Tribes, marriage and terrorists in Iraq

I can't claim anything as to its veracity, but below is an interesting anthropological-military analysis of what might have motivated the recent switch of key Sunni tribes from fighting with foreign jihadist elements to fighting against them. Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt (SWJ Blog):
The uprising began last year, far out in western Anbar province, but is now affecting about 40% of the country. It has spread to Ninewa, Diyala, Babil, Salah-ad-Din, Baghdad and – intriguingly – is filtering into Shi’a communities in the South. The Iraqi government was in on it from the start; our Iraqi intelligence colleagues predicted, well before we realized it, that Anbar was going to “flip”, with tribal leaders turning toward the government and away from extremists.

Some tribal leaders told me that the split started over women. This is not as odd as it sounds. One of AQ’s standard techniques, which I have seen them apply in places as diverse as Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia, is to marry leaders and key operatives to women from prominent tribal families. The strategy works by creating a bond with the community, exploiting kinship-based alliances, and so “embedding” the AQ network into the society. Over time, this makes AQ part of the social landscape, allows them to manipulate local people and makes it harder for outsiders to pry the network apart from the population. (Last year, while working in the tribal agencies along Pakistan’s North-West Frontier, a Khyber Rifles officer told me “we Punjabis are the foreigners here: al Qa’ida have been here 25 years and have married into the Pashtun hill-tribes to the point where it’s hard to tell the terrorists from everyone else.”) Well, indeed.
More after the jump.

But this time, the tactic seems to have backfired. We often short-hand the enemy as “al Qa’ida” but in Iraq we primarily face tanzim qaidat al-jihad fil bilad al-Rafidayn (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization, which swore allegiance to bin Laden in 2004, is now taking strategic direction and support from Al Qa’ida central, and whose archaic name literally means “the qai’da organization for jihad in the land of the two rivers”, i.e. Al Qa’ida in Iraq, AQI). This group’s foot-soldiers are 95% Iraqi, but its leadership is overwhelmingly foreign. The top leaders and several key players are Egyptians and there are Turks, Syrians, Saudis, Chechens, Afghans and others in the leadership cadre. Moreover, the group is heavily urbanized, and town-dwellers – even urban Iraqis – may as well be foreigners as far as some tribal leaders are concerned. So there is a cultural barrier, and a natural difference in outlook, between the tribes and the terrorists.

These differences need not have been fatal – indeed, for years the tribes treated the terrorists as “useful idiots”, while AQI in turn exploited them for cover and support. One person told me that AQI’s pitch to the tribes was “we are Sunni, you are Sunni. The Americans and Iranians are helping the Shi’a – let’s fight them together”. But this alliance of convenience and mutual exploitation broke down when AQI began to apply the standard AQ method of cementing alliances through marriage. In Iraqi tribal society, custom (aadat) is at least as important as religion (deen) and its dictates, often pre-Islamic in origin, frequently differ from those of Islam. Indeed, as one tribal Iraqi put it to me, “if you ask a Shammari what religion he is, he will say ‘I am a Shammari’ ” – the Shammari being a confederation which, like many Iraqi tribes, has both Sunni and Shi’a branches.

Islam, of course, is a key identity marker when dealing with non-Muslim outsiders, but when all involved are Muslim, kinship trumps religion. And in fact, most tribal Iraqis I have spoken with consider AQ’s brand of “Islam” utterly foreign to their traditional and syncretic version of the faith. One key difference is marriage custom, the tribes only giving their women within the tribe or (on rare occasions to cement a bond or resolve a grievance, as part of a process known as sulha) to other tribes or clans in their confederation (qabila). Marrying women to strangers, let alone foreigners, is just not done. AQ, with their hyper-reductionist version of “Islam” stripped of cultural content, discounted the tribes’ view as ignorant, stupid and sinful.

This led to violence, as these things do: AQI killed a sheikh over his refusal to give daughters of his tribe to them in marriage, which created a revenge obligation (tha’r) on his people, who attacked AQI. The terrorists retaliated with immense brutality, killing the children of a prominent sheikh in a particularly gruesome manner, witnesses told us. This was the last straw, they said, and the tribes rose up. Neighboring clans joined the fight, which escalated as AQI (who had generally worn out their welcome through high-handedness) tried to crush the revolt through more atrocities. Soon the uprising took off, spreading along kinship lines through Anbar and into neighboring provinces.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.