What ISIS Really (Really) Wants

AQMI_Flag_asymmetric.svgIn light of increased Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) foreign terrorism, especially in Europe, I have seen a piece from The Atlantic titled “What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood experience a resurgence in popularity. Last week it was the second most popular article on the site, despite it being a year old. In the piece, Wood made the argument that despite foolish United States government statements to the contrary, IS really was very Islamic and must be viewed with a theological lens to truly understand and counter it.

At the time, the piece filled a vacuum in long form analysis on what was a seemingly unstoppable al-Qaida separatist group. IS had captured both significant amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria and the attention of most Americans with its beheading video of American James Foley. Americans were now acutely aware of the strength of the group that President Barack Obama had attempted to downplay by calling “al-Qaida’s jayvee team.” Wood’s piece helped provide some context for the target of a new US war in the Middle East after attempting to withdraw from the region.

The piece was controversial when published, but with the benefit of a year of hindsight, I do not think that its central argument holds up well.

IS Not Very Islamic After All

It has become evident that many of the IS rank and file, especially those performing terrorist attacks like the ones in Paris and Belgium, are not particularly pious. Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, the two brothers responsible for the Brussels bombings, were not very religious. Nor was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the Paris attacks, who was known to regularly drink alcohol and use drugs — activities few if any Muslim religious leaders condone.

Mohamad Khweis, an American jihadist who was recently captured by the Kurdish Peshmerga as he attempted to desert, told reporters that IS’s religious ideology was too intense for him, complaining of how he could not smoke. And two British jihadists arrested upon returning from fighting in Syria were found to have bought Islam for Dummies — indicating their relatively new appreciation for Islam.

“Wood’s piece is not mansplaining, but it comes close to something like secularsplaining: ‘Dear Muslims, allow me to explain to you your religion.’”

But it is not just low-level fighters that might not be as Islamic as Wood claims. It has been reported that some of the IS senior leadership is made up of former Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since Ba’athism is a secular pan-Arabist ideology, either these leaders were closeted Islamists before, they are only recent converts, or they are fighting for IS for non-religious reasons (like a Shi’a-dominated, Iran-influenced, anti-Ba’athist government in Baghdad.)

Furthermore, the examples of pious Islamists that Wood interviewed, such as Anjem Choudhry, are not even proper IS members. While they may indeed be committed Islamists who openly endorse an IS caliphate, the fact remains that they are not living in IS territory or fighting for them, despite IS calls for their sympathizers unable to emigrate to launch attacks in the countries where they reside. On Twitter, many IS fighters chastise those who have not emigrated. I suspect that most actual IS fighters would deem people like Choudhry and his ilk to be pretenders in the same way that US military members have no great love for young Americans who profess to want to fight IS, but will not enlist.

The Obama Administration Is Right

A major point of contention from Wood is that the Obama Administration is purposely  calling IS un-Islamic not as a reflection of reality but for purposes of messaging. Because the administration does not correctly identify IS as very Islamic, it makes bad predictions. While I think the benefit of time has helped show that IS is not as Islamic as Wood thought it was, it is completely true that the Obama Administration made a conscious choice not to use “Islamic” when describing IS for political reasons — and they are right for doing so.

We must be realistic in acknowledging that most Americans would not understand the nuance in top government officials saying things like, “Yes, IS is Islamic but so are millions of practicing Muslims in the US who do not want to create a caliphate or cut off anyone’s head.”

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IS fighters from IS social media

Islamophobia is on the rise in the US and it is evident by recent murders of Muslim Americans and current Republican anti-Muslim rhetoric. Since it is the government’s responsibility to protect Americans, it does have to be careful with its messaging when discussing IS, lest it be used to fuel bigotry and a Trump rally turns into a Kristallnacht against Muslims.

Secularsplaining Islam

The last problem with Wood’s piece is that Islam is what Muslims do. If 99% of Muslims are not doing what IS does, then how Islamic can it be? It would be more accurate to describe the actions of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims as Islamic than the relative handful of militants in Iraq, Syria, et al. performing the atrocities that make us so fearful.

When non-Muslims start making judgements on how Islamic a certain group of Muslims are, we straddle a thin line between useful thought exercise and absurdity — this is a problem with Orientalism in general. I think it would be difficult for Wood to defend his position in a room with 100 British Muslims. So when we as non-Muslims wonder about Islam, or what religiously motivates those who kill in the name of Islam, perhaps we should ask actual Muslims instead of relying solely on non-Muslim journalists.

“IS is, among other things, a youth movement.”

In feminist discourse there is a term called “mansplaining” which is used to describe a man explaining something to a woman in a condescending or patronizing way. Wood’s piece is not mansplaining, but it comes close to something like secularsplaining: “Dear Muslims, allow me to explain to you your religion.”

What IS Really Really Wants

So then what does IS really want? This is the part where I disappoint you: IS cannot “want” anything because it is not a cognizant being. When we talk about IS as an agent instead of a group of tens of thousands with varying interests we are utilizing a form of folk psychology that simplifies group complexities to make sense of the world and predict behavior.

If a group cannot truly want anything, and IS elites — from the al-Qaida in Iraq old guard to the ex-Ba’athists — are likely are not homogenous in their goals, then this line of questioning seems futile. If many of its young members were not religious before joining, then perhaps we are not fighting Islam that has been radicalized, but radicalization that has been Islamized.

IS is, among other things, a youth movement. The average age of a European jihadist has dropped from 27.7 when al-Qaida was the dominant jihadist group from 2001-2009 to just 20 years old today. As Cormac McCarthy wrote, war “endures because young men love it and old men love it in them.” What if the question is not what IS wants, but rather what do the young men (and women) joining IS want?

Instead of wondering how we can make ourselves safe from Muslims, maybe we should figure out how to assist in providing a meaningful life to a generation of Arabs both in the Middle East and Europe who have been marginalized. Young men have always willingly given their lives to save those of their countrymen. What does it say about the societies in Europe and the Arab states that tens of thousands of young people are more eagerly self-identifying with a murderous extra-legal organization in a war zone than the countries in which they reside?

Homage to Catalonia: A Lions of Rojava Update

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Lions of Rojava Photo

Over a year ago, Insurgentsia broke that a Kurdish militia called the Lions of Rojava (LoR) within the left-leaning People’s Protection Unit (YPG) was actively recruiting Americans to join the fight against the Islamic State (IS) much like the Marxist militias that attracted George Orwell during the Spanish Civil War. Since then, that particular post has been Insurgentsia‘s most Googled piece, numerous articles have been written about the Lions of Rojava in the press, (the Washington Post and The Guardian picked it about a month later) and the Lions of Rojava have become almost famous in certain circles.

Among private security contractors in Afghanistan that I have spoken with, the Lions of Rojava are talked about with a certain reverence and some jealousy, as it is understood that these are the guys who are engaging in offensive operations against IS, unlike most legitimate security contractors who are involved in strictly defensive operations. Of course, the LoR are volunteers and as such are not paid more than a nominal allowance — a deterrent for most people who make their living as an armed security professional.

Indeed, the comments section of my 2014 piece is filled with would-be volunteers asking for information on how to join or offering their services. The most poignant example of LoR’s popularity  is simply how many Westerners have joined (and how many have been killed or wounded in action) since then.

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Lions of Rojava: American Jordan Matson (second from right), Australian Ashley Johnston (right), and Briton Konstandinos Erik Scurfield (bottom) – AP Photo

The most famous of the Lions of Rojava, and the person who first advertised that LoR had begun an effort to recruit more Americans, is Jordan Matson, the unofficial American spokesman for the YPG. Initially I was a bit skeptical of Matson who was in the United States Army for a year and a half and had a penchant for having silly photos taken of himself. But after over a year since my first post, he seems to have stuck out his commitment — even after others who came after him left or were killed, after his injury, and after he was sent back to combat. Today he is married to a Kurdish woman and plans to start a family in the US.

However, many were not as lucky as Matson. Today the Kurds enjoy contiguous territory from Kobane in the east to the Iraqi border in the west, but this was not always the case. Many remember the fierce fighting for Kobane which received a lot of news coverage last year.  Yet there were more battles for the YPG as well: Tel Hamis, al-Hasakah, Sinjar, Sarrin, al-Hawl, and others.

According to the LoR Facebook page, six Western volunteers have been killed while fighting for the YPG in Syria: former Austrialian Army soldier Ashley Johnston, Australian Reese Harding, former Royal Marine Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, American Keith Broomfield, German Kevin Jochim, and German Ivana Hoffman.

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Western martyrs of the Lions of Rojava via their Facebook page

Furthermore, it seems life in the YPG is not what many who make the long trip expected. In September, the New York Times interviewed a number of Americans who had volunteered for the LoR in Syria. The general feeling of the volunteers was disappointment, boredom, and humilation. One former oil field worker who preferred to be called Azad said:

“Came all the way over here for nothing. Seems like such a waste of my life. I’ll never get the security clearance to go work the oil fields again. They will do a background check, and Homeland Security won’t like that I’m in a foreign militia. Work your whole life, finally get to the point where you’re making good money and blow that aside to do the right thing, and then when you get here, your hands are tied. It’s a no-win situation. If you go home, you will hate yourself the rest of your life, because maybe you could have made a difference.”

A common theme I have noticed among these volunteers is that the ones who had military experience had never deployed and the rest had simply never been in the military. They wonder why the YPG asks them to stand guard or drive an ambulance, but this is how normal junior soldiers are treated in every military.

I do partially understand the urge to join, though. For veterans who did not deploy I can understand the feeling of missing something in your life — it is why I joined the Army National Guard after serving in the Air Force: I was not satisfied with my deployments and wanted another. And for the younger volunteers I can see wanting to get into some “action” against IS quickly while the Western national armies are slowing down their operations tempos — it is hard for regular soldiers to deploy these days.

But now that the Kurds have secured most of the Kurdish territory in Syria, I wonder how many Western volunteers will stick around. There is still some Kurdish territory to take from IS, but the Kurds have been wisely reluctant to fight for Arab territory. I have read reports that there are anywhere from 100 to 400 Westerners in the LoR in Syria. If they stay in Syria, 2016 will probably mean defending the territory the Kurds nearly tripled in size last year. If they choose to go home, what then? For Zac, a 22 year old Briton wounded while fighting, it will be:

“I’m really looking forward to it at the moment. Everything. Seeing friends, going down the shop, everything that’s in England. I can’t wait to sit down at my computer and waste away.”

The Fall of Mosul One Year Later

IS parade through Mosul in June 2014. (Associated Press photo)

I have been spending a lot of time over the past few days thinking about the one year anniversary of the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State. While I have no particular attachment to Mosul, I cannot help but realize that its capture by the Islamic State has been nothing less than world changing. Looking back, its significance is undeniable.

Let’s examine the the world we lived in before IS captured Mosul:

  1. Nouri al-Malaki was Prime Minister of Iraq
  2. IS was still calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Da’ash/Daesh moniker was only used by Arabs
  3. Few, if any, maps of the territory controlled by the IS were being produced for consumption on the internet
  4. There were no propaganda videos of IS beheadings
  5. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had made no public appearances
  6. There were no photos of IS driving American Humvees or firing American artillery
  7. Kirkuk was not under Kurdish control
  8. There were no Americans or other Westerners volunteering for Kurdish militias
  9. Iran was not openly sending advisors and military hardware to Iraq and their influence was less overt
  10. There were no American military in Iraq except for the embassy complex
  11. The general Americans public were not aware of IS unless they had read about them in the context of being an AQ splinter group

These are just a few observations from an American 7,000 miles away. I would be very interested to see a list like this made by an Iraqi to understand better how the fall of Mosul changed life for Iraqis—both inside and outside of IS territory. But looking at this list, it’s obvious that the fall of the Mosul was the defining moment for IS as we know it today.

It’s telling that on the one year anniversary of the fall of Mosul, the IS of today is the most famous and easily recognizable IS. Like all important moments in history, the world before it is almost hard to imagine.

Before the fall of Mosul, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki still ran Iraq with a Saddam-esque authoritarianism. A year ago Western journalists were questioning the brutal treatment of protestors and the general Western sentiment seemed that it was time for Maliki to go, should Iraq become an even quasi-democratic state. Today, Haider Abadi is Prime Minister and that strong leadership is gone. The Iraq of today is a failed state with a central government that can barely maneuver its military to crush dissent, let alone battle organized enemies.

It’s also important to note that a year ago, “IS” wasn’t “IS”. This is relevant because the battle for what this group is to be called has been waging ever since. Before the fall of Mosul there were few Muslims asking Westerners not to use the term “Islamic” to describe the group because few Westerners did. When they were mentioned at all in the West it was strictly as ISIL/ISIS much as al-Qaida is called AQ by Beltway insiders. But even that’s changed in the last year as AQ lost stature. Today, al-Qaida is more often referred to as Nusra or even the mysterious “Khorasan group” as AQ central becomes less in control of global jihadism.

Presently, those who refuse to use the title “Islamic State” or even its acronyms call it Da’ash or Daesh. It is curious that this has become a slur against the group, because it is the exact same thing as calling it ISIS except in Arabic. Even senior government leaders have dropped ISIL for Daesh. Oh, the power of words! If you know of any examples of organizations the US government has refused to name, please let me know in the comments because it seems unprecedented. It’s as if IS is Voldemort and is the group that must not be named. Ironically, I imagine this sort of self-censorship of names tends to lead to the exact opposite of its intention: it provides more power to the group in the psyche of the person who wishes to diminish that power.

But if anything comes close to holding as much power as words, it might be maps. Remember a time before those with an interest in geography and current events could visualize a map of IS territory? It existed one year ago. Now these maps are constantly being shared on social media and blogs and even make it onto the major news networks whenever there is a significant change in these perceived borders.

Recent maps of IS territory from The Atlantic, BBC, and Institute for the Study of War

Recent maps of IS territory from The Atlantic, BBC, and Institute for the Study of War

Yet maps such as the ones above have something in common. Their borders are all defined as a stringy web of roads and population centers. They look more like a game of cat’s cradle than a familiar political map. One must realize that it’s not as if those empty spots in the deserts of Western Iraq or Eastern Syria are controlled by their respective governments. They’re just generally empty. Does that mean they are not in IS territory? Of course not. These maps are not accurate representations of IS-held territory, at least not in the way borders are traditionally drawn. By presenting IS in this manner it undermines their power by both refusing to acknowledge them a state with clear borders and by making them look weaker (as if to say this puny so-called Islamic State only controls a few roads.) But imagine if the porous borders of the Southwest United States or the empty arctic were drawn in this fashion—they would look very similar.

I live in one of those white areas and can attest I haven't seen federal government forces in months

I live in one of those white areas in the West and can attest that I haven’t seen federal government forces in months. (Not shown: Wilayat Alaska and Wilayat Hawaii)

If only it were just maps of IS that we were seeing more of these days. Unfortunately, it’s not. One year ago there were no IS beheading videos. Imagine that for a moment: a world in which we lived our lives without seeing videos of American aid workers being brutally murdered after a masked Briton speaks directly to the President and us. These videos started shortly after the Pentagon resumed a bombing campaign in Iraq after withdrawing from Iraq two and a half years earlier. We will return to that in a moment, but another type of propaganda we had not seen before the fall of Mosul was the public appearance of the self-appointed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Up until then, essentially the only image we had of Baghdadi was a mugshot from his time at the Camp Bucca military prison in Iraq. But after Mosul’s fall, Baghdadi felt comfortable enough to appear in public (however, this has been his sole public appearance as far as we know.)

Another image we had not seen in a pre-fall of Mosul world was that of American Humvees and military equipment being captured by our enemies en masse. The images of hundreds of millions of dollars of American hardware being driven in IS parades shocked the nation. Dismally, many more Humvees and other equipment has been captured by IS since then, especially during the recent fall of Ramadi.

Worse yet, Humvees have turned out to be perfect weapons for IS. This might surprise many Americans (especially veterans) who know that the Cold War-designed Humvee had many flaws as a gun truck in Iraq. These flaws resulted in the uparmor program to better protect the soft-skinned vehicles from IED/VBIED and ambushes raising the purchase price from $70,000 to $220,000 each. Despite the upgraded armor, the vehicles still suffered from a design flaw in that they were low and wide which meant that explosions from below devastated the vehicle and its occupants. Worse still, the increased weight increased the instances of stuck vehicles and (often fatal) roll overs.

So the Pentagon quickly started replacing its Humvees with two million dollar MRAPs (seen recently on an American city street with a race riot near you) and the Humvees were given to our Iraqi military counterparts who likely experienced all the same problems the Americans did. Yet it was IS who found an ingenious use for them as armored guided bombs. As VBIEDs, the Humvees’ armor is perfect to keep its suicide driver alive until he hits his target.

But while images of the Islamic State in these forms evoke visceral reactions from many Americans, less understood, I think, by the general American public is that before the fall of Mosul many areas now under Kurdish control in Northern Iraq (and Syria) were not Kurdish before. Indeed, in a pre-IS Northern Iraq the Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces sometimes had border disputes and it seemed a state of cold peace was slowly coming to a boil. After those ISF units fled Northern Iraq during the fall of Mosul, the Kurds deftly used the power vacuum in the area to move into areas they had wanted to control for decades, such as Kirkuk. It is unlikely they will ever willing gives these areas “back” to Iraq. While the Kurds and IS continue to fight in both Iraq and Syria, in some ways IS did more for the Kurds than two and a half decades of US support.

Continuing on the topic of the Kurds, today I think more Americans know about Kurdish militias than ever before thanks to the fall of Mosul and the hot new trend of joining the YPG, or the People’s Protection Units in order to get a chance to shoot at IS fighters. Note that the YPG is from Rojava, Syria, and does not operate in Iraq, yet still this was not commonplace until after the fall of Mosul and IS really became relevant to Americans. On the other hand another Kurdish militia, the PKK, does operate in Iraq. But it has not been as popular since it is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and leans even more Red than the YPG.

British actor Michael Enright dressed as a YPG fighter in Syria (AP Photo)

British actor Michael Enright dressed as a YPG fighter in Syria (AP Photo)

But it’s not just the Kurds who have benefited from IS gains in Iraq. Because of the terrible security situation and a reluctance from the US to entangle itself in Iraq again, Iran has brilliantly stepped up to be Iraq’s savior. While it is no secret that Iran has been providing weapons and training to Shia fighters in Iraq since the US invasion, in the post-Mosul fall world Iran can openly send Revolutionary Guard advisors, the most prominent being Major General Qasem Solemani, commander of the Quds Force (Iranian foreign special operations.)

Unlike their American counterparts, the Iranians are so involved in anti-IS operations that some of their top commanders have been killed in action. Perhaps the best example of overt Iranian influence in Baghdad is a billboard of both the late Ayatollah Khomeinei and current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the same square that Americans famously removed a statue of Saddam Hussein during the invasion. The billboard advertises Iran-backed Shia militias, without whom the “liberation” of Tikrit would not have been possible—and another example of Iran openly filling the security vacuum in Iraq.

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Billboard of Khamenei and Khomeinei advertising Shia militias in Baghdad (Liz Sly/Washington Post photo)

Obviously, Americans aren’t only in the region in Kurdish units. Today, there are 3,550 American troops in Iraq with more surely on the way. It might be hard to remember, especially in the frame of the entire Iraq war from 2003 to today, but for two and a half years the United States military was effectively out of Iraq. And since the fall of Mosul, they are back and will likely remain for years. Before Mosul, the Iraq war was over. Today, the forever war continues.

(New York Times graphic)

(New York Times graphic)

Lastly, it is impossible to forget that in our post-Mosul fall world most people are aware of IS. This is probably my most salient point. Before the fall of Mosul IS was just ISIL—a successor to AQI and an AQ splinter group. If you had said that sentence aloud to someone at a party using those acronyms, very few would know what you were talking about. But today there are very few people who haven’t heard of ISIS or the Islamic State (don’t you envy them?)

Looking back, I think the fall of Mosul was a defining moment not just for IS, but for the region and even the world. In the year that has passed since then, what was once unthinkable is now commonplace. Where will we be one year from now?

Today’s picture of western fighters with the YPG’s Lions of Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan

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It has been quite a while since my last post, but during the hiatus it got a lot of attention. Apparently if you google “Lions of Rojava” this blog is on the first page of results. The comments on my last post are filled with inquiries and resumes of would-be recruits.

I want to make it clear that this is not a YPG recruitment website and I do not endorse the YPG (I’m sure they feel the same way).

But the picture above shows that westerners are making it to Syrian Kurdistan to fight (or at least pose for pictures). Personally, I these guys look about as professional as ISOF or a group of airsofters, so you might want to take into consideration before you book your flight.

I was told by a Blackwater employee once that the first rule of being a mercenary is, “Remember your ABCs: Always Be Cool.” In my opinion, if you’re looking to join a foreign Army, the French Foreign Legion never looks not cool and they still turn people away. I think selectivity should be a priority when looking to join a group of guys with guns in a foreign country.

From the picture above and the Lions of Rojava Facebook page, it seems like right now they will take anyone. And I get it, during an existential crisis you have to loosen your standards a bit. That’s how we ended up with so many soldiers with neck tattoos.

The Lions of Rojava Are Recruiting Americans to Fight the Islamic State in Syria

There has been a lot of press recently about Kobane, a Kurdish border town in northern Syria that has been under siege by Islamic State fighters. There has also been some press about Western foreign fighters who have joined the Kurds in their fight against IS such as Jordan Matson and this Dutch biker gang.

Matson has been liberal with his Facebook friend request acceptance policy and it’s on his page where I learned about “an official YPG recruitment page” for foreigners to join their fight against IS:

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Post from Jordan Matson recruiting Americans for the YPG via Facebook

It is unclear whether The Lions of Rojava are to become an International Brigade à la the Spanish Civil War (famously written about in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) or whether recruits would be injected organically into the YPG’s platoons as Matson apparently was. (Before he was injured, he communicated through a few words of Kurdish and a lot of gesturing.) The Facebook page was only created today and advertises itself as part of the YPG’s “Media Center”.

But they are specifically targeting Americans. The page shows a picture of Brian Wilson, another American veteran who joined the YPG and links to an article about American Jeremy Woodard, yet another veteran who made his way to Syria to fight with the Kurds.

With Turkey now openly allowing Kurdish groups to move across its territory to fight in Syria, it should not be too  difficult for Americans to get to Syria. But what will the U.S. government do when they try to return? How will it distinguish these fighters from those who might join officially designated terrorist groups such as the PKK or are joining jihadist groups?

Americans joining up to fight in foreign wars is not new, but it surely has never been this easy. Social media has changed the world in ways I doubt anyone predicted.