Earlier this week, reports surfaced that four Turks had been arrested in Poso, Indonesia related to links with the Islamic State. It was later revealed though that in fact they were Uyghurs from Xinjiang, China. Why the confusion? There is actually a relatively simple answer to this, which was recently provided by a jihadi online that also helps us better understand some of the processes for how individuals are making their way toward Syria.
According to an individual that uses the name Abdullah Abu Bakr, Uyghurs have a difficult time obtaining Chinese passports to travel abroad. I personally cannot attest or know the veracity of this claim since I do not follow Chinese policies on this issue closely. That said, if one takes it as stated, because of this, these wannabe Uyghur foreign fighters then create fake passports, specifically from Turkey. He then claims they venture to Malaysia or Thailand where they might spend some time in prison, but afterwards because they were caught with these fake Turkish passports they are then deported to Turkey. Once in Turkey, according to him, Turkish officials view the Uyghurs as Turkic peoples and therefore allow them to safely stay in Turkey, which then allows the Uyghurs to safely get into Syria. This again raises questions about Turkish potential in enabling of the foreign fighter flow into Syria. He then warns that if any of this process gets snuffed out then the individuals attempting to fight jihad in Syria (and/or Iraq) will get sent back to China and face prison there. In part, this is likely why Indonesia at first believed the individuals arrested were from Turkey.
Of course, he does not mention Indonesia, but I do not see why this process couldn’t have played out there as well, whereby individuals from Xinjiang using fake Turkish passports traversed to Indonesia. Once there, the hope being to be deported then to Turkey so they can make easy entrance into Syria. This illustrates not only the efforts that go into trying to get to Syria, but also highlights that there is a network of individuals that has created a system to try and get individuals over there even if the process might take some time, arduous, and risky. It also likely shows that there are more interlinked connections between the different jihadi facilitation networks in south/southeast Asia as well as how they then connect back to the facilitation networks based in Turkey and/or the Arab world.
What the Syrian conflict has done is regenerate old networks, connect separate past networks that now overlap, and the creation of new ones that are now part of the broader echo system related to global jihadism. These connections created for going to join up to fight in Syria/Iraq will also be important for any potential returnees and/or the use of external operations if it is in the cards either for the Islamic State or al-Qaeda’s branch Jabhat al-Nusra. All of this just highlights that there is a very sophisticated methodology for ways in which individuals not so close to Syria get there that helps not only those that want to get there, but cements key relations that could be relevant to future jihad in south/southeast Asian countries.
New statement from al-Qā’idah in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qā’idah in the Islamic Maghrib: “Support of the Muslims Upon the NATO Crusaders and the Apostates”
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The Clear Banner: The Death of Moroccan Exceptionalism: A Brief History of Moroccan Salafi Jihadism and Current Jihadist Trends
NOTE: For prior parts in the Clear Banner series you can view an archive of it all here.
The Death of Moroccan Exceptionalism: A Brief History of Moroccan Salafi Jihadism and Current Jihadist Trends
By Jeffrey D. Palmer
As the conflicts in Syria and Iraq continue to attract foreign fighters, nations around the globe are formulating policies designed to mitigate the threat of radicalized and battle-hardened returnees from conducting terrorist attacks in their countries of origin. In the case of the Kingdom of Morocco, a real threat has emerged from the unprecedented mobilization of Moroccan jihadists to the region. The basis of this threat is illustrated by a parallel case of the returning Moroccan contingent trained in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule of the late 1990s. Here, hundreds of Moroccans received radical indoctrination and training in heavy weapons and explosives throughout various Salafi jihadi training camps. The knowledge and experience gained in these camps were subsequently employed in Morocco’s first-ever domestic terrorist attacks – a series of suicide bombings in the kingdom’s economic capital of Casablanca. In Syria and Iraq, over one thousand Moroccan nationals and hundreds of Europeans of Moroccan origin have now joined extremist organizations. Many members of these organizations have explicitly stated their intentions to perpetrate violent attacks in Morocco upon their return. Morocco and its monarchy, once the exception to Salafi jihadist domestic terrorism, has now become the direct target of such attacks.
The Vanguard of Moroccan Salafi Jihadism:
The events on May 16, 2003 marked the end of “Moroccan Exceptionalism” – the notion that Morocco’s Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence had made the kingdom impervious to Salafi jihadist terror attacks. On that day, twelve suicide bombers detonated their explosive devices and ripped through the streets of Casablanca, killing themselves and 33 civilians. Under a subsequent anti-terrorism law, some 5,000 individuals would be arrested in a matter of months as the Moroccan government scrambled to bring any person associated with the attacks to justice.1 Operating under a broad definition of terrorism, many of the individuals caught up in the dragnet were swiftly convicted for crimes ostensibly related to the incident. Although the Moroccan authorities may have hoped to retain national prestige by attributing the attacks to foreign actors, the evidence pointed to an organization called the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group as having a key role. The vanguard of Moroccan Salafi jihadism had arrived.
Salafi Jihadist Terrorism in Morocco:
The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (MICG), a Salafi jihadist organization founded in Afghanistan, was implicated as having a key organizational role in the 2003 Casablanca bombings. A year later several leading members of the MICG were convicted for their involvement in the 2004 Madrid train bombings. In light of these incidents, Moroccan security forces, in collaboration with European counterparts, worked to dismantle the MICG and liquidate the organization’s leadership with an aggressive counterterrorism campaign.2 However, in March and April of 2007, another string of attacks involving cells linked to MICG members would occur throughout Casablanca. In contrast to the 2003 bombings, these attacks were remarkably unsuccessful and claimed only one life besides those of the bombers.3 Although the lack of organization provided some insights with regards to the organization’s apparently declining capabilities, the 2007 attacks demonstrated to the Moroccan government that the threat of domestic Salafi jihadism remained a preeminent issue of national security.
Four years later, another incident would materialize in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. On April 28, 2011, an explosive device was remotely detonated in the Argana Café, a restaurant frequented by tourists in Marrakech’s thriving Jemaa al-Fna markets. The blast claimed 17 lives and was attributed to an independent Moroccan jihadist cell.4 As Jack Kalpakian aptly wrote of Moroccan Salafi jihadist intentions, “The aim of these attacks was to wage war against both the Moroccan state and the society it represents because it views both as pagan.”5 In order to better understand how this Salafi jihadist ideology gave rise in Morocco, it is necessary to look back to the 1970s, during the reign of King Hassan II.
From Moroccan Wahhabism to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group:
In the mid-1970s, Morocco’s King Hassan II attempted to gain political leverage over the rising Islamist and leftist parties by establishing bilateral relations with the Saudi Kingdom. In return for financial support to be used for the conflict in the Western Sahara, the Moroccan king allowed the Saudis to import their Wahhabi version of Islam into the country. With virtues of political conservatism and obedience to rulers, the Wahhabist school of thought seemed to align with the greater Moroccan political agenda.6 However, King Hassan II’s strategic alignment with the Saudi kingdom would have grave consequences, as it would greatly contribute to the rise of the Salafi jihadist phenomenon in Morocco.
By 1991, as the United States was staging troops in Saudi Arabia for the conflict in the Gulf War, radicalization among Moroccan Wahhabist leaders began to emerge. During this time, Moroccan clerics were being attracted to the Saudi Islamic tradition in part because of the vast economic resources being provided by the oil-rich Riyadh.7 These conditions gave rise to notable Moroccan Wahhabi clerics such as Mohamed Fizazi, who had by this time declared open support for Osama bin Laden’s vision.8 Fizazi promoted a strict Islamic ideology with an emphasis on jihad. His group would come to be branded by the Moroccan government as “Salafia Jihadia.”
In September 1996, the Taliban had consolidated political power and installed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. As a result, some Moroccan Salafists began to migrate to Afghanistan in order to take part in the manifestation of the Salafist ideology. The small Moroccan foreign fighter contingent in Afghanistan had originally joined the ranks of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). By this time, the Libyans had already established installations designed to facilitate and train incoming foreign fighters from North Africa.
As the Moroccan foreign fighter contingent in Afghanistan grew larger, the MICG would be formed. At a meeting in London in early 2000, al-Qaeda’s Abu Qatada al-Filistini would give his blessings to the leaders of the incipient organization, Mohammed Guerbouzi and Noureddine Nafia, on the formation of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. In this meeting, Abu Qatada emphasized the importance of strong organizational infrastructure and strategic vision. Abu Qatada additionally informed Guerbouzi and Nafia that attacks against the Kingdom of Morocco would be permissible.9 A subsequent mutual agreement between the leadership of both organizations, apparently made in good faith, allowed Moroccans belonging to the LIFG to join the MICG.10
According to testimony provided by Noureddine Nafia, a meeting with Ayman al-Zawahiri in July 2000 would yield even greater collaboration between the MICG and al-Qaeda. After the meeting, and with consent from the Taliban, al-Qaeda trainers assisted the MICG in establishing a reception center in Jalalabad and a training camp called Tarek ben Ziyad.11 At Tarek ben Ziyad, members of the MICG underwent further religious indoctrination; learned how to falsify identification documents; and received training on coordinated and remotely detonated explosive devices. MICG members also continued to receive training in weapons and explosives at al-Qaeda and LIFG training camps.12
In August 2001, leaders of the MICG would meet Osama bin Laden for the first time in Kandahar. Here, bin Laden urged the leaders to establish a jihadist base within Morocco. Shortly after their meeting, Osama bin Laden granted permission for the MICG to access all al-Qaeda affiliated camps in Afghanistan.13 However, upon the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, most MICG members fled the country. As a result, many Salafi jihadists brought their new skills back to their countries of origin.
Saad al-Houssaini, “The Chemist,” was one such member. Having traveled to Afghanistan in early 1997, al-Houssaini had trained in al-Qaeda camps and had made contact with al-Qaeda leadership, including Ayman al-Zawahiri Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Houssaini is one of few figures believed to have helped form the core of the MICG during his four years in Afghanistan. Due to his formal academic background in chemistry, al-Houssaini took on the role as operational commander of the group. Arrested on March 11, 2007, just hours before the first of four suicide bombs in Casablanca, al-Houssaini was believed to have provided operational instructions in the execution of multiple terror plots.14
The Moroccan government cracked down hard on suspected MICG members following the 2003 Casablanca bombings under a new anti-terrorism law enacted just two weeks after the incident. In fact, the Moroccan government portrayed the MICG as the responsible party for the first series bombings that shook the kingdom.15 The government also posited blame on Fizazi’s “Salafia Jihadia” ideology. Two years prior, Fizazi’s spiritual guidance at the al-Quds Mosque in Hamburg, Germany had inspired the jihadists responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. After the 2003 Casablanca attacks, Fizazi would be arrested and sentenced to thirty years in prison for “incitement to commit murder and conspiracy to commit terrorist acts.”16
The rise of radical Wahhabist teachings in Morocco in combination with Moroccan jihadists returning from Afghanistan and elsewhere in the mid-1990s had resulted in an unprecedented international threat. The sophisticated assembly of explosive devices and precise orchestration displayed in the March 2004 Madrid train bombings further demonstrated the extent of the Moroccan jihadist threat. In July 2004, Moroccan authorities confessed that they did not have reliable information concerning the whereabouts of most of the 600 Moroccan jihadists believed to have received training in Afghanistan, Bosnia, or Chechnya.17
As the revolutions that swept across the Middle East and North African region in 2011 continue to evolve, an analogous threat has emerged. As recently reported by Morocco’s Interior Minister, more than one thousand Moroccan citizens have traveled to Syria in order to wage jihad against the Bashar al-Assad regime.18 A new growing trend in Moroccan jihadists traveling to Iraq to join the ever-expanding Islamic State, a Salafi jihadist organization known for their exceptionally brutal tactics, is clearly of great concern to the kingdom. The fear is that returnees from these conflicts will return with new technical skills commonly used in executing terrorist attacks in order to commit jihad against Morocco – something with which the kingdom is all too familiar.
The Moroccan Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria:
Some 12,000 foreigners from at least 81 countries have mobilized to Syria since the civil war began in 2011 – and that number appears to be growing. Foreign fighters in Syria have in three years surpassed the number of jihadists mobilized for the entirety of the Taliban’s 10-year struggle against the Soviets and subsequent rule until 2001.19 While a multitude of factors play into the reasons for such a great degree of foreign fighter mobilization, the vast majority of volunteers consider themselves to be waging jihad in order to protect an oppressed Muslim population. Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite regime rules over a Syrian majority Sunni population and is considered by many Sunni Muslims to be takfiri, or apostate. Additionally, the total absence of Western armies involved in Syria likely adds to the jihadist appeal of entering the conflict.
Moroccans are no exception to the trend. During a July 2014 interview, Morocco’s Interior Minister Mohamed Hassad stated that 1,122 Moroccan nationals are currently affiliated with terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, the minister estimated that up to 2,000 European nationals of Moroccan origin have also traveled to the region.20 In November 2013, one official estimate from Moroccan counterterrorism chiefs of up to 900 Moroccan nationals in Syria and Iraq, which seemed rather high for the time.21 While reliable information is difficult to acquire, foreign fighter mobilization is clearly a great cause of concern. Although some Moroccans are said to be joining the fight with the mainstream Free Syrian Army, many other fighters are joining extremist groups, such as the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the increasingly influential Islamic State.22 Frequent reports on domestic cells being disrupted further indicate that active recruitment in some of Morocco’s most densely populated cities continues to be a serious issue.
Morocco’s contribution to the conflict in Syria compared to other countries in the region shows that the crisis spans across North Africa. Morocco has a population of 32.5 million and reports 1,122 foreign fighters – or 3.5 fighters for every 100,000 Moroccans. Algeria, with a population of nearly 38.5 million, has reported some 800 individuals who have traveled to Iraq and Syria – or 2.7 fighters for every 100,000 Algerians.23 Tunisia, meanwhile, reports an alarming 2,400 in Iraq and Syria of a population of just 10.78 million – or 22 fighters for every 100,000 Tunisians.24 While the Libyan contingent in Syria and Iraq is certainly significant, no reliable data on Libyan jihadists is available at present. The Tunisian contingent is therefore more than double that of Morocco’s and triple that of Algeria’s. In terms relative to their respective populations, the ratio of Tunisians constitutes well over ten times that of Algerians and nearly seven times that of Moroccans.25
Early reports revealed that many Moroccan jihadists in Syria and Iraq had aligned with Harakat Sham al-Islam (HSI). Founded in August 2013 by former Guantanamo Bay prison detainee Brahim Benchekroun, HSI was the first Moroccan jihadist organization known to be operating in Syria. The organization reportedly fought alongside extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and seemed to be aligning with the ideology of al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.26 However, a July 2014 merger between HSI and three other jihadist organizations in Syria may be an indication of two things: 1) that these groups may have consolidated out of necessity in order to compensate for defections to the Islamic State and; 2) that these organizations are strategically distancing themselves from Zawahiri and al-Qaeda and its affiliates in order to maintain operational independence.
The largest group attracting incoming Moroccan jihadists is the Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.27 The two main organizations in the region, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, appear to be in a power struggle for the hearts and minds of jihadists in Iraq and Syria. At this point, the Islamic State continues to attract “far more” foreign fighters from North Africa than any other organization.28 Additionally, Zawahiri’s continued silence since the declaration of the Islamic State “Caliphate” is of increasing concern to al-Qaeda affiliates. In fact, in August 2014, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, a top leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, wrote an open letter in which he fervently criticized Zawahiri for his silence on the issue.29 Ultimately, though, as more Moroccans gain exposure to the conflict and other extremist organizations, there will be an increased tendency for returnees to wage jihad against the kingdom.
The factionalization of Syria’s many opposition forces, spanning from moderate to extremist groups, contributes to escalating violence and precludes the opportunity of working together against Assad’s regime. As a result, 128 Moroccan fighters have reportedly already returned from the conflict in Syria – many disillusioned by the brutal tactics committed upon and by fellow Muslims.30 The Moroccan government arrests most Syria returnees under the strict anti-terrorism law established after the 2003 Casablanca attacks, fearing similar intentions of inciting violence against the kingdom. Indeed, as recent as August 2014, Moroccan anti-terror services in collaboration with Spanish police disrupted a cell linked to the Islamic State that was planning to conduct attacks on Moroccan soil.31
Just as the training camps in Afghanistan gave rise to the jihadists that played a role in the bombings against Morocco in the 2000s, fears that some of Syria’s returnees will follow suit is not without warrant. The report that some twenty Moroccan fighters have conducted suicide attacks within Syria is an indication of increased radicalization.32 Furthermore, testimony provided by a Moroccan jihadist stated that, “the purpose of [HSI]…is to use Syria as a training ground to return to the Maghreb at some point and wage jihad against the Moroccan regime.”33 Naturally, the Moroccan government will do all it can to avert another terrorist attack. Morocco’s domestic counterterrorism strategy has been highly effective and is lauded as an exemplar model for the region, but the large – and growing – Moroccan foreign fighter contingent in Iraq and Syria raises serious questions for the future.
Jeffrey D. Palmer is a master’s student at Georgetown University in International Relations and National Security Studies. Previously, he lived in Morocco as part of Peace Corp and knows Berber and Arabic.
1 1 P. Vermeren, “Dans le nouveau Maroc, le Palais seul face aux islamistes?” Esprit, 308. October 2004. 103–149.
2 Carlos E. Jesús, “The Current State of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group.” CTC Sentinel (2:3), March 2009.
3 Jack Kalpakian, “Comparing the 2003 and 2007 Incidents in Casablanca,” in The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death, ed. Bruce Hoffman and Fernando Reinares (Columbia University Press, 2014), 504.
4 Fernando Reinares, in-class discussion, Georgetown University, June 25, 2014.
5 Jack Kalpakian. “Comparing the 2003 and 2007 Incidents in Casablanca,” 508. Emphasis mine.
6 Rogelio Alonso & Marcos Garcías Rey, “The Evolution of Jihadist Terrorism in Morocco.” Terrorism and Political Violence (19:4). October 2007, 573.
7 Ibid., 573.
8 Z. El Mailoudi, M. Fezazi, A.K. El-Shadali, and O. Hadoushi, in A.A. Bouradwan El-Idrissi (2003), “Religious Extremism in Morocco, its Social Origins and Theoretical Underpinnings” [in Arabic], Wajhat Nazr, No. 21, Winter, 53.
9 Audiencia Nacional, Juzgado Central de Instrucción no. 5, Sumario 20/2004, vol. 123 tomo 208, p 81.202, quoted in Fernando Reinares, ¡Matadlos! Quién estuvo detrás del 11-M y por qué se atentó en España (Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 2014), p. 169.
10 Evan F. Kohlman, “Dossier: Libyan Islamic Fighting Group”, The NEFA Foundation (2007), 13-15. <http://www.nefafoundation.org/miscellaneous/nefalifg1007.pdf> Accessed Aug. 21, 2014.
11 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 123 tomo 208, p 81.205, quoted in Fernando Reinares, ¡Matadlos!Quién estuvo detrás del 11-M y por qué se atentó en España (Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 2014), p. 169.
12 Ibid., vol. 123, p. 73.700, vol. 157, p. 58.978, 59.267-59.269 and vol. 191, p. 74.612, quoted in Fernando Reinares, ¡Matadlos! Quién estuvo detrás del 11-M y por qué se atentó en España (Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 2014), p. 169.
13 Ibid., vol. 208, 81.207, quoted in Fernando Reinares, ¡Matadlos!Quién estuvo detrás del 11-M y por qué se atentó en España (Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 2014), p. 169.
14 Craig Whitlock. “In Morocco’s ‘Chemist,’ A Glimpse of al-Qaeda” Washington Post
Foreign Service. July 7, 2007. Accessed July 8, 2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/07/06/AR2007070602304.html>
15 Carlos E. Jesús. “The Current State of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group.”
16 Alonso and Rey. “The Evolution of Jihadist Terrorism in Morocco.” 573.
17 Ibid., 579. Author’s interviews with judges responsible for Islamist terrorism at the Spanish National Court, March 2006, Madrid.
18 “Moroccan Members of ISIL Plot Terrorist Attacks in Morocco: Minister.” Morocco World News. 15 July 2014. < http://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2014/07/134634/moroccan-members-of-isil-plot-terrorist-attacks-in-morocco-minister/>
19 Richard Barrett. “Foreign Fighters in Syria.” The Soufan Group. June 2014. Accessed July 8, 2014.
20 “Moroccan Members of ISIL Plot Terrorist Attacks in Morocco: Minister.” Morocco World News.
21 Fernando Reinares shared this figure on Twitter on November 27, 2013. <https://twitter.com/F_Reinares/status/405661073367638016>
22 Vish Sakthivel. “Weathering Morocco’s Syria Returnees.” Washington Institute for Near East Policy. September 25 2013. Accessed July 3, 2014.
23 “500 Algériens combattent en Irak et 300 en Syrie.” La Une Dalgérie. June 29, 2014.
24 “Ben Jeddou: 2400 combattants tunisiens en Syrie.” Mosaique FM. June 23, 2014.
Accessed June 30, 2014.<http://www.mosaiquefm.net/fr/index/a/ActuDetail/Element/ 38856/ben-jeddou-2400 combattants-tunisiens-en-syrie>
25 “CIA – The World Factbook.” Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed June 30, 2014.
26 Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi. “Mujahireen Batallions in Syria.” Middle East Forum. December 13, 2013. Accessed June 30, 2014. <http://www.meforum.org/3696/muhajireenbattalions-syria>
28 Fernando Reinares. In-class discussion. Georgetown University. July 23, 2014.
29 J.M Berger and Humera Kahn, “Zawahiri Falls Off the Map, Is Rebuked by Top Al-Nusra Figure.” Intelwire. August 18, 2014. Accessed August 21, 2014. < http://news.intelwire.com/2014/08/zawahiri-falls-off-map-gets-rebuked-by.html> Original letter from Abu Maria al-Qahtani posted by Aaron Zelin on Jihadology.net at: http://jihadology.net/2014/08/17/new-statement-from-jabhat-al-nu%E1%B9%A3rahs-abu-mariyyah-al-qa%E1%B8%A5%E1%B9%ADani-message-to-shaykh-al-%E1%BA%93awahiri-that-reveals-in-it-the-new-facts/>
30 “Moroccan Members of ISIL Plot Terrorist Attacks in Morocco: Minister.” Morocco World News.
31 “ISIS Terrorists in Morocco.” Euro Weekly News. August 15, 2014. Accessed August 14, 2014. < https://euroweeklynews.com/news/world-news/item/122128-isis-terrorists-discovered-in-morocco>
32 “Moroccan Members of ISIL Plot Terrorist Attacks in Morocco.”
33 Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi. “Mujahireen Batallions in Syria.” Middle East Forum. December 13, 2013. Accessed June 30, 2014. <http://www.meforum.org/3696/muhajireenbattalions-syria>
New video message from Himam News Agency: “Report 94: Tour With the Relief Team Of Jabhat al-Nuṣrah In Dwairke and Majdal Kikh – Rural al-Ladhāqīyyah (Latakia)”
NOTE: For previous parts in this video series see: #93, #92, #91, #90, #89, #88, #87, #86, #85, #84, #83, #82, #81, #80, #79, #78, #77, #76, #75, #74, #73, #72, #71, #70, #69, #68, #67, #66, #65, #64, #63, #62, #61, #60, #59, #58, #57, #56, #55, #54, #53, #52, #51, #50, #49, #48, #47, #46, #45, #44, #43, #42, #41, #40, #39, #38, #37, #36, #35, #34, #33, #32, #31, #30, #29, #28, #27, #26, #25, #24, #23, #22, #21, #20, #19, #18, #17, #16, #15, #14, #13, #12, #11, #10, #9, #8, #7, #6, #5, #4, #3, #2, and #1.
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Manbij and The Islamic State’s Public Administration
By Goha’s Nail
Originally posted here and republished below at the request of the author.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to a friend in Manbij, a small city in Aleppo of about 100,000 (pre-war) under exclusive Islamic State (IS) control since January 2014 (when the organization was still ISIS). He told me about how IS cadres were administering the city and about what Manbijis think about the new political order. These conversations took place in homes and among family and friends, far from prying IS members seeking to police every aspect of life. These conversations gives us some insight into how IS is doing with their administration of territories under their control and why civilians accept or reject them. Given the similarities between Manbij and other areas under IS rule in Syria, it is likely that many of these dynamics are at play elsewhere.
These accounts give us an idea of how difficult it will be to counter the IS, but also how feebly the organisation commands the obedience of its new subjects. Importantly, these conversations reveal some of the mechanisms that make partnering with the al-Asad regime to counter IS a terrible idea.
What do people think IS doing?
This section won’t focus on what IS is doing to govern but rather what Manbijis seem to think IS is doing. In Manbij, people see that the IS is “getting comfortable,” and that the trappings of statehood appear stronger every day. The IS public administration includes several types of police, courts and administrative bodies. The group provides services and undertakes development projects. IS collects taxes in the form of zakat and redistributes some of the money to the poor. Among the recipients of the aid are internally displaced persons, who now account for at least half of the city’ population. Recently, IS has begun shipping fuel from fields it recently captured in Dayr al-Zawr province and selling it at fixed discounted rates in Aleppo.
A key part of IS’ ability to govern is that the system is comprehensive. IS focuses on policing, on its harsh version of justice, and on public administrative functions. Courts are fast and efficient. The administration can move quickly to repair water lines or fix electricity towers, all in full coordination with the Islamic Police and IS fighters. Everything is coordinated and the different parts of the administration are linked, share information, and generally seem good at working together. But not everything is within the IS administration. Other historically non-state governance mechanisms embedded in social networks like dispute resolution and contract enforcement still exist, but IS is always looking to coopt them. Certain administrative and service functions also continue to operate as before, but under IS supervision.
The comprehensiveness of the IS system stands in contrast to governance in other rebel-held areas of the province, where the administration is uncoordinated and the burden is shared by an array of councils, sharia courts, armed groups and policing bodies, many of which do not get along and all of which are underresourced.
Also in contrast to other rebel-held cities, crime in Manbij is very low. Three elements of the criminal justice system are worth highlighting here, two of which have gotten less attention in the media. It’s obvious that the group is sadistically harsh in its punishment of crime. But the harshness is only part of the deterrent. The other elements are that it is consistent – and therefore predictable – and that it is effective. It is consistent because Manbijis feel confident that if you just follow IS’ rules, then you will be ok. It is effective because few crimes go unpunished (reportedly). Of course, the arbitrariness of some crimes like sorcery or cursing religion and the difficulty of knowing the real rate of crime force us to take both of these claims with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, the perceptions are there and shape Manbijis’ feelings about the IS administration.
Lastly, many Manbijis have noticed the group focusing more recently on schools and education, and has started providing salaries to teachers. Schools focus on religious education and science, the purposes of which are to indoctrinate youngsters and to inculcate them with the skills they will need someday to deploy explosives and fight.
What are Manbijis’ assessments of IS rule?
Manbijis agree that IS has provided badly needed security and stability to the city. When IS consolidated eastern Aleppo province after the January 2014 fighting with other brigades, it brought an end to the lawlessness and insecurity that was common when IS shared the administration with other rebel groups. For this, Manbijis are grateful; not necessarily to the IS, but just generally for the situation.
Many Manbijis are not, therefore, enthusiastic about the prospect of other rebel groups retaking the area from IS. They understand that the fighting could tear the city apart and force people to flee, with many becoming refugees for the second or third time. In addition, they see the other rebel groups as either less interested in or less capable of establishing an effective public administration that provides security and public services. Residents also fear that other rebel groups would not be able to hold the city and that IS would take revenge on the residents once it returned, eliminating whole families for their perceived collusion against the organisation. Finally, residents are grateful that IS rule has meant fewer of the regime airstrikes that have plagued other rebel-held towns and villages and devastated Aleppo city. However, few people are positive about the group’s ideology.
But Manbijis are not united in these opinions. Debates rage among family members and friends in the privacy of their homes about whether IS is a positive or negative force. No one complains about the stability the group has brought, but the prospect of living under a totalitarian theocracy does not excite many, especially women. Although Manbijis are conservative, the culture of IS is seen as alien; Manbijis, like anyone else, enjoy their festive weddings, their music, their shisha, their cigarettes, and everything else that makes them who they are and they are upset that IS is intent on destroying these aspects of their identity.
Another concern for some is the longevity of the group and what happens when the regime is defeated. Many do not believe that IS’ harsh model of governance is sustainable and that an uprising against it is inevitable. Some therefore see the stability that group provides as delaying the inevitable. The logic is that for the time being, IS thrives on the existence of the regime, but not in the conspiratorial sense. Rather, the existence of the regime continues to alienate many sunnis and generates support for IS, especially now that the group is more actively attacking the government. But if the regime falls, many expect the violent contestation of IS’ political and social vision, a development many Manbijis fear will visit destruction on their city.
For the time being, Manbijis are paying something of a price for their tentative comfort with IS rule. Elsewhere in the province, other Aleppans have begun to resent Syrians living comfortably under IS rule. “Shabbihat Da’ish,” they call them, “shabbiha” being a term used to refer to regime thugs and “Da’ish” a derogatory term for IS.
How do locals fit into the governance equation?
But how do locals fit into IS’ governance scheme? Apparently, they don’t participate actively in the IS public administration. IS seems reluctant to integrate potentially less committed members too closely. While some IS administrators are Syrians, many are foreigners. For their part, Manbijis are keen on keeping the group at arms length; they appreciate some aspects of IS governance, but do not want to get too close. They expect, however, that the IS focus on education and indoctrination of children is part of a long-term strategy to more closely link the group with the populations it governs.
So what does this tell us? First, it is clear that the reasons Manbijis tentatively appreciate and support IS are tied to the Syrian conflict context. Manbijis do not just appreciate the security IS provides, they appreciate this security compared totheir experiences before IS took over and with what they hear about what is happening in other parts of the country. They do not support IS because they believe in its cause. They would not choose IS rule if given the choice of other alternatives. IS is, for the time being, taking care of Manbijis’ most basic needs, a welcome respite from the grinding civil war that has destroyed much of the country.
Second, it appears that IS will have trouble integrating with the communities they are seeking to rule. IS predecessor organizations have generally been terrible at governing and have always alienated their subjects. This seems to hold true in Manbij as well, despite some of the changes the group has made to govern better and provide citizens with more resources and services. Current support for IS appears tenuous and too tied to fluid conflict conditions to be sustainable. There is a deep political, ideological and cultural divide between the IS administration and regular people. Manbijis acknowledge do not believe they will put up with IS’ draconian rules forever. Through interactions at home and in social settings, they will mitigate some of the indoctrination their children receive at school. In short, eastern Syrians will not allow IS to stamp out their culture.
Finally, these accounts also tell us that the idea of partnering with the al-Asad regime to counter IS is horribly misguided. The perception that IS is bad and full of murderers is common, but so is the feeling that IS fighters are “giving their souls” to fight the regime, which is hated more. Throwing support behind that regime would only strengthen the latter perception at the expense of the former. It would inflame the sectarianism that IS thrives on, driving more Syrians to support IS and helping the group integrate with the populations it is seeking to win over. It would also significantly assist IS local recruitment efforts, further grounding the organisation within the social fabric of the areas it seeks to govern. The more IS is able to convert anti-al-Asad sentiment into real support for its ideology, the more intractable it will become.
al-I’tiṣām Media presents a new video message from The Islamic State: “Disperse By [Means Of] Them Those Behind Them”
NOTE: The title of this video is in reference to Qur’anic verse 8:57.
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Minbar al-Tawḥīd wa-l-Jihād presents a new article from Shaykh Abū Muḥammad al-Maqdisī: “Message To the Sincere Of Those Who Did al-Nafīr To the Land of Jihād in Syria”
Click the following link for a safe PDF copy: Shaykh Abū Muḥammad al-Maqdisī — “Message To the Sincere Of Those Who Did al-Nafīr To the Land of Jihād in Syria”
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