Daesh forced out of Dabiq, where they expected apocalyptic confrontation

Sunday, 16 October 2016 is proving to be a watershed day in the developing history of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Today, Syrian rebel forces (the FSA) clashed with and drove ISIS out of Dabiq in northern Syria. The Turkish military played a role, carrying out airstrikes on Daesh and helping the fighters on the ground to take the villages of Ghaitun and Irshaf.

The video above shows fighters announcing the liberation of Dabiq and that hopefully soon they will take Raqqa as well. The village, in its location to the north of Aleppo, rests just between the Turkish border and the town that has become the center of the Syrian War. For Daesh, its location was an important part of taking advantage of the porous border between Syria and Turkey to smuggle fighters, goods, and weapons into Syria. Similarly, Daesh fighters leaving to go carry out attacks in Turkey and Europe potentially moved through here.Daesh had situated some 1,200 fighters there. In practical terms, today’s military victory by Syrian rebels will help shut off this flow of goods and fighters, but the victory has a large symbolic importance as well.

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The Symbolic Importance of Dabiq

In addition to its brutal violence, seizing of territory, and taking sexual slaves from populations of minority groups like Yezidis, Daesh leaders have emphasized the importance of the town of Dabiq, where they believed an apocalyptic confrontation would take place. The prophecy comes from a Hadith of Abu Hurayrah, which describes a battle between Muslim forces and a large group of non-Muslims.  This hadith was reproduced on the back page of ISIS propaganda as written about by another blogger I am otherwise unfamiliar with, Zen Pundit. As the prophecy was well known to Daesh fighters and supporters, the organization scrambled to address the fact that its prophecy seemed to have fallen flat:

 

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This screenshot was shared by a social media user, I am looking for a legit link for this and will upload it if I find it. It may be satire, which would be quite fitting.

As one might expect, there was a lot of celebration among US leaders, represented here by Brett McGurk:

Others had more sarcastic takes on the defeat:

I expect Daesh to make attempts to reconquer this space, so I will update this as necessary.

 

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.
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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:)

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.

Daesh Leaks: What can we learn from the latest info?

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.
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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.

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).
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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.
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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.

Lo Stato Islamico nel Mondo Digitale

molte grazie a Tamara Taher per la sua traduzione! leggere l’articolo originale in inglese qui.

Nelle discussioni più diffuse riguardo lo Stato Islamico, diverse tematiche hanno ricevuto una particolare attenzione. Questioni quali le esecuzioni attuate dal gruppo, il trattamento delle donne, le rendite dal petrolio, e le voci sul supporto da parte di alcuni stati hanno attirato molta attenzione. Non meno ne ha ottenuta la questione della loro propoganda digitale. E allo stesso modo, sono rilevanti le storie di coloro che dopo essersi uniti al gruppo, sono tornati. All’interno e nell’intreccio di tutte queste tematiche, si delinea un campo interessante da approfondire: come si relaziona Daesh, più ampiamente, con il mondo digitale. Il tema dovrebbe essere considerato di particolare rilievo, dato che sia Hillary Clinton che Donald Trump si sono pronunciati in maniera molto simile recentemente:
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Quest’autore, per esempio, trova ironico il fatto che due candidati presidenziali del paese che domina internet e che si è rivelato controllare pesantemente tutti i tipi di attività digitale in giro per il mondo ed indebolire i sistemi di criptaggio, vogliano che si agisca ulteriormente in questo campo. Entrambi rifiutano anche potenziali contestazioni basate sulla libertà di parola. Ciò che tuttavia non sembrano realizzare è che Daesh e i suoi sostenitori affrontano già difficoltà maggiori rispetto a chiunque altro nell’ultizzare le piattaforme base per i social media. Twitter annulla costantemente gli account di sostenitori e follower di Daesh, così come i loro contenuti. Youtube fa costantemente la stessa cosa. Facebook ha quasi zero contenuti su Daesh grazie a tutti i controlli esistenti. Questo significa che i membri e i sostenitori di Daesh sono spinti ad utilizzare siti più piccoli, che pochi utenti normali conoscono. Ogni tanto mi imbatto in un sito wordpress con contenuti di Daesh, anche se non spesso, ma la maggior parte del materiale di Daesh che ho visto si trova su justpaste.it. L’infrastruttura corporativa di internet sta cominciando a bloccarli fuori. In aggiunta, il collettivo di hacker Anonymous ha annunciato l’operazione #OPISIS, rivolta agli account twitter dei membri di Daesh. In risposta, Daesh ha rilasciato una dichiarazione ai suoi componenti e sostenitori su come proteggersi dall’essere hackerati. Il gruppo ha anche i propri hacker che attaccano con apparente successo i siti internet del governo USA e altri.

Se Daesh deve affrontare una significativa resistenza da attori come Twitter, Youtube, e Facebook, il suo approccio ad internet nei territori che controlla dimostra un altro aspetto della difficile relazione del gruppo con la rete, e con le tecnologie digitali più ampiamente. Il gruppo è stato bersagliato pesantemente nei primi anni dalla sua formazione da parte della tecnologia di sorveglianza americana, e ha perso molti membri proprio perché i loro telefoni e le comunicazioni digitali erano intercettati e rintracciati.
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Il gruppo ha pubblicato dunque un avviso che indica che qualsiasi dispositivo con GPS deve avere la funzionalità di geolocalizzazione spenta completamente e che qualsiasi prodotto Apple è completamente vietato perché considerato inaffidabile. Al di là di questo, Daesh ha avuto problemi con le infrastrutture e ha affrontato restrizioni severe nell’accesso ad internet già all’interno del territorio che controlla. Una recente analisi del New York Times sulla vita delle donne a Raqqa ha discusso di come internet sia utilizzato solo per le questioni di maggiore importanza, come la produzione mediatica e per attirare nuove reclute. All’inizio del 2014 gli internet café hanno chiuso per la loro impossiblità di utilizzare reti wireless, apparentemente a causa dell’interruzione delle linee radio da parte del regime siriano. Secondo la stessa fonte, alcuni sono riusciti ad utilizzare connessioni satellitari per stabilire connessioni negli internet café, ma rimanevano comunque facilmente rintracciabili.

Daesh ha rilasciato questo ordine nel Maggio 2015 chiedendo quattro tipi di identificazione a ogni utente dell’internet café. Così, nonostante forze globali più ampie possano osservare, grazie agli strumenti che sappiamo essere in loro possesso, molto di ciò che l’utente in questione fa in rete, Daesh vuole sapere piuttosto chi esattamente utilizza internet per i suoi fini. Un’investigazione condotta dal Washington Post sulla vita nello “Stato Islamico” dice che parlare a chi sta all’esterno delle condizioni di vita all’interno del territorio è un’azione molto rischiosa, che si cerca di intercettare e che spinge infatti i leader di Daesh a tenere sotto stretta osservazione la rete. Un caso esemplare è il sito “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently”, che ha continuato a pubblicare materiale contrario a Daesh dall’interno del territorio sotto il suo controllo mentre, allo stesso tempo, veniva attaccato. Due dei suoi attivisti sono stati trovati e uccisi nel Sud della Turchia da agenti di Daesh.

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Questo sistema di controllo su internet è un’estensione del tentativo più ampio di instaurare un’autorità totalitaria nel territorio di Daesh. Non è ammmessa qualsiasi forma mediatica indipendente. C’è una sola stazione radio, condotta da un gruppo che emette in diverse lingue, ma al di là di questo non c’è spazio alcuno per la società civile. Alla luce di questo, è inevitabile che coloro a cui tutto questo ha dato più fastidio e che hanno voluto insistere ed esprimersi, come il sopracitato sito su Raqqa, si siano rivolti alla rete. È importante precisare comunque, che questo controllo non si estende a tutti i cittadini. Si dice che i combattenti stranieri e le loro mogli detengano una posizione privilegiata all’interno del territorio di Daesh, nel senso che possono continuare ad usufruire di determinate cose, come l’accesso ad internet, che sono severamente vietate a tutti gli altri. Tutto questo è in linea con il quadro più ampio: internet è fondamentale per l’esistenza di Daesh, ma è anche un grande rischio e una grande responsabilità, che è stata usata ampiamente contro Daesh stesso. Non posso essere d’accordo con Trump o con Clinton su questa questione, non credo ci siano provvedimenti più grandi da attuare che non siano già stati intrapresi.

Scrivo queste parole con molta preoccupazione. Non perché io pensi che Clinton e Trump potrebbero avere ragione, ma perché tutto questo è dimostrazione anche di come internet possa essere usato contro chiunque al giorno d’oggi. In questo caso, penso che il target, Daesh, sia legittimo… ma nel futuro? E se le stesse capacità direzionate oggi nel tenere i Dawaish (i sostenitori di Daesh) fuori dai siti internet che hanno una struttura corporativa fossero utilizzate contro altri, che non siano dei terribili assassini? E se i governi usassero queste tecnologie di sorveglianza contro i dissidenti? Abbiamo visto il modo in cui la polizia ha trattato gli attivisti in occasione del COP21 in Francia, uno stato che non viene considerato solitamente una dittatura brutale. Abbiamo avuto anche prova di che aspetto potrebbe avere un futuro del genere in Bahrain, ed è un’immagine infausta.

N.B. I documenti di Daesh utilizzati in questo articolo, provengono da questo sito, diretto da Aymenn Jawwad-Tamimi, un ricercatore ed accademico che studia i gruppi jihadisti. La traduzione inglese dei docmenti originariamente arabi è stata fatta dal signor Tamimi.

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 medium.com where I explore these questions in depth.

View story at Medium.com