The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged ISIS
The banality of the Islamic State

Interesting post by Reyko Huang about "the Islamic State as an ordinary insurgency", over at Monkey Cage:

The point here is not to downplay the threat posed by the Islamic State or to “normalize” its behavior by highlighting the group’s ordinariness among violent political groups. It is simply to stress that comparatively speaking, the group is not as exceptional as observers and the media have often characterized it. Putting the Islamic State into a broader theoretical and historical perspective – that is, beyond the frame of “Islamist terrorism” and beyond the post-9/11 period – is important because there are clear dangers in hyperbolizing the group’s own claims to exceptionalism. To unduly emphasize the Islamic State’s distinctiveness is to distort its threat, inadvertently boost its legitimacy, and worst of all, to directly play into its leaders’ hands. Whatever the Islamic State has achieved so far, history has seen much of it before in other contexts. Knowledge of these other contexts can therefore inform both scholarship and policy on this pressing issue.

Well worth reading the whole thing, particularly as the Islamic State is being used by so many in the region as a boogeyman to advance their own agenda, from Sisi in Egypt to the Iranian regime to Bashar al-Assad in Syria to the very IS-like (ideologically) Saudi regime. 

AsidesThe EditorsISIS
The weapons of the Islamic State

From the New York Times:

This picture carries a sobering reminder for anyone who believes that arming even the most accommodating militaries and rebel groups comes without grave risks. The data set shows that the Islamic State, like many irregular forces before it, has opened spigots from varied and far-ranging sources of supply, in this case on a grand scale. The group’s diversions include ammunition that Iran most likely provided to Iraqi or Syrian security forces; weapons formerly used in wars in Libya, East Africa and the Balkans; and equipment intended for the Syrian opposition fighting President Bashar al-Assad (or even for fighting the militants themselves) but that had been sold, traded or captured from unreliable rebels.
The list of the Islamic State’s inventory reads like a roll call of arms-exporting nations: cartridges from Russia and the United States; rifles from Belgium and a host of formerly Eastern bloc states; guided anti-tank missiles from MBDA, a multinational firm with offices in Western Europe and the United States. Moreover, some of the manufacturing dates on ammunition from Kobani were remarkably recent. Investigators found Sudanese, Russian, Chinese and Iranian small-arms ammunition made from 2012 to 2014 — showing that the militant organization is a long way from being logistically isolated, no matter the forces arrayed against it. (This is not to say that the Islamic State has all the weapons that it might want, or enough of certain types; its extensive use of locally produced rockets and improvised explosive devices shows that its commanders round out arsenals with workshop-grade weapons.)
As Conflict Armament Research’s catalog grows, the implications become familiar and uncomfortable. States that arm guerrillas, brittle government security forces and other proxies tend to assume they are making discrete policy decisions. But if arms migrate as freely from one conflict or fighting force to another as the data indicates they are in the Middle East, then conflicts cannot easily be viewed, in Bevan’s words, as “ostensibly distinct.” The weapons the Islamic State came to possess were in many cases originally exported with the intention of making the region more secure, and have instead been used by militants to remove parts of two countries from the map of the civilized world, setting the group on a path to becoming the largest and most gleefully violent jihadist organization of our time.

ISIS: Conspiracy theories in the Arab media

Not everyone in the Arab media thinks ISIS is part of a larger Western-backed conspiracy, but the view is depressingly widespread (even by those who in the same breadth demand retaliation against these apparently fabricated terrorists and their atrocities). In many of those theories, two reasonable points -- ISIS is in some sense a creation of regional and international powers, its rise a consequence of their terrible policies; and what they do is "un-Islamic," or horrifying to most Muslims -- are quickly pushed into the territory of non-thinking absurdity. Nour Youssef shares another of her expert round-ups. 

While Egyptian singer Sha’ban Abdelrahim was advising ISIS to plant cabbage and taro instead of bombs, Egyptian actor Mohamed Sobhy analyzed the terrorist group’s filmed beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. 

Like Abdelrahim and essentially everyone who is not an MB-affiliated TV host, Sobhy asserted that the video is "an American film" with a joint “Turkish/Qatari/US/Israeli production.” The most obvious proof of this, Sobhy says, is that “Jihadi John”  who leads the beheadings, holds prayer beads, symbolizing Islam, in the same hand as a knife, symbolizing violence. “They” are trying to send a subliminal negative message about Islam. This is why the man spoke English: to reach the West and tarnish the image of Islam, he argued. 

Since the majority of Egyptian journalists subscribes to the belief that the US, Israel, Turkey and Qatar are out to destroy Islam, the Middle East and most importantly Egypt, little attention was given to ISIS itself. 

Also thinking it is all about them was Dubai’s former police chief, Dahi Khalfan, who believes the US “unleashed” ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on the Gulf, just like it once used Saddam Hussein. 

Meanwhile, others decided to argue for their conspiracy theories. To ex-Jihadist talking head Nabil Naeem that means just saying that ISIS received training from US marines in Jordan in 2011. To Ahmed Moussa, the proof lay in the quality of the video and the clearly Al Jazeera HD camera it was shot with. There is also the logo in the video, which Adeeb noted looks a lot like Al Jazeera's (it’s Arabic calligraphy, they all look alike). And then there is the fact that they put the victims in orange jumpsuits, which are, of course, unavailable outside US prisons.

To Tamer Ameen the proof was ISIS referring to the Prophet as “the one who was sent by the sword,” which just so happens to confirm the Western belief that Islam was spread by the sword. So they must be Westerners! (This still beats Amany el-Khayat’s proof, which was  that “Arabs don’t use acronyms.”)

Hoping to stand out, the Lebanese Tony Khalifa decided to fake a beheading on air just to prove that it can be done. Personally, Khalifa believes that ISIS brutally kills people all the time, but he finds the most recent videos, especially James Foley and other Westerners’, to have been tampered with. Strengthening his doubts were the interviews with the families of the victims, who appeared too calm, “like their children were still alive.”

El-Mehwar TV, on the other hand, got itself a hacker with a soul patch, wearing a jacket over bare skin. He claimed to have hacked a jihadi forum (which they pretended was ISIS’s official website) and server, and to have watched the unedited version of the 21 beheadings, where the victims were screaming despite their mouths being mostly closed and that there was an un-ISIS-like woman on a crane and an American-looking film crew. “I can tell the nationality (of a person) from their appearance” he explained.


Despite calling for the crucifixion of ISIS members and saying they are a Zionist conspiracy, Al-Azhar has angered folks by stopping short of calling them apostates.  

“Quit. May God would have mercy on you,” Adeeb told the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, who argued that so long as the ISIS fighters apostates continue to adhere to the shahada (the Muslim profession of faith) and not denounced Islam, he can't label them as apostates. 

This sparked many accusations that Al Azhar are terrorist-lovers. To prove it, Ibrahim Eissa read excerpts from an Al-Azhar’s high school book stating plainly that fighting infidels is the duty of every sane, physically able man, while Youssef el-Husseiny read the story of Abu Bakr, senior companion of the Prophet, allegedly burning an infidel, from Al-Azhar’s al-Badyah wa al-Nahyah by Ibn Kathir -- the same story from which ISIS derives justification for its burning of the Jordanian pilot.

Meanwhile in the Muslim Brotherhood camp, journalists took the videos themselves in stride and remained firmly focused on their own grievances.  

“I will not respond to the idiots that are calling (the burned Jordanian pilot) a martyr,” said MB-affiliated cleric, Wagdi Ghoneim. He will also not grace us with his take on whether or not burning people is permissible. He just wants to know if it is so bad to burn people, why didn’t mainstream media say anything about the protesters the security forces supposedly burned during the dispersal of the MB’s Rabaa sit-in?

Ghoneim also spent 14:30 minutes of his 15 minute video commentary on the beheadings of Coptic Egyptians talking about how unfairly large monasteries are in Egypt and how Copts should stop complaining about the obstacles they face to building churches, since they never overflow out of them like Muslims do out of mosques -- before angrily reminding his viewers of how Copts conspired to get rid of Muslim president Mohamed Morsi. Ghoneim then said he had no comment on the beheadings. 

The last conspiracy theory comes from Al Jazeera’s guest and Syrian rebel  Shiekh Hassan el-Dighym. After explaining that Sunni ISIS is the result of oppression by the Alwaite-Shia government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Shiaa government of Nour al-Maliki in Iraq, the Sheikh said that the group is made up of tortured Sunni Muslims and prisoners broken out of prison, who are manipulated and controlled by undercover Shiaa intelligence officers from Iraq.

Social media and the Arab uprisings

Depressing at the state of things may be, I found researching and writing this article about the questions scholars are asking today about the role of social and digital media in political mobilization in the Middle East, for The Chronicle of Higher Education, very interesting. 

"It’s difficult to tell the story of the Arab Spring without talking about social media," says Philip N. Howard, a professor in the department of communications at the University of Washington. But "after years of excitement and effervescence," he notes, "we’re in a much more jaded or critical stage of inquiry."
Working on his book (with Muzammil M. Hussain) Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab SpringMr. Howard developed a causal model that weighed access to new communication technology in Arab countries alongside other socioeconomic factors. He concluded that that access was part of the basic infrastructure needed for collective action to take place.
But by the time the book was published, in 2013, those mass mobilizations for change had seemingly collapsed. Today, out of half a dozen Arab countries that witnessed uprisings, only Tunisia has managed to see its democratic transition through. Across the region, the bloggers and activists who helped plan and publicize protests were sidelined by Islamist parties and military regimes. They have been silenced, imprisoned, or driven into exile.
Scholars are now asking a different set of questions: How did these huge and hopeful social movements fizzle? Why were they unable to achieve political gains? How is social media being used today by resurgent autocratic governments and by terrorist groups? 
Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, argued in a recent paper that the ability to "scale up" quickly that social media offers to protest movements means they don’t have to do the hard and necessary work of building traditional organizations that know how to make decisions collectively, change strategies, and persevere. In a TED talk she gave in October, Ms. Tufekci compared today’s social movements, in the Arab world and elsewhere, to "start-ups that got very big without knowing what to do next."

You should also read this article on the topic by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, "Social media in the Era of ISIS."  

Why ISIS' destruction hurts so much

Thanassis Cambanis on why the destruction of antiquities bothers us so much. 

In just one week of massive historical vandalism, the Islamic State has produced a stark coda to a century that has transformed the Middle East from one of the world’s most diverse and cosmopolitan regions into a sterile, ethnically cleansed patchwork.
“It’s never about artifacts. It’s about people’s right to exist, their right to live in their homeland,” says Zainab Bahrani, a Columbia University archaeologist who has worked as an antiquities adviser for the Iraqi government. “You destroy people’s history by destroying their monuments and artifacts. It’s similar to having the Athenian acropolis destroyed, or thugs going to Versailles and blowing up the whole palace.”
Bahrani was one of the first to sound the alarm about the importance of cultural objects in 2003, when the Baghdad Museum was looted during the US invasion. At the time Istrabadi, the constitutional scholar and her cousin, recalls telling Bahrani that the overthrow of the tyrant Saddam Hussein was worth the loss of some prized objects.
Bahrani got angry: “This is our entire historical identity,” she told him.
Now, more than a decade later, both cousins have left Iraq. Their extended family exemplified a mid-20th century ideal of cosmopolitan, secular Sunnis who felt at home throughout the Arab world and beyond, choosing their friends without regard to religion or nationality.
Istrabadi has come around to his cousin’s way of seeing things.
Iraq, the place that gave the world written language and the first code of law, today plays host to its most savage nihilists — and as much as he would like to think otherwise, Istrabadi believes that there is some constituency for the Islamic State’s program of destruction and cultural erasure.
“For those of us who hold a belief in the ascent of man, it refutes the idea that we’re heading to a better level of humanity,” he said. “It’s just incredible to watch. I feel helpless. ”
The statues, for Istrabadi, were the final straw. For everything else, he said, you can fool yourself “we can have a better tomorrow, we can turn back the sectarian tide,” he said. “Someone destroys a 3,000-year-old statue with a sledgehammer, there’s no bringing that back. There’s no fooling yourself. It’s proof that these people are not a transient phenomenon. They will be defeated, but they will leave a residue behind.”