The ISIS Fighter Still at War

 

The fighter pictured is for illustration only; he is not the one I interviewed, since the prison did not allow photographs. 

“This war is not over,” the tall, bearded Iraqi old me, his voice quivering with rage. Mohammad was a fighter for the Islamic State, and even though he was only 29 years old when I talked with him in prison in Northern Iraq, he had been a fighter with ISIS and its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, since 2005. In his mind he was still was at war.

Though he said the war was over, in fact it was over for him in reality since he was serving what would be a long prison sentence, perhaps for a life time. The war was also over in another sense, in that he had left the militant organization in disgust over its corruption even before he was arrested and the movement was militarily defeated.

His story provides an interesting case study on how an extremist movement like this can end as a militant threat, even though its ideology of warfare persists. But to understand how this came about—how Mohammad came to reject the movement that enshrined the ideology of cosmic war to which he remains dedicated—we have to look at how he got involved in it in the first place.

Mohammad even at age 29 still has a soft round face framed in a traditional Muslim beard. He is a tall guy, physically large and somewhat intimidating when he stands up to make a point. The warden had allowed us to meet in a private conference room so we would not be disturbed. I was alone with my Arabic translator and Mohammad. And although the warden thought that I would be safe, there were moments in the conversation that were a bit frightening.

The conversation began quietly as Mohammad told me how he gotten involved in the movement. He was raised in Mosul in a Sunni Arab family that had prospered under the Saddam regime. Some of his relatives were in Saddam’s army. The family’s fortunes and its political connections came crashing down when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and Saddam was deposed.

The first stage of Mohammad’s militancy was one of identity politics. As a Sunni Arab he was incensed that the US occupation not only deprived Saddam loyalists of their occupations but also raised Shi’a politicians to positions of prominence where they could systematically exclude Arab Sunnis from meaningful participation in the government or the receipt of lucrative government contracts. Though a young teenager at the time, Mohammad life was deeply disrupted and his anger turned towards militancy.

When Abu Musab al Zarqawi formed al Qaeda in Iraq, Mohammad saw it as a way of empowering Sunni Arabs. In 2005, when he was scarcely fifteen years old, he joined the movement and became a fighter for AQI. All his friends were doing it, he said, and the leaders that he met with at the time were inspiring. He saw it as a way of redeeming his community and proving his manhood. He saw the movement as a liberating force for Iraq, he said, adding that “Iraq had become a colony of Iran.”

He would not tell me what he actually did in the movement, though he said that “everyone was equal” and they rotated such tasks as transporting weapons, helping with communications, setting improvised explosive devices, and fighting in teams. Within a year, however, he was caught, arrested, and sent to prison for two years, from 2006-2008.

Those two years in prison comprised a formative phase in Mohammad’s radicalization. He described the prison as “jihad university,” since senior members of the movement were able to indoctrinate young recruits like Mohammad into the jihadi ideology. “We loved going to prison,” he told me, “it was just like going to school.” Classes were organized into different aspects of textual, historical, and theological studies. It was there that Mohammad embraced the anti-Shi’a, anti-Western apocalyptic Muslim extremism that later characterized the Islamic State. This, then, was the second stage of Mohammad’s radicalization, a religiously ideological stage.

When Mohammad told me what he believed, however, it was only the basics; it clear that whatever teachings he learned in prison he was not currently able to articulate the finer points of theology. The principles seemed to boil down to three main points: opposition to the forces that were resistant to true Islam, an opposition that included especially Shi’a, moderate Muslims, and Jews and Americans (whom he called Zionists and Crusaders), and belief in the coming Caliphate.

This was the point in the conversation where he became quite agitated. He stood up and thundered about the injustice done by these three groups of people—Shi’a politicians, moderate Muslim officials, and the American military. He said they could not be redeemed, and implied that the only recourse for them was death, looking at me sternly.

I nervously looked around the room at anything that might be used as a weapon in the event that he decided to carry out this sentence on an American professor in his presence. I realized that the pen in my hand that I was using to take notes could be used to stab me in the neck, so I quietly slipped it into my pocket.

Sensing my discomfort, Mohammad sat down, and his voice calmed. He could tolerate Shi’a and Americans, he said, when he was not in the Caliphate. He had Shi’a friends when he was younger, he said, and they were good friends at that, but they were not anti-Sunni the way that the Baghdad Shi’a seemed to be. He also said that some Americans could be decent people, a statement that I inferred could apply to me, which gave me some relief.

But when one is in the reign of the Caliphate, he said, everything has to change. In order to fulfill history, there has to be a total cleansing. Using language that appeared to legitimate the actions of the Islamic State when it was in power, Mohammad said that in the Caliphate no Shi’a or non-Muslim foreigners should be allowed, nor should moderate Muslims be tolerated. Christians could purchase their release, he said, but everyone else would have to be annihilated. “They have to be killed” he said, coolly. Even your old Shi’a friend, I asked him? “Yes,” he said quietly, adding that “all who are against us have to go.”

After prison he quietly became reengaged with the movement, slipping under cover so he would not be identified by the Iraqi police. The era of ISIS was exhilarating for him, he said, though he would not admit to being formally a part of the organization. He was a “known person” within the movement, he said, and people came to him for advice and counsel.

He did not volunteer any information about his specific role within the movement or acts that he may have committed. I assumed that he did not want to say anything that might complicate his prison sentence or contradict what he might have said in court when he was convicted. Moreover, the specifics of his role and activities were not my main interest. What I wanted to know were the basics: why he got involved and why he left.

His conversation implied that he played a leadership role, and that he got into disputes with others in leadership positions within the movement. At one point, he said, there was violent infighting, and during the ensuing struggle he was shot in the stomach by another member of the movement. Mohammad lifted up his shirt to show me the scars on his torso which were indeed severe.

That was the point in which he lost all faith in the leadership, Mohammad said. He became disillusioned with the organization and its leaders. He continued to admire some of the main figures, such as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who proclaimed himself the caliph, and Abu Mohammad al Adnani, who before he was killed in 2016 was the leading voice of ISIS and its chief spokesman. He had no use for Ayman al Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden as head of al Qaeda, since Zawahiri did not approve of the attacks on Shi’a. Mohammad regarded Iraq’s Shi’a leadership as being a terrorist organization, more dangerous, he said, than ISIS or al Qaeda.

So he respected some if not all of the well-known jihadi leaders. But on the lower levels, there were often squabbles and infighting. Many of these lower level leaders, Mohammad said bitterly, were just in it for the money and the power. Others used the ability to kill and punish as a revenge against people that they did not like.

What Mohammad told me confirmed much of what I have learned about how militant movements like this come to an end. The ideology does not change—and in fact, there is no point in counterterrorism measures that waste their time trying to convince militants of their theological or ideological errors and trying to change their minds. What makes them quit the movement in many cases is a collapse of authority within the movement itself, or the realization that their militant tactics were not working. Mohammad understood the legitimacy of killing enemies of true Islam, he said, but this power was increasingly abused. Ultimately the followers of the movement were turning on one another.

So he left. For a time he had to go undercover to protect himself against both the Iraqi police and his own former comrades in the movement. Eventually, when he was in an area outside the movement’s control, he was spotted by an Iraqi police informant and arrested. Mohammad still does not know whether that was a coincidence or whether he had been betrayed by someone in the movement.

Because he was a “known person” within the movement, as Mohammad described himself, there was a police dossier about his alleged activities which was used against him in his trial. Mohammad said that he did not cooperate with the judicial proceedings since he assumed that they had already determined in advance that he was guilty and that he would be serving a long prison sentence, if not a death sentence.

It turned out to be a prison sentence. He did not reveal the number of years, but implied that it was lengthy, perhaps a life sentence. The warden has kept him isolated away from other convicted members of al Qaeda and ISIS for his own protection, since he is regarded as a turncoat against the movement. His wife is allowed to visit him during regular visiting hours, he said. And he had hopes that some day he would be released.

I asked him what he would do if he was ever able to leave the prison? He would rejoin his wife and family, he said, and get some sort of job, perhaps in construction or auto mechanics. He would not take up arms and join the movement again, he said, even in guerrilla warfare. “We did that,” he said, asking “and what did that accomplish?” Fighting has only destroyed the movement he said, implying that it was destroyed both from outside and from within.

I wondered whether the idea of a great cosmic war would continue to loom so large in his imagination if the social and political situation was different—if, for instance, the government in Baghdad would welcome the Sunni Arab community as equal citizens? I wondered if the Iraq government would ever empower the Sunni tribal leaders in the way that led to the success of the Awakening movement against the earlier moment of al Qaeda activism in Iraq from 2006 to 2011. Without the sense of Sunni Arab outrage would the apocalyptic ideology of ISIS still be a motivating force?

At present, however, the governments of Iraq and Syria have not changed their suspicions about Sunni Arabs, and Mohammad has not abandoned the great image of cosmic warfare between the forces of evil and of true Islam in which the Shi’a politicians are the enemy. He believes that there will be a time when the Caliphate will rise again, and he is convinced that there will be righteous struggle in order to implement it. He will be ready to fight then, and he looks forward sometime to being a true soldier for that sacred cause.

But not now, he said. “Now is not the time.”

 

My thanks to Shahid Burhan Hadi for his arrangements and translation assistance when I was in Iraq in March 2019, and to the support of the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project of Uppsala University, directed by Isak Svensson.

The Sri Lanka Bombings–Why ISIS?

The carnage of the bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter weekend was truly horrendous. Approximately 300 were killed and many more wounded in eight bombing attacks in different locations on the island. The targets were Christian churches during worship and hotels where special Easter meals were being presented.

Who would do such a thing, and why? My initial suspicion that a Muslim group was involved was stoked by the government decision to shut down social media, including Facebook and WhatsAp platforms. I assumed that the government feared that the revelation of Muslim complicity in the attacks would unleash a new round of anti-Muslim hostility in the country.

My suspicion turned out to be correct. The government has now revealed that it is likely that the Islamic State –ISIS– was behind the Sri Lankan group called the National Thowheedh Jama’ath that has been identified with the attack. The word “Thowheedh” is probably a variant spelling of Tawhid, the Muslim concept of divine oneness, and “Jama’ath” simply means “group.” The addition of the English word “National” would indicate that members of the group wanted to be identified with Sri Lanka as a nation rather than some international organization.

Clearly, however, the National Thowheedh Jama’ath was not simply concerned about local issues. In fact this group has been the recruiting agent for ISIS for several years, sending fighters from Sri Lanka to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic Caliphate.  Now that some fighters have returned to Sri Lanka after the territorial defeat of ISIS in the region, they are carrying out the global ISIS mission in their home land.

My initial suspicion about the possible Muslim connection was because of the international ISIS-related jihadi hostility to Christian churches in the Middle East and Asia. Though Christians are “people of the book” from a Muslim perspective and most Muslims respect Christianity, the jihadi position is different. It sees the imposition of Christianity in the Middle East and Asia as a colonial product around the world and a symbol of Western global control. Thus it is understandable that Christian churches, along with hotels and night clubs that cater to Western foreigners, would be a target of jihadi bombings not only in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, but also in Indonesia, the Philippines, and now in Sri Lanka.

In some ways it is odd that Muslims in Sri Lanka would be implicated in attacks on Christians, since both are small minorities (less than 10% of the population for each group) in an overwhelmingly Buddhist society. And it has been Muslims who have been the recent victims of violence in Sri Lanka, not perpetrators of it. The Easter attacks are going to make their lives even more miserable since undoubtedly many in the country will regard them as culpable in the attacks even though they had nothing to do with them.

For years the violence was between the largely Hindu separatist movement of Tamil Tigers in the northern part of Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Sometimes government figures and buildings were also targeted in the internal civil war. But after the separatist movement was defeated a new form of ethnic violence erupted. The recent violence has been perpetrated by Buddhist extremist groups, including the Bodu Bala Sena, that often target the peaceful minority Muslim community in the country.

Why, then, would Muslims target another persecuted minority community, the Christians? Now that we know that ISIS was identified with the attack we know the answer.  The National Thowheedh Jama’ath recruited Sri Lankan fighters to serve in Syria and Iraq as volunteers for the ISIS army, and when some of the former supporters of the movement from around the world returned to their home countries they looked for local targets to continue the global war of all-encompassing jihad.

Though ISIS has been conquered as a regime with territorial control it clearly continues as a global ideology of terrorism. The Sri Lanka attacks demonstrated that there are continuing vestiges of an ISIS cosmic war that has not yet been subdued.

 

 

One of the Last ISIS Fighters was not a Muslim

One of the lighter moments in my conversation with Ayman, a Yazidi boy forced to fight for ISIS, in village Seje near the city of Dohuk in the Kurdish Region of Northern Iraq, March 12, 2019.

In northern Iraq I met with Ayman, one of the last ISIS fighters, and found to my surprise that he was not a Muslim nor was he even an ISIS volunteer. He was a sixteen-year old Yazidi boy who had been captured by ISIS when he was only ten years old, sold into slavery, and impressed into service as an ISIS fighter.

The Yazidi religion is ancient, perhaps linked with pre-Zoroastrian Mesopotamian religions, involving belief in a divinity in the form of a Peacock Angel and prayers facing the sun. Its adherents form a small tightly-knit community of some 500,000 found mainly in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq near the Turkish border. Many Muslims wrongly regard Yazidis as devil-worshipers, and to the ISIS cadres they were fair game for exploitation, slavery, and murder.

The boy I talked with had been living in the main Yazidi town of Sinjar that was overrun by ISIS forces in 2014, when Ayman was only eleven. First his father and older brothers were separated from his mother, sisters, and himself, and he has never heard from the men in the family since then. ISIS cadres usually killed the Yazidi men almost as soon as they were captured. Later Ayman was separated from his mother and sister as they were taken away to be sold into slavery by ISIS, and they too have disappeared. The mother was most likely impressed into housework and the sister into sex slavery, though both may no longer be alive. ISIS was in the habit of killing its Yazidi slaves as they retreated from territory that they had once held.

Ayman was also put up for sale as a slave, but only after he went through a forced transformation. ISIS tried to make a Muslim out of him. First they changed his name. Then he was sent to Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria, and placed in a camp with boys from various backgrounds, though he was kept from interacting with any Yazidis. He was given lessons in the Qur’an and in the ISIS version of radical Islam. He was forced to speak only Arabic, and in time he lost his fluency in Kurdish, his mother tongue.

When he was deemed sufficiently Muslim and his Arabic was up to par, Ayman was ready to be sold as a slave. He was put up for auction, and he was purchased first by a Moroccan ISIS volunteer in Syria who put him to work as a household servant, cleaning his rooms and helping in the kitchen. It was a miserable existence.

Things got worse when he was sold again, probably after the Moroccan fighter was killed, this time to a Saudi ISIS fighter with two wives who forced him to do housework and chores. He was subjected to regular beatings and various other kinds of abuse. I didn’t pressure him for details, but he said it was the worst part of his captivity.

His captivity under the Saudi man came to end, probably because he was killed during the last intense year of ISIS fighting, Ayman was still under ISIS control, however, and was commanded to become a soldier. He was now sixteen and sufficiently able to fight. He was given a gun and a few weeks of training on how to use it, and he became one of the last ISIS fighters holding on to a sliver of territory between Syria and Iraq in Boubadran and Baghouz.

In the last week before I talked with him, when he was fighting for ISIS in Baghouz, he was struck by a mortar round and his right leg was shattered. He was carried off to a field hospital where a splint was attached to his leg and he was provided makeshift crutches.

When he was able to walk, Ayman realized that the leadership structure of the ISIS fighting forces was falling apart in the intense battle for survival. Someone in the hospital whispered that he should simply flee. He did just that, hobbling out of the war zone at night to a checkpoint commanded by the forces he had been shooting at just hours earlier.

He surrendered to the Kurdish forces that were battling ISIS, explaining that he was in fact a captured Yazidi who had been forced to fight. He was brought back to a hospital near his old town of Sinjar, which had been destroyed during ISIS control and in the subsequent battle to liberate it. He was interviewed on Iraqi television, and by luck people who knew his family saw the interview and informed his grandfather, the only known surviving member of the family.

His grandfather traveled to the hospital for a tearful reunion and brought the boy back to the village where I met them. They arrived just the day before. Both Ayman and his grandfather seemed eager to tell the story of what had happened to the family.

Ayman was remarkably composed despite the trauma of five years of slavery and a dramatic escape. At times he laughed when he recounted some of the odd things that happened to him. But his face darkened when discussing the worst of his experiences, the beatings, the violence, and the abuse.

Later that day I talked with another survivor of ISIS slavery. This was a 19 year old Yazidi girl who had been held in slavery for six years and rescued only a few months ago. She had been captured in 2014 when the town of Sinjar was taken by ISIS. She was one of five sisters, four of whom were abducted. As ISIS closed in on the town the eldest sister rescued their aging parents, taking them up to nearby Sinjar mountain where they camped out until they were rescued. The other four were left behind and captured.

The younger sister I talked with had been sent to Raqqa and put up for auction and sold for a small amount of money. She was then resold, passed from one man to another, and finally married to a 37 year old Turkish Kurd who was an ISIS fighter who she said treated her relatively well. When he tried to leave Syria to take her back to Turkey he was apprehended by the Syrian Kurdish forces, the YPG. Surprisingly, they did not initially release her but forced her to work with them as a translator, since she could speak her native Kurdish along with Arabic and Turkish.

Only when members of the International Red Cross came to negotiate humanitarian aid with the Kurdish forces was the Yazidi girl able to explain to them that she was in fact a Yazidi and had been taken captive by ISIS. The Red Cross organization arranged her release and she was able to be reunited with her sister, with whom she was now living in the village where I met with her.

When I asked her what life was like in captivity, she didn’t want to talk about it. “It’s all the things you hear about,” she said, “beating, torture, rape, the worst.”

At the end of my day in the village I was emotionally exhausted, and haunted by these stories of oppression and liberation. Perhaps the one comment that stayed with me as I left was from the grandfather of the sixteen-year old Yazidi boy who had been taken into slavery and forced to become an ISIS fighter. How could anyone who called themselves religious, be they Muslim or Christian or any other religion, do such horrible things to other humans, he demanded to know. It was a question for which I did not have an answer.

 

My thanks to Prof Dilshad Hamad of Tishk University, Erbil, and Dr Muslih Irwani, director of the Public Policy Institute in Erbil, who arranged my visit to this village, and to Jeen Maltai, who provided translation. This trip was supported by the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies in Uppsala University, Sweden.

 

The Myth of the Lone Wolf NZ Terrorist

Was the New Zealand terrorist attack committed by a “lone wolf? “The recent attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand by a 28-year old white extremist, Brenton Tarrant, killing fifty innocent worshipers in the midst of their weekly prayers, raises the question of how to describe it. Was it a hate crime or an act of terrorism, or both? And if it was terrorism, was it part of an organized conspiracy or was it simply the act of a crazed individual—the so-called “lone wolf” terrorist?

Much of the news media and many politicians have quickly asserted that if it was terrorism, it was of the “lone wolf” type since Tarrant apparently acted alone with no connection with or active support from any organized group. This implies that we need not trouble ourselves with looking at the wider background, for this was simply a crazy act that could happen anywhere at any time for any reason. It also implies that there was no larger movement or audience to whom the killer was related, and for whom the act was intended to impress.

Yet this description is woefully inadequate to describe the New Zealand massacre, which was clearly meant to intimidate people—the basic definition of terrorism—and the racist apartheid patches on Tarrant’s jacket in his Facebook photo indicates that he identified with and wanted to impress other right-wing racists around the world, so he is hardly a lone wolf. Nor does the “lone wolf” characterization fit many of the other individual terrorist attacks in recent years.

In 2018 the vicious assault on a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh by Robert Gregory Bowers was characterized as an act of “lone wolf” terrorism. So was the 2015 massacre in a Charleston church by 21-year old white supremacist Dylann Roof and earlier that year the assault on the headquarters of a satirical magazine in Paris, Charlie Hebdo, by two Algerian brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi. Before that, there was the 2013 Tsarnaev brothers’ attack on the Boston marathon, the deadly assault on a Norwegian youth camp by Christian extremist Anders Breivik in 2011, the August 2012 attack on the Milwaukee Sikh Gurdwara by Wade Michael Page, the 2010 Times Square bombing attempt by Faisal Shahzad, and even earlier, the 1996 Atlanta Olympic park by Eric Robert Rudolph and the 1995 Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing by Timothy McVeigh.

Some of these were committed by Christians, some by Muslims, and some by those with no particular religious affiliation at all. Some had racist ideologies in mind, others were simply raging against society. In almost all cases, though, these have been instances where alienated individuals have struck back at a society that they thought had abandoned them. And they perpetrated their attacks in a way meant to impress a specific audience.

This is the most basic definition of terrorism, a public act of violence meant to be intimidating. What makes the terrorism of recent decades so striking is that they are seldom undertaken for strategic purposes—to gain territory or make demands—but are rather done for symbolic reasons. They are acts of violent meant to give the illusion of power, to intimidate one group of people and impress another.

Hence terrorist acts can be described as “performance violence.” A performance is done for an audience, or multiple audiences, to intimidate and impress. It makes no difference if someone like Tarrant or Breivik was a member of an organized extremist network or not; they were clearly trying to impress their imagined community of support, their White nationalist kinfolk, and to intimidate multiculturalists and Muslims into compliance with the idea of a society dominated by white Christians.

The comparison between Tarrant and the Norwegian terrorist Andres Breivik is relevant for a number of reasons. Like Breivik, Tarrant was part of a wider subculture of hatred. He likely thought of himself not as a terrorist but as a soldier in a great and hidden war, carrying out a mission on behalf of an imagined constituency of supporters. Like Breivik, he dressed up in military garb with militant patches—in Tarrant’s case he wore the symbol of a far-right nationalist group in Ukraine. As in the computer war games that are popular in his generation, Tarrant thought of himself as a warrior in a secret war. He even credited the computer game, Fortnite, for training him how to kill. One of Tarrant’s friends said that Tarrant had told him prior to the killings that he wanted to start a race war. This sense of mission would help to explain why Tarrant, like Breivik, thought of himself on a secret mission in an act of what he regarded as virtuous warfare and what we see as hideous terrorism. Like Breivik, Tarrant never showed remorse for conducting what he thought was a soldier’s duty in a grand, invisible cosmic war.

Then there is the matter of the message, one implicitly transmitted in the terrorist act itself, the other explicitly conveyed through a manifesto. Like Breivik, whom Tarrant openly acknowledged as a role model, Tarrant published on the Internet his own eighty-page written defense of his horrible deeds. Written in a question and answer format as if he was of sufficient importance to be interviewed by the news media, Tarrant’s manifesto winds through a twisted rambling set of comments and memes expressing Islamophobia, hatred of immigrants, and a strident right-wing nationalism. Impervious to irony, the Australian Tarrant –himself a foreigner writing in New Zealand—demands that outsiders be forcibly removed. He shows admiration for the nationalist stance of US President Donald Trump and like Breivik expects that his right-wing comrades will take a cue from his actions and his stance and rise up against Muslim and other non-white immigrants in their countries.

So it makes no difference whether or not Tarrant or Breivik were card-carrying members of racist organizations. They thought that they were part of a great social struggle in which their acts would receive approval and their roles respected as if they had been triumphant warriors. The white racist subculture of neo-nationalism around the world from the US and Europe through the Middle East, Asia, Australia and New Zealand have provided just such a social context. Despite the acceptance of multiculturalism by most people as a normal and interesting way of living in the wake of the dramatic demographic shifts in this era of globalization—or perhaps in an ugly reaction to the multiculturalism of global societies–racism and right-wing nationalism around the world are flourishing.

These communities of extreme nationalism that are punctuated with strident voices of hatred have given context and support for Tarrant’s act. Far from being a “lone wolf,” therefore, the perpetrator of the New Zealand massacre was not isolated. This terrible event was part of a sad, established pattern of xenophobic nationalism and white Christian terrorism that is as global as it is destructive.

 

 

This essay includes observations that I have made in other essays about a variety of acts of supposedly “lone wolf” terrorism in recent years.

 

Why Do We Think About War?

Introduction to God at War, to be published by Oxford Univ Press. The picture is a detail from Picasso’s Guernica.

“This is war,” the sad Filipino man said to himself as we looked across the river at the town of Marawi. Only weeks earlier, in a five-month siege in the last half of 2017, it been flattened by a military attempt to rid the city of an ISIS-affiliated Muslim separatist movement. As we viewed it across the river, the city still lay in ruins, baring the scars of battle.

His comment startled me. Though I also was dismayed to see the extent of the destruction, I knew that there was some controversy over who was responsible, who started it, and whether the military assault was justified. Just as the cities of Mosul and Raqqa were decimated in the efforts to free the evil grip of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in those countries, this effort to drive out ISIS rebels in the Philippine state of Mindanao resulted in the cities being turned into rubble. The liberating armies had to destroy the cities in order to save them.

I agreed that these were heavy handed military operations. They might also have been misguided. But were they war? My Filipino companion repeated the phrase quietly, as if stating the obvious. What did he mean by that, and what did he see that I didn’t?

I didn’t live in Marawi, of course. But he did. His family home was in the midst of the inner city and he lived through months of bombs and social dislocation. Now he was facing the specter of a ruined city across the river.

“There’s nothing left,” he told me, showing videos of what was left of his family home taken several days earlier on his cell phone. He was right—I could see only a pile of brick and stone rubble where once a multi-story had proudly stood.

“My mother built that home with her sweat and toil,” he said sadly. She had worked for years as a domestic housekeeper in Saudi Arabia, carefully sending the earnings back to her family in the Philippines. Part of the money was for their college education. The rest was for the house in Marawi.

Though he had been mildly sympathetic with the Muslim separatist movement in Mindanao before, he told me, his attitude had changed after the fighting. He knew now that they were in a state of war.

War—what a remarkable notion. As my Filipino companion told me, it enabled him to see everything differently. He saw the world through new eyes. He could no longer trust the government to do what was right; he now saw them as an enemy that was beyond redemption. One could only fight and attempt to conquer them in a scenario of struggle that engulfed every aspect of the social world around him.

It is a strange way of thinking, this idea of war. It turns the world upside down. It creates demonic enemies out of competitors, and brings normal civil activity to a halt. It animates ordinary people into a state of action, allowing them to kill and be killed, and cheer when the enemy—whose lives may not be all that much different than theirs, men and women with families and duties and dreams—is destroyed, sometimes viciously so.

Yet history is full of war. Perhaps more perplexing, religion is full of it. Human creativity in general revels in it. It saturates the images of popular culture—the plays and movies, novels and television stories, comic books and computer games. It is the prevailing image in the minds of those who have undertaken acts of terrorism in recent years. And it is the idea that animates those have launched their own wars on terrorism against it.

It is a powerful notion, war, and a puzzling one. For decades I have been studying the rise of religious violence around the world, including groups like ISIS and Christian militias that have been involved in acts of terrorism. Invariably war is central. All of the activists with whom I have spoken eventually get around to the subject.

“Mr. Mark, there’s a war going on,” I was told by a jihadi militant who was imprisoned for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. “We’re at war,” a Buddhist monk in Myanmar told me in justifying Buddhist attacks on the Muslim minority in his country. “We’re in a culture war,” a Christian activist in the United States explained, adding that “it’s not a metaphor, but a real war.”

So over the years it has become clear to me that war is the central image in the world view of virtually every religious movement engaged in violent acts. Behind the moral justification of using violence in savage attacks are images of great confrontations, of war on a transcendent scale. My fascination with these notions of war have deepened into a profound curiosity about what war is, and why it seems to emerge so spontaneously to situations of extreme shock, humiliation and stress. I want to understand war, to understand how this template of the human imagination can transform our view of the world around us, and what religion has to do with it.

This book is about war—the idea of war, why it is so appealing and why it is often associated with religion. I want to know why war needs religion and why religion needs war. What fascinates me is the idea of war—war in the mind. I am less interested in the actual use of lethal weapons than the world view that makes that usage possible. I know that much has been written about the strategic decisions that go into warfare, about the cold calculations to gain economic benefits or political leverage at the cost of soldiers’ lives, and about the political and moral justifications that allow for armed force in response to perceived threats. As important as these considerations are, though, they are not what I want to focus on in this book. What interests me is the quiet yearning for war that makes such calculations possible, the public acceptance of the notion that in some situations of social tension, war makes sense. It is this idea of war—this totalizing construct of the human imagination that absolutizes one’s view of the world—that I want to explore.

It is this mentality that I am thinking of when I talk about war. It is not so much the act of warfare as the idea of it, the passion for war, the war worldview. The passion for war is not a rational thing. Though the conduct of military operations certainly involves a great deal of skill and rational calculation, it seems to me that war—the idea of absolute conflict that precedes many but not all military acts—is almost an instinctual thing. It has much more to do with emotions—or a kind of inarticulated mental reflex—than with conscious reason. It is what I mean by “the war mentality,” the way of seeing things in war-like terms.

In fact, the idea of war and the actions of military forces do not necessarily go together. There are police actions and humanitarian interventions, even on an international scale, that involve deadly force, but they are seldom regarded as war. A military raid intended to locate culprits and bring them to justice is usually not thought of as war, but as a kind of police action. The Philippine government in Marawi explained that it was simply going after culprits in a violent gang. When the FBI surrounded the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas, on a fateful April day in 1993, their intention was not to kill the leader or burn alive the inhabitants of the compound. The FBI agents were not at war. But the members of the movement, trapped inside in what seemed to be a desperate situation and informed by biblical prophecies about the war at the end times, clearly saw things differently, just as the Muslim separatists in the Philippines saw Marawi differently. To them it was a salvo in a war in which they were a target. Hence militant actions are seen differently from different social perspectives. For those who accept that the motives of the U.S. and Philippine governments were lawful, these are cases of police action. For those who question the motives and perceive that there is a bellicose relationship between resistance groups and the government, Waco and Marawi were skirmishes in enduring wars.

These examples show that the application of military force and the idea of war are not necessarily identical. Similarly the pursuit of the al Qaeda activists in Afghanistan after September 11 could have been justified without the absolute and totalizing language of a “war on terror.”  Moreover, the idea of war does not require constant military action. The Cold War, for example, involved various regional military encounters—in Cuba, Korea and Vietnam, for instance—but the overarching concept was greater than any of these specific military skirmishes.

For most of us who grew up in Europe or the United States in the era of the Cold War, that global tension was, in an odd way, a reassuring view of the world. We knew who the good guys and the bad guys were, and we knew what to do about them. The decade after 1990 was one of uncertainty on a global scale. The “war on terrorism” announced by President George W. Bush in 2001 presented a new image of global war. Though not necessarily comforting, it presented a template of meaning on international events. Again Americans knew who the good guys and the bad guys were, and everyone else was either “for us or against us,” as the President sternly put it.

In the public pronouncements and popular sentiment in the years that followed 9/11, the war on terror was seen in the American imagination to have been in some ineffable way blessed by God. In the United States, as elsewhere in the world when the sound of war drums is heard, the rise in the language of warfare is accompanied by religious rhetoric. Just as the Islamic terrorists themselves proclaimed a holy war against America, the US militant response was also accompanied by a religious refrain, “God bless America.” God, it seems, is always where the military action is.

This has been true throughout history. Whether it is the warfare of the Hebrew Bible or the great armies of the Hindu epics, God has marched alongside conquering armies. In our attempt to understand the idea of war, therefore, it is inevitable that we will be trying to understand what God has to do with it. Why is religion so full of warfare, and why do wars always seem to employ God as a mercenary on either side?

This book, then, is a meditation on war and religion. It is a reflection on the dark side of the human imagination, and its capacity to deal with deep discomforts and profound anomalies in what strikes me as a horribly irrational and quite peculiar way—through constructing a template of meaning that totalizes the differences between positions, satanizes enemies, and gives moral sanction to the most hideous acts of destruction. What is this terrible thing called war, why do we humans want it so, and why is God so often in command?

God at War: Alternative Realities of War and Religion, is in press and will be published in Fall 2019 by Oxford University Press, New York, and in a German edition by Herder Verlag, Frankfurt. 

ISIS is Not Over

 

The astounding announcement by President Trump that the US will be pulling all of its troops out of Syria is remarkable for several reasons. The very fact that it was issued on Twitter opens up the question of whether it was a real Presidential order. Since the Pentagon appears not to have been consulted in advance they do not know how to proceed—which troops will be returning when, for instance. And will some remain?

A more basic question is whether the announced basis for the decision is true. Has ISIS been demolished, as Trump claimed? The implication of his statement is that the war is over and all will be at peace.

That assumption is faulty for several reasons. One is that ISIS has not been completely defeated. About 20,000 active militants remain throughout Syria and Iraq, with 2500 in and around the city of Deir ez Zor near the Syria-Iraq border. Moreover, ISIS guerilla attacks continue, even in Raqqa and Mosul, where the cities are supposed to have been liberated – a task accomplished in part through massive destruction of large portions of both cities. In the Sunni heartland of Iraq, ISIS is restoring a foothold in Fallujah and Ramadi.

The forces that continue to fight ISIS are the ones that were instrumental in their defeat in the 95% of the area that ISIS once controlled. These fighters are Kurds from both Syria and Iraq, backed by US troops and air support. It is certain that without US military backing the Kurds would not be effective in continuing to contain the last elements of ISIS. Moreover, without US military support the Kurds themselves would be in serious trouble from the Syrian and Turkish governments.

The Syrian government is suspicious of the Kurds, their largest ethnic minority, since they are regarded as separatist, seeking their own semi-autonomous region as the Kurds in Iraq have succeeded in doing in the northern Iraqi province of Kurdistan. So even though the Syrian government acknowledges the role that Kurdish troops played in defeating ISIS, they have no intention of supporting them further.

Turkey feels even more strongly about the Kurds. The Turkish autocratic regime headed by Recep Erdogan regards Kurds as troublemakers and worse. Within Turkey, the Kurdish minority is regarded as separatist and inclined to terrorism. The Kurds in Syria are seen as their allies, and therefore Erdogan’s enemies. He would love to have an excuse to get rid of them.

It is probably not a coincidence that Trump’s announcement about pulling US troops out of Syria came shortly after conversations that he had with Erdogan. The Turkish autocrat is said to have requested Trump to withdraw the US troops from Syria—a de facto withdrawal of US support for the Kurds—which would allow Erdogan a free hand to control the Kurds along the Turkish-Syrian border. One interpretation of Trump’s willingness to please Erdogan is that he wants to soften the Turkish stand against Saudi Arabia after Turkey exposed the bloody role of the Saudi ruler Mohammed ben Salman in the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. According to this interpretation, Trump would be doing Turkey a favor, and in turn would take a softer stand against Salman.

By pulling US troops out of Syria Trump would also be doing a favor to Russia, which would become even more dominant in the region. Perhaps inadvertently he would be doing a favor to Iran, which with Russia’s support would extend its sphere of influence in an arc from Iran through Iraq to Syria.

Hence pulling US troops out would hardly lead to peace, but rather an increased instability in the region. A future US President might have to commit even more troops to the region to undo this dangerous path towards instability. And one of the winners in the precipitous Trump action would be ISIS itself, for without the constant fear of Kurdish intervention, it would be free to regroup and reassert its influence in Syria and Iraq.

Podcast on Terror in the Mind of God

The 4th edition of Terror in the Mind of God is now available from the University of California Press. The whole book has been updated– with new case studies, including ISIS, Burmese Buddhist militants, and Christian extremists in Europe. Here’s a podcast interview that I did for the national center for the study of terrorism and resolving terrorism (START) on the book and on the continuing issue of religion in global terrorist movements. Here’s the
link.
https://soundcloud.com/user-823068075/epi-7-terror-in-the-mind-of-god-a-conversation-with-mark-juergensmeyer

Destroying ISIS–and a Mindanao City

Marawi, Mindanao, May 4, 2018. Photo by the author.
Revised on July 27, 2018, to reflect the signing of the peace agreement. The updated version was posted on the Indian webmagazine, The Wire.

“There’s nothing left,” a former resident of Marawi told me, showing videos of what was left of his family home that he had taken several days earlier on his cell phone. He was right—there was only a pile of brick and stone rubble where once a multi-story had proudly stood.

“My mother built that home with her sweat and toil,” he said sadly. She had worked for years as a domestic housekeeper in Saudi Arabia, carefully sending the earnings back to her family in the Philippines. Part of the money was for their college education. The rest was for the house in Marawi.

Finally after forty years of domestic labor abroad, she returned to Marawi several years ago. Her plan was to spend her retirement years with her extended family in the house that she had lovingly built with her remittance funds over all those years. It had a stone façade and metal grillwork, her son told me. And it was located directly across from the main mosque in the center of the city.

That turned out to be its undoing. On May 23, 2017, a group of Muslim separatist rebels who had affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) barricaded themselves inside the mosque. Soon after they infiltrated throughout the inner city, making it virtually impossible for the Philippines army to quickly isolate and destroy them.

His mother, along with most of the residents of the city, fled as reinforcements came from both sides, and the roads were packed with terrified fleeing residents. The pitched battle between the militants and the Philippines armed forces went on for over five months. Heavy casualties were inflicted on both sides.  The official reports state that around a thousand militants were killed along with something under 200 government forces and 100 civilians. Local observers dispute those numbers, claiming many more army troops and civilians were killed, and that there were less militants involved in the standoff than the government claimed. Nonetheless, the human toll was considerable.

The physical damage to the city was equally as devastating. Not only was the mother’s house and the rest of the area immediately around the mosque destroyed, but virtually all of the inner city was left in ruins. Standing on the other side of the river from the city it appeared to me that at least a mile-long span of the heart of the city was in in ruins. It looked like the images of Mosul and Raqqa after those equally devastating attempts to scour the city of ISIS rebels.

The mother of the Marawi resident with whom I spoke was not an ISIS militant, of course. She was just a returning domestic worker. Her son, my conversation partner, benefitted from her education funds, finished college and earned a PhD. He was now a professor at Mindanao State University in Marawi. Though not a rebel, he was a Muslim and sympathetic with the goal of semi-autonomy for the Mindanao region and had played a role in the past in helping to negotiate between the government and rebel groups.

The Muslim extremists who had taken over the city of Marawi in 2017 were not, however, the usual activists associated with the main organizations of the movement, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Both groups have entered into peace agreement negotiations with the government. In 2014, after two decades of negotiations, a comprehensive Bangsamoro Peace Agreement was signed by both Muslim rebels and the Philippine government, but four years it languished and was not ratified by the Philippine legislature. Some blame the current President, Rodrigo Duterte, for not playing a more active role in securing the agreement’s implantation. It was only after the Marawi invasion that President Duterte on July 26, 2018, finally signed the agreement.

The stalemate over implementing the peace agreement led to widespread frustration within the Mindanao Muslim community, and eroded the credibility of the moderate rebel leaders involved in the negotiation. More dangerously, it encouraged the growth of extremist elements within the Muslim movement who were never supportive of the peace talks. The government’s failure to act gave them evidence that it could not be trusted.

In the months before the Marawi standoff, two of the extremist groups had joined forces. One was the group led by Isnilon Hapilon that was based in the Sulu Peninsula of Mindanao. He had broken from the Moro National Liberation Front in 1994 and helped to form a more militant movement, Abu Sayyaf. This movement—as much a criminal gang as a political organization—became wealthy through kidnapping and holding hostages for ransom. They gained international notoriety by kidnapping foreigners and beheading those for whom ransom was not secured. In 2016 Hapilon was said to have pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, affiliating his group with the international ISIS movement.

Another group, led by two brothers, Omar and Abdullah Maute, had a history similar to Abu Sayyaf but in a different part of Mindanao. They were based in Lanao del Sur, the region surrounding Marawi, and they had broken off from the mainstream Moro movement that that was dominant in that area of central Mindanao, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Like Abu Sayyaf, the Maute Brothers Group gained their income through extortion and threats. Sometime in 2015 or 2016 the brothers joined forces with ISIS, proclaiming their movement to be a branch of this international jihadi organization, and began working closely with Hapilon and his formerly Abu Sayyaf branch of ISIS.

Both movements were fueled by the frustration over the failure of the peace agreement to be ratified. The Maute Group was especially successful in using online social media to target young people for recruitment, including students at Mindanao State University. The international connections provided by declaring themselves affiliated with ISIS allowed the Maute Group and Hapilon’s organization to gain new recruits from abroad. They were said to be preparing for something big, perhaps a takeover of a part of central Mindanao as a kind of Philippines version of the Islamic State that had conquered large sections of Syria and Iraq.

All of this preparation came to a head in Marawi in May 2017. It is not clear how the fighting began, whether by design or by accident. Some local observers with whom I spoke thought that it was a miscalculation on both sides. They suggested that the militants only wanted to seize the center of the city briefly, for a day or two, simply to demonstrate that they could, then slip away before they were engaged in a major and protracted battle. The army, for its part, thought this would be an easy win—they could slip in and destroy two sets of outlaw bands in one simple strike.

If this was their reasoning, both sides got more than they bargained for. The ISIS forces could not easily escape from the city, and it is said that after the first day when Hapilon’s wife and child were killed in the assault on the mosque where they were sequestered, Hapilon was determined to fight until the end. On the government side, they discovered that they could not easily win against an enemy that knew the city intimately and who could retreat into the shadows as soon as they were approached.

One resident of Marawi told me that on the second day of the fighting the army chased the ISIS fighters out of a school that they had occupied, and then the army unit occupied it themselves in a kind of bivouac. Unknown to them, two ISIS fighters had not been chased away but were hiding under the floor. They emerged one night when the unit was sleeping and systematically killed them all. After that, it is said, the army decided to bring in air power to attack ISIS strongholds instead of using human personnel in door to door combat.

The decision to use air power had a devastating effect on the city. Building after building became the target for military air strikes, and as the siege turned into months, the Philippine military called for reinforcements. They requested the so-called “bunker-buster” bombs from the American military to strike deeply under the surface to kill militants who were hiding in basements and deep spaces underground. And they also requested drones with night-vision cameras to track the movements of the militant groups at night.

Eventually these augmented military measures helped, and on October 16, 2017, Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon were killed in a military operation to rescue hostages being held by the militants.  Soon after that the Philippine army raised the national flag and proclaimed the city was liberated.

It was liberated but destroyed. The mother of the Mindanao State University Professor who had lost her home in the fighting was heartbroken. “She doesn’t want to return to see what remains,” he said, adding that she was in a state of deep depression, staying with one of her children and refusing to talk with anyone about her experience.

Much of the other residents in Marawi felt the same way, even months after the end of the fighting when I visited the city and talked with them. They still seemed to be in a state of shock and anger, though it was not clear to them to whom the anger should be directed.

Some blamed ISIS. “They drew the army into our city,” one former resident told me, adding that they had used the whole city as a hostage. He pointed to the widely circulated rumor that during the first days of the fighting Isnilon Hapilon notified the Philippine government that if they provided the ISIS rebels with $10 million US dollars and safe passage from the city they would leave. Apparently the Philippine government was not willing to provide ransom for a whole city, nor did it want to lose the opportunity of destroying Hapilon’s Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Brothers Group for good.

So the army stayed and fought, increasingly employing the kind of missiles and air power that would destroy most of the buildings in the older part of the city. For this reason, an even larger percent of the former residents with whom I spoke blamed the army for the destruction. They were bitter about the physical damage to their buildings, and even buildings that were not destroyed were often looted. Some of the looting was undoubtedly done by the ISIS militants, but some residents told me that even in areas that were not controlled by ISIS but where the army had required a mandatory evacuation there was looting that they blamed on the army. “We lost a computer and two televisions,” one Malawi resident told me.

It is not clear what will happen next. The professor at Mindanao State University said that it was up to the Philippine government. Regardless of who one might blame for causing the conflict it was clear that the damage to the property was inflicted primarily by army missile attacks. Several citizen committees were demanding immediate restitution. They were frustrated by the slow response of the government to the enormity of the devastation.

One of the professor’s colleagues was even angrier. He was actively engaged in protest movements and investigative reporting into what he claimed was widespread corruption among the fledgling restitution efforts that the government had provided. Very few people who lived in the destroyed areas of the old city had access to the documents that would prove their property rights—and in many cases they had passed on their property from generation to generation without any documentation. For this reason the government had provided funds to anyone who claimed to have lived in the city. This approach, the professor told me, was subject to abuse as the government officials were giving the money to friends of theirs who would give them a kickback. The professor wanted to know why the government didn’t use earlier versions of Google maps to identify properties that could be verified by the witness of neighbors if not by government documents to diminish the possibility of corruption.

Hence many residents resented the government—both for being the agent of destruction of their property and for what they felt was an inadequate response to their loss and their demands for restitution. But a deeper problem also lay in the wake of the army’s destruction of the city: the rise of a new militancy.

Already many young Muslims in the region were turning to a more militant expression of Muslim political power due to the frustration caused by the stalemate in the peace process. Now the destruction of Marawi by the military gave a new impetus to the anti-government sentiments and stoked the fires of radicalism. Not all of the members of the movement were killed in the encounter, and stories were circulating about how they had retreated to the mountains where their numbers were expanding. They were joined, I was told, by many young men from Marawi and the surrounding region.

“Older people like me can see both sides,” the first professor I met told me, explaining that he and others could see that the army was trapped and it was a lose-lose situation for both sides in the Marawi standoff. “But younger people,” he said, with concern in his voice, “they don’t see the broader picture.” He also said that the army’s recourse to air power rather than fighting man-to-man in a house-to-house combat gave them the appearance of being weak and unmanly in the eyes of many of the young men in the city who felt that they should have fought directly rather than behind the shield of technology.

The professor told me about talking with the son of one of his neighbors, a thirteen-year old boy whose house had been destroyed in the fighting. He was angry at the army, the boy said, adding that when he was older he planned to join ISIS. He wanted to get an M-14 rifle, he said, and hunt down the Philippine tank driver who had destroyed his home and kill him.

In telling this story, the professor cautioned that this was an initial response from an immature boy and as the boy became older he might see the world through calmer eyes. He also thought that it was unlikely that the Maute Brothers Group and Hapilon’s Abu Sayyaf could survive intact without their charismatic leaders. Still, he thought it quite possible that a new extremist movement would emerge among the young people who were enraged over the destruction of Marawi. “It might be a new radical movement,” the professor said darkly, “one that is less concerned about religion and is instead fueled by a deeply anti-government sentiment.”

When I returned to Manila I had dinner with a former student who now works with the United Nation’s Children Emergency Fund, UNICEF, which had erected a number of relief camps in the area around Marawi to help the refugees. My former student had been there and met with many young people in their early teens, and in talking with them he tried to avoid any topics that were political or that would evoke traumatic memories. He would ask them about the future, what they would like to do when they grew up, he said.

“We want to join the militants,” a majority told him as my former student tried to hide his shocked look of surprise. He did not know whether this anger would last, he told me, or whether it would grow into active participation in a radical movement. But he was worried. It would appear that although the Philippines army has destroyed city, the war is far from over. It remains to be seen whether the official signing of the Bangsamoro Agreement will set a new tone and diffuse what has begun to be the stirrings of a new militancy in the region.

 

My thanks to Fr Francis Zabala OMI, President of Notre Dame University, Cotabato City, and the University’s Vice-President for Administration, Sheila Algabre, for their hospitality while I was in Mindanao and their assistance with arrangements; and for the research support from the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project based at Uppsala University.

 

 

 

The Moro Militants Who Abandoned Violence

“Do you still believe in the peace process?” a teenage boy asked cynically. He was accosting a former Muslim militant in the Southern Philippine province of Mindanao, who related this story to me when I was recently in the main town of the region, Cotabato City. The former militant had become a lawyer, and though he renounced violence he was still a member of the separatist movement, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. So he still considered himself an activist, but to the teenager, the son of one his friends, he was not activist enough.

“What peace process is there?” the young man hissed at the lawyer in what was more a judgement than a question. And then he added, “look at Marawi.”

For over six months from May to November 2017, the Philippine army attacked the city of Marawi, just north of Cotabato City, in an effort to destroy an ISIS-affiliated group of militants who had taken the city for ransom. Two militant forces, Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Brothers Group, had joined forces under the banner of ISIS and were making a stand by taking over the central mosque and adjacent buildings in the center of the city. In the ensuing battle, Marawi was destroyed and many, including the teenager, blamed the army for the destruction, rather than ISIS.

Days after the conversation, the lawyer told me, the boy disappeared. His family feared that he had joined the ISIS-affiliated rebels. The lawyer blamed himself for not doing more to try to persuade the young man that the peace process between the Muslim separatists and the Philippine government was still worthwhile.

“But would you have listened to this when you were his age?” I asked him, knowing about his past. He had joined the most militant branch of the separatist movement when he was in college and for years he was wrapped up in spirit of confrontation with the Philippine government. He was engaged in a cosmic war of absolute enemies that led to violent conflicts, guerrilla war, and a fifteen-year trail of bloodshed.

The lawyer smiled at my question, and then began telling me the story of how he began to change his point of view. In time he began to see the negotiations with the government as trustworthy.

“How did that happen?” I asked him. How did he turn from thinking in terms of cosmic war to civil engagement that could lead to a peace agreement?

When he was in college, he said, studying at Mindanao State University in Marawi, recruiters came to campus to tell Muslim students about the oppression against Muslims around the world. At that time, in 1992, it was the conflict in Bosnia that attracted global attention, and he volunteered to join the struggle. As luck would have it, the recruiter failed to show up at the appointed time, so the lawyer never ended up going to Bosnia, where, he said, he likely would have been killed.

Instead, he said, he joined the Muslim separatist movement at home. He was at first attracted to the Moro National Liberation Front, but when a new and more strident movement was formed, he joined this movement instead–the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. What attracted him about the movement, he said, was that it was more militant and more directly religious in its ideology. It also appealed especially to people from his area of central Mindanao, so he felt that he was fighting in a struggle for his own community.

It was a life and death struggle, he said. When he was young and most active in the movement, he said that he was willing to die and to kill on behalf of movement. He saw himself as a soldier in a war, a conflict of absolute right versus absolute wrong, against an enemy that did not deserve to live.

I asked him what changed, how he began to see the situation differently. He did not change his basic attitude about the need for self-government for Musim Mindanao, he said, and he continues to be a leader in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to this day. He is one of its leading thinkers and a negotiator in the peace process with the Philippine government.

Two things changed his attitude towards violence, he told me. One was simply the domestic demands of life later in his 20s as he got married, began to raise a family, and was busy with law school and an emerging career as a lawyer. Though not a combatant at this time, his basic outlook had not changed. He was still emotionally at war with the Philippine state.

This view changed after he met a remarkable leader, Brigadier General Victor Corpus, a Philippine army official who had defected from the army and joined the Communist militants who were fighting the Philippine government early in the 1970s. In 1976, however, he soured on the Communist insurrection and surrendered to the army. After a period of prison detention, he was allowed to rejoin the army. Hence when the lawyer met him in Mindanao the general could speak to him and other militant Muslim separatist leaders with the credibility of a former militant who had been reformed.

He understood us, the lawyer said. He could see how we would mistrust the government and want to embrace a new way of looking at politics. Yet he also was realistic. He could explain the futility of guerrilla warfare, and he told us how many of our goals could be met by negotiating a settlement with government officials.

When the lawyer and other Muslim separatist leaders accepted General Corpus’ offer to meet with government officials, the lawyer said he was surprised at how sensitive they were to the Muslim separatists concerns. “They treated us with respect,” he said.

This attitude of respect threw him off guard. It made it difficult to see the other side as the evil enemy that deserved to be killed, and the image of intractable absolute war began to dissolve.

A somewhat similar story was related to me by a general in the militant Muslim forces. When I talked with him recently in Cotabato City, he was still nominally the head of the combat forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the region. These days, however, his main role was to be the spokesperson for the militants in the joint militant-government organization, the Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities, which is a key component of the peace process.

The militant general told me that several years ago when the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front told him that they were going to stop fighting the government and begin to negotiate with them, he couldn’t believe it. “We didn’t trust them,” he said.

Still, he obediently followed the orders of his militant leaders. But for a year, he said, he had difficulty sleeping at night. He was constantly on edge, not knowing whether the negotiations would suddenly break off, and again they would be in a war mode. He was emotionally prepared for that possibility.

In time, however, his attitude changed. What made a difference, again, was respect. He felt that the government negotiators were genuinely concerned about the Muslim concerns, and trying to come to an agreement that would benefit them within the framework of the existing structure. He now says that it is too late to turn back. He is committed to a peaceful resolution.

Even so, however, the general says he understands the hot-headedness of the young people who are frustrated with the slow pace of the peace process. After the ISIS-army conflict that destroyed the nearby town of Marawi, he thinks that many young people will join the extreme militant side. He said that many already have.

For this reason, the mainstream Moro Islamic Liberation Front has tried to use counter measures. Accompanying the former general when we met in Cotabato City was a young college-age man who had joined the Liberation Front with the explicit task of trying to talk down his fellow young Muslim militants and keep them from joining ISIS.

“I try to talk to them about the future,” he said. He pointed out that Muslim morality does not sanction indiscriminate killing. He told them that defending the community is better carried out by negotiations rather than militant confrontations that often end in even more violence against the community, as it did in the case of the destruction of the town of Marawi. He also talked about the individuals’ own future, and how they could be more effective leaders as spokesmen for the community rather than as soldiers in a fruitless suicide struggle.

I asked him whether he had persuaded anyone. “Some,” he said quietly. He went on to say that he was engaging in these conversations not just for the sake of the goals of the Liberation Front, but also as attempts to save their lives.

The sad truth is that many of the brave warriors never return. Alas, it was a message that did not arrive soon enough, or was not heeded, by the teenager who challenged the formerly militant Muslim lawyer to abandon the peace process. Though the teenager has disappeared from view, his fate is still unknown.

 

            Hospitality and arrangements for my recent visit to Mindanao were provided by Fr Francis Zabala OMI, President of Notre Dame University, Cotabato City, and the Vice-President for Administration, Sheila Algabre; research support came from the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project at Uppsala University.

 

 

Who’s Cheering at ISIS’ End?

When the Iraq government announced the end of ISIS control over its territory on December 9, 2017, there were a few celebrations in Baghdad. December 10 was proclaimed a public holiday, and a military parade marched down the main streets.

But that was about it. The event was scarcely reported elsewhere. In the New York Times the report about the event was a small item obscured by more salacious reports related to Trump-dominated domestic politics.

ISIS was over. But no one seemed to notice.

Perhaps part of the reason is that few people are persuaded that ISIS is really over. They know that pockets of ISIS control have survived along the Euphrates River border between Iraq and Syria, and that sporatic violence continues in formerly ISIS-controlled regions; that areas in both countries that have been liberated from ISIS lie in rubble and their angry and restless residents are susceptible to returning to ISIS or turning towards other radical ideologies; and that individuals and groups self-identified with the movement are actively engaged in violent acts throughout the world, from Nigeria to Indonesia, and from Belgium to Manhattan.

The reason why ISIS survives in these different forms is that it was never a single thing. As I have argued elsewhere, ISIS has been both an organization and a movement, a network of political control as well as a decentralized popularist uprising.

The collapse of the political network associated with the geographic control of the Islamic State has liberated those areas of Syria and Iraq that it held. People who lived in Mosul are able to move freely, but they don’t have anywhere to go. The city is in shambles, and those trying to go elsewhere are herded into massive camps housing tens of thousands of refugees set up by the UN High Commission for Refugees in neighboring Kurdistan.

I visited some of these camps in recent months. I talked with a group of young men who were hanging out in front of their tents, smoking cigarettes in an act of defiance against the ISIS regime that would jail anyone caught smoking. They told me that they were relieved to be free from the region’s control—it was like “living in a prison,” they told me. At the same time, however, they were concerned that their city has been destroyed and their own futures were uncertain.

They were bitter towards the Iraqi government and its Shi’ite militia that were at the forefront of the military actions against Mosul. They felt that the liberating military forces did little to try to preserve the city in their eagerness to destroy ISIS, and that the Shi’a liberators treated the local Sunnis like “dirt.” “They think that we are all ISIS sympathizers,” they told me.

Many were, especially at the beginning of ISIS control, when they were seen as a Sunni vanguard that would provide dignity and jobs for the largely Sunni population of Mosul and other parts of western Iraq. Even now, the young men told me, there were many ISIS sympathizers embedded among the refugees, ready to reorganize and rise up when the time was ripe.

The time could become ripe soon if the Iraq government and international relief agencies do little to help repair and restore the city. Elsewhere in Iraq, in the Sunni-dominated cities of Fallujah and Ramadi that were liberated from ISIS control over a year ago, the movement has regained influence as the voice of Sunni protest against the Shi’a dominated Iraq government. It may be only a matter of months before an ISIS-influenced resistance movement rises in Mosul and in the large refugee camps nearby.

Then there are the ISIS-related incidents elsewhere in the world. Shortly after New Year’s Day in 2018, a suicide attack in a market in central Kabul, Afghanistan, killed 20. The Amaq News Agency of ISIS said that the movement claimed credit.  They also gave ISIS credit for attacks in Nigeria and in Egypt a few days before. Earlier in the year a group of Muslim separatists said to be associated with ISIS took over a town in Mindanao, the insurgent region of Southern Philippines, and controlled it for months in a stand-off with the Filipono army. In November, 2017, a rented truck veered down a bicycle path in lower Manhattan, killing eight; the driver, as he abandoned the vehicle, left behind a note in Arabic that said, “ISIS lives!”

Whether or not ISIS lives is a debatable point. The fact that various groups and individuals around the world have identified with the ISIS brand name and its extremist ideology does not mean that there is an organizational connection between the old ISIS infrastructure and these various individuals and entities. When I interviewed Muslim resistance leaders in Philippines’ Mindanao, they told me that the groups using the name of ISIS were all local Filipino activists who were using the ISIS brand to make themselves look more formidable.

There is a fear that escaping ISIS operatives from Iraq and Syria might be headed to Mindanao and other parts of the world to continue their mischief, but there is no indication that they were involved in any of these recent incidents in the Philippines, Nigeria, and Egypt. So far these far-flung terrorist acts have all been linked with groups and individuals that have been well established in these local regions for some time, and the ISIS brand simply gives them a kind of extremist credibility.

What gives the illusion of a continuing global ISIS command is publicity. The Amaq News Agency has survived the downfall of Raqqa and Mosul, the main two centers of ISIS control. Since the agency exists in cyberspace, its creators could live anywhere—in France or California, for example. The agency continues to deliver press reports as if there were a continuing ISIS central command, and claims that all these disparate acts of violence are related. The glossy online magazine, Rumiyah, continued to be published as recently at September, 2017, and in January 2018 a new video posted by ISIS called on assassinations of world leaders from Putin and Erdogan to Trump and the Pope. My student assistants who have been monitoring ISIS-related chats in Twitter and Telegram tell me that the postings are as frequent and dedicated as ever, vowing to continue the struggle against the kafir anywhere in the world.

So in that sense, ISIS lives, since it never really died. It is the label for a virulent movement of resistance and unrest throughout the world, and will live as long as its brand name continues to inspire activists and strike fear in the hearts of those who oppose it.