of whichever path is taken. The fighting that might bring an end to the war is sadly far from the end of the conflict. Major dimensions of Iraq and Syria’s futures remain undecided even after Daesh is defeated militarily. While Iraq remains fragile and the topic of partition is once again on the lips of many, Syria remains torn (to say the least) about Bashar al-Assad’s rule. If Iraq is seen as corrupt, inefficient, and weak, Assad is tainted with the legacy of his war on Syrian society and has no legitimacy to lead the country through the painful postwar transition and rebuilding, assuming he is potentially still in power. If he isn’t, Syria can move past his brutal rule but will have its own very painful transition period before that can be finalized.

On the upside, videos like this one show us the joy that people express once they’ve been liberated from Daesh rule. It is truly beautiful to see their happiness and cheer. This happiness can be a tonic for now in light of all the uncertainty, but sadly there’s much more still to be done.

I would like to thank Onur Bakiner for his insightful comments on a draft of this blog:)

Notes on Radicalization and Daesh

NOTES on RADICALIZATION and DAESH: Prisons, Revolutions, and Poverty


I want to draw out several short arguments here about radicalization in regards to Daesh. I reject the idea that poverty leads to radicalization, and I try to draw a parallel here with existing studies of revolution, where poverty likewise fails to explain their occurrence. I engage, for argument’s sake, the idea that poverty is actually leading to radicalization, and show that economic development cannot be seen as a solution, drawing briefly on the 20th century experiences of various countries with successful industrialization and economic development post WWII. My beginning, admittedly incomplete explanation of what lies behind radicalization points to institutions and the subjectivities formed as individuals interact with various institutions. I argue that mosques are rarely sites of radicalization, and far more often act to moderate individuals, while prisons are often sites of radicalization in very different countries around the world.

I) There’s a lot of evidence that many things besides poverty lead to radicalization. There are distinct patterns of who is more likely to become a jihadi, and they’re disproportionately middle class and educated. There’s also a large number of converts involved, something not explained by inequality. Most recently, the fact that a number of the Belgians involved in ISIS attacks on Paris were actually small time gangsters who owned a bar prior to joining ISIS got significant attention. We see too many factors here that cannot be explained by poverty. Also, many of the people who travel from far away, especially those leaving the developed Global North, are far from poor themselves. There are stories of people fighting for Daesh in Syria and Iraq for salaries they can’t get anywhere else, but I don’t see this necessarily as radicalization, but rather people doing whatever they must to feed their families.

II) Scholars have been debating the issue of poverty for some time in studies of revolutions, with no strong evidence to support the thesis. Instead, key leap here- I argue this is relevant for our consideration in regard to radicalization. Radicalization in this sense is an attempt to overthrow established structures- granted not through mass mobilization but rather through terrorist tactics. It’s explicitly done in the desire of a state exclusively run by Islamic Law. While that’s not the same as various revolutions and failed revolutions that took place over the last two centuries, it’s similar enough to take this point in mind. Evidence has never proven a thesis that poverty leads to revolution, or even attempts at it. It was nuanced to ‘relative deprivation’ by Ted Gurr; for him, ‘relative deprivation’ is the difference between what people have and what they think they deserve.’ This still is not considered a definitive explanation of why people mobilize for revolution, and scholarship continues.

III) Revolution has been extensively studied without reaching any overarching theory that can, scientifically, explain revolutions in different parts of the world at different times in history. I fully expect studies of radicalization to follow the same pattern. We know that jihadis joining Daesh come from dozens of different countries around the world. Why would the reasons be the same for a youth in Tunisia as they are for a person in Sweden? or Belgium? or the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt? This connection (or lack thereof) between studies of radicalization and studies of revolution is illuminating for several reasons. It breaks down the idea that we really don’t know that much about radicalization, and argues instead that we have large bodies of relevant knowledge developed about revolutions. It also breaks down exceptionalist arguments that what we’re studying is ultimately only about Islam. This is a facet of the argument I plan to expand on significantly moving forward.

IV) Poorer_Nations_CMYK-max_221-4101b8724af09b00d65a0aacf9bcb6e5Even if we granted that poverty had a major role in radicalization, it points to an answer in the form of economic development. If one has studied economic development in any detail, it’s clear that our world has no set formulas to bring this about. There exists a small handful of countries that achieved this feat, in which they industrialized and joined the “developed world” post WWII. They did so under authoritarian rulers while blocking out foreign goods to protect their developing industries. They also crushed labor mobilizations at home. They’re sometimes called the “Asian Tigers,” a name I don’t like but that’s beside the point. Arguably Brasil under the military dictatorship and Chile under the dictator Pinochet achieved similar economic leaps. The approach these nations took broke all the rules that countries are forced to follow today by the IMF and World Bank, and arguably had its roots in the post WWII reconstruction of Japan- see Vijay Prashad’s ‘The Poorer Nations‘ for the book-length treatment of that. Since Prashad is very far left and some will find him biased, feel free to find Jeffry Frieden’s Global Capitalism instead, as it covers the issue as well, and Frieden is definitely a capitalist. It will become clear that any honest appraisal of the Asian Tigers must stare squarely at this very dark lesson they teach the world, that industrialization post-WWII has not happened under a democracy, and was not achieved through free market means, but rather with large amounts of government investment and protectionism to incubate their industries.

I think it’s fairly self-evident why such an approach of relying on secular autocrats to usher countries through industrialization is fraught with pitfalls. It’s  very possible that all the country gets is authoritarian rule without real economic development. That prescription sounds all too much like the autocratic leaders around the Arab World who are widely revered by jihadists as “tawagheet” or tyrants who oppress Islam. These men were also the targets of the Arab Uprisings in 2011, so I really don’t see this as a potential solution. Moreover, I’ve written at length elsewhere how this term taghut/tawagheet (pl.) is a central pillar of Daeshi discourse, used to characterize leaders like Hosni Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, and others. So relying on a secular autocrat, the likes of whom are the bane of Daeshi discourse and the targets of the Arab Uprisings can somehow bring economic development and ease radicalization? It makes zero sense.

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Sayyid Qutb, influential Jihadist thinker, imprisoned in Egypt in the 50s and 60s.

V) There is significant evidence that other factors, especially institutions are involved. If Islam is institutionalized through mosques and connected charities, radicalization happens just as often outside of these institutions, which often serve to stabilize and moderate interpretations of religion. Those who speak up in sermons or events with extremist views can be confronted, ridiculed, and potentially ostracized. There are, certainly, a small handful of mosques that do promote radical and violent interpretations, but they are a tiny minority of the total. The video below is a good example of the moderating forces I argue come from many mosques. The men with extremist views in the video find no refuge in or in front of mosques- they are confronted, shouted down, and ostracized.

Prisons, rather than mosques, are consistently sites of radicalization, showing that no simple solution lies in imprisoning jihadis to rehabilitate them.  In many Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria, prisons have become hotbeds for jihadis and many who entered with no connection to violent jihad, sometimes with no connection to Islam as a whole, come out radicalized. A central example is Sayyid Qutb, who is universally revered by jihadis. He spent the better part of two decades in prison in Egypt under Nasser’s rule. His writings from this time have come to inspire thousands of jihadis in later generations and are widely translated. Similarly, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a man central in the violent roots of ISIS in Iraq, connected with Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi in Jordanian prison, radicalizing Zarqawi before his release. Maqdisi is still an influential jihadi scholar, though one very critical of ISIS. Camp Bucca, the prison run inside Iraq during the American occupation by the CPA, became the site for the coalescence of the first iterations of ISIS.  Similar issues with radicalization inside prisons have been documented in the USA and in France. We don’t know nearly enough about this, but it’s surprisingly consistent in that it happens in countries in very different parts of the world, as listed above.

VI) Thus, I have argued here that we cannot isolate poverty or inequality as a driver of radicalization. Instead, we need to focus on the roles that institutions play and how individuals negotiate their subjectivities in relation to these institutions. Right now I am thinking most in regard to mosques and prisons, but I am sure there are connections to be drawn to courts and to schools. Again, this is nothing unique to Islam. This argument breaks down barriers between what we’re focusing on here and other forms of subjectivity. I think these directions can help us grasp most of what happens in radicalization, but I don’t think it’s possible to figure out an overarching explanation that would apply to radicalization where ever it happened. In that sense, it’s like revolution- we can usually figure it out ex post facto, but the answer to why it happens then and not at other times remains elusive, and likely always will.

A lot of this is thought in progress so please share your comments.

Does this Department of Defense document prove ISIS was a US government plot?

About a year ago, a document surfaced on the internet that spurred all kinds of chatter about links between the US government and ISIS. I heard about it from many different people, asking what I thought about it. It received attention here and here, among many others.I meant to write about it some time ago, but never got around to it. Here’s the quick rundown of my take:

A) The documents in question were released under FOIA, a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
B)  Thus, there is every reason to believe they are real. Other times, documents of questionable provenance emerge through leaks and claim to be real, but their authenticity is unverifiable.

C) The document comes from the Department of Defense, and is listed in the original as “Information Report: Not Finally Evaluated Evidence.” This is on page 2 of the PDF.

D) The report is from Aug 12, 2012- though I can only find the 2012 part in a report about the document, not in the document itself.

E) The report itself is about Iraq and discusses events in Syria next door as they potentially threaten Iraq.

F) The passage in question is here:
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This comes under subheading 8, “The Effects on Iraq” and starts with a conditional, “if the situation unravels, there is a possibility…”. When read in conjunction with the rest of the report, linked above and here, it becomes clear this is a threat estimate, not a policy prescription. What gives this even more context, is the section that preceded it, where the report lists the stability of the Syrian regime, with no such “Salafist principality” :

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Note that I deliberately screenshotted the continuity of the report to show that I left nothing out, but again if you don’t believe me just go back to the original for yourself. Point A clearly lists the possibility that the regime solidifies and survives, while B lists the potential for a proxy war. This again supports my conclusion that this is a threat estimate, not a policy prescription. Along with the labeling of the document at the top saying it was “not finally evaluated evidence”, making claims that this proves the USA and other opposition powers brought ISIS into being are not supported by this document. To be clear,  this document doesn’t prove the opposite, that the USA had nothing to do with the emergence of ISIS in Syria. It proves neither.

G) The larger questions of who wrote this document, who it was sent to, and what other exercises it was tied to are not clear and should likewise preclude any jumping to conclusions. There is coded information at the top of the document I don’t have the insider knowledge to pick apart. We don’t know, for example, if this document was responded to, embraced, rejected, ignored, etc. This is a key for archival research. Singular documents rarely tell the whole story, they must be triangulated with many others to get the full picture. Thus, even without the points I made about what the document says, the conclusions being drawn from one subsection of this document cannot be supported.

H)Finally, why would the document be released if it actually proved what many think it proves? The US government is notorious for releasing documents through FOIA that are so heavily redacted they become unreadable. There is no explanation for why this would be released if it was actually so incriminating.

Just so that it’s clear, no, I am not defending the US government or the DOD. I am a regular critic of American foreign policy and especially all the ways American military force is used around the globe. I am also a regular critic of President Obama, again especially on foreign policy. One need not like these policies in any way to point out what I am pointing out here.