Daesh attacks Tehran: Why Iran, Why Now?

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

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

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

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

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

The Overarching Questions: Why Iran, Why now?

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

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

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

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

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.

 

The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution by Patrick Cockburn: Review

Before reading this book, several things raised my expectations. Foremost among them was Cockburn’s book, Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq. Cockburn’s book about the enigmatic and important Muqtada Al-Sadr showed exactly what he was capable of- a gripping journalistic account that mixed his willingness to go to risky places (Iraq post-American Invasion) to get the info he needed along with his skills as a writer. I left that book wanting to read more and I remember being disappointed that my copy was all but destroyed after being lent to some friends. Second, Cockburn regularly writes for The Independent, and his columns are consistently solid. Knowing that he wasn’t just another writer jumping on the opportunity to write about ISIS without the actual background needed to do so, I expected a lot.

After reading Cockburn’s latest, my expectations were not entirely met. Cockburn’s work here seems solid in the beginning but as I advanced through the book, I started to wonder where he was going next and why. The structure of the book, if we can say it has one, leaves a lot to be desired. The only thing that makes up for this is Cockburn’s otherwise sharp analysis and clearly deep knowledge of the subject at hand. Cockburn opens and makes a clearer thesis statement, finding the origins of ISIS in the War on Terror as a response to 9/11. “ISIS is the child of war” he states (p.8). He bluntly argues that the USA limited the potential effectiveness of the War on Terror from the beginning by refusing to seriously confront Pakistan or Saudi Arabia for their roles in stimulating and supporting Islamic extremism. Chapter one follows this theme, broadly exploring the role of Saudi Arabia in stimulating extremism both in sermons and violent groups. Saudi Arabia propagates Wahhabism (5) and puts up money for the building of mosques and the training of imams (6). In response to the Arab Uprisings of 2011, known to many as the Arab Spring, Cockburn argues that it “was the jihadi and Sunni-sectarian militarized wing of rebel movements that received massive injections of money from the kings and emirs of the Gulf” (8).

In Chapter 2, Cockburn lays his argument that the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June 2014 was a turning point in the history of Iraq Syria and the Middle East (13). He elaborates on the widely reported stories of the disintegration of the Iraqi Army, but emphasizes that there was a popular element that has been overlooked (16). He explains how residents of Mosul mobilized independently of ISIS to push Iraqi forces (Shi’a) out of Mosul whom they perceived to be Iranian proxies. Whether or not these troops were actually more loyal to Iran than they were to Iraq, it must be noted here (and Cockburn doesn’t) that this is one of Saddam’s lasting legacies. After the 1991 Intifada, Saddam’s government labeled the Iraqi Shiites who had dared to try to overthrow his government by force as Iranian interlopers, itself a discourse his government had propagated throughout the eight-year long war with Iran.

Cockburn attacks the idea that the surge by US troops in 2007 had actually wiped out the jihadist threat. He cites multiple examples from Mosul about how Al-Qaeda in Iraq (the predecessor of ISIS) ran protection rackets in Mosul, with local businesses having to pay monthly bribes for security even after the supposed success of the surge(12). He quotes a Turkish businessman who claims he went to the central government in Baghdad to complain about these problems. Al-Qaeda was supposedly demanding $500,000 per month from his business but Baghdad told him to just factor it into his cost of doing business, apparently unwilling or unable to address the issue. Chapter 3 continues this account, focusing on the weakness of the Iraqi government. Cockburn arrived in Baghdad not long after this fall of Mosul, and perceived a state of denial among both citizens and government figures.

Chapter 4 rambles too much for my liking. It has some useful info here and there, but it significantly overlaps with other chapters and even ends up enforcing the thesis put forward in chapter one. Given that thesis in central to the book, it should be clear, but the wandering structure here does it no favors. That said, there is useful info in chapter 4. Chapter 5 returns to issues already explored in previous chapters, and the reader isn’t clear why these things are getting mentioned now and not earlier. It supports the feeling one gets that a series of already written pieces were strung together for this book.

Chapter 6 is a nod to various writers, especially foreign leftists, who insisted that the uprisings in Syria began in a predominantly peaceful and secular way, only to be taken over as the violence intensified and war began to swallow all in its reach. This is put forth in contrast to some who argue the uprisings were a Western plot to overthrow Assad, never involved Syrians real Syrians, and that all Syrians supported the Assad regime against its Western challengers. Cockburn emphasizes that those rising up against Assad in the beginning were from lower classes, especially in rural areas where drought and government neglect had led to years of hard times (83-84). Cockburn balances this with his description of how the Syrian FSA was heavily funded and supported by various Arab governments like Qatar, Saudi, and others. Chapter 7 returns to the arguments about Saudi elaborated in chapter 1 (p 100-105). He does add new substance to the arguments here, discussing broader Saudi foreign policy, how the Kingdom has handled its own citizens becoming jihadis, and whether or not the Saudi government is genuine in its attempts to leave its divisive and sectarian ways behind (Cockburn is doubtful).

Chapter 8, “If it bleeds, it leads” is an interesting segue into a discussion about the complexities of media coverage of war. Cockburn’s chapter is stimulating at multiple points and the reader, even one already familiar with these ideas, leaves with an interesting critical angle to the coverage of the Syrian Civil War and ISIS. It doesn’t add any new information about ISIS specifically. Chapter 9 returns to the fall of Mosul in June 2014, adding to what Cockburn previously argued about that topic in chapter 3. Cockburn really wants to emphasize that the collapse of the Iraqi Army should have been foreseen, and that the spreading instability is largely a result of spillover from the Syrian Civil War destabilizing Iraq (137).

Cockburn closes with an afterword about Kobane, the Syrian Kurdish town where PYG forces and ISIS battled fiercely. As of Cockburn’s writing, the battle hadn’t ended so Cockburn points fingers at Turkey and the USA for failing to come to the aid of the Kurds. Cockburn speculates that if Turkey does get involved, Iran would foment violent irredentism among Kurds inside Turkey. Cockburn points to the history of the mid 70s and 80s when Saddam invaded Kuwait and Iran reignited a Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq that Iraq thought it had solved in 1975 (158-159). What has transpired since the book was published is that despite heavy losses, the Kurds chased ISIS out of Kobane with the help of many coalition airstrikes. The chance of Turkey invading Syria remains palpable, with rumors of its impending implementation swirling from late June 2015 until now, late July 2015. ISIS seems to have ‘successfully’ started just this kind of violent irredentism in Turkey after it carried out a suicide bombing in Suruç, which had led to Kurdish reprisal attacks against Turkish police and escalating protests by Kurds in southeast Turkey as well as Istanbul. Where this will lead, no one can be sure.

Overall, if I complain and criticize Cockburn’s book it’s because I hold him to very high standards. His regular columns remain influential and enlightening and should be read by anyone interested in the topics explored in his book. Readers new to the topics will definitely learn a lot and be glad they picked up this book- it is easy to read, makes solid points, and has a coherent argument. It is certainly better than Sekulow’s book I already reviewed, and is a better intro than Hassan and Weiss‘ book, though more advanced readers will prefer Weiss and Hassan’s work to Cockburn’s for its better structure, coherence, and details.