I wrote a piece arguing that gender, specifically toxic masculinity, needs to be taken into account when we study radicalization for jihadis. It was published by The Islamic Monthly and can be found here.
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:
I was recently interviewed in Teen Vogue about Trump’s policies towards ISIS as well as the Muslim Ban. The interview can be found here.
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.
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.
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) Even 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.
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.
In the last few days a trove of new personnel files were leaked by a former member of Daesh containing thousands of personnel files on fighters. Sky News was at the center of the leak and has their very sensational account of their importance here. Yet what started with a splash may turn out to be far less exciting than Sky is making it out to be. Some are already pointing out that the files likely contain very little new information as they are several years old- (here too). So what’s worth paying attention to? I think the metadata of these docs, once fully analyzed and collated, can shine light on questions of radicalization.
The image above is just one example of the documents in question. The red watermarks were added by the media company who published the docs and are not part of the original. I agree with Aymenn Tamimi about several things- these docs do not resemble any of the other docs that have been leaked and determined to be original so far. That doesn’t mean it’s fake, but it must be taken into consideration. On top of this, one can see the outdated logo at the top right which still reflects the name ISIS before the shortened it. That is consistent with the dates of entry I have seen so far, but there’s way too many docs here to claim that standard holds across them all. One must ask, why would someone go to the length of faking thousands of these records? If it were a single fake document that had a very explicit falsehood, one with political consequences, I could see the potential motivation. With this trove, it’s not so clear why anyone would do that.
The list of questions on the form is quite straightforward in the beginning. I don’t think we really lack for data about which countries jihadis are coming from, but there’s always room for more accuracy and transparency. We see, at least from reports I’ve read, that the Turkish border has been the entry point of preference, but that was basically known already. Aside from these, there are some interesting categories here that deserve more scrutiny. First, question number 15 asks if the person has taken part in jihad before- and if so, where? The example I have above is just a straight ‘no’, but the ability to derive statistics from this and classify exactly how many of these fighters were rookie jihadists as opposed to how many were seasoned would be very interesting. Right now, we can only look at forms individually.
Second, I think question number 10 opens a very interesting window into the rest of the jiahdi’s life. It asks what profession the person had before coming. In the example above, it says he had no work before, itself a telling answer. The data for the entire set would go a long way to answering some burning questions that scholars and pundits have been arguing over- what pushes people to join jihad? How much is poverty or lack of work a factor in that? For those who think poverty is the main driving force behind radicalization, economic development becomes the prescription that will minimize terrorism and violent radicalization. If however, the data show that many are not materially deprived, the keys to their radicalization cannot be so simply boiled down to failures in economic development.
I should say I don’t think we’ll ever get one overarching theory explaining radicalization; I think there are too many unique circumstances in the lives of different individuals as well as different countries. I think we’ll find with more research that the reasons that a Belgian radicalizes will most often not align with those of a Saudi, for example. There is also an interesting, if controversial, debate about whether engineers are more prone to becoming jihadis than others. Finally, I am curious to see if the identities here can be verified and to what extent the information Daesh had for its bureaucracy was accurate. I hope some of this metadata about these files becomes available soon, and you can trust that once it does I will write about it.