We need to understand precisely what Daesh is before determining how to drive it back, contain it, tighten the siege around it and, perhaps, ultimately eliminate it definitively, so that it never resurfaces or sprouts new heads from the ashes.
It would be wrong to think of Daesh as a “conventional” Islamist militant organisation such as those that have arisen sporadically in the Islamic world since the 1970s or as something along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood which was founded at least a half a century before that.
Daesh is not only different in degree to all the groups and organisations that preceded it. It is also different in shape and organisation, in behaviour and planning, and in the goals and ultimate ends it has set for itself or that were set by those that created it or controlled a part of it. Above all, it is different in its thinking, which did not draw on any in-depth study of Islamic law and jurisprudence before turning to the ad hoc inquiries it needed to bridge the gap between the word and the deed.
Studying Daesh is not a task that is particular to any one discipline, such as theology or political science. It requires the combined interdisciplinary efforts of theologians, political and social scientists, economists, psychologists and experts in technology and communications. The approaches brought to bear in understanding the Daesh phenomenon should be as multifaceted as the phenomenon itself.
Daesh may have begun as a conventional militant Islamist organisation in terms of the ideological and organisational seeds from which it sprang, but it has long since shed that conventionalism due to a number of factors.
First, it has benefited from the experiences of predecessors that failed to achieve their ends. The most recent of these was Al-Qaeda, which has now weakened and fallen into decline, even if it has managed to recuperate a portion of its former presence through the claim that it has transformed itself from an organisation into an “idea”. Second, it has benefitted from the modern infrastructure of the countries that contributed to manufacturing it. Daesh has been able to avail itself of the capacities of these countries, which boast the most advanced and sophisticated products and systems to have emerged from the latest developments of science and technology.
Third, Daesh has benefited from the skills of some of the members who have joined it voluntarily and who were educated in the most modern universities and academic institutes in the world. These individuals come from different countries and cultures, and collectively they have a diversity of expertise that they have placed at the disposal of Daesh. Some may counter that Al-Qaeda also had this advantage as it consisted of young people from diverse Islamic nations. However, Daesh has gone beyond this through the recruitment of westerners, which Al-Qaeda did not have in anywhere near such numbers.
Fourth, the degree to which events have been linked to Daesh or to which such a linkage has been suggested is important. This factor has made it possible for various intelligence agencies to undertake operations within the framework of international conflicts while attributing the causes to Daesh, a tendency that has worked to augment the latter’s mystique.
Fifth, there is the internal dynamic and evolution of this extremist movement, which has possibly occurred as a result of the accumulated expertise of the movement’s leaders in the course of their interactions with different social and political contexts at the local and international levels. In this sense, Daesh has the character of a virus that mutates in the face of the antibiotics intended to eradicate it.
Sixth, the ability of Daesh to shrug off much of the historical theological and jurisprudential weight that has encumbered its predecessors has played a role. The current Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahari, among others, has vehemently criticised Daesh for this, as Daesh cares about theology and doctrine only insofar as these serve the purposes of recruitment, channelling the energies of its members into the duty of jihad and social control.
Ideological and doctrinal disputes have been an endless source of tensions within the extremist Islamist groups, often leading to schisms and violent clashes between them. But Daesh is different in that it is essentially indifferent to principles and is consummately pragmatic in its behaviour.
For Daesh, the ends justify the means, and it is not about to let any religious scruples stand in its way.
Dissecting DAESH: In order to understand Daesh we need to dissect it and identify the books and studies about it.
Even though a report produced by the Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC) at the West Point Military Academy in the US claims to have relied on unique data in this regard, it simultaneously acknowledges that “one of the challenges of understanding how the Islamic State (IS) group currently operates and the long-term threat it poses is that most open-source reporting focuses on a single aspect of the group’s activities, such as its financing or its brutal treatment of civilians. While these focused glances at different parts of the IS are informative, there is a need to look at IS more holistically.”
The report adds that “one of the challenges inherent in doing this type of analysis is the lack of primary source information… When it comes to IS, the amount of material is relatively limited.”
The report, entitled “The Group that Calls itself a State: Understanding the Evolution and Challenges of the Islamic State,” translated into Arabic by the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), underscores the difficulties of any scientific study of Daesh. As scientifically rigorous as the authors may try to be, there are potential limitations with the primary sources.
For example, hastier scholars might fall into the trap of believing Daesh claims when they find no alternative primary sources or, conversely, into the trap of the counter-propaganda that is part of the psychological war against Daesh and that seeks to paint as ugly a picture of it as possible in order to disillusion those young people who are taken in by the image that Daesh attempts to market about itself and life under its rule.
Of course, Daesh prohibits first-hand observation. No researcher or analyst can simply head into Daesh-controlled territories, conduct interviews, and film life in the streets, or at least not without great risk to his life. In the history of extremist organisations, a handful of researchers have managed to infiltrate their ranks and study their organisations, though this has necessitated some ruses.
For example, the US academic Richard Mitchell pretended to have converted to Islam, joined the Muslim Brotherhood, and then went on to produce one of the seminal works on the subject. The French scholar Francois Burgat also used informers and middlemen to study radical organisations in many Arab countries, among them Algeria and Egypt, in particular.
However, there are resources for gathering information about Daesh in order to study this phenomenon, and these can be categorised as follows.
First, there is a considerable body of information from breakaway members of Daesh. Quite a few members of the organisation have come to a point where they have been disillusioned and have no longer been able to tolerate conditions under Daesh rule, causing them to flee out of fear of being charged with apostasy and executed. Scholars treat these accounts as eye-witness testimonies that can be considered reliable after ascertaining their veracity and accuracy or at least reducing as much as possible the impact of propaganda and misleading information.
Second, there is the information provided by locals in Syria and Iraq who live or have lived in areas under Daesh control. Fear and, indeed, terror often prevents them from relating all they know about the organisation because of the ubiquity of the surveillance of everything they say or write. Such sources also need constantly to move from one place to the next in order to avoid detection.
Third, some information has been provided by the Iraqi and Syrian authorities, which have confronted Daesh on the ground in these countries whether in the course of assaults against Daesh strongholds or Daesh attacks against Iraqi or Syrian towns. This type of information, if not free of propaganda, is extremely important since the authorities have a greater presence on the ground and the ability to penetrate the ranks of the organisation. Moreover, many of the politicians or intellectuals from cities that have fallen under Daesh control have had strong ties with the authorities of these two countries.
Fourth, there is an array of conventional information on Daesh, such as that related to geography, economic resources and demographic composition. Daesh is not a closed organisation. It presents itself as a governing authority that rules over people, even if by force. It controls swathes of territory in two countries that have well-known topographical features and that are inhabited by people about which much information was available long before Daesh appeared on the scene. This information has been useful in assessing the economic assets of the organisation. It can also be useful in understanding the organisation’s means of control and the potential for resistance movements to operate in the areas under its control.
Fifth, there is the information leaked by intelligence agencies, even if for purposes of their own. The amount of this information is meagre compared to the quantities of information these agencies actually possess. They may leak some information to certain scholars, or they may prepare lengthy reports themselves, but ultimately they are selective in what they disclose and the information is not necessarily made available to all.
Sixth, there are the accounts of intrepid journalists who have succeeded in infiltrating areas under Daesh control. This is extremely perilous as was demonstrated by the fate of the American journalist James Foley. While in Syria reporting on the civil war for the US periodical the Global Post, Foley was abducted by IS on 22 November 2012 and held captive until he was beheaded on 19 August 2014.
Seventh, there is the information that Daesh itself has revealed with the cognisance of certain agencies in the organisation. This information is the most suspect in terms of its accuracy and intention, an area in which Daesh has proven adept. Nevertheless, information of this sort is useful not so much in order to learn new facts, but rather in order to acquire insight on how Daesh perceives itself. In addition, there is the information that has appeared randomly from Daesh members, such as comments on Facebook and Twitter pages or videoclips posted on YouTube.
Eighth, there is information accumulated from previous experiences with terrorist organisations. Daesh is not the first militant Islamist organisation to exist or even the first to have seized control of a chunk of a country’s territory and declared an “emirate”. The Tawhid and Jihad Group once proclaimed a statelet in Iraq, the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan until it was overthrown in 2001, and extremist groups have in the past seized control over portions of Somalia. Moreover, each organisation in the chain of Islamist extremism and terrorism is influenced by its predecessor, whether organisationally or ideologically, making experiences in dealing with previous organisations useful to understanding how current and future organisations operate.
Ninth, there are the ideological and jurisprudential sources that shape Daesh’s ideas or that it uses to justify its decisions. These include works such as The Community of Ibrahim by Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdisi, The Management of Brutality by Abu Bakr Naji, Signposts on the Road by Sayed Qotb, Chapters in Leadership and the Declaration of Allegiance by Abu Mundhir Shanqeeti, Questions on the Jurisprudence of Jihad by Abu Abdullah Al-Mahajir, The Call to Islamic Resistance by Abu Mosab Al-Suri, and The Features of the Victorious in the Lands of the Tigris and Euphrates by Maysara Al-Gharib.
They also include Eliminating Confusion about the Community God has rendered to the Leader of People by Joheiman Bin Mohammed Al-Atibi, Those Caught between Doubt and Certainty by Helmi Hashem, and The Essential Guide to Preparation and The Pursuit of Divine Knowledge by Sayed Imam Al-Sharif, aka Dr Fadl, a prominent ideologue of the Al-Jihad and Al-Qaeda organisations. Such works help us to understand the ideological frameworks and textual authorities that shape the organisation and some of its aims, these being used to justify its actions and informing some of its methods of combat.
Tenth, there is experience gained from previous encounters with other types of militant organisations from both the radical left and the ultra-right. The examples are many and include organisations and groups that have emerged, for example, in San Salvador, Eritrea, Nepal, Peru and Sri Lanka, and that have advocated the use of military force and have waged various forms of guerrilla warfare. There is evidence that Daesh has benefitted from the legacies of such movements through the foreigners of various nationalities that have joined the organisation.
Finally, there is the progress that researchers have made in analysing Daesh’s thought and behaviour, bringing to bear scientific approaches and combining insights gleaned from this process with other available information in order to achieve greater depth. This process has enhanced powers of educated guess-work and prediction, enabling researchers to fill in gaps in the statements and documents attributed to Daesh, to refine their understanding of the components of the organisation, and to conceive future scenarios.
These efforts have yielded numerous books, research papers and studies in many languages.
A work of synthesis: It is important for researchers to examine all the sources mentioned above in order to develop as complete a picture as possible of this strange organisation of which we only see the tip of the iceberg.
However, in order truly to understand Daesh and its aims, we also need to examine the names attributed to it. The organisation’s enemies and its supporters do not use the same name to refer to it, and many names vie with each other in the media and in political analyses. All these reflect the modes of interaction shaped by different sources of ideas, perceived interests, methods of interpretation and analysis, aims and objectives, and sources of funding and influence.
This is not new in the history of dealing with extremist and terrorist religious groups, however. Some movements have long acquired many names, and the security agencies and the media have had quite a part to play in this. For example, Shoukri Mustafa called his takfiri organisation the “Gamaa Al-Muslimeen” (The Muslims’ Group). But the Egyptian media would naturally not accept this name because of its positive connotations conveying the notions of purity, piety and devotion. So it called it the “Takfir wal-Hijra” (excommunication and emigration) group instead.
Similarly, Osama Bin Laden called the entity he established the “Global Islamic Front for Combatting Jews and Christians,” but the name that caught on and that has had the greatest impact is “Al-Qaeda,” derived from the fact that the starting point for Bin Laden and his followers was the “Qaeda Al-Jihad” (The jihad base) created to receive volunteers from Islamic countries who wanted to join the battle against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
There are some who refuse to use the name “Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen” (the Muslim Brotherhood), the name that Hassan Al-Banna gave the organisation he founded, because of its positive associations. So they abbreviate it to “Ikhwan” or the “Brotherhood Group” instead. Others distort the pronunciation of ikhwan to form a derogatory pun, or use an expression that translates as the “Pseudo-Muslim Brothers”.
All this extends to the general heading under which the Muslim Brotherhood and other organisations fall: “Political Islam” or “Islamism”. The names used here range from the “Pseudo-Muslim” and “Pseudo-Islamic” to the “religio-political groups,” “political groups with an Islamic frame-of-reference,” “Islamawies,” “Madawiyoun” (stuck-in-the-pasts), “extremist groups,” “terrorist groups,” “Muslim fundamentalists,” “Neo-Kharijites,” and “violent religious groups.”
The word Daesh was originally derived from an acronym formed from the first letters of the group’s name in Arabic (Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa-Al-Sham). Other names soon followed, often ones that leave out the word “Islam”. Names for members of the organisation were also forthcoming, as “Dawaesh” (or Daeshites), and for their collective attitudes and beliefs, as “Daeshiya” (Daeshism) which, in turn, has become shorthand for brutal and violent behaviour, the savage destruction of states, cruel oppression, and the utilisation of religion as a mask for the basest and most barbaric forms of human behaviour such as murder and destruction, theft, enslavement and rape.
The media has focused on four of these names. The first is “Daesh”, the origins of which are described above. The term and its offshoots have acquired highly negative connotations related to violence, theft, enslavement, brutal coercion and other forms of cruel, immoral and barbaric behaviour.
The second is “Tanzim Al-Dawla,” or the “State Organisation” leaving out “Islamic”. Those who use this term argue that it is more neutral, or that it is more consistent with an accurate description of Daesh as a militaristic organisation with connections to the experiences of previous terrorist and extremist organisations and as a “state” in the sense that it controls land occupied by millions of people and in which it applies laws and performs certain governmental functions.
The third is “Islamic State”. This is a tendentious term generally used by the western media. In addition to accepting that Daesh performs the functions of a state, albeit an unrecognised one, the term links it with Islam as an ideology that governs its outlook and behaviour, regardless of the fact that Daesh is not particularly scrupulous about adhering to Islamic Law, unlike other organisations that were profoundly committed to what they believed or imagined constituted the true faith.
To link Daesh to Islam in this manner serves the purposes of Islamophobes and all those who seek to promote the notion that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that any Islamic state that emerges would assume a Daesh-like nature. The linkage also serves the geostrategic purposes of those that have appointed Islam as the “enemy” to take the place of the collapsed Soviet Union, a trend that emerged among American policy-makers and strategic experts following the fall of the Soviet Union.
The fourth is “the Islamic State Organisation”. This is a name that conveys all the above-mentioned connotations, but it is also one that Daesh itself may not object to as it envisions its sway extending beyond Iraq and Syria to other parts of the region. Indeed, it may envision a geographical expanse that stretches beyond that encompassed by the Islamic Empire at its zenith, when it extended from Ghana in West Africa to the Fergana Valley in Central Asia.
The writer is a novelist and socio-political researcher.