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Assad Henchman: Here’s How We Built ISIS

The Syrian regime’s collusion with the terrorists of the so-called Islamic State goes back a decade.

In his first interview after winning the presidency, Donald Trump hinted that he will shift policy in the Syria conflict from one of support for the moderate opposition to collaboration with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS,” Trump said. As for the rebels that the U.S. has backed fitfully for the past three years, he said: “We have no idea who these people are.”

But the president-elect appears to be ill-informed about Assad’s key role in the rise of the so-called Islamic State.

This three-part series documents the Syrian dictator’s sinister contributions to this tale of terrorism and horror. First, he tried to ingratiate himself with Western leaders by portraying the national uprising against him as a terrorist-led revolt. When that failed, he released jailed Islamic extremists who’d fought against U.S. troops in Iraq, then staged phony attacks on government facilities, which he blamed on terrorists. Far from fighting ISIS, Assad looked the other way when it set up a state-within-a-state with its capital in Raqqa, and left it to the U.S. and others to counter the Islamic extremists.

ISTANBUL—After spending a month in an Aleppo prison at the start of the Syrian uprising, political activist Abdullah Hakawati thought he knew what to expect when Bashar al-Assad’s military intelligence arrested him for a second time in September 2011.

He was hanged by his hands for four days. They beat him with clubs and iron bars, and used electric prods on his genitals, he says. Then came the surprise: After a staged trial and a conviction for terrorism, he was sentenced to a lockup where his cellmates were hardcore al Qaeda veterans, newly transferred from Syria’s political prisons.

“It was the first time I saw someone from the al Qaeda movement face to face,” said Hakawati, an actor who’d played the lead role in an anti-regime play that spring and had helped organize demonstrations in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city. “They threatened to slaughter me because I’m an atheist and I do not pray.”

After weeks in the same cell with the al Qaeda veterans, who were “practically the managers of the prison,” five of Hakawati’s colleagues joined the extremists, many later taking up arms against Assad.

Mixing civic activists with al Qaeda veterans was no accident.

The Syrian president had alleged that armed terrorists had led the national uprising in 2011, which seemed preposterous at the time. So Assad used his security apparatus to make the reality match his propaganda. Claiming to be the victim of extremism, he in fact played the principal enabling role in its rise in the region, a two-year investigation by The Daily Beast shows. The scene at Aleppo Central Prison was part of a concerted effort to radicalize and discredit the nationwide revolt.

As President-elect Donald Trump weighs closer military cooperation with the Assad regime in fighting ISIS, the story of Assad’s role in the rise of the so-called Islamic State could come home to haunt him. Critics say that any U.S. collaboration with Assad or his Russian protectors will backfire, leaving the Syrian leader in power as he continues to play his long-running double game with terrorists.

John Kerry, the outgoing secretary of state, said in November 2015 that ISIS “was created by Assad” and by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, both of whom released al Qaeda prisoners in their respective countries. Assad’s aim was to tell the world, “It’s me or the terrorists.”

This series charts Assad’s major role in the rise of Islamic extremism from the inside. Based on exclusive interviews with high-level defectors from the regime’s security apparatus, it sheds new light on key decisions—like sending volunteers to fight the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which helped establish the forerunner of the Islamic State, releasing more than 1,000 former al Qaeda militants from Syrian prisons in 2011, and rarely fighting the Islamic State militants.

It also reveals how:

— the regime likely staged bombings of its own security facilities in 2011 and 2012 to foster the impression that al Qaeda had an armed presence in Syria long before it did.

— Syrian intelligence received orders to stand by when al Qaeda fighters crossed from Iraq into Syria in 2012.

— Syrian intelligence has penetrated the leadership of extremist jihadist groups and at critical moments can influence their operations.

Remarkably, several high-level former Syrian security officials who spoke on the record with this reporter said that U.S. intelligence agencies never debriefed them. The ex-officials viewed this as a major lapse, not only because they were privy to, and complicit in, the inner workings of Assad’s role in organizing a terrorist insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq, but also because they were well-placed to advise on the establishment of a new state security apparatus should Assad’s police state collapse or be overthrown.

The Obama administration apparently wasn’t interested. A former top U.S. diplomat said the CIA had little interest in Syrian defectors and debriefed them only if the diplomat insisted.

The CIA declined to comment but did not dispute the validity of the question. “I looked into this, and there is nothing we can add,” a spokeswoman said.


Assad’s relations with the jihadists traces back to the seminal role his regime played in helping foment the Iraqi insurgency following the U.S. invasion in 2003.

A trove of al Qaeda personnel records uncovered by U.S. forces in 2007 in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar showed that more than 600 fighters from Saudi Arabia, Libya, and other Muslim countries had crossed into Iraq from Syria between August 2006 and August 2007. “It is almost inconceivable that Syrian intelligence has not tried to penetrate these networks,” a report by the West Point Combating Terrorism Center (PDF) stated in 2008.

Internal State Department cables released by WikiLeaks confirm that the U.S. had intelligence showing that almost all foreign al Qaeda volunteers entered Iraq via Syria and that Assad and his top aides were fully aware. In 2010, they acknowledged as much to visiting U.S. officials, a WikiLeaks cable showed. “In principle, we don’t attack or kill them immediately,” Gen. Ali Mamluk, now Assad’s top intelligence advisor, said of al Qaeda operatives. “Instead, we embed ourselves in them, and only at the opportune moment do we move.” Mamluk offered cooperation in arresting terrorists in exchange if the U.S. would ease economic and travel sanctions.

But that’s only the half of it. Defected Syrian intelligence officials and former volunteers said the regime encouraged Syrians to volunteer for the anti-American jihadist, and thousands did.

“Syria wanted to prolong the Iraq war and the attacks on U.S. forces, so that the Americans couldn’t come into Syria,” said Anas al-Rajab, a former Islamist from Hama province who fought in Iraq and then, on returning to Syria, served two brief terms in prisons run by the Syrian mukhabarat, or intelligence services.

Mahmud al-Naser, a defected Syrian intelligence officer interviewed for this series, said the mukhabarat estimated 20,000 people crossed into Iraq as the U.S. began its attack in March 2003, but most returned immediately after the fall of Baghdad three weeks later.

But another 5,000 crossed for reasons of religious ideology—and they “are what gave birth to the monster” that now dominates much of Iraq and Syria, said Naser, the former head of political party affairs at the Syrian intelligence station in Ra’s al Ein, in northern Syria.

Naser now works with Syrian émigré lawyers in a major city in southern Turkey collecting data on alleged regime war crimes. Following an introduction by those lawyers, Naser sat down for seven hours of questioning over three sessions this past spring.

Like other security defectors interviewed for this series, several of whom were at general officer rank, Naser said U.S. intelligence had never debriefed him.

“We in Syria intelligence opened all the doors for [the jihadists] to go to Iraq,” he said.

That view is widely held in the region.

“The Syrian government made an enormous mistake in 2003,” said Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in a recent interview with The Daily Beast at his military headquarters in Suheil, in the far north of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, near the Syrian and Turkish borders. “They opened the door to terrorists in order to put pressure on the American troops in Iraq so they wouldn’t even think of war (against Syria).”

The regime has “of course a very great responsibility” for what has occurred. “Out of that came al Qaeda in Iraq, then Daesh, and the extremists who have spread around Syria. That is the result today.” (Daesh is the Arabic pejorative term for ISIS.)

Volunteers joined the battle knowingly.

Many underwent training and indoctrination, overseen by the Syrian intelligence services, before their departure. One of the best-known figures in the indoctrination operation was Mahmud al-Aghasi, known as Abu al-Qaqa’a, a Muslim cleric in Aleppo, whose al Tawabbin mosque was a recruiting center for Salafists heading to Iraq.

The cleric would stage marches from his mosque to the city center and lead the chant: “We are going to slaughter the Americans,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who now lives in Washington.

“He would give guarantees that foreign fighters would have no problems if they came,” Barabandi said. It was clear he had a top-level sponsor. “He could not function in a police state like Syria without very high-level approval,” he said.”

Barabandi also was never asked for his insights. ”Nobody ever debriefed me,” he told The Daily Beast. “I took the initiative and contacted friends at the State Department, and we had a lunch or dinner. That was it.”

In fact, Syrian intelligence had recruited imams as agents during their study of Sharia at university facilities.

“We commissioned some of the imams who work for Syrian intelligence. Abu al-Qaqa’a was only one of dozens,” said Naser.

Raed Ilawy, an Islamist recruit from Hama, was among the Syrians who traveled to the mosque. Some of the trainers, he recalled in an interview at an Istanbul café, came from Assad’s intelligence services, and some accompanied them to the Iraqi border in what the recruits called “Bashar Assad caravans.”

The Syrian government was kept informed throughout, said Awad al-Ali, a former general in Assad’s police apparatus. Abu al-Qaqa’a, who was assassinated in 2007, possibly by the mukhabarat, also provided Assad’s intelligence services with lists of names of those who’d been trained.

Syrian intelligence “kept a census” of those who left, because on their return, “everyone would be followed” by the Department of Religious Intelligence in the Management of General Intelligence, one of Assad’s numerous spying agencies, said Naser.

About one quarter never came back, either joining al Qaeda in Iraq or dying in battle, he said. Of those who returned, about 1,500 were viewed as Islamists arrested as arrested on terrorism-related charges.


Sednaya, north of Damascus, is Syria’s most notorious political prison. Diab Serriya, a civic activist who served five years in Sednaya, and was released in 2011, said the number of Islamic fundamentalists imprisoned with him rose from about 300 when he arrived in 2006 to some 900 when he was released. Almost all had seen time fighting in Iraq against the American occupation, almost all were Salafist-jihadists, or hardline violent Islamists, and most were sentenced from five to 15 years for terrorist activities or association with terror groups, he said. Serriya was interviewed in late 2014 after delivering a speech about his experiences before a Syrian cultural club in Istanbul.

Sednaya was not a site for correction and rehabilitation but functioned as an incubator for jihadism, according to former prisoners and intelligence defectors. Some former detainees called it a “five star” prison.

According to former intelligence officials and prisoners, detainees were sorted according to their ideology. Two cellblocks were reserved for the most extreme Islamists, many of whom are now in leadership positions in ISIS. Two were reserved for less extreme Islamists, many of whom are now in the al Qaeda affiliate formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra, and three for more moderate Islamists, many of whom wound up in another prominent Syrian Islamist faction known as Ahrar al Sham. The other three were occupied by moderate Islamists and “democrats” such as Serriya.

The religious fundamentalists organized as if in a caliphate, with groups pledging loyalty to emirs, just as extremist Islamist groups do today, he said.

They wrote slogans on the walls, setting out their goals upon their release, Serriya said. “Some even had the illusion that upon their release, they would go straight to Damascus and establish a caliphate there,” he said.

When the Syrian uprising began in mid-March 2011, Assad began releasing religious extremists from Sednaya.

The regime said it was a response to activists’ demands to free political prisoners. U.S. intelligence officials, who spoke on background, offer a similar explanation. But sending known al Qaeda extremists into a country seething with unrest was also a cynical ploy to use extremists to further his political ends, according to Naser.

“The reason the regime released them at the beginning of the Syrian revolution was to complete the militarization of the uprising,” said Naser, who defected in late 2012, “and to spur criminal acts so that revolution would become a criminal case and give the impression that the regime is fighting terrorists.”

Syrian intelligence formed links in prison with the extremists, allowing them closely to track their rise in the rebel movement, according to Serriya, al-Ali, and former intelligence officials. “Every extremist group is penetrated by the regime,” Serriya said.

The regime not only had penetrated the networks but often ran them. That was by design. As Gen. Ali Mamluk told U.S. officials in 2010, the regime as a practice would “embed ourselves” among Islamic extremists in order to turn on them later. Mamluk is currently Assad’s senior intelligence adviser.

Nabeel Dendal, former director of political intelligence in Latakia, the Assad family’s ancestral home, said he twice led security forces in raids on al Qaeda cells, only to learn that the cell leader he was working for was supported by the Syrian intelligence.

“They were preparing them to be leaders,” the defected colonel said, referring to the Assad regime. An example is Nadim Baloush, an al Qaeda cell leader he arrested in Latakia in 2006, and told him “don’t do anything. I am working for Assef Shawkat,” Assad’s brother-in-law who served as the deputy defense minister. Baloush was arrested after he traveled to Turkey about a year ago and is reported to have committed suicide in prison.

Dendal was introduced to this reporter by a former regime judge from Aleppo who deserted to the opposition. Interviewed in a café in Istanbul’s popular Fatih district, which is now packed with Syrian refugees, he estimated that half the commanders in ISIS are working with the regime today; other defectors from the security sector say it’s about one third. According to Naser, most of the top commanders of Daesh in Raqqa are linked with Syrian intelligence.

Certainly in Aleppo’s Central Prison, the extremists had a “very smooth” relationship with their guards, in contrast with the civil prisoners, who had no privileges at all, civil protester Abdullah Hakawati said.

There were six inmates from Sednaya, and others from other major political prisons, Tadmor (in the ancient city of Palmyra), the Palestine Branch and “291”—altogether 15 al Qaeda members in the cell at Aleppo Central Prison with 15 civic activists such as Hakawati.

The al Qaeda members had privileges, Hakawati remembers, including smartphones, access to the internet, freedom to grow beards and dress in the Afghan-style shalwar kameez, and to order carry-in meals. They held daily religious lessons and prayed for the health of al Qaeda leaders. Hakawati said that while in the prison, he heard “one complete speech by Bin Laden,” who’d been killed by U.S. forces a few months earlier.

If a civil activist ran afoul of the authorities, al Qaeda members stepped in to protect him.

“They were practically the managers of the prison,” Hakawati said. “It was a paradise for them.” And after several weeks with them, five of his colleagues joined the extremists.

Hakawati recounted the time that the prison warden, a general, sat with all the prisoners. “On that day, one of the al Qaeda prisoners, Mahmoud Manigani said to the general, ‘When I am released, on the second day, I will kill you.’” The general responded: “This is something only you can decide.”

But when a civic activist complained that the food was inadequate, the warden threatened: “Would you like me to play with your testicles?”

The relationship between the civic activists and the extremists could be hostile. Hakawati recalled that after a long philosophical discussion with Manigani about the meaning of God, the Islamist beat him up. But not every encounter was hostile. One jihadist thanked Hakawati for helping organize the popular uprising. “It’s due to your demonstrations that we are all comfortable now,” he said.

Former Sednaya prisoners took top positions in Islamist forces. For example, Abu Lukman, one of the founders of Syrian al Qaeda branch Jabhat al Nusra, is now the emir, or administrator, of Raqqa. Mahmoud al-Khalif, another Sednaya graduate, works in the security area and Haj Fadel al-Agal is responsible for social relations. One former prisoner, Abu Abdulrahman al-Hamwi, is the emir of Nusra in Hama province. Other leaders include Abu Naser Drusha, a cousin of Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the founder and principal leader of Nusra, Abu Hussien Zeniah, now in charge of Nusra operations in Qalamoun area near Damascus, and Abu Hafs al-Kiswani, a Nusra commander in Dara’a, southern Syria.

A Sednaya “sheikh” heads the Syrian Islamic Front, an umbrella group for Islamist fighters not affiliated with al Qaeda, and others became leaders of lesser Islamist groups, including Zahran Alloush, who led the Islamist faction Jaysh al Islam until he was killed in a Russian airstrike last Christmas, and Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh, leader of another rebel group, Suqoor al Sham.

Hassan Abboud, who founded Ahrar al Sham, the largest Islamist fighting group in Syria, also served time at Sednaya and was released during the demonstrations. Abboud was killed along with most of Ahrar al Sham’s leadership in a mysterious explosion in September.

They rose rapidly to leadership positions, said al-Ali. Having spent time at Sednaya was the equivalent of a graduate degree with honors. “If someone is a ‘graduate’ of Sednaya, he is indisputably a ‘Sheikh,’” he said. “People will say ‘he paid a high price’ serving in Sednaya.”

Syria’s intelligence apparatus was the big winner. With intimate knowledge of all the ex-detainees, it had a file on every one of them and was positioned to maintain its contacts with them.

Civil activists see those releases as part of Assad’s plan to ruin the revolution.

And it worked, activist Diab Serriya said. “The regime was very successful in distorting the image of the revolution,” said Serriya. “Now the battle is portrayed as being between the secular regime and extremist Islamic groups.”

—with additional reporting by Mousab Alhamadee


Magical Thinking about Isis


Adam Shatz

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Before the Lebanese civil war, Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. Today, Paris looks more and more like the Beirut of Western Europe, a city of incendiary ethnic tension, hostage-taking and suicide bombs. Parisians have returned to the streets, and to their cafés, with the same commitment to normality that the Lebanese have almost miraculously exhibited since the mid-1970s. Même pas peur, they have declared with admirable defiance on posters, and on the walls of the place de la République. But the fear is pervasive, and it’s not confined to France. In the last few weeks alone, Islamic State has carried out massacres in Baghdad, Ankara and south Beirut, and downed a Russian plane with 224 passengers. It has taunted survivors with threats of future attacks, as if its deepest wish were to provoke violent retaliation.

Already traumatised by the massacres in January, France appears to be granting that wish. ‘Nous sommes dans la guerre,’ François Hollande declared, and he is now trying to extend the current state of emergency by amending the constitution. Less than 48 hours after the event, a new round of airstrikes was launched against Raqqa, in concert with Russia. With a single night’s co-ordinated attacks, IS – a cultish militia perhaps 35,000 strong, ruling a self-declared ‘caliphate’ that no one recognises as a state – achieved something France denied the Algerian FLN until 1999, nearly four decades after independence: acknowledgment that it had been fighting a war, rather than a campaign against ‘outlaws’. In the unlikely event that France sends ground troops to Syria, it will have handed IS an opportunity it longs for: face to face combat with ‘crusader’ soldiers on its own soil.

Recognition as a war combatant is not IS’s only strategic gain. It has also spread panic, and pushed France further along the road to civil strife. The massacre was retribution for French airstrikes against IS positions, but there were other reasons for targeting France. Paris is a symbol of the apostate civilisation IS abhors – a den of ‘prostitution and vice’, in the words of its communiqué claiming responsibility for the attacks. Not only is France a former colonial power in North Africa and the Middle East but, along with Britain, it helped establish the Sykes-Picot colonial borders that IS triumphantly bulldozed after capturing Mosul. Most important, it has – by proportion of total population – more Muslim citizens than any other country in Europe, overwhelmingly descendants of France’s colonial subjects. There is a growing Muslim middle class, and large numbers of Muslims marry outside the faith, but a substantial minority still live in grim, isolated suburbs with high levels of unemployment. With the growth rate now at 0.3 per cent, the doors to the French dream have mostly been closed to residents of the banlieue. Feelings of exclusion have been compounded by discrimination, police brutality and by the secular religion of laïcité, which many feel is code for keeping Muslims in their place. Not surprisingly, more than a thousand French Muslims have gone off in search of glory on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Most of these young jihadis became radicalised online not in the mosque. Some, like the perpetrators of the attacks in January and November, have histories of arrest and time spent in prison; about 25 per cent of IS’s French recruits are thought to be converts to Islam. What most of the jihadis appear to have in common is a lack of any serious religious training: according to most studies, there is an inverse relationship between Muslim piety and attraction to jihad. As Olivier Roy, the author of several books on political Islam, recently said, ‘this is not so much the radicalisation of Islam as the Islamicisation of radicalism.’

By sending a group of French – and Belgian – citizens to massacre Parisians in their places of leisure, IS aims to provoke a wave of hostility that will end up intensifying disaffection among young Muslims. Unlike the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the 13 November attacks were universally condemned. The victims were of every race, the murders were indiscriminate, and many Muslims live in Seine-Saint-Denis, where the bombing at the the Stade de France took place. In theory, this could have been a unifying tragedy. Yet it is Muslims who will overwhelmingly bear the brunt of the emergency measures and of the new rhetoric of national self-defence. Fayçal Riyad, a Frenchman of Algerian parents, who teaches at a lycée in Aubervilliers, a few hundred metres from where the 18 November raid against the fugitive attackers took place, pointed out the change in the air. ‘In his January speech,’ Riyad said, ‘Hollande clearly insisted on the distinction between Islam and terrorism. This time he not only abstained from doing so, but in a way he did the opposite by speaking of the necessity of closing the frontiers, insinuating that the attackers were foreigners, but above all in echoing the National Front’s call for stripping binational French people of their nationality if they’re found guilty of acts against the interests of the country. So that is aggravating our fear.’ Marine Le Pen, whose National Front expects to do well in the regional elections in December, is exultant. But anti-Muslim sentiment is hardly confined to the far right. There has been talk in centre-right circles of a Muslim fifth column; a leading figure in Sarkozy’s party has proposed interning 4000 suspected Islamists in ‘regroupment camps’.

IS achieved a further strategic objective by linking the massacre to the refugee crisis. The memory of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy from Kobani who was found drowned on a Turkish beach, has now been eclipsed by a passport found near the corpse of one of the attackers. That this assailant made his way to France through Greece, carrying a passport in the name of a dead Syrian fighter, suggests careful planning. The purpose is not merely to punish Syrians who have fled the caliphate, but to dampen European compassion for the refugees – already strained by unemployment and the growth of right-wing, anti-immigrant parties. Marine Le Pen called for an immediate halt to the inflow of Syrian refugees; Jeb Bush suggested that only Christian Syrians be admitted into the United States. If the West turns its back on the Syrian refugees, the effect will be to deepen further their sense of abandonment, another outcome that would be highly desirable to IS.

It is hard not to feel sentimental about the neighbourhoods of the 10th and the 11th, where IS attacked Le Petit Cambodge and the Bataclan theatre. I know these neighbourhoods well; a number of my journalist friends live there. In a city that has become more gentrified, more class-stratified and exclusionary, they are still reasonably mixed, cheap and welcoming, still somehow grungy and populaire. Odes to their charms have flooded the French press, as if the attacks were primarily an assault on the bobo lifestyle. ‘They have weapons. Fuck them. We have champagne,’ the front page of Charlie Hebdo declared. But as the journalist Thomas Legrand noted on France Inter, ‘the reality is that we have champagne … and also weapons.’


France has been using those weapons more frequently, more widely, and more aggressively in recent years. The shift towards a more interventionist posture in the Muslim world began under Sarkozy, and became even more pronounced under Hollande, who has revealed himself as an heir of Guy Mollet, the Socialist prime minister who presided over Suez and the war in Algeria. It was France that first came to the aid of Libyan rebels, after Bernard-Henri Lévy’s expedition to Benghazi. That adventure, once the US got involved, freed Libya from Gaddafi, but then left it in the hands of militias – a number of them jihadist – and arms dealers whose clients include groups like IS. France has deepened its ties to Netanyahu – Hollande has made no secret of his ‘love’ for Israel – and criminalised expressions of support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.​1 Hollande’s pursuit of ‘economic diplomacy’ in the Arab world is a euphemism for an ever cosier relationship with the Saudi kingdom, whose export of Wahhabist doctrine has done much to spread jihadist ideology. The alliance is an old one. It was a team of French commandos who came to the kingdom’s defence during the 1979 siege of Mecca by a group of radical Islamists; the Saudis then beheaded 63 of the perpetrators, in public executions of a kind now practised by IS, the kingdom’s bastard children. Exploiting Saudi anger over Obama’s pursuit of a rapprochement with Tehran, France has aligned itself with the Saudis on Iran’s nuclear programme and on Syria, and is now competing with the US to become Saudi Arabia’s top supplier of advanced military technology.​2

In one of his last interviews, Tony Judt said:

When Bush said that we are fighting terrorism ‘there’ so that we won’t have to fight them ‘here’, he was making a very distinctively American political move. It is certainly not a rhetorical trope that makes any sense in Europe, [where politicians recognise that] if we begin a war between Western values and Islamic fundamentalism, in the manner so familiar and self-evident to American commentators, it won’t stay conveniently in Baghdad. It is going to reproduce itself thirty kilometres from the Eiffel Tower as well.

The French government refuses to accept any such thing. Most people in Paris were stunned by 13 November, but not those who were listening to IS. Weeks earlier, Marc Trévidic, a magistrate who specialises in terrorism cases, warned in Paris Match that France had become IS’s ‘number one enemy’ because of its activities in the Middle East. ‘It’s always the same story,’ he said in an interview after the attacks. ‘We let a terrorist group grow into a monster, and when it attacks us, we’re surprised … And we’re friends with countries that are responsible for disseminating this ideology – Saudi Arabia … We’re in a total paradox.’

There has been a lot of magical thinking about IS. Liberal hawks, like Roger Cohen in the New York Times, have called for a ground offensive in the usual Churchillian terms – something no Western leader has any appetite (or sizeable constituency) for after Afghanistan and Iraq. Leftists have demanded an end to the drone war, a breaking of ties with Saudi Arabia and the creation of a Palestinian state. According to a writer in the online magazine Jadaliyya, only ‘hallucinating’ neoconservatives could argue that the attacks target the West or France for what they are, rather than for what they do. But IS says very clearly in its communiqué that it’s attacking Paris both for ‘the crusader campaign’ and as ‘the capital of prostitution and vice’ – and it seems obtuse not to take it at its word. To be sure, anger over Western policies is among the drivers of recruitment for groups like IS, but IS is not a purely reactive organisation: it is a millenarian movement with a distinctly apocalyptic agenda. As Elias Sanbar, a Palestinian diplomat in Paris, points out, ‘One of the most striking things about Islamic State is that it has no demands. All the movements we’ve known, from the Vietcong to the FLN to the Palestinians, had demands: if the occupation ends, if we get independence, the war ends. But Daesh’s project is to eliminate the frontiers of Sykes-Picot. It’s like the Biblical revisionism of the settlers, who invent a history that never existed.’ The creation of a Palestinian state is a necessity, above all for Palestinians, but it’s not likely to make much of an impression on IS, which rejects the Middle Eastern state system entirely.

A far more subtle – but in some ways just as wishful – analysis has come from Olivier Roy, who argued in the New York Times that the Paris attacks are a sign of desperation rather than strength:

Isis’s reach is bounded; there are no more areas in which it can extend by claiming to be a defender of Sunni Arab populations. To the north, there are Kurds; to the east, Iraqi Shiites; to the west, Alawites, now protected by the Russians. And all are resisting it. To the south, neither the Lebanese, who worry about the influx of Syrian refugees, nor the Jordanians, who are still reeling from the horrid execution of one of their pilots, nor the Palestinians have succumbed to any fascination for Isis. Stalled in the Middle East, Isis is rushing headlong into globalised terrorism.

It’s an intellectually seductive and almost reassuring argument: IS appears to be on the march, but it’s actually in its death throes, having suffered losses in Kobani and Sinjar. But it’s also an argument that has been made before. After 11 September, it was widely argued that al-Qaida attacked the ‘far enemy’ in the West because it had failed to defeat ‘the near enemy’, the regimes of the Middle East. Today that theory seems less credible. Al-Qaida experienced a regional revival, thanks in large part to the Iraq war. And for IS, an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq, the distinction between near and far enemies is porous: all apostates are enemies. Although it has conquered a significant piece of territory – something bin Laden and Zawahiri never dared attempt – its power is only partly rooted in the caliphate. It is as keen to conquer virtual as actual territory. It draws on a growing pool of recruits who discovered not only IS but Islam itself online, in chatrooms and through messaging services where distance vanishes at the tap of a keyboard. Indeed, the genius of IS has been to overcome the distance between two very different crises of citizenship, and weave them into a single narrative of Sunni Muslim disempowerment: the exclusion of young Muslims in Europe, and the exclusion of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq.

Roy is right that IS can’t ‘win’ in any conventional sense, but it doesn’t have to expand the caliphate in order to remain in business. In the global society of the spectacle, it’s on a roll. Paris has seen its share of terrorist attacks since the 1970s, but the assault on the Bataclan felt very different, and even more disquieting than al-Qaida’s strikes in Madrid and London. Bombings on trains, because the perpetrators are invisible and death is as sudden as in an earthquake, are somehow more easily absorbed than killings by men in balaclavas, armed with Kalashnikovs, haranguing their victims before methodically mowing them down. The message seemed to be: this is what it feels like in Baghdad and Aleppo, this is what it feels like to be utterly helpless, this is what it feels like to be at war. And because the massacre was followed by promises of similar attacks in Paris and other ‘crusader’ cities, it has thrown into relief the impasse in which the West now finds itself, an impasse in large part of its own making.

Hollande may speak confidently of a war to destroy IS once and for all, but his options are limited, and unpalatable, and his lack of imagination imposes further constraints. Mass arrests, interrogations and surveillance could make France safer in the short term, only to drive another generation of alienated youths into the hands of IS. The state of emergency, which he is the only president other than Sarkozy to have invoked since the Algerian war, could quickly turn against him, deepening the sense amongbanlieue residents that they are an internally colonised population.​3 The most important task of the French state is arguably to combat the roots of jihadist terrorism in France, where a Muslim name remains a liability. Third and fourth generation citizens of North African descent are still routinely described as ‘immigrants’, and the neighbourhoods where they live have been called ‘the lost territories of the Republic’, as if they weren’t even a part of France. A long-term project to end discrimination against Muslims, and ensure their participation in the workplace, civic life and politics, would help to reduce the temptations of radical Islamism. So would an effort to address the fact that 70 per cent of the prisoners in French jails are Muslims. But boldness and foresight are in short supply among French politicians, and terrorism and economic austerity may make them still scarcer. Hollande doesn’t want to be too far to Le Pen’s left in the next election.


The airstrikes France is conducting with Russian co-operation may provide the public with a taste of revenge, but airstrikes seldom turn people against their rulers and often do the opposite. In co-ordinating the strikes with Russia, Hollande is moving in a direction fervently advocated by the French right, which has been suffering from an acute case of Putin envy. But such an alliance could, yet again, play into IS’s hands: other than Assad, there is no figure more reviled by Syrian Sunnis than Putin, so an air war in concert with Russia and in tacit alliance with Assad would fan the flames of Sunni anger, and be further fuel for IS propaganda.

In a recent interview with Vice, Obama described IS as a child of the Iraq war. It’s true that if it weren’t for the dismantling of the Iraqi state, and its replacement by a Shia-dominated sectarian system, IS would probably not exist. And in its war against the Sykes-Picot frontiers, IS has paid a peculiar homage to the neoconservatives who have always viewed the post-Ottoman borders as artificial constructs, a map to be redrawn in blood, with multi-confessional states replaced by ethnically exclusive, weak statelets: Christian Lebanese, Kurdish and Shia.

But the problem of IS can’t be laid exclusively at the door of Bush, Blair et al. The war in Libya, and Obama’s accommodation with the Sisi regime in Egypt, have encouraged the spread of IS well beyond Iraq. It is, however, the US’s dangerously incoherent Syria policy that has perhaps done the greatest damage. When Obama called for Assad to step down, apparently confident that his days were numbered because an American president had said so, he raised the expectations of the opposition that the US had their backs, in the event that Assad began firing on them. But Obama had no intention of sending troops, or imposing a no-fly zone. His determination to will the means for Assad’s removal has never matched Russia’s or Iran’s determination to keep him in power. The result was to leave the Syrian opposition exposed to Assad’s war.

Assad, who read American intentions better than the opposition, was emboldened by Obama’s obvious wish not to be drawn directly into the war, even after the famous ‘red line’ was crossed. Unable to secure direct support from the US, the various, increasingly fragmented rebel groups looked for arms and aid wherever they could find them: Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and sheiks and businessmen in the Gulf. The support came with strings attached: namely, ideological guidance, and an increasingly assertive anti-Shia orientation. Thanks to the recklessness of Erdoğan and the Qataris, jihadist groups from Jabhat al-Nusra to IS hijacked the rebellion, while the West turned a blind eye, until it was forced to create its own, ineffectual ‘moderate’ rebels, who didn’t stand a chance against the Islamists. By insisting that Assad step down before any transition, Washington prolonged the war, and made the European refugee crisis inevitable: only so many refugees could be dumped in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

All the actors in the Syria cauldron – the Gulf states, Turkey, Hizbullah, the Russians, the Americans – have had a hand in creating this monster, but no one seems to want to fight it, apart from the Kurds. The question of Assad’s fate has prevented the emergence of a unified Russian-American front against IS. Assad’s forces and their allies, including Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, have focused their attacks on Syrian rebel groups which, unlike IS, have directly challenged the regime. The Gulf states, whose imams have played no small part in the expansion of jihadist extremism, are too worried about Iran’s nuclear programme and the Houthis of Yemen to lift a finger, particularly if their actions end up strengthening Assad. Erdoğan’s main concern is not IS but the Kurdish rebels. The Americans and the French, until last year, took comfort in the notion that IS was a local actor, loathsome to be sure, but unlikely to strike at Weste1rn interests: an irritant, rather than a national security threat.

Now IS is unrivalled among jihadist groups, and no one knows quite what to do that won’t make the problem worse. Anything that can be done now risks being too little, too late. It’s true that IS is no match, militarily, for the West. The attacks of 13 November were in the anarchist tradition of the ‘propaganda of the deed’, and we shouldn’t fall for it: the social order of Europe isn’t in jeopardy. But it would also be a mistake to underestimate the problem. IS has managed to insert itself, with no small amount of cunning, and with acute sensitivity to feelings of humiliation, into two of the most intractable conflicts of our time: the relationship of European societies to their internal, Muslim ‘others’ and the sectarian power struggles that have engulfed the lands of Iraq and Syria since 2003.

In an earlier era, these conflicts might have remained separate, but they are now linked thanks to the very devices that are the symbol of globalisation, our phones and laptops. It no longer makes sense to speak of near and far, or even of ‘blowback’: the theatre of conflict has no clear borders, and its causes are multiple, overlapping and deeply rooted in histories of postcolonial rage and Western-assisted state collapse. The attacks in Paris don’t reflect a clash of civilisations but rather the fact that we really do live in a single, if unequal world, where the torments in one region inevitably spill over into another, where everything connects, sometimes with lethal consequences. For all its medieval airs, the caliphate holds up a mirror to the world we have made, not only in Raqqa and Mosul, but in Paris, Moscow and Washington.

20 November



The Girls Who Fled To Syria: Groomed By The Islamic State

In February 2015, three teenage schoolgirls left the comfort of their homes in East London and traveled to Syria to join the self-styled Islamic State (IS). Around 60 women and girls are thought to have made the same journey from Britain. 

The story of their disappearance dominated the UK press for weeks and the blame game inevitably began to hunt out whose fault it was. When the families of Amira Abase, Shamima Begum, and Kadiza Sultana found out that the police had been interviewing the trio about another girl from their school who had already joined IS, the case was picked up for investigation by the government. But soon certain sections of the press would turn on the families themselves. 

VICE News gained intimate access to the father of one girl, Amira, and joined him as he dealt with the press and parliament to find out what it’s like for those left behind by the tragic choices of their loved ones.

Watch “Escape to the Islamic State” –

Read “British Men Charged With Trying to Join Islamic State and Attack US Military” –

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#Syria, Al Jazira reveals about Norsra Front leader

Comments on interview by Yalla Souriya

Syria Live Update News @YallaSouriya

Jolani’s name is Ussama Al Absi Al Wahidi, born in 1981 in Al Shuhail (Deir Ezzor). His family is from Idlib, who moved to Deir Ezzor where his father was a civil servant as a driver for militaries.

Jolani completed the first stages of formal education, and joined the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Damascus, where he studied Medicine two years, then left to Iraq in the third academic year.

Jolani joined AQ in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003, where he worked under the leadership of the late leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his successors after him, and still says he “pledges allegience” to al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri and works according to his instructions and guidance.
After Al Zarqawi was killed in a US raid, he left Irak to Lebanon where it is believed that oversaw the training of “Jund al-Sham” linked to al-Qaeda.

From Lebanon Jolani returned to Iraq where he was arrested by Americans and was jailed in in ” Boca” in the south of the country. Then, they released him in 2008 and started again his military activity with what was called the “Islamic state in Iraq” which was founded in October 2006 under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and soon he became head of its operations in the province of Mosul.

Months after the oubreak of the popular protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Jolani returned to Syria in August / August 2011 sent by al-Qaida to establish a branch in the country, to participate in the fight against al-Assad.

On January 24, 2012 Jolani made a statement in which he announced the formation of “Al-Nusra Front to the people of Syria” by those he called “the Mujahideen of al-Sham” issued, and took from his home “Al Shuhail” his starting point for the battle. He called to take arms and Jihad against Assad. He became then, the responsible of Nusrat Front.

When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced on April 9 / 2013- that the “Islamic State of Iraq” and “Al-Nusra Front” have become the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” Jolani rejected the next day this decision.
He announced his exclusive allegiance Al-Qaeda led by Zawahiri’s leadership, Front and entered into a fight with the regime and controlled many areas including the Syrian oil-producing areas.

From Arabic

P.S: I understand now why Daesh’s hostile politics to the town of Shuhail in Deir Ezzor. and résidents


Noam Chomsky at Democracy Now

on Net’s speech, Iran, the Ukraine and IS


The Mystery of Abdul-Rahman, or Peter Kassig

NOVEMBER 17, 2014




“They tell us you have abandoned us and/or don’t care but of course we know you are doing everything you can and more,” Abdul-Rahman Kassig, born Peter Kassig, wrote to his parents, Ed and Paula, when he had been held by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham for several months. He knew that his captors might kill him—“it may very well be coming down to the wire here”—and in the end they did: over the weekend, ISIS released a video of a member of the group displaying Kassig’s severed head. He was twenty-six years old, and from Indiana. In the letter, he’d sought to prepare his parents for that end, and, perhaps, to forestall the visions they might have of his last moments: “Don’t worry Dad, if I do go down, I won’t go thinking anything but what I know to be true. That you and mom love me more than the moon & the stars.”

Kassig was kidnapped delivering medical aid to people affected by the civil war in Syria. He had been a soldier, a Ranger in Iraq, then a college student, and, very briefly, a husband. (The marriage ended in divorce.) Along the way, the Army trained him as a medic, and he took classes to learn to be an emergency medical technician. On a vacation to Lebanon, where he encountered Syrian refugees, he realized that his medical knowledge was an asset, a gift he could hand to desperate people. Just before he was supposed to go home, he had, as he wrote in an e-mail to family and friends, “the best conversation that I have ever had with my mom. From 4,000 miles away in a shelled out parking lot in Beirut I told her about what I had been involved in over the last week.” He had found his “calling”:

Yesterday my life was laid out on a table in front of me. With only hours left before my scheduled flight back to the United States, I watched people dying right in front of me. I had seen it before and I had walked away before.… I’m just not going to turn my back this time, it’s as simple as that.

“My whole life has led me to this point in time,” he wrote. He stayed, and bandaged wounds, cared for people in clinics, and, just generally, helped. He was drawn across the Syrian border into a zone of both war and jihadi kidnapping. Joshua Hersh, who encountered Kassig when he was working there, wrote that he “didn’t try to convince me that going back was safe, or even wise. But his commitment to the relief project he had embarked on was untempered, and it was clear to me that he would soon go back.” In a wrenching statement posted to Facebook on Sunday, his parents said, “We are incredibly proud of our son for living his life according to his humanitarian calling,” and asked that people donate to a Syrian relief group in lieu of flowers.

Altruism is a mystery, in the best sense of the word, in the same way that love is. It’s not one we always need to solve; often, it leaves us most puzzled about ourselves, about our own lives spread on a table. (Larissa MacFarquhar has written about this.) But there are also two other, more specific mysteries associated with Kassig’s death. One has to do with his conversion to Islam. The other is why this ISIS beheading video did not resemble others.

At some point in his captivity, Peter Kassig, who was raised Methodist, converted to Islam and took the name Abdul-Rahman.* That is what his parents called him publicly when, after a period in which they were trying to quietly work for his release, they began to speak out; they referred to him as Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig in the statement after his death was confirmed, when it would no longer have been useful; President Obama also used the name Abdul-Rahman, in calling the murder “an act of pure evil.” Kidnappings often include forced conversions—the men who abducted more than two hundred girls from their school in Nigeria claimed that the girls had converted, but no one would hold those children (or adults in similar situations) to religious declarations made under duress. Kassig’s parents have said, through their family Twitter account and other statements, that they believed he was sincere—and he was, by nature, sincere and searching. They were also, as Kassig rightly said in his letter to them, doing everything they could think of to save him. His mother appeared in hijab in video appeals to his captors, and also at a prayer vigil at an Islamic center in Plainfield, Indiana, where the Muslim community rallied around him. Indeed, the Muslim voices advocating for his release were as many and varied as one could get. They included college students in America, refugees in Syria, and even members of the Islamist Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front, who remembered him as someone who treated wounded rebels, among others. (This may also hint at the mixture of rebel forces.) It didn’t work. Conversion was never protection. It was not ISIS’s goal to make Kassig a Muslim, nor was it in its interest to acknowledge him as one. They wanted to murder an American, and they did.

This is what Kassig wrote, obliquely, about the questions he must have known his parents had about his conversion, in that letter from captivity:

In terms of my faith, I pray everyday and I am not angry about my situation in that sense. I am in a dogmatically complicated situation here, but I am at peace with my belief.

Kassig’s parents knew him best, and what “dogmatically complicated” and “peace” might mean to him. In the same letter, he said, “I cried a lot in the first few months but a little less now.” The choice for the rest of us, going forward—when deciding, for example, what name to call him, or to entertain the idea that the conversion was part of where Kassig’s life was leading—seems clear: follow Ed and Paula Kassig’s lead, and give them room to think about what God meant to their son.

Then there is the mystery of the video. The others each involved a hostage kneeling in an almost art-directed outdoor setting, reciting a confession, and then having his head cut off with a knife. This one did not. Instead, the ISISmember who stands there with his head calls him Peter Edward Kassig and states that he “doesn’t have much to say. His previous cellmates have already spoken on his behalf.” Before that, as if to make the point that they do, still, film themselves in the act of decapitation, there is footage of ISIS members killing captured Syrian soldiers this way. Perhaps there is footage of Kassig that the group has in reserve. But its absence so far has led to speculation that, as the Times put it, “something may have gone wrong” from ISIS’s perspective during the filming of his murder.

What could that be? There are immediate romantic fantasies: a defiant speech, a brave silence. Maybe—but keep in mind that Kassig, who was dying, didn’t owe anyone a gesture like that. It might just have been that a bomb went off nearby, or that, as the Times suggested, drones drove the executioners inside, or crossed the sky in the middle of the shot, or something prosaic, like a cameraman’s fumble. Or there could have been something that particularly spoiled its propaganda value among Muslims: for example, a profession of faith. He didn’t owe that to anyone, of any faith, either.

When he wrote to his parents as a hostage, Kassig thanked them for raising him, and for the things and the scenes that they had shown him. “I wish this paper would go on forever and never run out and I could just keep talking to you. Just know I’m with you. Every stream, every lake, every field and river. In the woods and in the hills, in all the places you showed me. I love you.” That was the end of the letter.

Update: At a press conference Monday afternoon, Ed Kassig said, “Please pray for Abdul-Rahman, or Pete if that is how you knew him, at sunset this evening.… Lastly, please allow our family the time and privacy to mourn, cry—and yes, forgive—and begin to heal.”

*Correction: A previous version of this post said that Kassig was raised Catholic.



5 Things we don’t know about the Caliphate

August 26th, 2014 – Right now, a lot of people (and media) are asking for information on the “Islamic State”, the “Caliphate” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other things related to Jihadist activities in Syria and Iraq. That’s perfectly understandable. But while I am answering as many of these questions as I can, I think it is equally important that we (and by “we” I mean those of us who have followed events there since, let’s say, the days of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi) don’t forget that there are a whole lot ofquestions we can’t answer (even if these are not the questions we are usually asked).So in the interest of self-discipline, academic transparency and self-questioning, here is a brief list of the five most important things we (or I, at least) do not know about the Caliphate, butreally wish I knew:1.- How important is the role of al-Baghdadi?

He is obviously the poster guy of IS, but in what ways does he direct operations, how much power of command does he yield, and what is his relation to his deputies and field commanders, given that at least some of them are apparently former Ba’ath regime military men? How much initiative are commanders in the field allowed? Have rules been laid out of whether or not and if so how to execute people – and if so, before or after the first instances occurred? Mind you, I haven’t read a single article in which even three commanders of IS have been plausibly named. But understanding the extent of al-Baghdadi’s control and wether he is all micro or macro would be very helpful indeed.

2.- Is there a plan for expansion of the “Caliphate”?

And by that a mean: A real, tangible one, not the ideological version. In propaganda videos, all sorts of targets are being named: Samarra, Najaf, Baghdad in Iraq; Damascus, Mecca, Jerusalem on a more ideologically motivated level; Rome as a symbol. But that is not helpful in predicting the IS’s next moves. These will be determined by their reading of military conditions on the ground, or so I assume. So will they sit in Mosul and Raqqa and consolidate before their next move at a big city or town? Are they busy forging new alliances elsewhere in order to repeat what happened in Mosul? Are they clever enough not to try and take Baghdad – or stupid enough to play with that idea at this point? I can make assumptions, but they are based on my idea of IS, rather than facts.

3.- Does al-Baghdadi/IS want to strike in the West? 

The thing is: With al-Qaida, we always had a pretty good idea of what they thought was in their interest. With IS, we do not. With al-Qaida, we knew that – to a degree – we could rely on their words; they hardly ever struck in places they didn’t mention/threaten/warn before. With IS, we do not know. IS is not like al-Qaida. There is no reason to assume they follow the same lead here. Al-Baghdadi may in fact be plotting huge attacks in the West without ever mentioning any desire of that sort. Or the opposite may be true: He may be all about focusing on the region and not give a thought to striking anywhere in the West.

4.- Is there communication between IS and al-Qaida’s branches? 

Success is sexy. Aiman al-Sawahiri is not. Is it conceivable that one day we will wake up to a video message by the leadership of AQAP or AQIM or both pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi? Absolutely. Or so I believe. And that would be a game changer. Because the “Caliphate” as a state would suddenly become much more supranational/supra-state than it is. Such a move would spell the end f al-Qaida and likely be a rallying cry for many more recruits to come. It is, in a way, a very-bad-case-scenario. Right now, I can’t assess the likelihood of this happening. AQ and its branches haven’t been saying a whole lot about IS at all. So: Is there communication? Perhaps even negociations? I don’t know. I daresay no-one really does. Which means that this 3-a.m.-scenario lingers above our heads….

5.- How stable/instable are relations to allies and helpers? 

It is evident that IS could not have taken Mosul by itself. We have hints that the relation to former regimes cadres and Sunni Sheikhs in Iraq are at least instable. But that’s about it. We don’t know these parties’ calculations well enough to foresee how far these alliances may carry IS. And whether they can be brokered in other areas than the ones where they already exist. Is money a factor here? And if so, how convincing is it? And how much of it does IS have?

There are more questions, of course. Maybe some of you have strong opinions on one of these, maybe some of you have entirely different questions. In any case, I believe that admitting to what we don’t know will eventually help us more than pretending we have all the answers.

As always, I am looking forward to your comments!

Cheers, Y

bandannie got to this article via Syria Comment and it was posted by Juergen

Below is a retort from Syria Lover

96. SYRIALOVER said:

JUERGEN #87 I disagree with that exercise. It is not realistic or worthwhile to waste time and energy analysing ISIS like that.

I repeat, the only purpose of ISIS is to make their dic*s feel bigger (to quote Racan Alhoch after experiencing them)

That Der Spiegel journalist urgently needs to get real and read what is posted in #70 by Hamoudeh, “Fatwa Against ISIS by the Syrian Islamic Council”

Those guys know the reality, not the social media games that Der Speigal guy is excited by.

He needs to realise that ISIS members are dumb thrill seekers, not holy warriors (see article linked below*). Just an irrational and unstable killer cult, with no ability to plan, create or provide anything of substance.

Every ISIS member inside Syria who comes from elsewhere – including Iraq – has no future but displacement, imprisonment or death. They have lost the right to participate in any society anywhere.

And yes, ISIS-admiring fools and fantasists will attack the west if governments there don’t start seriously challenging and kicking ass inside the communities in their countries that are producing them.

The frequently feeble response, defensiveness and sulking of those communities and their representatives is starting to wear thin. If the President of Indonesia and the religious head of Saudi Arabia can denounce ISIS as an embarrassment and enemy no 1 of all Muslims why can’t Muslims in the west stand up and loudly say the same? (see #28.)


ISIS’ Antiquities Sideline (bis)

SEPT. 2, 2014

The territorial gains made by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have provoked fears — as well as tentative news reports — that archaeological sites in those countries are being attacked and looted, much as sites in Iraq were at the outset of the second Iraq war.

We have recently returned from southern Turkey, where we were training Syrian activists and museum staff preservationists to document and protect their country’s cultural heritage. That heritage includes remains from the ancient Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods, along with some of the earliest examples of writing and some of the best examples of Hellenistic, Roman and Christian mosaics.

In extensive conversations with those working and living in areas currently under ISIS control, we learned that ISIS is indeed involved in the illicit antiquities trade, but in a way that is more complex and insidious than we expected. (Our contacts and sources, whom we cannot name out of concern for their safety, continue their work under the most dangerous of conditions.)



CreditNeil Webb

ISIS does not seem to have devoted the manpower of its army to the active work of looting archaeological sites. Rather, its involvement is financial. In general, ISIS permits local inhabitants to dig at these sites in exchange for a percentage of the monetary value of any finds.

The group’s rationale for this levy is the Islamic khums tax, according to which Muslims are required to pay the state treasury a percentage of the value of any goods or treasure recovered from the ground. ISIS claims to be the legitimate recipient of such proceeds.

The amount levied for the khums varies by region and the type of object recovered. In ISIS-controlled areas at the periphery of Aleppo Province in Syria, the khums is 20 percent. In the Raqqa region, the levy can reach up to 50 percent or even higher if the finds are from the Islamic period (beginning in the early-to-mid-seventh century) or made of precious metals like gold.

The scale of looting varies considerably under this system, and much is left to the discretion of local ISIS leaders. For a few areas, such as the ancient sites along the Euphrates River, ISIS leaders have encouraged digging by semiprofessional field crews. These teams are often from Iraq and are applying and profiting from their experience looting ancient sites there. They operate with a “license” from ISIS, and an ISIS representative is assigned to oversee their work to ensure the proper use of heavy machinery and to verify accurate payment of the khums.

In addition to the looting, ISIS seems to be encouraging the clandestine export of archaeological finds, which is primarily centered on the border crossing from Syria into Turkey near Tel Abyad, an ISIS stronghold. There is reason to suspect that ISIS has approved and encourages the transborder antiquities trade. In institutionalizing this system, which provides ISIS with one of its many diversified income streams, ISIS has caused irreparable damage to Syria’s cultural heritage.

Stopping this illicit trade is imperative not only because it is a source of income for a terrorist organization, but also because it jeopardizes the possibility of post-conflict stabilization and reconciliation. In Syria, cultural heritage is part of everyday life. Syrians live in ancient cities and neighborhoods, pray in historic mosques and churches and shop in centuries-old bazaars. If and when the fighting stops, this heritage will be critical in helping the people of Syria reconnect with the symbols that unite them across religious and political lines.

Numerous local and international organizations such as The Syria Campaign are advocating for the United Nations Security Council to ban the trade in undocumented and most likely recently looted antiquities. The success of such a resolution could become the most effective means available to save Syria’s past.

And saving Syria’s past is about saving Syria’s future.

Amr Al-Azm is an associate professor of anthropology and Middle Eastern history at Shawnee State University. Salam al-Kuntar is a lecturer of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Brian I. Daniels is the director of research and programs of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

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