Book Review: The Syrian Jihad by Charles R. Lister

This review has been some time in the making. 393 pages in the making, to be exact. It is by far the longest of the books I have read and reviewed about Daesh so far, but does that length equal quality?
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Lister’s work is ambitious. In these 393 pages, he only covers a time span of about 4 years. The chapters are divided into periods of time of about 6 months each, and his periodization of the conflict is among the most systematic and detailed of its kind. The subtitle of the book is Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Evolution of an Insurgency. Lister has become a controversial figure, especially on Twitter. That is to be expected, however, in a conflict as confusing and complicated as the one in Syria. Any position one takes will anger at least two others, for different reasons.

As readers can discern from the title, it is not exclusively about the Syrian Civil War. This becomes clear as the reader moves through the book, where attention is paid to the regime and its foreign backers, but much more attention is paid to the various jihadist groups. Having read the book cover to cover, I don’t remember coming across Qassem al-Suleimani once. If the book were about the war more broadly, such an omission would be inexcusable- a leading general from Iran on the ground in Syria would need to be discussed. Thus, Lister’s focus necessitates detailing battles, alliances, and the changing balance of power in the conflict, but with a pronounced emphasis on one side of the war. That makes it come deceptively close to a history of the war itself.

Inside of its own boundaries, the book does several things very well. Chapter three, “Syria’s Flirtation With Jihadism” had my jaw on the floor the entire time. Bashar al-Assad’s government here is shown to have not only fostered Al-Qaeda and other jihadists, but that it did so for more than a decade leading up to the outbreak of war in 2011. The chapter not only made multiple pieces fall into place in my mind, but it makes an argument publicly that needs a lot more attention. It is in line with the argument of Jean-Pierre Filiu’s work From Deep State to Islamic State in its focus on intelligence agencies and their role in sponsoring jihadism. The coldest irony out of all of that is that Assad’s Syria was actually guilty of ties to Al-Qaeda that Saddam’s Iraq was accused of. It makes those still defending Assad’s government look even more ridiculous, especially if they repeat his lie that his government is fighting terrorists, especially given that a) it sponsored them for a decade, and b) released all of the jihadists it had in prison at the time of the beginning of the war. Enter Wikileaks, an organization with a mission I otherwise support. They published a book which summarized the revelations of the Wikileaks documents in multiple chapters, each devoted to a separate country.  As much as I like Wikileaks challenging the powerful and demanding transparency, I must say the chapter about Syria is so myopic in this regard it fails to take into account any of the scholarship available about Syria. It is entirely based on Wikileaks cables, and blames US empire entirely for the rise of Daesh, even incredulously asking how the US dare accuse Syria of supporting terrorism. If the author of that chapter, Robert Naiman, drew on other works, especially Lister’s, he’d have the clear answer to his question.

Non-Daesh Jihadists in Syria
One of the things that stands out most about this work is the sustained detail about the plethora of non-Daesh groups in Syria. There are about 5 total militias that have name recognition for many people, and for even more Daesh is the only one they could name. The FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham are the most recognizable ones besides Daesh, but there are many more smaller militias which fought or still fight today. Note I am not saying the FSA are jihadists, just that they are usually known to non-specialists.  While many lazily say that the uprising in Syria has been jihadist in character from the beginning, Lister’s book lays out the timeline in detail. I remember writing a research paper in the spring of 2012, and there were only rumors at that time that Al-Qaeda was showing up in Syria, with no solid evidence. It was a question that hung in the air, but that was decisively answered later as history unfolded. Chapter 6 details the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra specifically in late 2012 and early 2013. Lister presents a victory at al-Taana Defense base east of Aleppo on the road to Raqqa in October as what he believes was the first major victory in the war by salafist-jihadist forces (87).

Readers unfamiliar with the messy details can get a good picture of the complex nature of rebel alliances and coordination. Jabhat al-Nusra, especially, has been presented as the most extreme non-Daesh group with its connection to Al-Qaeda emphasized. The chapter also finds the emergence of Ahrar al-Sham (107). Other rebels, however, have more often than not collaborated with Nusra rather than trying to shun them. This broad statement doesn’t apply to the entire conflict, but Nusra collaborated with both Ahrar al-Sham and the FSA at various points. Nusra collaborated with a number of “secular” militias despite the explicit decrees from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death. The basic story of Nusra appears clearly for readers- something started by the Islamic State in Iraq in 2011 inside of Syria which they never publicly acknowledged until some time later.  The name Jabhat al-Nusra, literally “the support front” points to this role. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a recording claiming as much in addition to the fact that ISI had financed Nusra for the first two years (122).  Baghdadi announced the cancellation of both the old name “Islamic State in Iraq” as well as “Jabhat al -Nusra” and their unification under one, new name: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (122). The problem was that Jolani, and the Nusra front he led did not want to be subsumed under ISIS and instead pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda more broadly (123), where ISIS had broken away from AQ some time ago. Thus ISI was previously Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Nusra was initially an extension of ISI, but by mid 2013 they were separate groups with Nusra going back to AQ while ISIS remained on its own.

There have also been numbers of rebels who have changed militias as the war continued, and Lister at various points helps point out why others might join militias they don’t necessarily agree with ideologically. Ahrar al-Sham is a group that Lister is particularly well placed to cover, as he uses his personal connections with the leaders to interview and quote them at length throughout the book. Some have used this as a criticism of Lister, that he’s too close to this group in particular to be objective. Readers can decide for themselves.
The Syrian Jihad as a History of Daesh?
Readers who pick up this book expecting to learn about the Islamic State will likely have mixed feelings. In his layout, Lister covers the emergence of the group in the context of the war in Syria, and chapter 7 is especially good in this regard. Often lost in the discussions that begin with the seizure of Mosul in June 2014 is the complex and violent 18 months (more or less) that led up to that. Violent infighting between jihadists and Daesh, especially in the second half of 2013, culminated in a series of coordinated jihadist offensives against Daesh in early 2014. This infighting especially became more prominent after the split between ISIS and Nusra described above. Daesh had targeted the leaders of other groups, had attacked their positions, and even kidnapped and killed the leader of one militia sent to negotiate with them. In October 2013, The most powerful jihadist factions, including Ahrar al-Sham, Suqur al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Jaish al-Islam and others signed a joint statement demanding Daesh cease attacking other jihadis, to no avail. Not long after in November 2013 the Islamic Front was formed, a coalition of these and other groups (174). This wave of attacks by the aforementioned groups and the FSA helped push Daesh out of many areas around Aleppo, forcing the group to withdraw to Raqqa, al-Bab, and Manbij.

Chapter 11 actually exits from the timeline Lister had followed until that point to follow the history of Daesh back into the late 1990s. His timeline here is largely the traditional one found in other works, starting with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his activities in Afghanistan. His analysis brings more detail into the inner workings of the various jihadi groups in Iraq, laying out a coalition formed between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and five other groups, called the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen. This transitions nicely into the Sahwa, an important topic that doesn’t get enough attention in discussions of Daesh. The Sahwa was a tribal uprising out of the Anbar province in western Iraq which arose to challenge the violent imposition of sharia law by then Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). One can see the importance of the Sahwa now in the fact that it entered Daesh discourse to refer to  local resistance against the group, which they stereotype as having been bought by western money. Thankfully absent here are lazy attempts to blame Obama for pulling out of Iraq for the rise of ISIS, or counterfactual claims that Saddam had done enough in the 90’s to bring about Daesh independent of the criminal and catastrophic US invasion.

Overall, Lister’s work is far too detailed for me to evaluate in more depth in a blog post. This is good for those looking for a solid source to begin with about the conflict, especially those seeking to grasp the transformations that have taken place over its course. Unfortunately, it is not a very easy read- it gets very formulaic and boring at times. The upside of that rigor is that it helps Lister’s work stand out from other books, but also makes the barrier to entry for non-experts high. I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you’re ready to really go at it with a highlighter and take a ton of notes. It is not airport reading you can breeze through and finish feeling more informed.

He only briefly discusses the issue of Shi’a jihadis in the war, noting on page 386 right before he wraps up that upwards of 10,000 Shi’i jihadis had passed through Syria, immediately making one ask why he didn’t cover it more. I guess the title of the book should be “The (Sunni) Syrian Jihad”. That said, Lister makes an interesting and provocative point about Jabhat al-Nusra in the introduction that he picks up again in the final chapter, that it has been more successful in moderating itself (relative to Daesh) and has been successful at building coalitions unlike Daesh, culminating in an arguably more established presence in Syria than Daesh. Only time will tell how this argument holds up. Finally, if my own use of the book is any indication, you’ll see me citing it a lot in my upcoming work about Daesh.

Borders, Passports, and Daesh

How do foreign fighters reach Syria and Iraq to join Daesh? Second, how do global structures of power shape the way people move around the world? Finally, how do these realities help shape Daesh on one hand and the refugee crisis on the other? Check out the piece I published over at where I explore these questions in depth.

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Daesh in the Digital Realm v2.0

Not long ago I wrote a piece that explored various facets of how Daesh, the organization, relates to the internet most broadly. The piece was timely and the debates it addressed have not died down. If anything, they’ve intensified. I also highlighted in that piece the ways that Daesh was controlling access to the internet inside its own territories, struggling to balance its need to disseminate propaganda and recruit new members while also heavily controlling media inside the caliphate. Since its publication, a number of new facets of this topic have arisen that are worth exploring. They add even more nuance to the complex wrestling for control going on in the digital realm between various governments, Daesh, Anonymous, and social media corporations.

First, the ongoing attempts to get Daesh off the corporate internet continue. The organization has become very fond of an encrypted messaging app called Telegram. Right after the attacks in Paris, Telegram shut down 78 ‘channels’ on its platform that were being used by Daesh. These channels were in any one of twelve different languages and one channel, Nasheer, had 18,000 followers.  This has helped add fuel to the fire of the ongoing debate over encryption, which I will return to below.

In addition to the frenzy of Daesh activity on Telegram, the organization has created its own emoji. As one might expect, they’re gruesome and represent the violent scenes Daesh has become infamous for in its propaganda. The emojis also depict the organization’s flag, various weapons, and execution scenes. In short order, other organizations and militias stole Daesh’s idea and began to make their own emojis. Just what the internet needed, right?

Second, a new dimension arose in the ongoing struggle which finds Daesh and corporate social media pages at its center. We’ve already seen the NSA force social media companies and email providers to hand over user data. We’ve seen hackers from the Anonymous hacker collective target both Daesh and major US government officials. Far from just disseminating propaganda, Daesh has hacked US government sites too. Now, a widow of an American man killed in Jordan is suing Twitter for failing to stop the dissemination of Daesh propaganda on its site. Her lawsuit is based on the claim that Twitter “knowingly permitted” Daesh members to use its site to spread violent propaganda. “Without Twitter, the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible,” the woman alleges. As I wrote in the first post, Twitter has actually been making constant efforts to remove Daeshi profiles, and my own experiences trying to follow some of these accounts confirm this. They’re constantly disappearing. Late last year, Daesh did succeed in hacking thousands of twitter accounts in order to disseminate its own propaganda. Similarly, the appearance of a profile on Linkedin of a young teacher who lives inside the caliphate surprised many, but it too was taken down very quickly.

Despite the fleeting nature of Daesh’s presence on social media, it is a powerful recruiting tool. This in-depth piece debates a number of different approaches to combatting the propaganda, but one German official complained about the failure of various efforts: “We are like boxers punching in the dark.” The White House convened a meeting recently to address the question of what to do about Daesh on the internet. Based on a copy of the meeting’s agenda published by the Guardian, it was set to focus heavily on social media, with the US government pushing companies like Facebook and Twitter to do more to keep Daesh propaganda off their platforms. The US will begin trying to put together more localized anti-terror messages rather than the videos it was previously making. That comes after cycling through three different leaders of the unit coordinating these efforts in a year. The Anonymous hacker collective, for its part, has released a how-to guide for beginners as part of its #OpParis who want to challenge Daesh online.

Finally, governments have been taking very shortsighted measures against end-to-end encryption in the hopes of accessing encrypted messages. Their bumbling strategies to deal with the Daesh militarily are sadly recreated in the digital realm. Encryption has become the center of these ham-fisted attempts to thwart terrorist planning and propaganda online. Yet encryption has been a hot issue for some time, especially since  Edward Snowden exposed that the US government had deliberately weakened encryption protocols. Cryptography experts continue to insist there is no way to insert a backdoor without fundamentally weakening the encryption. Apple, Google, Microsoft and dozens of others all signed a statement saying the same thing, that weakening encryption is counterproductive. The EFF has been steadfastly against weakening encryption as well. It is one of the best means of defense available in the digital realm, and there’s no way to preserve its strength for some while leaving others exposed. It is the only reason e-commerce is possible in its current form. Then again, even with the capabilities the US government has, it’s not clear that mass surveillance has actually stopped any attacks. The US government’s focus on encryption or surveillance at the center of the debate about Daesh is misleading and gets no closer to defeating the organization on the ground. Daesh did not emerge nor does it survive because of encryption, and the focus must remain on its “caliphate”.

nb- This piece was republished at Informed Comment. Thanks Juan!


Daesh in the Digital Realm

In popular discussion of the Islamic State, several topics have received the vast majority of the attention. The group’s executions, treatment of women, their oil profits, and rumors about state sponsorship have all gotten large amounts of attention. Not far behind that is discussion of their digital propaganda. Stories of those who’ve returned from having joined are likewise important. Lost in the cracks of these topics is an interesting field, how Daesh relates to the digital realm more broadly. The topic should be especially important, as both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had very similar things to say recently:
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This author, for one, finds it ironic that two presidential candidates from the country that dominates the internet, has been shown to be heavily monitoring all kinds of digital activity all over the world, and weakening encryption protocols still want further action taken in this domain. Both also dismiss potential rebuttals based on freedom of speech. What they don’t seem to realize is that Daesh and its supporters already face a harder time using the most basic platforms for social media than almost anyone else. Twitter is constantly taking down accounts of supporters and followers of Daesh, and their content. Youtube is constantly doing the same thing. Facebook has almost zero Daesh content because of all its existing controls. This has meant Daesh members and supporters must use smaller sites that few normal users come across. ُEvery once in a while I come across a wordpress site hosting Daesh content, but not many. The majority of Daeshi material I have seen is actually on The corporate infrastructure of the internet has started locking them out. On top of all this, the Anonymous hacker collective has announced its #OPISIS targeting twitter accounts of Daesh members. In response, Daesh released a statement to its members and followers about how to protect themselves from getting hacked. The group also has its own hackers targeting US government and others sites, with apparent success.

If Daesh faces significant resistance from online establishments like Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook, its approach to the internet in the territories it controls shows a different aspect of the group’s fraught relationship with the internet, and digital technologies more broadly. The group was targeted heavily in its early years by American surveillance technology, and it lost many members because their phones and digital communications were intercepted and tracked. This shaped the group, and even today they’ve become wary about surveillance. The group issued a notice that any devices with GPS had to have the feature turned off completely and that no Apple products were allowed at all because they were deemed untrustworthy:
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Beyond this, Daesh has had problems with infrastructure and severely constricted access to the internet inside of the territory it controls. A recent NYTimes in-depth investigation about the lives of young women in Raqqa discussed how the internet was only to be used for the most important of business like media production and enticing new recruits. Early in 2014 many internet cafes closed because of inability to operate wireless networks, apparently due to disruption of radio networks by the Syrian regime. According to this same source some succeeded in using satellite connections to establish internet cafes but these were apparently very easy to track. Daesh released this order in May 2015 demanding four kinds of identification for any user of the internet cafe. So while larger global forces could watch much of what the internet user in question was doing through the technologies we know they have, Daesh wanted to know exactly who was using the internet for its own purposes. A Washington Post investigation of life in the ‘Islamic State’ says that speaking to outsiders about conditions inside is a very risky act, one the leaders of Daesh monitor the internet to try to catch. In this vein, the website Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently has continued to speak out against Daesh from inside while also being targeted. Two of its activists were found and killed in southern Turkey by Daesh agents.

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This control over the internet is sadly an extension of attempts at totalitarian rule inside Daesh territory more broadly. No independent media is allowed to exist. There is a radio station, run by the group, which broadcasts in different languages, but aside from this there is no space for civil society. It only makes sense that those inside who were angry with this and wanted to voice their views would turn to the internet like the aforementioned Raqqa website. This control doesn’t extend to all citizens, however. Foreign fighters and their wives are said to hold a privileged status inside Daeshi terrtitory, meaning they can continue with things like internet access that are severely restricted for all others.

That fits with the broader outline, the internet is a vital lifeline for Daesh to exist, but it’s also an extreme risk and liability, one that has consistently been used against them. I cannot agree with Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton in this regard, I don’t see that any major action needs to be taken that isn’t already being taken. I write those words with a lot of worry. Not because I think Clinton and Trump might be right, but because it also shows the extent to which the internet can be used against anyone in today’s age. Here, I think the target (Daesh) is a legitimate one, but what about in the future? What if the same capabilities directed at keeping Dawaish (the plural) off major internet sites with corporate infrastructure are directed at others who aren’t brutal murderers?  What if governments use those surveillance technologies against dissidents?  We’ve seen the way police have been targeting activists around COP21 in France, which isn’t normally considered a brutal dictatorship. We’ve also seen glimpses of what this future can look like in Bahrain, and it’s ominous.

nb- the Daesh documents used here come from this website run by Aymenn Jawwad al-Tamimi, a researcher and academic who studies jihadi groups. The English translations of the original Arabic documents were done by Mr. Tamimi.

Update: This post was mirrored by Informed Comment, thanks Juan!

ISIS: An Historical and Contemporary Overview by Spyros Sofos and Michael Degerald

NOTE: Click HERE to watch the video! Once the link opens, click “Del 2”. It may load very slowly, but it does work;)

This is the video of a public talk given at Lund University by Spyros Sofos and Michael Degerald on 12 November 2015. Michael speaks first and outlines changes in modern Middle East history and global history more broadly that help us understand the emergence of the Islamic State. Spyros follows this and builds on Michael’s historical outline with a synopsis of his research on the contemporary dimensions of the Islamic State.
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The Rise of ISIS has Complex Roots Inside and Outside the Middle East

This in the English original of an editorial about the geopolitics of ISIS I wrote for a Swedish newspaper, Sydsvenskan. The Swedish piece can be found here.

The seizure of Mosul by ISIS in June 2014 truly announced their presence to the world. The root causes of ISIS’ emergence were multifaceted and complex. Many of these causal factors were less than 10 years old, coming out of the prolonged power vacuum created by the failed US invasion of Iraq. Others have much older roots in phenomena present in various Middle Eastern societies over the last 40 years. These include the defeat of Arab Nationalism and the rise of political Islam. Not all of these roots of ISIS stretch back into the Middle East, however. The bloody conflict in Chechnya certainly plays a role, as does the structural and societal racism in various European countries that made it so hard for many immigrants from Arab and Muslim societies to integrate. These geographically disparate regions have all contributed to the flow of jihadis fighting for the Islamic State.

The geopolitics prolonging the conflict with ISIS likewise have deep roots. The current reality is best described as a world in the twilight of a failed American attempt at being the world sovereign, at least in terms of international relations. The USA initiated the War on Terror in a flawed response to the events of 9/11. The most proximate cause for ISIS’ emergence comes from the American decision to carry out de-Baathification and disband the Iraqi army. This led to a period of prolonged instability and put many individuals from the former regime out of work, without which we would not have the Islamic State as it exists now. Iran has been very active on a regional level since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and took the opportunity to become much more influential in Iraq after the US overthrew Saddam. Many of the dynamics that follow are known: Iran supports Assad’s regime while Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies support rebel groups trying to overthrow him. These Sunni monarchies and regimes, like Saudi, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, etc. have staunch US backing. This represents the USA’s long-term bet on Sunni monarchies as a control against Iranian expansion post 1979, as well as being allies of oil-producing nations.

Other geopolitical realities helped ISIS grow. Iran’s support of Maliki’s government in Iraq and its sectarian excesses has been pushing various Sunni groups to find a response. Turkey has proven itself willing to host the rebel groups fighting Bashar al-Assad as well as allowing them to move fighters and materiel through the border between Turkey and Syria. While Turkey could certainly take steps to exert more control over what passes through its borders into the war zone, especially fighters traveling to join the Islamic State, it can’t completely control such a long and geographically complex border. The porosity of this border has fueled not only the war in Syria, the fighters joining ISIS, but also the Islamic State’s ability to export oil for profit.

More broadly, the nature of the global system of movement is important. In its present state, the global system does everything it can to allow goods and capital to move freely but to control the movement of people. One need only look at the recent TPP and TTIP to see how powerful countries want goods and capital to move as freely as possible, while the refugee crisis in Europe and Turkey has highlighted just how much many countries want to stem the movements of people. This is embodied in the system known as ‘Fortress Europe’. It focuses on keeping people from reaching Europe, but it is very permissive in allowing anyone with a EU or US passport to move as they please away from the protected core. This has allowed many individuals already known to intelligence agencies in the USA and EU to leave to join the Islamic State. If the global system were not as such, these Western nationals would have a much harder time traveling to fight with ISIS.

The potential endgame remains complex and without clear solutions. If Assad is defeated before ISIS, there exists a strong possibility that ISIS will be able to expand into areas vacated by the regime, as they’re trying to do in Hama right now. That collapse of Assad’s government would likely produce an exodus of civilians living in regime-controlled areas. Or, if ISIS is defeated and Assad remains, the toxic legacy of the war will ruin his ability to govern his country or let Syria return to normal in any short to medium term. If the rebel groups combined with Western forces to defeat both Assad and ISIS, it would open a massive power vacuum that would be as difficult to stabilize as Iraq and Libya have already proven to be, a mistake Western forces cannot make again. Russia’s willingness to enter the fight is not as complex- yes they risk making a complex war worse, but they are also not pushing the regime towards collapse. They’re explicitly trying to stabilize the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad, and have no means of dealing with the toxic legacy the Syrian people will live with if it survives and stabilizes.