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.




ISIS Will Return

ISIS will return. The reason I feel confident in saying this is because I have talked with them. Earlier this year I was in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq where I met with ISIS-suspected detainees in the huge Hassan Sham refugee camp near Mosul, and with captured jihadi fighters in a prison near Sulaimaniya.

“We will return,” one of the former ISIS militants told me. He said that he was disenchanted with the leaders of the movement, whom he blamed for its military defeat. But he still believed in the idea of a caliphate and the extreme ideology of the ISIS apocalyptic world view. He would rejoin it in a minute, he told me, if he had the opportunity.

The opportunity may be coming sooner than he or any of us had thought. With the precipitous US military withdrawal from Northern Syria, the chances of ISIS regrouping military has expanded exponentially. The Kurdish forces that had defeated them, imprisoning the militants and putting their families in detention camps, have been abandoned by the capricious decision of US President Donald Trump to summarily withdraw from the region. This allows for Turkish forces to move in, and to attack by air strikes without fear of US reprisals. Although the Kurds have quickly made alliance with the Russian-backed Syrian army it is unlikely that they will be able to provide the level of protection that the US military had supplied.

This means that the ISIS movement has a new lease of life. More than 800 former ISIS fighters escaped from the Ayn Issa camp in Northern Syria five days after the US troop withdrawal and the Turkish attacks began. About 10,000 ISIS fighters remain in camps in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, and the chances are good that many of them will escape as well.

Added to this problem is the matter of sleeper cells. These are groups of ISIS fighters who were not captured but have gone into hiding and are awaiting the opportunity to come out of the shadows and fight again. A number of new bombings and attacks in northern Syria indicate that many of these sleeper cells are now operating more openly. Coordination among them could lead to serious military operations and the possibility of retaking territory in ISIS’ name.

Across the border in Iraq, leaders of the Kurdish controlled region are nervous. When I was there earlier in the year, I was told that members of ISIS were still everywhere, including among refugees in camps, quietly organizing and waiting for the opportunity to rise up more openly. The signals from Syria indicate that that time may have come.

In an odd way, the US forces that helped to defeat ISIS have now provided the opportunity for its return.


El Paso Shooter’s Global Ties

A version of this article is posted on Global-e, Tuesday, August 13.

The manifesto of Patrick Wood Crusius, the 21 year old man responsible for a blood bath killing 22 innocent shoppers in a WalMart store in El Paso Texas on August 3, begins with praises for another attacker in a location far from Texas– in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Christchurch shooter, Brenton Tarrant, killed 51 worshippers at two mosques on March 15 and he, in turn, had praised another attacker at a location that was far from both Texas and New Zealand–in Oslo, Norway. There, Anders Breivik killed 77 youngsters on July 22, 2011, at a summer camp for a political party supporting multiculturalism.

All three of these killers left manifestos. These documents were remarkably similar in that they presented themselves not as killers and terrorists, but as soldiers in an honorable battle. The purpose of the struggle was in each case basically the same: protecting the purity of White European culture. In the case of Breivik and Tarrant it was specifically a Christian culture. Breivik imagined himself to be reenacting the defense of Vienna against the Muslim army. Tarrant also thought of himself as a warrior for Christendom. Written in white on the black gun stocks of his weapons were the names of significant battles in European history in which Muslim forces had been repelled. Though the El Paso shooter, Patrick Crusius, did not refer to religion in his manifesto, he did cite the defense of European culture and ethnic purity as one of his motives. In his own way he was a warrior for European Christendom as well.

The global diversity of these instances of religious and ethnic xenophobic extremism gives a hint of why they are rising now. They are global, and the phenomenon of globalization may be part of the problem.

Therein lies a paradox. Globalization is marked by a rapid mobility of peoples, mass migrations, the proliferation of diaspora cultures, and a transnational sense of community provided by internet relationships. Yet despite these features, xenophobic ethno-religious nationalism persists. In fact it seems to flourish in a global world. Religious and ethnic affiliations, while providing a connection to transnational networks, also offers resources for shoring up local identities. Why have limited loyalties and parochial new forms of ethno-religious nationalism surfaced in todays’ sea of post-nationality?

It seems an anomaly. History is poised on the brink of an era of globalization, hardly the time for new nationalist aspirations to emerge. In fact, some observers have cited the appearance of ethnic and religious nationalism in such areas as the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, Algeria and the Middle East, South Asia, Japan, and among right-wing movements in Europe and the United States as evidence that globalization has not reached all quarters of the globe.

But is this really the case? It may be possible to see these quests for local identities and new nationalisms not as anomalies in the homogeneity of globalization, but as further examples of its impact. In many cases the new ethnic and religious movements are direct reactions to globalization—a fear of the “new world order,” as some patriot movements in the United States have put it. The El Paso killer’s manifesto stated that the tide of Hispanic immigrants would be a sea change in American culture and politics. His was angst over the loss of identity and privilege in a world that is rapidly become multicultural.

But many of these movements are also responses to a perceived failure in secular nationalism. Though the European Enlightenment touted secular nationalism as the most just and progressive form of political organization for the modern world, in many parts of the world this vision is an empty promise. They despair over the insufficiencies of what is often touted as the world’s global political standard, the secular constructs of nationalism that are found not only in Europe and the United States but remain in many parts of the former Third World as vestiges of European colonialism. The El Paso killer’s manifesto railed against the corporate state and the failure of democracy. An exasperated follower of ISIS in Iraq said to me, “what have we gained from being a secular state?”

The old European-version of secular nationalism is under siege precisely at a time when the structure of the nation-state around the world has been weakened by globalization. Its vulnerability has been the occasion for new ethno-religious politics to step into the breach and shore up national identities and purposes in their own distinctive ways.

Some forms of ethno-religious politics are global, some are virulently anti-global, and yet others are content with the attempt to create their own ethno-religious nation-states. The White nationalist killers in El Paso, Christchurch, and Oslo are not alone. They and the many other activists in recent decades, in virtually every religious tradition, who have expressed a strident ethno-religious nationalism have challenged the moral authority of the secular state. They are anti-national globalists in their own way, standing in uneasy relationship with the globalizing economic and cultural forces of the 21st century world.





The 3 T’s of ISIS Recruitment

A former ISIS fighter told me how they wooed and recruited new fighters into the ranks of the Islamic State movement. I had a long conversation with the tall 29-year old Mohammad after he had been captured and was held in a prison in northern Iraq, and though he was still committed to the Caliphate and the apocalyptic jihadi world view of al Qaeda and ISIS, he was now able to reflect on his role in the movement. Among other things, he explained the initiation process–how they would infiltrate into a group of young men and slowly bring them to the jihadi cause.

It all boiled down to three T’s, he told me. In Arabic, the three words were تمسكن tammaskan, تمكن tammakan, and تفرعن tafar’aan. Each of these described a stage in the developing involvement of a young man targeted for recruitment into the jihadi movement.

The first T, tammaskan, which means to “stick by” someone, to embrace him in an intimate friendship. Mohammad explained that they would usually target a younger man who might be flattered by the friendship of an older more active man. The target would usually be someone in his late teens who was searching for meaning and a role in life. The ISIS recruit would befriend him and only occasionally discuss religious and political matters.

The second T, tammakan, “control,” referred to the next stage of recruitment. After a period of friendship the older man would exert more leadership and take an authoritative relationship to the younger man. He would become more directive in telling him where he had gone wrong in life and what to do about it. The conversation about religion and politics would become explicit, with the clear implication that the young man should learn from these pronouncements.

The third T, tafar’aan, means “act like a Pharoah,” or enslaving. After it had become clear that the young man was responding to the authoritative relationship with the ISIS recruiter, he was ready to be made captive to the ISIS cause. In some cases there would be a kind of initiation, a recognition that the young man was now ready to take on a role in an important cause and become a servant in a secret circle of friendship.

Mohammad himself had gone through these stages of recruitment when he was a fifteen year old teenager in the town of Mosul. It was several years after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq which had severe repercussions on his Arab Sunni family. They had prospered under Saddam’s regime and now the family was poor and marginalized. For young Mohammad, the friendship and the cause of the jihadi movement then known as al Qaeda in Iraq was something of a salvation.

Some years later when al Qaeda in Iraq became the Islamic State, Mohammad saw new generations of young fighters being recruited into the ranks in the same way that he had been wooed and inspired. The recruiters invariably followed the three T’s. They befriended, controlled, and ultimately enslaved them.


 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 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.

Mark Juergensmeyer