Why the Capitol Assault was Terrorism

While the horrific scenes of the invasion and occupation of the US Capitol building were played out on television, I happened to be in a radio interview for my new book, God at War. The reporter asked if there were similarities between the Trump-incited rioters and the terrorists I have studied. I quickly responded “yes.”

Here’s why. Though it is true that the reasons for insurrections are different—supporters of the Islamic State are not the same as militant Buddhists in Myanmar, for example. Yet all the violent extra-legal acts of force aimed against public order that I have studied have some common features: symbolic empowerment, performance violence, and cosmic war.

Symbolic empowerment

            When MAGA-hat wearing rioters carrying confederate flags climbed through broken windows of the US Capitol, they were asserting that they rather than elected officials had the right to claim that space. Even more striking were pictures of a bare-chested protestor with a Viking hat sitting in the Speaker’s chair of the House of Representatives and a grinning rioter sitting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office chair, his feet propped on her desk.

It is the same portrayal of power exhibited by Timothy McVeigh in destroying a federal building in Oklahoma City. A similar show of force was made by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in installing himself on the balcony of the most important mosque of the city of Mosul and proclaiming himself to be Caliph of the Islamic State. Similarly, acts of political assassination are frequent devices of terrorists since they not only remove a perceived enemy but also symbolically present themselves as more powerful than the leaders they kill.

These are symbolic demonstrations of power; but they are not real power. Within a couple hours the Capitol rioters were driven out of the Capitol. Before the end of the day of his attack, Timothy McVeigh was apprehended and brought to justice. Assassins are often killed on the spot. Al Baghdadi took longer to overcome, but eventually he and his ISIS were destroyed.

Yet in the moments they dominated the news and occupied public spaces, people without power asserted that they had it. In the case of ISIS, the movement appealed to the Sunni Arabs of Western Iraq and Eastern Syria who felt disenfranchised by the Shi’a dominated governments of Baghdad and Damascus. In the case of Trump’s stormtroopers who invaded the Capitol, many of them were white heterosexual Christians disturbed at the increasing multiculturalism of American society and the attempts to expand governmental power to provide welfare benefits to all. For a variety of reasons they felt alienated and humiliated in a new world order that seem to leave them behind. For a moment, however, sitting in the Speaker’s chair in the US Capitol, they imagined themselves to be in charge.

Performance violence 

The fact that the whole world was watching this assault on the US citadel of democracy was part of the point. The young bare-chested man with the Viking hat must have known that his picture was being taken and soon would be displayed on television and in newspapers and repeated on social media on the internet.

The intention of terrorism is to terrorize. It is those who witness acts of violence and are terrified by them who give definition to the term. Certainly the members of Congress who lay shaking on the floor of the House chambers felt the terror of the moment, as did all of us watching the moments from a distance on television. Without an audience, such intimidating displays of violence would not have any effect.

If the orders to march on the Capitol were given by Donald Trump in the evening and the agitators tramped down the street to occupy the building in the dead of night, it would not have been much of an issue. It is unlikely that television cameras would be there, and the lighting would have been insufficient. Trump and his followers chose the fullness of daytime, during a moment when all Senators and Representatives were meeting on the most fateful moment of the ascension of a new President, the ritual tallying of electoral votes that would proclaim Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris as leaders of the new administration.

If terrorism is theater, then timing and staging are significant. And in this case the timing of the electoral vote tally was perfect and the Capitol stage set could not have been better. As soon as the reserve forces of police and the National Guard came to the Capitol with smoke bombs and strength in numbers, the drama was over. The actors—many of whom seemed appropriately costumed for militant theater—meekly left the stage.

It is a frequent characteristic of terrorist acts to choose a time and place of significance. Timothy McVeigh chose a date with various meanings, including the execution date of the leader of a Christian militant group with which McVeigh had some association. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon could not have had a more apt set of locations for an assault meant to show the vulnerability of America’s economic and military power. In a similar way the organizers of the Trump riot chose a date and place that maximized their attempts to portray a symbolic power to the whole nation, and beyond that, to the entire world. Fortunately, however, the symbols fade quickly and what remains is the image of a sad failed coup by what seemed to be a crazed mob.

Cosmic War

From the point of view of the activists engaged in the Capitol assault, however, there was nothing crazy about it. The one person who was killed by a Capitol policeman as she tried to climb on a ledge leading to the Speaker’s Lobby was a woman who had served with distinction in the US Air Force. According to the New York Times, she was wrapped in a Make America Great Again flag and shot as she tried to climb through a window that would have enabled her and other rioters to access the room where the members of the House of Representatives were sequestered.

The 35-year old woman, Ashli Babbitt, had flown to Washington from her home in San Diego at the behest of Donald Trump for his supporters to protest the electoral vote tally. She had served for twelve years, including being a security guard for US Air Force bases, and had risen to the rank of Senior Airman. Her husband, who did not come with her from San Diego, described her as an enthusiastic supporter of the President, but not emotionally unstable.

Like Timothy McVeigh, who had also served in the military—in his case, in the first conflict with Iraq, Desert Storm—Ashli Babbitt may have considered herself to be engaged in another military struggle. They may have seen themselves as warriors in a great mission, certain to be dangerous, likely to be violent, but justified by the nobility of its cause.

It may seem strange that what appear to be ordinary and sensible persons can be drawn into a situation where they commit the most hideous of violent acts. But this is precisely what the image of war allows. Warfare provides an alternative worldview to normal public order in which almost anything is permitted in order to conquer those perceived to be enemies. In warfare enemies are things with which you cannot reason or negotiate; they can only be destroyed.

Most wars are conducted for political purposes that are authorized by a state regime that is accountable to laws and the moral constraints of the people that support it. The great theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz, reasoned that these forms of war are diluted versions of the most basic kind of war, absolute war, in which there can be no hostages or peace treaties. These wars are sometimes conducted not for political purposes but because they are perceived as protecting civilization itself, an existential war between good and evil, right and wrong. These are cosmic wars, in that they touch on a transcendent sense of moral and spiritual struggle. They are often therefore imbued with religious significance.

Most of the terrorist acts that I have studied are products of these cosmic wars. When I interviewed one of the jihadi activists associated with al Qaeda who was involved in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center he told me that he was not a terrorist, but a soldier. Though I didn’t recognize the army of which he was a part or see the battle that he imagined, they were real in his mind. He leaned over and whispered to me, “you don’t see it, Mr. Mark, but there’s a war going on, a battle of good and evil, religion and irreligion—and your government is the enemy.”

In a similar way Ashli Babbitt may have thought that there was a war going on, and that she was called to serve in it. Just as she did in the military, she took orders from her commander, and tried to faithfully execute them. At the Capitol on that fateful day she was able to be active in a real scene of battle in the way that her twelve years of military service as a security guard probably had not allowed her to do. In the struggle for control of the capitol, Ashli Babbitt was a soldier again. Though she broke laws and windows and eventually lost her life in the process, for a time she was a warrior in a great cosmic war.









This interview with Mona Sheikh, co-editor of Religion, Conflict and Global Society, a festschrift honoring me, was posted on the website of the Danish Institute of International Studies on November 13, 2020

Tribute to a pioneer of the academic fields of religious violence and Global Studies: Mark Juergensmeyer turns 80

Mark Juergensmeyer seemed to stumble on to one of the most important research fields today: religious violence. 27 years after publishing a groundbreaking book on religion, secularism and violence, his work, and not least his approach, has influenced many researchers, including DIIS researcher Mona Sheikh. Together with Isak Svensson of Uppsala University she is editing a festschrift celebrating his contributions to academia.

When the book The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State came out in 1993, its topic seemed slightly peripheral to the public debate as that was looking at the time.

After the end of the Cold War, religion didn’t excactly seem like a very important fault line in international politics, and the book’s author, Mark Juergensmeyer, a scholar especially of Gandhi’s thought and Sikh extremism, among other subjects, wasn’t a traditional expert on either the Middle East or terrorism.

These two subjects did gain some attention, when in the same year a group of Islamists tried to blow up the World Trade Center, failing to do so, but in the process still killing seven people and alerting the world to the rise of Islamist terrorism.

The book acquired quite a lot of academic traction, and when seven years later Juergensmeyer published another book on the confrontation between religious extremism and the modern state, Terror in the Mind of God, the book seemed almost prophetic in explaining an event that would come to define the coming years.

All major religions have potential for violence

A few months later, two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and turned Juergensmeyer’s subject into the topic that overshadowed practically everything else on the planet.

“His ambition was to show that all major religions of the world has the potential for violence, that they are upheld by mythological imaginations, and that they are very much alike in that sense,” explains Mona Sheikh, head of the Global Security and World Views unit at DIIS.

“And then 9/11 happened, and he had a chapter on al-Qaeda. At the time not many people knew anything about al-Qaeda, and not much had been published. For that book he had actually interviewed one of the perpetrators behind the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993,” she adds.

”Already back then he wrote about the conflict lines in a new Cold War. Now it was religious nationalism versus secular nationalism. In a way, it became quite prophetic compared to populist currents that arose in many countries, and the way religion increasingly became a visible force in politics,” continues Sheikh, a former Ph D student of Juergensmeyer’s at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and today the leader of the ERC-funded project on Transnational Jihad and Containment and one of the instigators of a Festschrift celebrating Juergensmeyer’s 80th birthday today, to be published at the beginning of 2021.

About Mark Juergensmeyer:

Juergensmeyer is distinguished professor of sociology and global studies, and affiliate professor of religious studies, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the founding director of global studies and the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies. He is a pioneer in the global studies field, focusing on global religion, religious violence, conflict resolution and South Asian religion and politics. He has published more than three hundred articles and twenty books, including the revised and expanded fourth edition of the award-winning Terror in the Mind of God (University of California Press, 2017)

“Right after the Cold War, there was this widespread notion that a secular model of society could also solve the problems of Muslim countries. There was great opposition to that mindset in parts of the Muslim world. Movements such as the Taliban – which have been a large part of my research – were strongly opposed to that notion, and other Islamist movements as well. In his writings, Mark challenged this standard thinking, that secularism was the victorious idea. He was also critical of the universalist way of thinking about  secularism.”

Large influence

9/11 would have terrorism and security-experts jumping out of practically every cupboard to explain the new threat to Western civilisation, focusing in a narrow way on security, networks or and the interpretation of religious doctrines.

Although an inspiration to many, and with an obligatory presence on the curriculum of the field of religious violence, Juergensmeyer would take a different path. This consisted in not focusing narrowly on Islam when analysing religiously motivated violence, but looking, for instance, at the Christian sectarians of Waco in much the same way and drawing on many different fields of research when researching instigators of religious violence.

“His perspective has always been comparative, showing that there are some of the same mechanisms that apply in different forms of religious violence. There is, of course, something particular in each tradition that we must understand, but often there are some similar mechanisms that mobilize people. In a way he represents a very unique blend of focusing on texts and myths as theologians often do, but at the same time insisting on meeting and talking to the people that his research centers on, as anthropologists often do. And then he invented the concept of ‘cosmic war’. This is the concept of a struggle between good and evil, and how earthly conflicts are often elevated to this ‘sacred drama’, as he calls it. Most world religions have a concept of good and evil, and many of the world’s conflicts are seen through that prism, including by the secular parties that might be involved. He talks about the religious mobilization of violence, but has also made significant contributions to peace and conflict research,” she explains and continues:

I had heard so much from him about the importance of being in the field and talking to those you are actually studying and trying to explain. There is also a tendency in some scholarship to look first and foremost at the doctrines of these religions and conclude solely from them, without taking into account that it is people who read these texts and interpret them

Mona Sheikh

“His contribution is in explaining why most of the world’s religions have also spawned militant movements. What he is looking at are these mythological tales in the religious traditions. Not because he explains it causally – that because there are those notions, then they are violent per se – but he explains that there is a potential for violence in the religious imageries”.

Not just one explanation

– I guess it must also mean something having a different background from many other modern researchers of religious violence; having studying Gandhi, Sikhism etc. before arriving in the world of jihadist terrorism?

“”Yes, he also trained as a theologian and a political scientist, and worked as professor in the sociology of religion. He has always worked in a very multidisciplinary way, which defines  his approach, but his method is basically very anthropological, exactly because he has been out interviewing many of these religious and militant leaders”.

– What does the multidisciplinary approach mean when working in these fields?

“It means that you do not find the explanation in one place, but that it is a combination. We humans are not just characterized or driven by one meta-identity; we are many things at once – we are political beings, we are also religious beings, we are family people, and one has to take this into account. There is a tendency in terrorism research to look for a singular explanation‚” she explains.

If one concludes that these people are not just out of reach, then it opens up a space for dialogue, reconciliation, compromises – to speak to each other. Much of the counterterrorism discourse after 9/11 has insisted that you cannot talk to these people

Mona Sheikh

“Political scientists are looking for political explanations for why people act the way they do; with religious scholars it is, of course, about faith, and anthropologists have gone out and tried to understand people’s life worlds. He has always combined these methods and factors. He also analyzes religious texts – what kinds of conceptions and imagery they facilitate. Complemented by many, many hours of interviews with militant actors, which have given him a high degree of credibility. I have personally been very inspired by this and have taken that approach with me in my work interviewing the Taliban, because I had heard so much from him about the importance of being in the field and talking to those you are actually studying and trying to explain. There is also a tendency in some scholarship to look first and foremost at the doctrines of these religions and conclude solely from them, without taking into account that it is people who read these texts and interpret them, and that these interpretations can change over time according to context‚” Sheikh explains.

Creating a new field of research

Juergensmeyer is also a partner in the Explaining Transnational Jihad project at DIIS, is involved in a large project at Uppsala University and is Honorary Professor  at Roskilde University Centre. At the latter, his work in establishing a whole new discipline of research, Global Studies, has led to the creation of a department specialising in the effects of globalisation from a multidisciplinary and transnational perspective, seeking to understand the dynamics from many different cultural standpoints.

About the Festschrift:

The book “Religion, Conflict and Global Society – A Festschrift celebrating Mark Juergensmeyer” (Edited by Mona Kanwal Sheikh and Isak Svensson) will be published in 2021 with contribution from scholars from different disciplines: Giles Gunn, Gurinder Singh Mann, Helmut Anheier, Isak Svensson, Manoranjan Mohanty, Margo Kitts, Mia Bloom, Michael K Jerryson,  Mona Kanwal Sheikh, Monica Toft, Reza Azlan, Rich Appelbaum, and Ron E. Hassner.

Mona Sheikh talks affectionately about an icon who, both personally and professionally, has clearly meant quite a lot to her – and she also readily admits to being influenced a lot by his approach.

“We have looked a lot at his way of working. After all, our approach is also very much about understanding jihadism from an insider perspective; what kind of world view is being projected? What are the kinds of religious beliefs characterizing transnational jihadism that make them stand out against previous generations’ jihadism or Islamism? What I have tried to develop in collaboration with Mark is a method of understanding the link between the sociological and the theological,” she says.

“When I was in the United States, we started working on what we called a sociotheological approach to the study of religious violence, which combines a focus on people’s world views with a focus on their social vocation. One must understand how people interpret the religious notions in the concrete circumstances in which they find themselves.”

The idea of good and evil

– In the Introduction to ’Terror in the Mind of God’, he mentions feeling a certain kinship with these strongly religious militants in their social activism and desire to create change through religion – without, of course, endorsing the violence. Does that differentiate him from other researchers, that he doesn’t necessarily start out from a point of condemnation?

“That is an important point and reflects his method of emphatetic immersion into the worldviews of those he his studying. Both within and beyond academia, there is often a demonization of these movements, especially when it comes to militant movements that draw on religious imaginaries to justify acts of violence. His point is that these people can also be driven by the idea of the good and the righteous – they also  want a just society, but people disagree about what the just society is. The Taliban are characterized by the ambition to create order and justice – but they connect it with a vision of the divine, while in our part of the world we often connect justice and law and order and equality before the law with secularism. It is an important point that these people are not necessarily evil per se. If you open yourself up to a more nuanced portrayal, it also means that you can talk to these people. And that’s where his research is heading these days, more towards peace research and conflict resolution,” she adds.

Terrorism research is still very focused on individual explanatory models, where one follows the individual’s radicalization and network, which people they have been influenced by, a microsociological approach in one sense or another, very focused on individual processes

Mona Sheikh

“If one concludes that these people are not just out of reach, then it opens up a space for dialogue, reconciliation, compromises – to speak to each other. Much of the counterterrorism discourse after 9/11 has insisted that you cannot talk to these people, they are driven by evil and hatred towards the West. That narrative is altered if you put a face on these people and tell their story in terms of their own premises and thus provide access to their world view”.

– A more holistic approach to religious violence, and also putting Christian fundamentalists in the same box as jihadists, I guess, would also be a tad provocative to many people?

“Yes, and it only became that way after 2001. Until then, terrorist research was not about jihadism and Islam in the same way at all. There was a more equitable distribution, and much of the research was about secular militant ideological movements or Christian evangelists in the United States. But Mark has also been in the field for so long that he can demonstrate that there is no natural connection between any one single denomination and its violent expression, but that it occurs in many different variants”.

– Is there more room for that way of understanding terror and jihadist movements today than there was ten or fifteen years ago?

“Probably among parts of academia there is a countertrend that wants to challenge simple causality models, or the essentialism in the study of religion. But it requires more multidisciplinary work. Terrorism research is still very focused on individual explanatory models, where one follows the individual’s radicalization and network, which people they have been influenced by, a microsociological approach in one sense or another, very focused on individual processes. What Mark also contributes is to lift the gaze a little from that and look at some ideational structures and how they relate to the feeling of being misrepresented in the world. And that this  is also a universal mechanism,” she replies.

“In a way, it is becoming more common, because we are also seeing a globalization in academic fields. We do not think as sectarians as we did before 9/11 in the field of terrorism. Disciplinary borders do not mean that much anymore. And I think to a large extent that this development is part of Mark’s legacy over the years.”


Podcast on God, Religion and Social Change


Just out, a conversation with me on God, religion and social change in India and around the world in a time of pandemic, on a Delhi-based podcast.

The interviewer is Dev Pathak of South Asia University, Delhi, and the topics range from religious responses to the pandemic to the politicization of religion in India and the United States, and then to the future of religion in a global world. It was an interesting conversation.


Podcast on lower caste movements in Punjab


This podcast interviews me about my research on lower caste movements in the Punjab, including my interviews with the founder of the Ad Dharm movement, Mangoo Ram. It tells how I got involved in this research, and how I found Mangoo Ram almost by accident, and discovered to my surprise that this village leader of Untouchables had once lived in Fresno! For the full story, listen to the podcast at this site:


Here’s the introduction to the podcast:

Ad Dharm & Ravidassia with Professor Mark Juergensmeyer

 Welcome to the tenth history podcast by SikhArchive, today we are joined by Mark Juergensmeyer, who is a professor of global studies, sociology and also religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

He has a plethora of literature relating to the study of South Asian religion and politics and has published more than 200 articles and 20 books, one of which being discussed today is called, Religious Rebels in the Punjab, which is about the Ad Dharam movement in the early 20th century which subsequently led to the formation of the Ravidassia community.

His scholarly work related to the Ad Dharam movement and Ravidassia religious formation is phenomenal and certainly unique since his field work includes being in contact with many of the key members including Mangu Ram. Thus, I could think of no better person to have a conversation with about the religious reform movement with respect to the scheduled castes which ran parallel to the Singh Sabha Lehar and Arya Samaj.

And it is important note here that the terms “Dalit”, “untouchables”, “Scheduled castes” or “scheduled tribes” – throughout this discussion are all terms of reference and none of which the diaspora relate to in caste discussions.

“Dalit” is the Preferred and politically correct term used in the subcontinent and academic writing on or talking about caste. “scheduled castes” is also widely used.  “Harijans” (children of god) was a term Gandhi coined for “Dalits” but Dr Ambedkar and “Dalits” largley rejected.

Covid vs Cultural Nationalism

The recent pictures in American media of angry and largely white male protestors, many with Trump’s MAGA hats, could have been taken several months ago. The target, however, is vastly different.

Just a couple of months ago the perceived global assault on American nationalism was economic—entangling trade alliances that were touted as taking away American jobs—or forms of cultural globalization aimed at undermining the American way of life.

The perception that there was a global cultural assault on nationalism was easy to imagine since the evidence of it was closely at hand. After all, waves of new immigrants from non-European countries entered the United States in recent decades, some illegally. They were easy to marginalize since they were different from white Euro-Americans, not only ethnically but in some cases by their religion. Worst of all were those who were Muslim.

But the new pictures of virtually the same angry white males with MAGA hats do not show them protesting against Muslims or Mexicans. They are protesting against a new global threat, virtually invisible ones, tiny virus cells. Covid-19 is the new global enemy, imagined to be aided by those scientists, health professionals and public leaders who appear to conspire with the virus to vex the ordinary lives of angry white males with MAGA hats. It is now covid-19 that is thought to be undermining the American way of life.

Covid-19 is a neologism created by shortening the phrase coronavirus disease 2019. Like SARS and the other previous coronaviruses it is an airborne respiratory virus that is highly contagious. Because it was likely first transmitted to humans from live animals in Wuhan, China, it has been possible to link the disease with foreign and sinister global forces out to undermine the American way of life. The conspiracy theories regarding its origins and spread are ubiquitous.

To a paranoid segment of the right-wing community in the US, these conspiracies were linked to globalization. The virus was the attempt of China, or the UN, or Bill Gates, or 5G technology—or some other sinister force—to scare Americans and deprive them of their liberty. Rather than blaming the government for its ineptitude in allowing the virus to spread rapidly, making the US by far the most infected nation on the planet, the blame was placed on fictional foes.

Perhaps the most frightening of the imagined falsehoods has been the notion that the disease is not real, but a hoax perpetrated by clever liberals to sedate the populace. Hence those who held to this fiction could cavalierly ignore any of the recommended restrictions, crowding together in public and thereby endangering everyone else. Doctors treating some covid-19 patients have had to contend with their arguments that they could not possibly have the disease since it was a hoax, and it didn’t actually exist.

These fears and the anger over having been constricted by restrictive pandemic regulations have brought hordes of gun-toting angry white men and women out on the streets in protest. Before American cities erupted in demonstrations against police brutality, led largely by young Blacks and progressive whites, these white MAGA hat-wearing protestors had the media’s attention. They will likely return in force, especially if new restrictions are adopted when the predictable second wave of virus infection occurs.

For the moment it seems that the global pandemic and its restrictions will continue to be at the center of American right-wing populist rage for some time to come. Rather than cultural nationalism this anger expresses a nationalism that is equally anti-global and defensive, a covid nationalism. The culture wars, and the animosity against immigrants, refugees, and Muslims has taken a back seat. The question is whether this covid nationalism is a turning point, whether it a brief deflection of attention, or whether it will be merged with cultural nationalism.

The question is not easy to answer since it largely depends on the future of the pandemic. The optimistic scenario is that the worst is over, that the rate of infections nationally will continue to decline, the economy will slowly reemerge and a vaccine will be found to be effective by the end of the year. In this scenario, the current fears may subside in the reemergence of normalization. And the old forms of cultural nationalism and its disdain against immigrants, minorities and Muslims may again surface. Or perhaps by then they will have been forgotten.

But the optimistic scenario is not the likely one. The possibility is real that there will be waves of new infections and with them new restrictions for at least a year or more to come. The greatly anticipated vaccine may be years off, and perhaps not discovered for decades. There is still no vaccine for AIDS, for example, though it has become a managed disease. Perhaps the same could be the case with covid-19. We could learn to live with it, though many of the restrictions would continue to be in place.

This means that resentment against the restrictions will continue. The conspiracy theories are likely to proliferate, and the sense that the luxurious American way of life is being corroded by sinister global forces may expand. Covid nationalism could be a major element of the continuing right-wing populism of the future.

But that does not mean that cultural nationalism will be forgotten. One can easily imagine conspiracy theories emerging—as indeed some already have—that blame immigrants, Muslims, liberals, foreign interference and global forces for the pandemic and its restrictive assault on familiar daily life. Thus the two forms of populism could forge an unhappy alliance.

At present covid nationalism—a populist protest against an imagined global intrusion of pandemic restrictions—is largely an American phenomenon. But like the virus itself, it could easily spread across borders, and become a feature of angry segments of the populace in Europe and other parts of the globe. There, too, it could merge with the existing anti-immigrant cultural nationalism of those regions. The global emergence of a covid-cultural nationalism could be the perfect storm of the future.



Why Has ISIS Revived?


Talking with Sunni Arab Refugees from ISIS near Mosul in 2019

In March 2019, the last bit of ISIS-controlled territory at Baghouz on the Syrian-Iraqi border fell to Kurdish fighting forces and their allies. Later that year its vaunted Caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US military assault in northeastern Syria. President Trump proudly proclaimed the end of ISIS.

Yet intelligence reports indicate that the movement is far from dead. In fact, it appears to be on the rise. In 2019, there were estimated to be 18,000 ISIS fighters remaining in guerrilla cadres. These sleeper cells and strike teams have conducted sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings and assassinations. They were particularly active in rural areas of the badly-policed borders between Syria and Iraq and between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country. Their targets have been government and foreign forces and anyone thought to be collaborating with them.

In 2019 the numbers of attacks increased over the year. In the first six months in Iraq alone there were almost 280 people killed in ISIS guerilla assaults, including erdUS contract security personnel. Among those killed was a Sunni Arab guard in Ramadi who went out at night to check up on his uncle’s farmland and was abducted and beheaded with a warning that a similar fate would await anyone who worked for the government.

The numbers of incidents this year are already up.  The question is why? Why has ISIS returned so quickly, and why is it thriving?

The basic reason is that the conditions that encouraged so many Sunni Arabs to support ISIS have not changed. Their feelings of marginalization in Shi’a dominated Iraq and Alawite-dominated Syria have continued to make them second-class cities. Worse, some of their major cities, like Raqqa in Syria, and Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq, have been destroyed in the battles to end ISIS control. The Sunni Arabs who lived there often have nowhere to return.

As a result hundreds of thousands are languishing in refugee camps, where tentative hope has eroded into despair. There the ISIS message of Sunni Arab empowerment falls on receptive ears, especially among young men who find little opportunities for employment or education in the camps.

In the last several months, moreover, there are four other factors that have emerged that have propelled ISIS’ revival. All of them are related to policy decisions made by the U.S. President, often with little consultation with experts and advisors, and with little assessment of the potential consequences. These factors will have a long-range effect in strengthening the revival of ISIS:

Control in Syria diminished

When President Donald Trump announced that US forces would withdraw from the Kurdish regions of Northern Syria the shock waves were felt throughout the region. He had apparently made the decision on the spur of the moment during a telephone call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Within a day Turkey was moving its troops into the area, pushing out the Kurds who lived there, planning to create a new buffer zone to relocate Syrian refugees and deny the Kurds a homeland from which they might influence Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

Since Kurdish forces had led the opposition against ISIS in the region, this meant that Kurdish troops were no longer able to patrol the region. The Russian-backed Syrian army was not adequate to the task. Hence the ISIS cadres had almost free reign to operate again within the formerly Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria.

Prisons left unguarded

Kurdish forces had maintained the detention centers and prisons in Northern Syria where some 10,000 former ISIS fighters were incarcerated. With the need for Kurdish troops to protect their own people in the face of the Turkish army that was trying to force an ethnic cleansing if Kurds in the region, many of the detention centers were suddenly seriously understaffed after the US decision to no longer project the Kurds. Prison breaks since then have released hundreds of seasoned ISIS militants back into society.

Control in Iraq diminished

Much of the containment of ISIS in Iraq was due to policies orchestrated by Iran through the Quds Force Commander, Qasem Soleimani. It was widely suspected that he had worked hand and glove with the US military in coordinating their offensive strategy against ISIS, despite his role in supporting anti-American groups throughout the Middle East. When he was killed in January 2020 through a US military strike ordered by President Trump, whatever coordination existed between the US and Iran was severed, and the specific strategies that were directed by Soleimani no longer had his skillful leadership to guide them.

Shi’a Extremists Emboldened

Perhaps a more important and long-lasting outcome of the assassination of Soleimani is its effect in emboldening the extremist activists within the Shi’a communities of Iran and Iraq. The moderate leaders had gambled their reputations on a peace agreement with the United States brokered in the administration of President Barack Obama, and when Trump reversed the US stand and pulled out of the deal, the hardliners appeared to have won. The killing of Soleimani was the last straw in the moderate approach. What this means is that extreme Shi’a militia now have greater liberty to prey on their ethnic rivals, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who already are marginalized in the Shi’a dominated politics of Iraq and Syria. The beneficiary of this increased ethnic polarization is ISIS, which thrives on the suffering of Sunni Arabs, providing a voice for the dispossessed.

In a curious way, then, the effect of recent US actions in the region emboldens ISIS. By alienating Sunni Arabs, strengthening Iranian and Iraqi Shi’a hardliners, and withdrawing support from ISIS primary enemy, the Kurdish forces of Iraq and Syria, the US under President Trump has given ISIS a new lease on life.


US Intelligence figures of the number of ISIS related incidents in 2019 are cited in Eric Schmitt, Alissa Rubin, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “ISIS is Regaining Strength in Iraq and Syria,” The New York Times, August 19, 2019.

Fallout from the US-Iran War

When I heard about the assassination of Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, by an American military missile strike at the Baghdad airport on January 2, I immediately thought of the repercussions. They are likely to be global, perhaps provoking another war. American military and government installations around the world may become targets.

The balance of power in the Middle East will be affected, and hardliners in Tehran will be strengthened. They have always been suspicious of America’s intentions, even during the short-lived nuclear peace agreement, and now they have new reason to build up Iran’s nuclear armaments.

But my immediate thoughts were not about this broader spectrum of dire consequences from a decision that appears to have been made quickly without extensive consultation by a President notorious for disastrous spur-of-the-moment foreign policy decisions. Rather, I thought about the affect within Iraq, where Suleimani was killed.

I have visited Iraq many times since the US invasion in 2003, and have developed friendships with colleagues especially in the Kurdistan region in the north. I fear that the rising US-Iran tensions will have an adverse effect on Iraq’s minorities—particularly the secularists, the Sunnis and the Kurds.

When I first went to Baghdad in 2004, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, I talked with many academics, journalists and politicians who were hopeful about the rise of a secular democracy and new political parties organized around the interests of workers and farmers. Instead, politics in Iraq has devolved into ethnic and religious sectarian movements.

The spirit of secular democracy has persisted, however, and has been expressed most recently in the huge public rallies supported especially by young people protesting political corruption and the insidious ties to Iran. Now that Iran is under attack by the US, and the US has been using Iraqi territory as the base for which those attacks have been made, these protests have been drowned out in clamor for a martial patriotism to defend the sovereignty of Iraq. The power of the Iran-related Shi’a political parties in Iraq has been solidified.

The strengthening of Shi’a political groups is bad news for the two major ethnic minorities in Iraq, the Sunni Arabs in the Western region of the country and the Sunni Kurds in the north. My friends in the Kurdistan region have admired Americans and enjoyed the support of the United States over the years, beginning with an American-enforced no-fly zone over the Kurdistan region after the Gulf War. The Arabs in the rest of Iraq treated them as second-class citizens, and Kurds had few political allies in the region.

Though the ethnic community of Kurds comprise some 40 million people in eastern Turkey and the northern regions of Iran, Iraq, and Syria, they do not have their own nation. Moreover, their separatist aspirations are suspect in each of these four countries in which they have large populations. The United States supported them against Saddam, and then found in them useful allies in the fight against the Islamic State. Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq were crucial in ending the territorial control of the Islamic State in 2018.

The Kurds assumed that the US would show its gratitude by giving them continued support, but alas the capricious decision by US President Trump to withdraw protective American troops from Syria in 2019 left them vulnerable to Turkish incursions into the Kurdish areas of Syria. The most recent anti-American mood in Iraq following the assassination of Suleimani will make the Kurdish pro-American stand even less acceptable to Baghdad. It also makes the Iraqi Kurds feel more vulnerable, since the US is increasingly not in a position to come to their aid, even if it was disposed to do so.

The Sunni Arabs in Iraq also will feel abandoned in the pro-Iranian mood following the Suleimani assassination. When I talked with Sunnis in refugee camps who have fled ISIS-controlled territory in western Iraq and Syria, many of them said they feared Shi’a control more than the harsh terrorist regime of the Islamic State.

The overwhelming number of ordinary Sunnis who supported ISIS during its heyday did so because they felt excluded from the Shi’a- dominated political life of the country, and marginalized when it came to receiving government jobs and benefits. Participation in the Islamic State was a form of Sunni empowerment.

When the ISIS regime was defeated in the main Sunni Arab cities—Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul—what was left behind were scenes of utter destruction. Very little government funding or other efforts have been made to restore the infrastructure and help in the rebuilding of these cities. Many of the residents languish in the enormous refugee camps erected in the Kurdistan countryside.

The Sunni dissatisfaction and fear of Shi’a militia has bolstered ISIS and led to an underground resurgence of the movement. The increased power of Shi’a politics and the unleashing of militant Shi’a groups such as the Sadr Brigade will only harden the Sunni antipathy towards Shi’a control and bolster the rejuvenation of the ISIS movement.

On the evening after the assassination of Suleimani, pronouncements from the White House and Pentagon focused on this one man, who was admittedly a mastermind of many treacherous operations throughout the Middle East. The implication was that in destroying Suleimani, a measure of peace would come to the region. Alas, however, the death of this one man may lead to a spiral of consequences, affecting most immediately Iraq’s minorities, the secularists, Sunnis and Kurds.


Why ISIS Needs a New Caliph

The old Caliph is dead. Long live the new Caliph!

This was the gist of an audio message uploaded onto the social media app, Telegram. It appeared scarcely five days after the October 26 US military raid near the Northern Syrian city of Idlib that ended in the suicide death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the notorious leader of the Islamic State (also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL).

Why so soon, and why a caliph?

Especially after the territorial defeat of the movement and the destruction of their headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Al-Baghdadi had become more of a figurehead of ISIS than its organizational leader. The movement continued on its own momentum through decentralized cells. It did not really need a new leader.

Yet a successor to al-Baghdadi was named, someone in the inner circles of the movement who adopted the pseudonym of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi. He was proclaimed not only as the organizational leader, but also as Caliph—the spiritual incarnation of Islamic tradition’s early leadership.

There are practical and ideological reasons why the surviving leaders acted so quickly. Not only did they want to affirm the leadership of the movement but also they wanted to assert the continuation the idea of the Caliph itself.

It shows that ISIS is still alive

This swift action by the surviving leaders showed that there were indeed surviving leaders. The very fact that they could convene a shura, a council of elders, is significant. It is not clear whether this was a physical meeting of the leaders or whether it was a consensus that came about through other means. But if the latter was the case, it would be interesting to know how they communicated, since most of the leadership has not used electronic devices for fear of being located, and presumably the leaders are scattered and in hiding.

The use of the term “mujahidin” (fighters) in conjunction with the term “shura” (council) is interesting, since there was a Mujahidin Shura Council comprised of different jihad Sunni Islamic groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq, that preceded the formation of ISIS. This could signal that there are several groups that are now involved in the resurgence of ISIS, including perhaps the jihadi groups that control the territory around Idlib, where al-Baghdadi was hiding out.

Though they were in opposition to ISIS previously, an accommodation among the groups would explain why they allowed the ISIS leaders free passage in the region and the ability to meet freely. It would also explain their involvement (if indeed this turns out to be the case) in the selection of a new leader.

There had been a second in line to Baghdadi who was waiting to take over. Abu Hassan al-Muhajir was Baghdadi’s spokesman and heir apparent in the eventuality of his death. Baghdadi wore a suicide belt at all times and was constantly on the move with the assumption that he was a marked man. Al-Muhajir’s succession lasted only a day, however, since he was killed by a US military strike the day after al-Baghdadi’s death on a road near the town of Jarablus in Aleppo province in the same general area of Syria where Baghdadi was hiding.

With the killing of al-Muhajir the ISIS council moved quickly to proclaim someone else as leader, and also to appoint a new second-in-line in case he was killed. The point was to assert that the movement was not dead, even if the leader was.

The very fact that the movement had the organizational ability to meet and agree on a new leader and to announce that fact to the world was impressive. It was meant to impress, and to bolster the confidence of its far-flung followers.

It gives assurance of continuing personal leadership

The death of a charismatic leader can spell the doom of a movement. Or it can bolster a movement, as was the case with the Israeli attack on Shekh Ahmed Yassin, leader of the Hamas movement in Palestine, after which the Hamas movement expanded its strength.

By quickly anointing a new leader, the movement broadcast to its followers that the charismatic authority continued. Fighters in the movement had previously been urged to pledge loyalty not just to the Islamic State but to the person of al-Baghdadi himself. In proclaiming a new Baghdadi, the leadership circle wanted to emphasize that this line of personal authority was being maintained.

For this reason it was critical to assert that the new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi, was not just a competent leader, he was a Caliph, a spiritual authority. His credentials to be regarded that way are asserted in his newly-created name, al-Qurayshi. This implies that he is from the Qurayshi tribe, the Arab community that was dominant in Mecca at the time of the Prophet’s birth, and to which the Prophet himself is said to have been descended. Therefore the new Caliph is in the lineage of the Prophet’s family and has the spiritual background to be proclaimed as Caliph.

It gives credence to the idea of an Islamic State

            Because Baghdadi’s successor is regarded not just as the ISIS leader but as Caliph, this appointment underlines the idea that he is the leader not just of a movement but of an Islamic State. Without a Caliph, it is not a Caliphate; it is just another jihadi movement.

What sets ISIS apart from al Qaeda, al Nusra, and other extremist Islamic movements is not just that ISIS adopts the radical salafi jihadi ideas in an even more extreme way than they do, but also that it is different: it is a Caliphate. That is, the movement proclaimed itself to be the incarnation of the early Islamic community. All of the extreme practices of the movement were justified by its interpretation of what the leaders thought were the rigid rules of early Islam.

Much of the appeal of the movement, especially to its far-flung followers around the world who connected with it on line through internet websites and Twitter, Telegram and other social media platforms, was that it was something new in the jihadi world; it was a Caliphate. It was the “real deal,” as some of its followers asserted. Without a Caliph, a Caliphate is just another movement.

For these reasons the surviving leaders had to act swiftly. They needed someone to represent the endurance not just of the movement, but of the Caliphate itself. Whether it will be accepted as such by its followers is yet to be seen.




ISIS After Baghdadi

ISIS will do just fine.

Shortly after the capture and apparent death of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, Caliph of the Islamic State, was announced on television, commentators were quick to observe that this will probably not end the movement. They are right.

There are three reasons why this is the case. Based on my meetings with ISIS supporters and former militants in the movement earlier this year in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, I am convinced that his death will not deter the more ardent members of the movement.

Quite the contrary. It may accelerate the violence. Here are the reasons:

Baghdadi died a martyr

Despite the undignified crowing of the US President Donald Trump that Baghdadi went “whimpering” and “died like a dog,” the ISIS network will report this quite differently. The fact is that Baghdadi, when cornered, took his own life.

This is precisely what the ISIS militants are taught to do. They are expected to die gloriously in battle, either by carrying out an attack mission, or if caught, to take their own life.

Baghdadi ignited the suicide vest that he has kept on his body for years. Some say that he even slept with it on. He fully expected that the time would come when the choice would be capture or death by suicide, and he was prepared to die.

For this reason, he will instantly be regarded as a martyr within the movement. For those who had complained about the ISIS leadership and felt that Baghdadi was only trying to protect himself, he will be vindicated. He died a martyr’s death.

Baghdadi was not essential to the leadership

Unlike al Qaeda, the organizational structure of ISIS has always been fairly decentralized. Decision making power is given to decentralized units of the movement. Baghdadi was paranoid about digital communication being intecepted and never used a cell phone or any electronic device. Communications were by human courier, which meant that they were slow and infrequent, thus requiring a decentralized form of organization.

On a global scale, where groups from Nigeria to the Philippines are claiming allegiance to ISIS, there is virtually no direction from ISIS central command. So the absence of a central leader will scarcely be noticed.

Moreover, since the fall of Raqqa there has been no obvious central command. The movement has been fending for itself, and the sporadic acts of terrorism are planned and conducted by local cells and individual actors.

There is no reason to think that any of these local operations will be curtailed by Baghdadi’s death. In fact the glorification of him as a martyr might be a new rallying point for members of the movement.

When I talked with former ISIS militants who were convicted and in prison in Iraq, some told me that they had already been disillusioned with the ISIS leadership. They thought it was incompetent and self serving. They still believed strongly in the idea of a caliphate, however, and would fight for one if they were convinced the leadership was more deserving.

A new leader of ISIS will soon be anointed. He may take on the mantle of caliph. Whether or not he does, he will have the opportunity to provide new energy and momentum to the movement. So Baghdadi’s death might become a stimulus to ISIS revival.

ISIS enemies are diminishing

The death of Baghdadi might give the illusion that the movement itself is dead. This would be huge mistake, since it might deflect attention away from surveillance and engagement with the movement.

Already the capricious decision to remove US troops from northern Syria and cease air support for the region has been a catastrophe for the Syrian Kurds. These are precisely the fighters who have defeated ISIS in the region, with US assistance (not the other way around).

It is bittersweet irony that the capture of Baghdadi was once again a victory for the Syrian Kurds. Immediately after the attack their leader sent out a tweet to members of the Kurdish organization congratulating them on their achievement.

In an embarrassing acknowledgement, US President Trump scarcely mentioned the importance of the Kurdish troops in the operation. He thanked Russia, Syria, and Turkey, even though they had little to do with the operation—the Russian defense ministry even denied providing air space permission. Trump then also said that the Kurdish troops “helped,” whereas in fact they made the raid possible.

The killing of Baghdadi might also be the last major act of collaboration between US military and Kurdish forces. If so, it leaves a huge swath of territory in northern Syria vulnerable to the rise of ISIS.

The location where Baghdadi was discovered is an area controlled by jihadi groups that have not been ISIS-related in the past. There is speculation that by allowing Baghdadi safe harbor there, the jihadi movements were joining forces. If so, it is a huge mistake to withdraw support from the one group shown to be effective in fighting them—the Kurdish forces.

Years ago the Israeli military made a huge mistake in thinking that if they killed the leader of the movement, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, they would kill the movement itself. Quite the contrary, the martyrdom of Yassin gave new life to the movement, and today Hamas still controls the region of Gaza as a result. Al Qaeda has survived after bin Ladin, and it is almost certain that ISIS will survive the death of Baghdadi as well.