(A version of this essay originally appeared in Khiyana: Daesh, The Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, a collection of wonderful essays on Syria from a left-wing perspective published by Unkant – it is available to purchase here)
“Oh Allah, strike the apostate rulers,
Oh Allah, kill them one after the other, sparing none.”
– Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
“A harsh and violent upbringing has as its consequence that violence dominates the soul and prevents the development of the personality. Energy gives way to indolence, and wickedness, deceit, cunning and trickery are developed by fear of physical violence. These tendencies soon become ingrained habits, corrupting the human quality which men acquire through social intercourse. Such men become dependent on others for protection; their souls even become too wicked to acquire virtue or moral beauty. They become ingrown. …This is what has happened to every nation which has been dominated by others and harshly treated.”
– Ibn Khaldun
Ever since its rise in Syria and blitzkrieg of much of Northern and Western Iraq, resulting in the declaration of a Khilafah in June 2014, the entire world has had its eye fixed in wonder, intrigue and fear at the entity calling itself the ‘Islamic State’ (for the remained of this work, I’ll refer to this entity by the derogatory Arabic acronym of ‘Daesh’). There must be millions of words devoted to this organisation, its ideologies, goals and roots, yet it remains engulfed in a fog of not so much mystery as mythology and conspiracy. As is always the case, these mythologies and conspiracies are always charged with political ideologies and narratives ranging from the superficially plausible to the outright absurd – from the subtle to the lurid.
They all have one thing in common: the necessity to obscure rather than elucidate the material realities of the Islamic State and the context in which it arose, particularly the Syrian revolution against the Assad regime and the dynamics of the current revolutionary war. Conspiracy narratives regarding Daesh are by no means restricted to the darkest corners of the internet, but have rather seeped in to mainstream discourse, with respected media outlets and intellectuals, as well as popular and powerful political figures, ranging from the Prime Minister of Iraq, to Bashar al-Assad, to the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition in the UK, all at one point attributing the rise of Daesh to funding from Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia in particular being singled out.
At the heart of the conspiracy narratives regarding Daesh is the Syrian revolution. In this context, proponents of such narratives tend to be those who, to some capacity, support the Assad regime and its allies, or are at least hostile to the revolutionary forces that rose up against it. This work will seek to explain how and why understanding the roots of these narratives is extremely important for those of us who support the Syrian revolution and actively want to see the forces of counter-revolution, whether Assad or Daesh, vanquished. To understand the rise of Daesh is not merely an act of empirical duty, but also a political act that is necessary to counter those who use obscurantism as a weapon of justification for their own sinister, post-fact narratives – narratives used to justify genocide, sectarian ethnic cleansing and Russian imperialist intervention.
The Assad regime’s ability to control the narrative when it comes to the Syrian revolutionary war has been one of its greatest successes, with much of the mainstream media and particular media figures around the world either enthusiastically accepting it or slowly and tacitly acquiescing to it. A major part of this has been the rise of Daesh, the photogenic terror of which has eclipsed the Assad regime’s much more destructive but much less visceral (at least to a global audience) terror.
There are obvious reasons why Saudi Arabia would be considered as a likely suspect for funding an entity that it superficially resembles – both are said to formally represent an ideology called ‘Wahhabism’, so, logically speaking, it follows that there must be some level of congruence or succour between the two. While this angle is the most prominent of the manifold conspiracy narratives on the rise of Daesh, this work will seek to both demystify the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Daesh and attempt to give an account of Daesh rooted not in whatever is ideologically convenient, but rather in the facts as far as they can be established, however inconvenient they may be to our preconceived ideologies and worldviews.
As a descriptive term for what in reality are widely diverse ideologies, ‘Wahhabism’ by no means does full justice to the ideology of Daesh or indeed Saudi Arabia. It is a word that within the Sunni Islamic world is applied almost wholly in a derogatory manner to any kind of ultra-conservative form of Islam, with its proponents within Saudi Arabia and abroad usually self-identifying as Salafiyyah or Muwahhid (those who proclaim the oneness of Allah). A better blanket term for the ideology in question is ‘Salafi-Jihadism’, with Wahhabism being one particular subset rooted more in history than in a modern unified ideology.
If we are to truly understand Daesh and its relationship to the Syrian revolution, it is an imperative that we attempt to fully elucidate its relationship with Saudi Arabia. To understand that though ideology might be presented and accepted as ‘common sense’, its roots when it comes to the context of revolution and counter-revolution are often found in obfuscation and propaganda. It is an imperative then to explore why conspiracy narratives regarding Daesh and Saudi Arabia, as well as other actors and forces, have taken root and to thus establish the precise nature of their political and ideological value relating to the Syrian revolution.
By looking at the continuity between Saudi Arabia and Daesh we begin to see their irreconcilable antagonisms.
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was an 18th Century Islamic preacher and scholar from the Najd region of modern Saudi Arabia, and whose writings on Islamic practice and methodology for interpreting sharia gave rise to a particular trend within the wider Salafi movement. As with other Salafist trends it was a revivalist movement that attempted to essentialise and fetishise the alleged Islamic praxis of the first Muslims (as-Salafiyyah) and recreate them in modern times.
Al-Wahhab meant this quite literally – he believed in instituting a social and political order that recreated his particular vision and interpretation of the life of Muslims in the 7th Century. He didn’t envision this as the beginning of a new movement within Islam, but rather as a return to and resurrection of the original Islam practiced by the Prophet. In this respect, every ‘innovation’ in Islam (bid’ah, which is synonymous with ‘heresy’ to most ultra-conservative variants of Salafism) that occurred after the life of Muhammad and the earliest Muslims is considered to be a corruption of this supposedly authentic Islam. This is the roots of the practice of takfir – declaring other Muslims to be unbelievers based on their adherence to supposedly heretical innovations.
There’s no doubt that al-Wahhab’s body of so-called ‘Islamic reformism’ is at the root of the social and political order of both Saudi Arabia and the theocracy established by Daesh. Indeed, the continuity is not solely rooted in ideology. As with Daesh, and unlike almost every other Salafi scholar, thinker or movement, al-Wahhab was able to put his theory into practice by allying with the powerful Al Saud clan, which had taken over all of Najd and a significant part of the Arabian peninsula; thus birthing the Emirate of Diriyah (Imarat Diriyah), also known as the ‘First Saudi State’, which gave Wahhabism its first taste of state form.
The entire raison d’etre of this entity was not only to establish political control over the entire Arabian Peninsula but also to cleanse it of all that it considered to be bid’ah and shirk (idolatry). This would mean a war of annihilation to be waged against those deemed to be kuffar (unbelievers) or rafidah (rejectors), such as all non-Muslims and those who belong to any of the Shia sects of Islam, but also to Sufis and those Sunnis who merely opposed Al Saud and Al-Wahhab’s new totalitarian theocratic revivalist order.
And like Daesh, the early Saudi-Wahhabi movement had a taste for brutally grand gestures mixed with materialistic and strategic pragmatism. Once again, Iraq was the target. In 1801, the Wahhabis sacked the Shia holy city of Karbala, an act that superficially was simply the Imarat practicing takfir on the epicentre of what they considered to be the grand heresy of Shiism in the Arab world. But this ideological exterminationist zeal was just one small part of the motivation – within the walls of Karbala there was also a veritable treasure trove of loot. After all, even devotion to the oneness of Allah doesn’t put food on the table, so to speak, and the Imarat had an entire state to maintain and, by now, its own elites to enrich in the name of religion. J.B. Rosseau described this mixture of ideologically motivated terror and the materially motivated expansionism in viciously vivid detail in his eyewitness account contained in Description du Pachalik du Baghdad Suivie d’une Notice Historique sur les Wahabis:
“We have recently seen a horrible example of the Wahhabis’ cruel fanaticism in the terrible fate of the mosque of Imam Husayn. Incredible wealth was known to have accumulated in that town … For centuries, the mosque of Imam Husayn was known to have received donations of silver, gold, jewels, a great amount of rarities…Tamerlane even spared that place. Everybody knew that the most part of the rich spoils that Nadir Shah had brought back from his Indian campaign had been transferred to the mosques of Imam Husayn and Imam Ali together with his own wealth. Now, the enormous wealth that has accumulated in the former has been exciting the Wahhabis’ avidity for some time. They have been continuously dreaming of looting that town [Karbala] and were so sure of success that their creditors fixed the debt payment to the happy day when their hopes would come true.
That day came at last…12,000 Wahhabis suddenly attacked the mosque of Imam Husayn; after seizing more spoils than they had ever seized after their greatest victories, they put everything to fire and sword…The elderly, women, and children—everybody died by the barbarians’ sword. Besides, it is said that whenever they saw a pregnant woman, they disemboweled her and left the fetus on the mother’s bleeding corpse. Their cruelty could not be satisfied, they did not cease their murders and blood flowed like water. As a result of the bloody catastrophe, more than 4000 people perished. The Wahhabis carried off their plunder on the backs of 4000 camels. After the plunder and murders they destroyed the Imam’s shrine and converted it into a trench of abomination and blood. They inflicted the greatest damage on the minarets and the domes, believing those structures were made of gold bricks.”
Instead of 4000 camels, today we see with Daesh the seemingly endless convoys of Toyota pick up trucks and the extraordinarily vast quantities of US-provided military equipment it managed to seize from the so-called ‘Iraqi Army’ after it captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the Northern hub for the reception of US military aid to govern the ‘Sunni’ provinces of the country.We see its relatively vast oil reserves and its ability to at once tear up the physical order, i.e. of physical boundaries between nation states, but to continue some form of the economic and social order, such as its pragmatism when it comes to selling oil to and sharbing utilities and provisions with the Assad regime and its utilisation of the regional black market to sustain itself.
There is no doubt that there is much continuity between the founding of the Wahhabi movement in state form and the founding of Daesh’s so-called Khilafah. This continuity is itself significant and of political interest (especially the hypocrisy of western leaders denouncing Daesh for carrying out crimes that their ally Saudi Arabia frequently commits), but it actually reveals the illogic of the idea of material continuity . Saudi Arabia after the First Saudi State, which, rather interestingly, was only destroyed when other Sunni Islamic forces-namely the Ottoman Empire and Muhammad Ali’s Egyptian Eyalet-turned against it and its other incarnations, settled within national boundaries with no major expansionist ambitions.
While Saudi has maintained its Wahhabist core, with Al ash-Sheikh (literally: ‘House of the Sheikh’), which is the name for the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab who control the Saudi ulama (ruling religious body), its early jihadist ambitions, as in its quest to cleanse the so-called Islamic lands of all it deems to be un-Islamic and unify the Islamic world under its religious authority, have been curbed to the point of extinction.
We see in Saudi Arabia and in Daesh’s Khilafah similar state apparatuses, such as a religious police force, the Mutaween (informally referred to as the Hai’a) in Saudi and the Hisbah in Daesh’s self-proclaimed Khilafah, both of which are tasked with enforcing the praxis of religious law on an inter-personal and ‘moral’ basis, such as ensuring that women maintain a strict dress code and enforcing the proscribing of vices. Moreover, both Saudi and Daesh take similar views on methods of execution and corporal punishment (all with a basis in the same fiqh), with both employing beheading and crucifying as forms of capital punishment – even the crimes deemed as capital offensives are similar within the different polities.
The very existence of the continuity between Saudi Arabia and Daesh is precisely the level at which the mutual antagonisms between the two entities lie. It’s precisely due to the fact that both of these entities share the same ideological DNA that they present mutual threats to one another, in terms of competing to hegemonise the wider Salafi movement and in terms of intra-Salafi religious battles relating to fiqh and wider theological questions. But as an insurgent movement that is very much on the offensive, it is Daesh that far from being funded by the Saudi state poses a very real and potentially combustive threat to it.
This can be observed by looking particularly at the theological and political differences between Saudi Arabia and Daesh.
The most obvious point is that Daesh is a self-declared Khilafah of Dar al-Islam. To simplify, it has declared itself not merely to be an Islamic State, but rather the sole Islamic State. Indeed, when the Khilafah was first declared after the fall of Mosul, spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani emphasised the fact that Daesh-leader and self-declared Khalifa Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (or ‘Khalifa Ibrahim’, as he demands to be known) was ‘the leader of Muslims everywhere’ and that ‘the Islamic State decided to establish an Islamic caliphate and to designate a caliph for the state of the Muslims’. This was Daesh essentially saying ‘you’re either with us or against us’ – you’re either a true Muslim who will come and fight for the Khilafah or you’re as good as an unbeliever and enemy of Islam.
In a document entitled ‘This is the Promise of Allah’ released around the time of the declaration of the Khilafah, Daesh take aim at all the rulers of the Muslim world:
“We clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of khilāfah, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the khalīfah Ibrāhīm and support him (may Allah preserve him). The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khilāfah’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas.”
Daesh have absolutely no will to co-exist with any form of government in any Muslim-majority state, including Saudi Arabia. In fact, their entire raison d’etre is to overthrow what they see as being the unrighteous form of government in the Saudi state, with a king presiding over rule by the ulama. In Daesh’s worldview, the khalifa is the religious, social and political leader of all Muslims – the idea of Muslims being ruled by a king who has no religious authority is straight up bid’ah. This stems from their politically charged interpretation of the concept of taghut (which roughly means a ruler who crosses the boundaries by placing himself before Allah – an un-Islamic tyrant). In a training camp manual titled Muqarrar fi al-Tawhid (‘Course in Monotheism’) used by Daesh to indoctrinate its recruits, it explains this application of taghut:
“The Imam Ibn al-Qayyim (may God have mercy on him) said: “And taghut is all by which man exceeds his boundary from worship, following and obedience. So taghut is everyone to whom they appeal besides God and His Messenger (SAWS), or whom they worship without God, or whom they follow without enlightenment from God, or whom they obey in what they do not know that it is obedience to God. So these are the tawagheet of the world: when you consider them and consider the throngs of the people with them, you see that most of them have been turned from worship of God to worship of taghut, from appeal to God and His Messenger (SAWS) to appeal to taghut, and from obeying Him and following His Messenger (SAWS) to taghut and following it.”
Daesh consider Al Saud to be tawagheet, unjust rulers who turn Muslims away from practicing sharia and turn them towards man-made laws and governance – to support them and not religious figureheads as the rulers of a national polity. They also consider the Saudi ulama, the Wahhabi religious establishment that acts as a legislative body the country, to be little more than agents of this anti-Islamic system and thus reject the idea that they and their rulings have any religious credibility. They see the very idea of Muslims adhering to a national identity to be a grave consequence of taghut, or, as Abu Umar al-Baghdadi (the leader of Daesh after Zarqawi’s death and before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) put it, ‘we are fighting not for any patriotism but rather for God’s word to be most high.’
While the state-form of Saudi Arabia settled within definite national borders, Daesh is expressly anti-national. To put it another way, Saudi Arabia has settled for theocracy in one country, while an entity like Daesh seeks to fulfil al-Wahhab’s mission to reinstitute a purified worldwide Khilafah. Indeed, in 2012, during Daesh’s re-emergence onto the scene through the opportunities it found in Syria, the self-declared Khalifa Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said of the Islamic State that it ‘does not recognise synthetic borders nor any citizenship beside Islam.’
In July 2014, just following Daesh’s seizure of Mosul, a noted Daesh member stated via social media that ‘if Allah wills, we will kill those who worship stones in Mecca and destroy the Kaaba … people go to Mecca to touch the stones, not for Allah.” While this may be mere hubris, it is congruent with the long-held obsession of the most extreme Salafi-Jihadists to destroy the Kaaba stone in Mecca, the presence of which in the holy city they see as being a grave instance of idolatry and a shameful throwback to pre-Islamic Arabian paganism.
But, regardless of the feasibility of such a deed, this kind of hubris was indicative of the new arena of antagonism between Daesh and Saudi. As a consequence of its blitzkrieg of northern Iraq, Daesh came to control much of the al-Anbar province in the West of the country, which borders Saudi Arabia’s Northern Border governorate. It wasn’t long before Daesh were making noises about invading the Kingdom, specifically targeting the regional capital of Arar, which lies right on the Iraqi border.
In fact, in November 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recorded an audio message calling for an attack on Saudi Arabia, appealing to the ‘sons of al-Haramayn’ (‘al-Haramayn’ is a reference to ‘The Two Sanctuaries’ situated in Saudi Arabia – the two holiest mosques in the Islamic world in Mecca and Medina) to ‘draw your swords and divorce life, because there should be no sanctuary for the Saloul’. The term ‘Saloul’ refers to the names of the pre-Islamic Arabian guardians of the pagan Kaaba shrine in Mecca – it is a derogatory name for the Saudi royal family commonly used among anti-Saudi Salafi Jihadists. And, just to reinforce how much Daesh sees Al Saud as being the primary antagonists to the Khilafah and the advance of pure Islam, Baghdadi describes Saudi Arabia in his statement as being the place where ‘the serpent’s head and the stronghold of the disease’ dwell. The capture of The Two Sanctuaries and the destruction of Al Saud would be the crowning glory of Daesh’s Khilafah.
The Saudi regime took the threats deadly serious. Not only were they among the first nations to pledge their military resources to the US-led 60 nation coalition that is currently bombing Daesh targets in Iraq and Syria, but they also set about to begin to construction of a 600-mile long ‘great wall’ along the border with Iraq in an attempt to fortify themselves against a potential Daesh onslaught. They also positioned a defensive military force of 30,000 soldiers, mostly from Egypt and Pakistan, along the border.
The Saudis were right to take these precautions against the new threat of Daesh. Contrary to the idea that these two forces are in cahoots, one dynamic of the Daesh threat that isn’t well established by the media or dominant Western political narratives is that Daesh is currently waging a low-level but determined war against Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it’s of little doubt that one of the main calculations of the US intervention against Daesh was that it now threatened not just the territorial integrity of the Iraqi central government, but that it also had in Iraq a potential launch pad for action against its great nemesis and key US ally Saudi Arabia. The idea of Daesh being able to launch serious military attacks on the world’s largest oil supplier is terrifying in terms of the havoc it could lead to in the global economy.
Thus far Daesh’s war on Saudi is waged on two different levels. The first is characterised by attacks emanating from Daesh positions in Iraq. These have included several long-range mortar attacks against Arar and other civilian areas that have so far had little impact; however, despite even the coalition air strikes and the ground assaults by the US and Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaaby militia forces, Daesh’s capacity for attacking the Kingdom has been growing. In January 2015 Daesh fighters attacked the Suweif border post, located a mere 25 miles from the city of Arar, killing 3 Saudi border patrol soldiers, including a general. Later in the same month, dozens of Daesh fighters were reported to have crossed over from Iraq to infiltrate the Saudi town of Rafah.
The second level on which Daesh are attempting to wage war on Saudi is through utilising homegrown pre-existing jihadi groups that have given bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to Daesh, as well as the initiative taken by supporter cells and so-called ‘lone wolf’ sympathisers. This strategy serves to destabilise Saudi from within, mostly by targeting the Shia minority, with the overall goals of sparking sectarian war; thus creating the necessary chaos on which they thrive, while also attempting to fulfil the original Wahhabist goal of eradicating Shia from Dar al-Islam.
This returns to the fact that it’s the continuity between Daesh and Saudi Arabia that provides the main points of antagonism between the two. It’s precisely because Saudi Arabia contains a significant proportion of so-called Wahhabis who share ideological roots with Daesh that the latter could establish itself as a serious destabilising force within the country. And this is precisely what Daesh has attempted to do since the establishment of the Khilafah.
Since June 2014, two different Daesh franchises have been created within Saudi Araba’s borders, namely Wilayat al-Najd (the Province of Najd, referring to the central-north area of the country) and Wilayat al-Hejaz (referring to the western area of the country), comprised mostly by former al-Qaeda militants and new recruits to the cause. The first attack by these forces occurred on May 22, 2015 on the Shia Mosque of Imam Ali in the village of al-Qadeeh in the Saudi eastern province of Qatif. Following the attack, in which a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device during prayers, killing 21 people and wounding more than 90, Wilayat al-Najd released a statement saying that it would not rest until Shia are expelled from the Arabian peninsula.
Swiftly following this, on May 29, a suicide bomber, disguised as a woman and once again from Daesh’s Wilayat al-Najd, killed 4 people in a mosque in Dammam, the capital of Saudi’s Eastern Province. In a bragging statement released shortly after the attack, Daesh claimed that the attack was ‘a martyrdom operation [targeting] a shrine of the mushrikun [polytheists – used by Salafi Jihadists to mean Shia], which were planted by the rafidah [rejectors] in the Sunni areas to spread their message’, carried out by ‘a jealous brother, a soldier of the Khilafah’ and ‘God helped him to reach his target during a meeting of these unclean people, despite the protections of the zealots of Al Salul … God has cursed them … we ask all our Sunni brothers to liberate the land of the Holy Shrines from them [Al Saud].’
It’s here that the Daesh strategy is once again laid bare. While the cleansing of Shia from what they see as the Islamic heartlands is an end in itself for Daesh, the very presence of Shia in Saudi Arabia is used as a weapon to delegitimize Al Saud, or the head of the snake and stronghold of the disease as al-Baghdadi called them, in the hearts and minds of those socially and politically inclined towards Salafism. The statement uses the fact that the attack in Dammam would’ve been far more deadly and destructive if not for the fact that Saudi policemen stopped the bomber from entering the packed mosque, to portray Saudi as being the protectors of Shia. In Saudi Arabia, which, to put it mildly, is far from a bastion of inter-sect tolerance and harmony, one of Daesh’s primary goals is to undermine whatever already fragile formal coexistence exists between Sunnis and Shia, while portraying Al Saud as being the protectors of heretics and thus heretics themselves. Only Daesh are practicing and protecting the true Islam and defending the pious Muslims.
Indeed, in a statement released by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi following Saudi Arabia’s intervention against primarily Ansar Allah (the Houthis) in Yemen, the Daesh leader plays on this attempt to portray Al Saud as being slaves of the enemies of Islam and disinterested in the real plight of suffering Muslims around the world:
“O Muslims, the apostate tyrannical rulers who rule your lands in the lands of the Two Holy Sanctuaries (Mecca and Medina) … are the allies of the Jews and Crusaders. Rather, they are their slaves, servants, and guard dogs, and nothing else. The armies that they prepare and arm and which the Jews and Crusaders train are only to crush you, weaken you, enslave you to the Jews and Crusaders, turn you away from your religion and the path of Allah, plunder the goods of your lands, and rob you of your wealth …
Where is the support of Āl Salūl and their allies for a million of the weak Muslims who are all without exception being exterminated in Burma? Where is their chivalry towards the barrel bombs of the Nusayriyyah [derogatory name for Alawites]and their cannons, which demolish the Muslims’ homes upon the heads of their dwellers from amongst the women, the children, and the weak in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Homs, Damascus, and elsewhere. Where is the jealousy of the Arabian Peninsula’s rulers towards the noble women who are raped daily in Shām, Iraq, and the various lands of the Muslims? Where is the relief of the rulers of Mecca and Medina for the Muslims in China and the Muslims in India against whom the Hindus commit the worst of crimes daily, including murder, burning, rape, severing of joints, looting, plundering, and imprisonment? Where is their relief for them in Indonesia, the Caucasus, Africa, Khorasan [Iran], and everywhere else? The Arabian Peninsula’s rulers have been exposed and disgraced and have lost their supposed ‘legitimacy.’ Their treachery has become clear even to the laymen of the Muslims. And their reality thereby became apparent. So their masters from amongst the Jews and Crusaders had no more use for them. And so their masters began to replace them with the Safawī [Iranians] Rāfidah and the Kurdish atheists.
“When Āl Salūl realized their masters’ abandonment of them, their disposal of them like tattered shoes, and their replacement of them, they launched their supposed war against the Rāfidah of Yemen. And it is not a storm of resolve, rather it is the kick of a dying person, by Allah’s permission, as he struggles during his last breaths.
Āl Salūl, the slaves of the Crusaders and allies of the Jews, do not wish that any good should be sent down to the Muslims from their Lord. They remained for decades not caring about the tragedies of the Muslims all over the world generally, and in Palestine particularly. Thereafter, they remained for years allied with the Rāfidah of Iraq in a war against Ahlus-Sunnah (the Sunnis). Thereafter, they remained observing the barrel bombs of death and destruction in Shām for years, enjoying and taking delight in the scenes of Muslims being killed, imprisoned, slaughtered, and burned, and their honor raped, their wealth plundered, and their homes destroyed, all at the hands of the Nusayriyyah.
Today they claim to defend Ahlus-Sunnah in Yemen against the Rāfidah! Rather, they have lied, failed, and lost. Their war is nothing but an attempt to prove themselves once again to their masters from amongst the Jews and Crusaders. It is nothing but a desperate attempt to turn the Muslims away from the Islamic State whose voice is high everywhere and whose reality has become clear to all the Muslims and therefore the Muslims began to gradually rally around it. Their storm is nothing but a storm of delusion after the fire of the Rāfidah scorched their thrones and after the Rāfidah’s march reached the people of the Arabian Peninsula, a matter that will lead thereafter to the Muslim public in the Arabian Peninsula rallying around the Islamic State since it defends them against the Rāfidah. This is what frightens Āl Salūl and the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula and makes their thrones tremble.”
Here we see Daesh’s will to unseat Saudi Arabia as the pretender to the throne of the vanguard and protector of Sunni Islam (conceived in Salafist terms) demonstrated candidly. As per the Wahhabist call, Daesh seek to expose Al Saud as being ‘slaves, servants and guard dogs’ of the ‘Jews and Crusaders’, all the better for them to be overthrown and for Muslims in the territories of Saudi Arabia to dedicate themselves to the Islamic State project instead. It lists instances of persecution of Sunni Muslims, from the sectarian war in Syria to the persecution of the Muslim minorities in China and Burma, contrasting it both with Saudi Arabia’s inaction in these areas and its cordial relationship with the persecutors . The reasons for this inaction may seem obvious to those outside of the broad Salafi milieu, but the level of historical-ideological continuity that does exist between Saudi and Daesh once again determines the political value of this apparent hypocrisy.
Far from Saudi in any sense having material or ideological congruence with Daesh, these two entities are mutually antagonistic to one another, mostly because within the milieu of Wahhabism, one represents the anti-thesis of the other. For Saudi Arabia, Daesh represents its historical roots renewed, which is itself an indictment of Saudi’s Wahhabist credentials, while for Daesh, Saudi represents a form of Wahhabism that disassociates itself from the kind of behaviours that Daesh takes to be obligatory Islamic praxis according to the body of theological work referred to as ‘Wahhabism’.
One of the remarkable aspects of the conspiratorial narratives that implicate Saudi Arabia in funding Daesh is that while they scrabble around desperately connecting dots that don’t exist in order to back up what they already believe to be true or what they want or need to be true, they completely and very necessarily forgo looking at the kind of groups in Syria that Saudi Arabia very definitely has funded. Out of all the groups in Syria funded by Al Saud, the vast majority of them have been secular nationalist in character.
Saudi Arabia has always had a pragmatic approach to foreign policy determined more by the pursuit of their material and political interests, as opposed to the quality of the religiosity of the recipients of its support. One immediate example of this is in its support for the allegedly ‘secular’ counter-revolutionary regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt over the nominally ‘Islamist’ (actually the ideology is Islamic democracy), but democratically elected, presidency of Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia faces a host of demographic problems relating to the configuration of the state. Only 5-22% of the country adheres to the official state religion of Wahhabism, while the majority are non-Wahhabi Sunnis of the Hanbali madhab (school of thought), with a minority of Twlever Shiites and Ismailis. This means that it has been extremely hostile to any foreign and external forces that might somehow directly rally any aspect of the non-Wahhabi majority, whether Sunni or Shia.
Following the Egyptian revolution of January 25, after a democratic Islamic force won all of the newly delivered democratic elections in the Arab world’s largest and arguably most influential country, the Saudis were immediately hostile towards it. They veritably jumped at the first chance to support the forces of counter-revolution, pledging billions of dollars to the triumphant tyranny of Al-Sisi. Al Saud are notorious for having a cold, brutal instinct for self-preservation and survival – in Egypt’s nascent, fragile, revolutionary democracy, led by proponents of Islamic democracy that had broad support among normal Saudi Muslims, they saw traces of their future demise and thus did whatever they could to help support those who would crush it.
It’s for those reasons that during Abdullah’s reign we see, apropos its role in Syria, Saudi preferring to aid secular nationalist forces that don’t contain Brotherhood-affiliated groups – it was Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Turkey that supplied some arms to those forces that contained Brotherhood affiliates. In the early stages of the armed conflict, Saudi’s main interlocutor on the ground in Turkey was the Lebanese politician Okab Sakr, a member of the secular nationalist Future Movement (another force close to Saudi), who was responsible for making sure the consignments of mostly ammunition and light weaponry were distributed to what would be described as ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups that were not affiliated with the Brotherhood.
One of the forces that received a large amount of Saudi funding was the secular nationalist FSA-affiliate Liwa Shuhada Suriya (Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade) led by Jamal Maarouf. Far from Saudi funding Daesh, when the FSA and Qatar and Turkey-funded Islamic Front launched an offensive against Daesh, it was led by a coalition of FSA brigades called the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, the main force within which was Maarouf and his Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade. It was weaponry paid for by Saudi Arabia that was being used by those on the front lines against Daesh.
The only hard line Salafist entity that Saudi has funded is Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), which was a merger of sever different Salafi forces initiated by Saudi to attempt to deflect both Syrian and foreign Salafi recruits away from the growing threat of Jabhat an-Nusra (which at that point was still what Daesh referred to itself in its Syrian capacity before the split with al-Qaeda). The reason for this was that Jabhat an-Nusra, as with all al-Qaeda ‘franchises’, espouses a virulently and violently anti-Saudi theology and politics.
It took a change at the very top, with the death of King Abdullah and the coming to the throne of King Salman, who took a just as self-interested but even more pragmatic approach to regional affairs as his predecessor, for Saudi to effectively end its persecution of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups. The calculation behind this change was that since so many Saudi citizens were supportive of President Morsi and the plight of the brutally persecuted Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, combined of course with Iran’s growing hegemony over Syria and Iraq, and, most importantly, the seizure of power next door in Yemen by the Iranian-aligned (though this ought not be overstated – the Houthis are by no means a proxy of Iran) Shia (Zaidi) Islamist Ansar Allah, Saudi needed allies that had roots among the Sunni populations of neighbouring countries. This meant ecumenism with the Brotherhood. Salman brought the Brotherhood-aligned Al-Islah movement in Yemen, by far the single-most popular force among Sunnis, but which had been ludicrously designated as a ‘terrorist group’ under Abdullah, into the fold.
In Syria, this new policy from Salman meant Saudi was able to provide aid for coalitions that involved Brotherhood-aligned or affiliated groups, such as the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) joint operations in Idlib, which along with forces like the Islamist Ahrar ash-Sham (Free Men of the Levant) and Free Syrian Army brigades, also contains the Brotherhood-affiliate Faylaq ash-Sham (Sham Legion). Not only was it the Saudi-provided arms that contributed to Jaish al-Fatah’s liberation of Idlib from the Assad regime and the foreign occupation forces of Iran and Hezbollah, but it was also with precious Saudi-provided TOW anti-tank weapons that these forces were able to massacre the regime’s Russian-provided tanks during the offensive launched by Assad and his allies in Homs and Hama in coordination with the Russian air strikes against Jaish al-Fatah.
These are the realities of Saudi’s material funding with regard to the Syrian revolution. One might imagine that those who claim to be supporters of left-wing or ‘revolutionary’ politics would rejoice that the rebels had some support against the Assad regime and the massive intervention on its behalf from Iran and Russia. But the conspiracy narrative of Saudi funding Daesh has never been about realistically assessing events in Syria; indeed, it’s about actively obscuring them for ideological purposes.
One might ask why it matters if people believe that Saudi Arabia funds Daesh, but within the context of the Syrian revolution, it matters a great deal. Since the very beginning of the conflict, the Assad regime and its allies, particularly Iran and its proxy force in Hezbollah, have attempted to portray the revolution through all its stages, from civil uprising to revolutionary war, as a Saudi-Wahhabi plot against the Assad regime. This is by no means a piece of harmlessly inane propaganda, but rather means through which sectarian slaughter and ethnic cleansing against Syria’s Sunni-majority is justified.
If all of those who rise up against the Assad dynasty can be portrayed as Salafi-Jihadist ‘terrorists’, then every brutal act committed against them and the Sunni civilian population is justifiable in the eyes of the regime, its allies, their supporters and even the outside world. In that sense, it is quite literally not just a counter-revolutionary narrative but also one that justifies mass murder and ethnic cleansing. It allows the Assad regime to be portrayed as a victim of a grand conspiracy (not just involving Saudi, but also the CIA, British intelligence and Mossad, or the ‘crusaders and Jews’ as Daesh would have it), while portraying those resisting it as uncompromising ‘Islamofascists’ who want to drag Syria into some kind of theocratic nightmare. As with all conspiracy theories, there is no compromise.
For the Assad regime, its allies and supporters, the rise of Daesh has to be cloaked in conspiracy and ideological convenience, given that the most immediate cause of its rise is the continued existence of the Assad regime and the near-genocidal sectarian war effort that it unleashed and currently maintains. The Assad regime has to portray itself as the only legitimate antagonist to Daesh in Syria; thus, it and its allies, particularly Iran and Russia, not to mention their mouthpieces in the media and among the political class, have went out of their way to obfuscate the actual causes of Daesh. This entails mindlessly shifting the blame onto its non-existent relationship with Saudi Arabia (or any other force that falls outside the camp of the ‘Axis of Resistance), reinforcing the aforementioned genocide-justifying narrative. This is precisely the narrative used by the Russian Federation in its self-proclaimed crusade against Daesh in the form of airstrikes, but what actually amounts to an attack upon the very rebel forces that fight both Daesh and, primarily and critically, the Assad regime. When Russian warplanes strike hospitals or market places in Free Syria, indiscriminately killing civilians, places where there is no Daesh, it’s this narrative that is utilised to obscure the facts and justify the murder. When the regime death squads, as well as the now more numerous Iranian forces and its assembled Shia jihadists, are supplemented by Russian air strikes and artillery units to go on the offensive against the Syrian revolutionaries, this narrative is what blurs the line with blood.
There’s no doubt that the single most important element in the rise of Daesh was the US invasion an occupation of Iraq in 2003. It was this event that allowed the forces that would become Daesh to make gains in previously barren grounds. There’s a tendency among especially those on the right of the political spectrum, though Assad’s supporters and the Syrian revolution’s antagonists on the left have increasingly accepted this logic, to imagine that the rise of entities like Daesh is inevitable in the Arabo-Islamic world.
This argument is that the alternative to order, by which people mean a strong authoritarian state, is different degrees of jihadi-inspired chaos. There’s a kernel of truth in this argument, given that the destruction of order, even order of the brutal and unjust kind, will almost certainly lead to ‘chaos’ as apparatuses and institutions of the state crumble, but what this argument misses is that it is precisely through such order that the ‘chaos’ is created. Order based on brutality and corruption arranges its own funeral. In its contempt for the borders of the Middle East (‘we are not the sons of Sykes-Picot’, said leading member of Daesh Abu Hamza, ‘we are the sons of the Prophet’), Daesh at once cultivates, reflects and distorts the general contempt for a regional order that is based historically and currently on active and brutal contempt for liberty, progress and human life.
It’s of no surprise then that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the progenitor of what would become Daesh, fully found his calling, converting or perhaps transferring from gangsterism to Salafi Jihadism, in a Jordanian dungeon. After fighting as part of the mujahideen during the war against the USSR in Afghanistan, Zarqawi was imprisoned by Jordanian authorities where amidst the daily torture and beatings he cemented his Salafi Jihadi ideology and formed a core group of zealously loyal followers. Upon his release, and following the US invasion of Afghanistan and dawning of the ‘war on terror’ in 2002, Zarqawi and his followers sniffed out an opportunity and moved from Jordan into Iraqi Kurdistan, where they founded the earliest form of Daesh, named Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (The Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad).
In 2004, one year after the US invaded Iraq, Zarqawi, despite holding to a much harsher and more brutal Salafi Jihadi worldview than that of al-Qaeda, especially when it came to the practice of takfir, gave bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to Osama Bin Laden, thus birthing al-Qaeda in Iraq. It’s worth noting here that the relationship between Zarqawi and Bin Laden was, despite the broad ideological convergence, more pragmatic than anything else. After al-Qaeda developing itself as the leading Salafi Jihadist force among the entire jihadi movement, culminating in the brutally unprecedented spectacle of the 9/11 attacks, use of the al-Qaeda brand name was a sure fire way to attract the maximum amount of both foreign and, to a lesser degree in Iraq, local Jihadis.
This is precisely the calculation behind Zarqawi’s bay’ah to Bin Laden, while for Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, this relationship allowed them to pose as being on the front line against the US in Iraq.
In reality, Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership had zero operational control over the group. Zarqawi’s strategic focus was on targeting non-Sunni religious groups, particularly Shia, rather than the US-led coalition occupation forces, with the hope of, as per Daesh’s strategy towards Muslim countries to this very day, inciting a sectarian civil war that would, in his own words, ‘awaken these inattentive Sunnis as they feel immanent danger and annihilating death at the hands of these Sabeans [another derogatory term for Shia used among Salafi Jihadists].’ The al-Qaeda leadership were fundamentally opposed to this strategy. They saw it as a good way to alienate al-Qaeda from both the general resistance to US occupation and the local populations. Moreover, al-Qaeda’s then second in command and now leader Ayman al-Zawahiri argued that the targeting of Shia was wrong and that they were not kuffar who could be murdered, but rather that they were merely theologically ignorant, in contrast to Zarqawi’s insistence that Shia, to once again quote him, were ‘a dagger that stabbed Islam and Muslims in the heart’, citing various bogus historical instances of alleged Shia ‘treachery’ and collaboration with enemies of Islam. In other words, any future Khilafah, and Zarqawi at this stage was talking of Iraq amidst the chaos unleashed by the invasion as being prime for the institution of one, would be brutally uncompromising to Shia.
It’s also true that Zarqawi was as equally ruthless to Sunnis who crossed or disobeyed him – the al-Qaeda leadership was dismayed at his beheading of Sunni tribal leaders who refused to fight with him. Zarqawi saw this as necessary in projecting strength and striking fear into the local population. This is a legacy carried on by Daesh. Until this very day, the largest single massacre carried out by Daesh anywhere in the world was not of Shia, Yazidis or Christians, but rather of as many as 900 of the Sunni as-Shuaytat tribe in Deir ez-Zor in Syria. Men, women and children were shot, blown up, crucified and beheaded simply because they would not give up their lands to Daesh and acquiesce to their tyrannical rule.
These kinds of disagreements are themselves early signs of the nature of the fault lines in the current chasm between Daesh and al-Qaeda – Zarqawi’s brutal tactics of murdering civilians and targeting minorities find currency in the praxis of Daesh as it exists today.
We also see in Zarqawi’s early strategy his understanding of how there’s no better a recruitment tool for his brand of fascism that appeals to Sunni identity politics than sectarian war and the Sunni population being under the imminent threat of ‘annihilating death’. Zarqawi and Daesh actively want this to be the case wherever Sunni Muslims are to be found. Given the rise of Islamophobic fascism in the US and Europe, it’s a warning that ought to be taken seriously – these forces are truly the twins of Daesh. One can see this in the manner in which Daesh have managed to re-emerge and gain a new logic over the last four years in both Iraq and Syria – amidst Assad’s Iranian-backed and supplemented near-genocidal sectarian war, and through the injustices of the sectarian regime in Iraq. Daesh quite literally thrives on perceived sectarian war and slaughter, even to the extent of ignoring those committing such slaughter and instead focusing on violently hegemonising actually existing Sunni Islam all the better to becomes its absolute rulers – as Abu Umar al-Baghdadi put it, “the rulers of Muslim lands are traitor, sinners, liars, deceivers and criminals … fighting them is of greater necessity than fighting the occupying crusaders.”
Indeed, bearing in mind that while Daesh’s rise represents genuine currents within Islam as much as it represents the general environment of brutality of the region, brutality that is often sponsored and encouraged by powerful western nations, the actual role that imperialism played in indirectly aiding the formation of Daesh ought be of much more political interest than the plethora of half-cocked conspiracy theories regarding its rise. It has been said by some that Daesh simply wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the US overthrowing Saddam Hussein, just as much as it wouldn’t exist if not for the Syrian people rising up against the dynastic Assad regime; however, these arguments are not mere over-simplifications, but rather the product of a deeply conservative mindset.
The real formulation should be that the Daesh would not exist in its current form if it wasn’t for the fact that the US invaded and occupied Iraq, dismantling the entire state the better to let private contractors on billion dollar contacts swoop in to reassemble it. Or if, during the occupation, the US hadn’t deliberately fomented and strengthened sectarianism as both a desperate means to fill the security vacuum and in a calculated attempt to divide and conquer the Iraqi national resistance, which, at certain points, threatened to bridge the Shia-Sunni divide and politically unite the country – something that has been exploited by outside interests in Iraq since the British Empire installed the Sunni Hashemite dynasty in a Shia-majority country (the US and UK supported the overthrowing of the anti-sectarian, half-Kurdish, soft Arab nationalist Abd al-Karim Qasim by the fascistic Baathists in 1968, paving the way for Saddam’s eventual seizure of power in 1979)
The US knew that fostering sectarianism and allowing for a system of what I call functional disunity could best preserve its interests. This is how the US has proceeded ever since, with a few moments of halfhearted clarity, and this is a major part of the reason why Daesh has been able to become what it is now, mixed of course, more immediately and intensely, with the Syrian war. There’s a tendency to imagine that Empire is always prescient, but history shows us that it can be single-minded, desperate and self-destructive; unwilling to adapt, almost machine-like in the manner in which it pursues its interests.
It’s in this spirit that the US has provided arms to and an air force for Hashd al-Shaaby (People’s Mobilisation Forces), a coalition of sectarian Shia jihadst militias, many of them allied primarily to the Supreme Leader of Iran (including their main commander and current Iraqi interior minister Muhammad al-Ghabban, who is a member of the Iranian-funded sectarian serial killers known as the Badr Organisation). These forces are almost the perfect enemies for Daesh (as is Assad in Syria) – they with their reprisal attacks on Sunni civilians – beheadings, lynchings, abductions, mass slaughters and ethnic cleansing – provide for the Sunni population the fear of ‘annihilating death’ that gives a logic to their fascism. This is the only response imperialism can muster – sectarianism and division, but it is precisely this response that gives Daesh a prominence much beyond its material resources.
We’ve been here before. During the height of the sectarian war in Iraq, Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq, as he predicted with the coming to the fore of brutal Shia militias, were growing themselves and somewhat entrenching themselves in the Sunni communities, posing as protectors against a Shia onslaught. Indeed, it was in 2006 that they announced the formation of the Mujahideen Shura Council, a prelude to some sort of state formation, and then finally began using the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ title.
The US then began to recognise that the excesses of their initial will to split the resistance had led to the unleashing of a monster in the form of AQI, and that they as a foreign occupation force could never fully penetrate or win over the Sunni communities in Iraq. They also recognised that the advance of sectarian Shia militias, which, similarly to the takfiris, committed a range of atrocities against Sunnis sometimes with or without government consent, had the effect of further entrenching al-Qaeda within these communities.
Instead, the US formed an alliance with non-takfiri and non-sectarian Sunni insurgent militias, mostly drawn from initially anti-US tribal forces and other elements of the Sunni resistance, whereby the militias would lay down their arms against the US and would focus on attacking the invasive and intransigently sectarian al-Qaeda affiliated forces, for which they would receive arms, training and salaries from the US Army. These forces were known primarily as Harakat al-Sahwa (Sahwat) and they successfully managed to push al-Qaeda out of Sunni areas and, by 2009, weaken them to the point of practical defeat.
So how then did Iraq come to find itself in the position of having lost most of the Northern and Western areas of the country to this force that had been so severely limited and weakened by the Sahwa militias?
The government of Nouri al-Maliki, of the Shia Islamist Islamic Dawa Party, represented not a government of all Iraqis as it claimed, but rather something akin to a government of the conquerors over the conquered. While the US-led ‘de-Baathification’ had managed to ensure that the Hussein regime would never rise again, it also became a by-word for a whole host of sectarian crimes against Sunnis, ranging from institutional and economic discrimination to ethnic cleansing. Saddam Hussein justified his savagery against Shia Iraqis in terms of the being a fifth column, the new Iraqi Shia-dominated government and ruling classes did the same with Sunnis – along with the de-Baathification angle, it was a dress rehearsal for many of the arguments used to justify the Syrian genocide and the mobilisation of the hegemony of Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’ narrative, with discrimination against Sunnis being justified by alleged Saudi-US-Israeli plots against the new government in Iraq and its handlers in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The sectarianism of the Iraqi government has been the single most important factor allowing Daesh to maintain a presence, even at low levels, in Iraq after its heavy losses to the Sahwat. Daesh is an oragnisation that thrives on sectarian polarisation. This is precisely what the Maliki government, backed by the US and Iran, provided.
After the Sahwat had defeated al-Qaeda, the US abandoned them under the illusion that they, as non-sectarian Sunni militias, would have their salaries maintained by the Maliki government until they were eventually integrated into the Iraqi security forces. Maliki had other plans. Instead of maintaining this bridge with the Sunni communities and working towards a non-sectarian and unified security apparatus, Maliki, in a show of the petty, paranoid sectarianism that was characteristic of his catastrophic reign, decided to stop paying the salaries of most of the Sahwat and further refused to integrate them into the national security apparatuses, which had by this point become little more than a hollowed out US-armed sectarian gang.
In a tragically ironic, but massively significant, twist of fate, while Maliki was subverting democracy by blocking the non-sectarian Iraqiyya political movement, which had won the 2010 election garnering more votes than any other political force in the country, from forming a government, a move that was criminally supported by the Obama administration as well as the Iranian regime, many of the Sahwat rank and file, facing a future of unemployment and sectarian discrimination, were drifting towards more extreme forces, namely Daesh.
The symbiotic relationship between Daesh’s fascistic appeal to Sunni identity politics and the Iraqi government’s anti-Sunni sectarianism can best be seen with regard to the protests that first erupted in Iraq in 2011 as part of the wider ‘Arab spring’ phenomenon. These protests were characterised by non-sectarianism, occurring across the country from Karbala to Kurdistan, with general demands for the reform and democratisation of Maliki’s corrupt and authoritarian regime. The Maliki regime reacted with brutality and despite attempting to appease the protesters by saying that he wouldn’t run for a third term, his regime continued to portray the protesters, whether Shia or Sunni, as being part of some sort of plot to restore Baathism.
Maliki’s brutal response to the protests left tens of Iraqis dead, many more injured and arrested, and this brutality seemed at first to have worked, but in 2012 more protests erupted, this time occurring almost entirely in Sunni areas. The immediate catalyst for the protests was a raid carried out by sectarian militia forces allied to Maliki on the home of the Sunni defence minister Rafi al-Issawi, who was a member of the non-sectarian Iraqiyya political movement, and who had been brought into the government as part of Maliki’s manoeuvrings to cling to power. During the raid, ten of al-Issawi’s bodyguards were arrested on charges that they had been involved in ‘terrorism’ and Maliki said that the raid was the result of an investigation by the judiciary into allegations that al-Issawi was collaborating with Sunni terrorist insurgents. The fact that al-Issawi was a member of Maliki’s own cabinet was not enough to protect him, and the move was widely seen as another power grab by Maliki using an appeal to sectarianism, but it was seen by Sunnis as yet another indication that they were being locked out of the Iraqi political system.
The resulting protests began in the Sunni-dominated city of Fallujah but soon spread to other Sunni-majority areas in the Anbar province, such as Ramadi, and then erupted in Sunni areas outside of Anbar, such as in Mosul, Tikrit and Samarra, as well as the few remaining Sunni areas of Baghdad. The protests were overwhelmingly non-sectarian, with the main slogan being ‘Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam’ (the people demand the fall of the regime) associated with the wider ‘Arab spring’. Indeed, despite Maliki’s immediate attempt to sectarianise the protests and slander the protesters as Baathists and Al-Qaeda, prominent Shia political and religious figures were declaring their support for the protests, including no less a figure as Muqtada al-Sadr, who warned Maliki that he bore ‘full responsibility’ for the protests and that ‘Iraqi spring was coming’, as well as declaring that ‘the legitimate demands of the protesters … should be met’.
Unsurprisingly, Maliki didn’t heed al-Sadr’s calls. Despite some half-hearted bureaucratic measures, such as forming useless committees that didn’t have any interaction with the protesters, Maliki refused to acknowledge the demands of the protesters, choosing instead to focus on the protests as a threat to national security. This went on for around four months, with the security forces periodically injuring and killing protesters, but things severely escalated in April 23, 2013, when government forces raided a protest camp in the city of Hawija. Under the pretext of clamping down on ‘Baathists’, Maliki’s security forces murdered around 39 unarmed protesters, while violently dismantling the campsite and burning tents, in scenes not dissimilar to the Al-Sisi regime’s liquidation of the sit-ins at Rabaa Square in Egypt. If there were sectarian militias present among the protesters that day in Hawija, Maliki’s regime did a good job of avoiding them; in fact, this brutal event merely empowered sectarian forces and sustained the ever-deepening belief among a significant section of Sunnis that armed struggle was the only way forward.
In a report on the situation of the Sunni minority in Iraq from August of 2013, just four months after the Hawija massacre, and before Daesh were a household name in the West, the International Crisis Group made the following observations about the consequences of Maliki’s sectarian intransigence and the aftermath of the brutality of Hawija:
“This sparked a wave of violence exceeding anything witnessed for five years. Attacks against security forces and, more ominously, civilians have revived fears of a return to all-out civil strife. The Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda’s local expression, is resurgent. Shiite militias have responded against Sunnis. The government’s seeming intent to address a chiefly political issue – Sunni Arab representation in Baghdad – through tougher security measures has every chance of worsening the situation.
Belittled, demonised and increasingly subject to a central government crackdown, the popular movement is slowly mutating into an armed struggle. In this respect, the absence of a unified Sunni leadership – to which Baghdad’s policies contributed and which Maliki might have perceived as an asset – has turned out to be a serious liability. In a showdown that is acquiring increasing sectarian undertones, the movement’s proponents look westward to Syria as the arena in which the fight against the Iraqi government and its Shiite allies will play out and eastward toward Iran as the source of all their ills.
Under intensifying pressure from government forces and with dwindling faith in a political solution, many Sunni Arabs have concluded their only realistic option is a violent conflict increasingly framed in confessional terms. In turn, the government conveniently dismisses all opposition as a sectarian insurgency that warrants ever more stringent security measures. In the absence of a dramatic shift in approach, Iraq’s fragile polity risks breaking down, a victim of the combustible mix of its longstanding flaws and growing regional tensions.”
Combined and indeed underlying its re-emergence in Iraq was the fact that Daesh had struck gold in Syria. At the very beginning of the armed uprising phase of the Syrian revolution, al-Baghdadi commissioned a group of experienced fighters from Iraq, many of them foreign jihadists, into the emerging battlefields of Syria. The group was to be called ‘Jabhat an-Nusra’ (Salvation Front – JaN), and its express mission was to incorporate itself into the revolutionary insurgency against the Assad regime and to recruit from among Syrian jihadis. It’s important to note at this stage that neither party acknowledged the relationship between the Islamic State of Iraq and JaN.
However, following JaN’s successes in using its pre-existing resources from the Iraq insurgency, as well as the fact that its battle experience allowed it to often in the early days lead battles against the regime and thus win first access to battlefield loot, to recruiting a significant amount of pre-existing Syrian jihadis and Syrians looking for a stable fighting force against the better-armed regime and its allies, al-Baghdadi decided it was time to make the relationship between the Islamic State of Iraq and JaN known. He declared that JaN was essentially a franchise of the Islamic State of Iraq and that henceforth both the name Islamic State of Iraq and Jabhat an-Nusra would be void, and this group what be renamed as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi al-Iraq wa-ash-Sham). Moreover, al-Baghdadi declared that the variation of ar–raya (the black banner) used by the group was to be the flag of the coming Khilafah. Thus Daesh was born.
But all was not well within the organisation. The leader of Jabhat an-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani reacted to this by issued a statement claiming that Jabhat an-Nusra was independent of Daesh, as well as restating his bay’ah to al-Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahiri and declaring JaN to be the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. This caused a major schism within the group, with some JaN fighters defecting to Daesh, especially but not solely or entirely the foreign jihadist contingent. Thus began a schism that has led to JaN and Daesh declaring war on one another, while unleashing a wider war raging within the world jihadist movement concerning whether or not groups and individuals should give bay’ah to al-Baghdadi or al-Zawahiri.
So how then was Daesh able to partially eclipse both the Syrian rebels and its al-Qaeda rivals? Was it due to some nefarious plot involving Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the CIA, as has been the obsession of some elements of mostly the political far-left and far-right?
In truth, it did involve a conspiracy of sorts, but it was a conspiracy of pragmatism, involving what can only be described as low-level cooperation with the Assad regime. Within the Syrian revolution and the wider solidarity movements, much has been made about perceived collaboration between Daesh and the Assad regime. For some, Daesh is merely an extension of the regime, created and controlled from Damascus, while for others the Assad regime facilitated the rise of Daesh by releasing thousands of Salafi jihadist prisoners (which is certainly true), using the ‘rat lines’ established during the Assad regime’s infamous facilitation of foreign jihadis, including al-Qaeda-aligned ones, entering Iraq during the Iraq insurgency. Some even believe that the entire Daesh enterprise, both historically and currently, is a byzantine Baathist-Iranian conspiracy, pointing to the fact that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a man with genocidal aspirations towards Shia, was basically sheltered by the Iranian regime at some point before the Iraq war (one can weave all kind of conspiratorial webs, almost all of which can be accounted for by, quite ironically, pragmatism).
It’s pertinent here to understand that Daesh’s core is comprised of a mixture of indigenous Iraqi jihadists and foreign ones, drawn to Iraq during the US occupation (indeed, it’s still a colonialist enterprise, which is why Syrians nicknamed Daesh-held Manbij ‘Little London’ due to the preponderance of British accents among the jihadis). There have been attempts, based on rather superficial and circumstantial evidence, to reimagine Daesh as some kind of continuation of Iraqi Baathism. This theory confuses a number of different events, most notably Saddam Hussein’s attempt to co-opt the growing Sunni Islamist movement in Iraq by momentarily discontinuing his usually brutal crackdown on them by implementing al-Hamlah al-Imaniya (the faith campaign).
Part of Saddam’s faith campaign allowed for Islamist Iraqis to be given officer positions in the security services; thus, when the Iraqi insurgency against the US was formed, many of these former Islamist officers took up leading roles among different insurgent groups. Some of them gravitated towards Daesh’s predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq, and some continue to be part of Daesh, but the vast majority were part of other insurgent groups. The main leadership of Daesh have absolutely no connection to the Iraqi Baath Party and the confusion seems to lie in confusing ideological Baathists with Islamists who were officers in the Iraqi security forces during the faith campaign era. One prominent example is Abdullah al-Janabi, who was part of the Iraqi Baathist security apparatus but not an ideological Baathist, and is now part of the Shura Council of Daesh.
The actual continuation of Baathism in Iraq is Jaish Rijal at-Tariqa al-Naqshabandiya (JRTN – ‘Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order’), a Sufi paramilitary group led by Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, Saddam Hussein’s cousin and the highest ranking member of the Baath Party and former Iraqi Army left (though whether he’s still alive is a subject of much tedious debate). This force allied with Daesh very briefly during its sweep of the North in 2014, but it wasn’t long before Daesh turned on its ideologically antithetical Baathist allies and they have since withered into near irrelevance. Oddly enough, one of JRTN’s last statements was a condemnation of Daesh’s infamous burning-alive of a Jordanian pilot and an appeal for Saudi Arabia and Jordan to fund them to fight Daesh.
To imagine that Daesh is a continuation of Baathism is to massively misunderstand the ideology of Daesh (and Baathism, for that matter), while it mistakes Daesh’s pragmatism, such as allying with what Zarqawi once called ‘infidel socialists’ (Baathists), with some kind of ideological congruence. All of these conspiracy theories are a reaction to one of the stark realities of even the most extreme jihadists – they too are realists and pragmatists at heart.
And this has been one of the key elements of Daesh’s rise. While there is absolutely no evidence for direct cooperation between Daesh and the Assad regime, and while, contrary to some of the more ideologically convenient accounts, they have often been involved in vicious battles with one another (indeed, Daesh’s initial strategy was to ingratiate itself with the rebel forces, leading battles and using the very militarily effective of suicide attacks, all the better to usurp them), it is beyond doubt that the Assad regime and Daesh have strategically ignored one another at the expense of the rebels.
For Daesh, by not devoting its resources to attacking the Assad regime it was able to focus on building up what would become and what now is its Khilafah, which involved violently hegemonising territories it initially shared with rebel forces. For example, in one of the most detailed studies of Daesh and Assad regime military operations in Syria, IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC) found that in one year alone, 64% of verified Daesh attacks had been on the Syrians rebels.
For Assad, the logic behind his ignoring of Daesh is twofold – firstly, by not attacking Daesh he is allowing them to attack and weaken the Syrian rebels, his main enemy, while, secondly, by allowing Daesh to usurp the Syrians rebels, he’s attempting to make himself indispensible to his base as well as posing as being on the frontlines of a war against a ‘terrorism’ that could spread to the West. If Daesh eclipses the Syrian rebels, it makes it all the more easier for Assad and his allies to portray the entire rebellion as ‘terrorist’ and ‘jihadist’. It makes the barrel bombs hitting schools, hospitals and houses a bit more palatable to the domestic and international audience.
The logic is not merely just my enemy’s enemy is my friend, but rather my enemy’s enemy is my friend especially when my enemy’s enemy cloaks itself in nightmarish black and commits brutal spectacles that so perfectly capture and fulfil the fetishised fears of the Western world in the ‘war on terror’ period. Despite Assad’s own terrorism being much more deadly and destructive, it’s muted by the grizzly spectacles that Daesh makes of its very real violence, just as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s notorious beheadings came to eclipse, at least in terms of coverage, the actualities of the non-al-Qaeda Iraqi resistance to the US occupation. The relationship there was one of mutual convenience – Zarqawi got to demonstrate to jihadis and potential recruits that he and his group were leading the jihad against the crusaders, while the US used him to justify the idea that the fight in Iraq was solely one of the US vs. al-Qaeda – a justification of the entire ‘war on terror’ paradigm. In Syria, with Daesh and Assad, it has been almost exactly the same.
So, with this logic in mind, of 982 attacks carried out by Assad regime forces in one year, the JTIC study found that only 6% targeted Daesh positions, while the rest targeted the Syrian rebels. Nowhere has this strategic ignorance been more the case than in ar-Raqqa, the alleged capital of Daesh’s Khilafah. When the rebels initially took most of Raqqa from the Assad regime, the Assad regime ruthlessly bombarded it, but when Daesh pushed out the rebels, the Assad regime went for an entire year without attacking the city, only breaking this unofficial truce with Daesh when the US began its bombing campaign. Such was the extent of the lack of Assad regime activity against Daesh-held Raqqa that the group, in a bid to attract Muslims from around the world, began advertising it as a perfectly safe and family friendly place to live.
As long as Daesh doesn’t infringe upon the areas that are key to the regime’s survival, and as long as it continues to focus most of its offensives on those who are attempting to threaten those areas, namely the Syrian rebels, the Assad regime has been more than willing to leave it be.
Without this indirect cooperation between Assad and Daesh, there is no way that the latter would’ve been able to build its Dawlah (state) and work towards a Khilafah. All across its territories Daesh was able to build up both civil administration and, more importantly, its revenue sources and funding capabilities. It was able to build itself up into an economic behemoth. And this is where the relationship between it and the Assad regime takes another form, which certainly does amount to direct cooperation. The two entities are not in any sense formally allied, but they have both had pragmatic dealings with one another.
Take, for example, the Tuweinan gas plant in Daesh-held Deir ez-Zor, which provides perhaps the starkest example of the bizarre nature of the dealings between the Assad regime and Daesh when it comes to their pragmatic relationship. The plant itself is a joint venture between the Assad regime and Daesh, providing electricity to both their territories. The regime even sends engineers to maintain the plant. In a special report for the Financial Times, the nature of this relationship was elucidated:
“The business deals do not translate into a truce. The two sides continually attack one another’s employees and infrastructure. The regime points to these clashes as proof that such understandings do not exist. In a written statement, Syria’s Ministry of Oil and Natural Resources said: “There is no co-ordination with the terrorist groups regarding this matter.” But it acknowledged some of its employees work under Isis “for the sake of preserving the security and safety of these facilities”.
But others describe the fighting as part of a struggle for better terms, where neither seeks to destroy the other. “Think of it as tactical manoeuvres to improve leverage,” said the owner of one Syrian energy company, who met the FT but asked not to be named. “This is 1920s Chicago mafia-style negotiation. You kill and fight to influence the deal, but the deal doesn’t end.””
One might say this is raw pragmatism on both sides, but when compared with the intransigent exterminationist policy the Assad regime has towards the rebels, literally an attempt via air power to make life unlivable in rebel-held areas, we can only conclude that there’s something more at play here than simple necessity.
In fact, far from the Assad regime using its air force to make life unlivable for Daesh, it has at times used its air force to pave the way for Daesh to attack the rebels. The most blatant example of this came in June 2015, when Daesh began attacking rebel positions in the North of Aleppo, particularly the city of Azaz, which, if captured, would severely impair the main supply into rebel-held Aleppo city. As Daesh approached rebel-held areas on the ground, Assad sent in the bombers to attack rebel positions, forcing the rebels into a retreat near the Turkish border, allowing Daesh to seize several towns and villages.
Islam Alloush, a spokesman for the now defunct Islamist rebel coalition the Islamic Front told the Guardian at the time: ‘Yesterday, the regime attacked Mare’a (which was held by the opposition) exactly at the time when ISIS was attacking us … this helped them greatly … since 2013 … the Syrian regime has bombed us to stop us fighting ISIS properly … ISIS have never attacked regime planes … they owe their success to them.’
Along with the direct and indirect help it has received from the Assad regime, one of Daesh’s strengths has been its ability to sustain itself without any external funding. Daesh is an entity that understands one of the key necessities of statecraft, which is to simply battle for and seize resources that are required to run a state, such as power stations and oil fields, but also ones that can be used to generate revenue. It’s with this in mind that Daesh have targeted urban centres and oil fields, knowing that particularly the latter bring with them both strategic and material value.
The Assad regime here has again been key in allowing Daesh to bring in vast swathes of oil revenue. By 2013, Daesh had managed to capture oil fields in Eastern Syria, but many thought they wouldn’t be of much material value to the group as they wouldn’t be able to either maintain the fields or find consumers for the oil. However, the Assad regime was once again happy to oblige, arranging several oil deals with Daesh, allowing it to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in oil revenue.
At this point, beyond its collusion with the regime, it’s important to note the extent to which Daesh has been able to finance itself using the resources it has seized. This is of course not to say that foreign funding is not part of Daesh’s funding structure, but, according to internal documents seized from the group in Iraq, this funding only accounts for around 5% of its total revenue, with this type of funding being entirely sourced from sympathetic private citizens from around the world.
Indeed, while the pro-Assad line is that it’s either direct funding from mainly Saudi Arabia or at least indirect funding that has been key to Daesh’s rise, all the available evidence shows that there has been no direct funding from any state, while the ‘indirect funding’ argument is simply a politically charged spin on the fact that many groups considered to be ‘terrorist’ receive funding from private individuals and organisations operating within countries. Given there has been fundraising drives and initiatives among Islamists in the UK and US for Hamas and Hezbollah, we might as well say that the British and American governments indirectly fund these groups if we were to apply the logic of those who imagine that the Saudi regime turns a blind eye to this activity.
However, in May 2015, it seemed that those convinced that Daesh were indeed fostered by the West and its regional allies as a means to overthrow the Assad regime had finally received the ‘smoking gun’ they always wanted. The rightwing lobby firm ‘Judicial Watch’, as part of their effort to implicate Hillary Clinton for wrongdoing in the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, had managed to obtain a leaked report from the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), widely reported among pro-Assad websites and media individuals as being indicative of ‘the West’ deliberately nourishing the rise of Daesh. At the time, journalist and current Director of Communications for the British Labour Party, Seumas Milne, writing in the Guardian, accused the US of ‘fuelling the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria’, while, more recently, award-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald cited the conspiracy theory in the wake of Daesh’s attacks in Paris.
One of the ironies of those who hold that the US government and its various agencies and apparatuses are inherently deceitful and deceptive is that they suddenly forget this scepticism when they find something that allegedly backs up their preconceived notions of a particular situation. Unfortunately for those who pounced upon the document as a means to prove once and for all the double whammy of the fact that Daesh or this meaningless category of ‘jihadists’ had always been leading the Syrian revolution and that the US and its allies had actively encouraged the ascension of these forces, the document showed nothing of the sort.
The document in question is an ‘Information Report’ concerning the situation in Syria and how this relates to the DIA and nowhere in it does it describe the US as in any way fostering, fuelling or supporting Daesh. The report initially had a mid-level ‘Secret’ security classification, but was then declassified – one suspects that if it was to include revelations about the US initiating the rise of the world’s most powerful terrorist entity that it might have warranted a higher grade of security classification, never mind being shared around 17 different government departments and eventually declassified. Moreover, the report is a poorly written, mistake-riddled document based on ‘informants’ from agents of the US and, perhaps most importantly, Assad’s ally in the Iraqi regime.
The first and second paragraphs of the report, cited by the conspiracists as incontrovertible evidence of US or ‘western’ collusion in the rise of Daesh and the Syrian opposition being led by them, claim that ‘opposition forces are trying to control the eastern areas … Hasaka and Der Zor (sic), adjacent to the western Iraqi provinces … Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey are supporting these efforts’. The second paragraph then claims that ‘if the situation unravels, there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria … and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime…’
The conspiracists retroactively decide that ‘Salafist principality’ means Daesh’s Khilafah, while ‘western powers’ means the US. Firstly, it’s simply beyond reason to imagine that a report commissioned and written by the US government would simply elide itself with ‘western powers’, so it certainly doesn’t show that the US government had anything to do with this alleged plot. Bearing this in mind, the document itself is a report – it identifies the supporters of the forces who might create this alleged ‘Salafist principality’ as being the ‘Gulf states’, ‘Turkey’ and the ‘Western countries’, but nowhere does it, as an official US government document, advocate the creation of such an entity.
Secondly, the ‘Salafist principality’ that the report, once again, merely suggest could arise in Eastern Syria is expressly not linked to Daesh, which in this document is referred to by the erroneous title of ‘Jaish al-Nusra’ (the joint al-Qaeda and Daesh’s expression in Syria was of course called Jabhat an-Nusra in 2012, as opposed to the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham). This entity is differentiated in earlier paragraphs from what it again erroneously refers to as the ‘major forces driving the insurgency’, namely ‘Syrian Free Army (sic – meaning the Free Syrian Army)’, the ‘Salafists’ and the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’.
In other words, the ‘Salafist principality’ talked about as a potentiality here is not one identified by the authors of the report as being linked to Daesh or al-Qaeda. The report never details what it means by these ‘Salafists’, but we can only assume that it means the major Salafi forces that are active among the rebels, such as by far the largest non-al-Qaeda and non-Daesh Salafi force Ahrar ash-Sham, which has actively fought as allies of the Free Syrian Army against Daesh and has sided with secular forces against Jabhat an-Nusra. Moreover, Ahrar ash-Sham, far from ever declaring a ‘Salafist principality’, has in the areas it has helped liberate alongside secular nationalist forces oversaw the institution of civil rule, particularly in Idlib.
What this document represents is a report that uses intelligence from the Iranian and Assad-allied Iraqi government and erroneously predicts that there could be a ‘Salafi principality’, while it also confuses the very small amount of aid delivered from few western countries, mostly France and Britain (and mostly ‘non-lethal aid’, which was subsequently cut by the British in 2013), Turkey and the Gulf to mainly non-Salafi forces (organised Salafi fighting forces were extremely marginal in 2012, with the Islamic Front, which contained more non-Salafi Islamist forces than it did Salafi ones, only being declared in November 2013) with support for what has been identified by their intelligence ‘sources’ as ‘Salafists’ (possibly the same sources that labelled the peaceful protesters in Hawija during the Iraqi spring as ‘Wahhabis’, ‘Baathists’ and ‘al-Qaeda’). The report directly warns of, not advocates, encourages or hopes for, a resurgence of the Islamic State of Iraq in Northern Iraq.
One of the most ironic things about this document is that far from showing that the US fostered Daesh in order to overthrow Assad it rather definitively proves the precise opposite. It’s in fact a perfect iteration of US policy towards the Syrian revolution since it became a revolutionary war, which is extreme caution towards the prospect of a Syrian rebel victory due to the possibility that whatever comes after Assad will upset regional order, particularly regarding the stability of its regional allies in Iraq and Israel.
The US has never conducted any kind of policy conducive to overthrowing the Assad regime. As the then US defence secretary Leon Panetta stated quite openly in 2012 relating to US policy and its emphasis on ‘stability’ with regard to Syria, ‘the best way you maintain that kind of stability is to maintain as much of the military and the police as you can, along with the security forces … that’s the key’. Does this sound like the agent of a force that was seeking to overthrow the Assad regime by any means, let alone by somehow fostering or aiding an ultra-hostile fascistic jihadi force that would threaten the ‘stability’ of not just every US and Western ally in the region, but potentially the world?
This is again what the pro-Assad conspiracists, at least the ones who are fools rather than knaves, seem to misunderstand – the US understands that order in the Middle East is finely balanced. Far from the US being an existential threat to the Iranian regime, which is a notion rendered as absurd since the two countries began a process of rapprochement following the nuclear deal, the US and Iran both have mutually balanced interests in the Iraqi regime and have done since it was first created. It is in many ways a joint-though-competitive enterprise between US and Iran. And while this doesn’t mean that these two countries haven’t been locked in genuine antagonisms and hostilities, it does mean that as two pragmatic self-interested hegemonic entities, they have much the same interests in maintaining regional order. This can be observed quite blatantly in their military convergence in Iraq as the two most important foreign elements involved in the anti-Daesh counter-insurgency, which is a compliment to their general political and economic rapprochement.
The US’s main intervention in Syria has not only not been aimed against Bashar al-Assad, instead focussing solely on Daesh, but it has not even been primarily about Syria. Its air strikes against Daesh in Syria are concerned with reducing Daesh’s capabilities to move from Syria into Iraq and threaten the territorial integrity of the Iraqi regime and its ample energy resources.
However, in the most direct sense, it’s of the utmost importance to understand the symbiosis between Daesh and Assad – both rely on the very real threat of the other to justify their own functions and entrench their own logics within both their cadre and their base. It is in this case not far fetched to say that Assad and Daesh are a distorted continuation of each other. The Syrian rebels then of course exist as the only plausible antidote to both – they want to interrupt the logic and smash the order that maintains both of these counter-revolutionary entities.
Another popular and powerful myth is that the AKP government in Turkey supports Daesh. This conspiracy theory is actually drawn from older narratives relating to the AKP’s democratic successes in Turkey, ones mostly found among the conservative right, especially neoconservatives and the Christian Right in the US. The general form of this conspiracy theory is pretty cheap Islamophobia – the AKP as a conservative force that expresses what it considers to be ‘Islamic values’ is taken by right-wing western forces to be ‘Islamist’ in its political dimensions. This has manifested in many notable ways, from the idea that the AKP are turning Turkey into a theocracy to Rick Perry, the governor of Texas and presidential candidate, standing on a debate stage during the 2012 Republican presidential primaries and illiterately saying on national television that Turkey was ‘run by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists’ and then questioning whether Turkey under the AKP should be included in NATO.
While much of this animosity from the right stems from the fact that the AKP have reacted with understandable hostility to Israel’s various massacres of Palestinians in Gaza, prompting various critical remarks from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not to mention the infamous Mavi Marmara massacre that inflamed tension between Israel and Turkey, the left have also to a certain extent played up to it. One of the problematic dynamics in Turkey is that the ‘secular’ opposition have in the past represented elite liberal cliques, while the AKP have managed for the first time to root itself among a majority of Turkey’s moderately conservative population. In this sense, the ‘secular’ opposition has sought to portray the AKP government as ‘Islamist’ and somehow a threat to Turkey’s robust secular state, knowing full well that this kind of fear in the age of the ‘war on terror’ appeals beyond Turkey’s border to the West.
While the AKP are historically rooted in Islamist politics, and while their base contains Islamist forces, they not in any practical sense ‘Islamist’. Most pertinently, they are not theocratic in any sense, either incrementally or otherwise – they have preserved Turkey’s secular identity and have not sought to implement Sharia as the soul source of law and institute rule by the ulama. The AKP government has many things ought to be criticised for, but being ‘Islamist’ isn’t one of them – its politics are more akin to that of European Christian democracy of old. It’s socially conservative, broadly economically liberal and democratic.
Given this pre-existing attempt to link the AKP to more radical and dangerous tendencies in the Islamic world, it is no surprise that they have immediately been linked to the rise of Daesh in Syria. Much of it of course has to do with the fact that they have been one of the strongest supporters of the Syrian opposition and armed rebellion in the world, as well as the country that has taken in the most Syrian refugees (as much as 2 million people) and that provides lifelines of aid to the civilian population of besieged and bombarded Northern Syria. In this sense, the idea that it supports Daesh is yet another part of the propaganda narrative that seeks to delegitimize and smear all those international forces that oppose the Assad regime, as well as a means to keep up the idea that the Syrian rebels (the ones Turkey actually supports) are Daesh.
But there’s also another component to it involving the Kurdish issue. Ever since the Assad regime vacated the areas of Syrian Kurdistan allowing the Kuridsh Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), essentially the Syrian wing of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to rise from having relatively little to support to being able to build a one party state in Rojava, the tensions between it and Turkey have been high. Turkey of course fears that an independent Kurdish territory on its doorstep would embolden the cause of the PKK to establish one in the Turkish areas of Kurdistan.
This is further complicated by the fact that as a condition of the Assad regime vacating Syrian Kurdistan without a fight, the PYD agreed not to fight against it. Not only would this mean that Rojava, which is the historic Kurdish name for Syrian Kurdistan, wouldn’t suffer the brutal bombardments and sieges that the Assad regime have unleashed on the rest of Syria, but the Assad regime even continued to pay the bills in some of Rojava’s key civil institutions. This has led the PYD to smashing the organic unity that existed between Arabs and Kurds in the civil phase of the revolution, during which mass demonstrations flying the colours of both the Free Syrian flag and that of Rojava were held against Assad. The PYD as per their agreement with Assad, but also for their own political purposes, obviously had to bring this to an end.
On the rebel side, Turkey has been keen for the desperate rebel brigades not to become too close to any forces that support any form of Kurdish autonomy. These are the circumstances in which the Kurdish and Syrian struggles, despite being at one point materially the same fight, have been separated out and, increasingly, turned against one another. Part of this has been the PYD’s constant claims that Daesh, which has attacked Rojava as it has with rebel-held territories, is funded and aided by Turkey, something that is in turn accepted and perpetuated by the PYD’s comrades in the PKK and their political affiliate the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and then by their mostly left and liberal comrades around the world.
Is their any basis for the idea that Turkey funds or aids Daesh? To answer this question, you have to go back to the beginning of the armed rebellion. Prior to the Syrian revolution, Assad and Erdogan had been close allies, but the moment Assad began to use militarised violence against unarmed protesters, Turkey disowned the government and provided a safe haven for civil opposition forces. But it also decided that Assad was beyond reasoning and that the only option for salvaging as much of Syria as possible, as well as maintaining regional stability and lessening the burden on Turkey itself, Assad had to go. Given the rebels had numerically superiority, but were outgunned by the Iranian and Russian-armed and supplemented forces of the Assad regime, as well as the intervention on behalf of Assad by Hezbollah, Turkey made the decision to veritably open its borders to allow foreign fighters to join the fight against Assad and allow Syrian refugees to re-enter to fight Assad. There’s no doubt about it that many of the foreign fighters that entered Syria went on to join Daesh’s approximately 19,000 strong foreign legions, but the Turkish government and indeed many of the fighters themselves didn’t know that this would be their fate. Turkey thought the jihadists would be numerically small compared to the Syrians and would join moderate rebel forces that it would empower financially. They were catastrophically wrong.
As with Saudi Arabia, far from Daesh being allied with the Turkish government, they have effectively declared war on it. On the 9th of October 2015, merely months after th declaration of the Khilafah, Daesh released a video warning ‘Erdogan, the Khalifa of the Muslim Brotherhood’ that ‘Turkey shall be conquered with the shouts of Allahu Akbar.’
The reference to the Muslim Brotherhood is of some significance. As previously mentioned, the AKP, which isn’t itself affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, have been the vanguards of new developments within Islamism, namely the pursuance of the idea of Islamic democracy, which the Muslim Brotherhood have also adopted. As opposed to the traditional Islamist demand of theocracy, Islamic democracy argues that democracy is a system compatible with Sharia and accepts the broad idea of the collective consensus politics required for a democratic system.
This is of course the anti-thesis of Daesh’s ideology in terms of it being proximate, i.e. appealing to those whose Islamic identity is overtly ‘political’, but preaching against violent jihad and attempting to root Islamic politics in democracy. This is now the modus operandi of every Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated group, from Hamas (who were democratically elected before being attacked by Fatah, backed by Israel and the US), as well as Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party and democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi, of which the Turkish government have remained as the sole supporters amidst a bloody anti-democratic counter-revolution.
In the video, referencing Turkey’s role in NATO and Afghanistan, Daesh go onto say that ‘Turkey has been spearheading the armies of Kufr in fighting the mujahideen [meaning the Taliban] … today the people of treachery continue their malicious ways but in a new and different look’. The latter is an appeal to the idea that despite Turkey now being governed by an entity with roots in Islamism, it is actually just the same as the ‘secular’ forces of old.
Continuing on in the same vein, in August 2015, a Turkish member of Daesh released a video attacking the Turkish government. In the video, Daesh claims Erdogan ‘did not rule by the laws of God … he befriended Americans, Jews, crusaders, atheist PKK members, Ataturk’s secular friends, the Free Syrian Army and the apostate spies of the Saud family.’ The Daesh jihadi then urges the ‘people of Turkey to rise up’ and repeats Daesh’s threats to ‘conquer Istanbul’.
This was not the first threat Daesh had made against Turkey. While Daesh has yet to establish a presence strong enough to declare a Wilayat within Turkey, the group certainly has some Turkish sympathisers who are willing to heed such calls. In June 2015, two days before the Turkish general election, there was a double bombing attack at an HDP rally in Diyarbakir, killing 4 people. The alleged perpetrator was linked to a homegrown Turkish cell named ‘Dokumacilar’ (meaning the ‘Weavers’), which contains Turks that have participated in Daesh’s activities in Syria (such as attending training camps and fighting the Syrian rebels and YPG).
Following this, there have been two more Daesh attacks on Turkish leftists – a suicide bombing in Suruc, which killed 33 members of the youth wing of the mostly Kurdish Socialist Party of the Oppressed, and a double suicide bombing in Ankara, targeting a leftist ‘Labour, Peace and Democracy’ rally, and which killed 102 people. In both cases, the Turkish and Kurdish left and ‘secularist’ opposition responded to the attacks by directly blaming the Turkish government. Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the HDP, immediately responded by stating that the AKP government was complicit in the attack, while many particularly leftist saw it as proof of a conspiracy that the AKP and Daesh were collaborators.
While Demirtas’ claims are overtly political and cynical, one of the genuine areas of confusion that have these conspiracy theories some life was why Daesh would attack leftist opponents of the AKP as opposed to government institutions. The answer to this is mostly like that government institutions are harder to target (the Turkish state’s obsession with the PKK means that it has been criminally lax when it comes to defending its citizens, especially those who sympathise with the PKK, against potential Daesh attacks) and that the attackers were not acting in a formally strategic manner. The attacks are unlikely to have been centrally planned (i.e. from Raqqa), but rather planned within Turkey out of a sense, to paraphrase a concept from Ian Kershaw regarding the functioning of the Nazi Party’s ideological practice without official or centralised diktat (‘working towards the Fuhrer’), of working towards the Khilafah, so to speak, with no authority from the leadership of Daesh, but rather mere sympathisers putting into practice Daesh’s ideological and strategic modus operandi.
In this sense, the obvious targets would be leftists who support the forces that are fighting Daesh in Rojava as well as an attempt to further sow fitna (sedition) among the already tumultuous fault lines that divide Turkish society. Daesh doesn’t want ‘chaos’ as an end as per the rhetoric of Western politics, but rather they want order to emerge out of chaos–their order, with Sunni populations literally terrorised or militarised into acquiescence. This is a core part of Daesh’s strategy – it was already so during the Iraq war, but Syria has only convinced them of the efficiency and fruitfulness of this strategy. If they could make the entire Arab and Muslim world like Syria, they think they could make a Raqqa out of Istanbul, Ankara, Riyadh, Cairo, Tripoli and who knows where else? The sky is the limit.
Another moment when the Turkish-Daesh conspiracy theory became cemented in the minds of many was during Daesh’s much-publicised siege of the Kurdish city of Kobane in the Kobane Canton of Rojava. The siege began in September 2015 when Daesh launched an invasion of the PYD-held Kobane Canton in Northern Syria. Daesh rapidly dominated the YPG, capturing some 350 villages and towns that surround the city of Kobane, leaving the YPG holed up in the city in isolation. Given that Kobane is right on the border between Syria and Turkey, many people expected Turkey to intervene on behalf of the Kurds, but they refused. Many then interpreted this as a sign of Turkey favouring Daesh and allowing and even aiding it to smash one of its enemies.
In reality, the context of Turkey’s lack of direct intervention was the fact that it was being badgered by the US into joining its new anti-Daesh bombing coalition, which the Turkish government was sceptical of due to its complete disregard for the much bigger evil of the Assad regime, which, following the Turkey-based Syrian opposition, it recognised as being symbiotic with Daesh. In October 2015, Erdogan laid out the reasoning behind Turkey’s resistance towards it becoming militarily involved in Kobane (and thus Syria). The President stated that ‘in the struggle against terrorism, we are open and ready for every kind of cooperation … however, Turkey is not a country that will allow itself to be used for temporary solutions … the immediate removal of the regime in Damascus, Syria’s territorial unity and the implementation of an administration which embraces all will continue to be our priority.’
Turkey recognised that its intervention in Kobane would mean its acquiescence to the strategy of the US coalition, which it would see as a betrayal of the Syrian opposition and rebel forces, so it refused. That was one part of it. The other one relates back to Turkey’s obsession with the threat posed to its territorial integrity by the existence of an autonomous Kurdish entity on its border. This is driven by national chauvinism on the part of Turkey, not by ideological affinity between it and Daesh – of course this, in turn, feeds the conspiracy theories among Kurds, but often these conspiracy theories converge with those narratives that seek to de-legitimise Turkey’s support for the Syrian revolution.
Turkey actually went out of its way to ensure that the civilian population of Kobane were out of harms way. As well as providing a safe haven for almost the entirety of the 160,000 civilians who resided in the canton, the Turkish government pressured the US, which was already active in the skies in Syria bombing Daesh positions but which had at first said that the Daesh siege of Kobane was ‘not a priority’ for the coalition, to carry out air strikes against Daesh on behalf of the YPG.
At the time, there was a conspiracy theory that Turkey had been treating Daesh fighters in its hospitals, as if this was evidence of deeper collaboration. The reality was that it had been treating Turkish members of Daesh who had been apprehended by Turkish authorities as part of the fighting, which is their rights as citizens, as well as providing healthcare to fighters of all nationalities who ended up in Turkey. This included the treatment of YPG fighters to a much greater extent than it did Daesh fighters.
Turkey is often also accused of indirectly funding Daesh by buying oil from it, but this confuses the fact that Daesh has been able to use the region’s burgeoning black market to sell oil. Part of this of course includes mafias and illicit oil traders in Turkey, possibly even including corrupt Turkish government officials, but there is no evidence of any state involvement. Daesh utilises middlemen, often from local mafias, who never let buyers know the identity of the seller, which makes it extremely difficult for states to track or target its activities, but far from buying oil from it, Turkey has attempted to shut down its oil-selling capabilities as best as it can.
Contrary to this intrigue, all of the available concrete evidence relating to Daesh shows an entity that takes most of its revenue from confiscations, which is why it targets urban centres, oil revenues and taxes on civilian populations. In fact, in documents leaked from Daesh’s Diwan Bayt al-Mal (Ministry of Finance) in the Deir ez-Zor province of Syria (Wilayat al-Kheir), translated and analysed by leading expert on Jihadism Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, we can see in some detail how Daesh gathers revenues and sustains itself. Al-Tamimi writes:
“Though ideological partisans often see a private Gulf Arab funding hand behind IS, the general consensus now seems to accept that IS is not dependent on foreign donors in any meaningful way, and thus largely acquires its revenues from resources within the territories it operates, including taxation, sales of oil and gas, antiquities and the like.”
Of their total income in Deir-ez-Zor, the largest percentage comes from confiscations (44.7%), with the second largest being from oil and gas (27.7%), followed by taxes (23.7%) and electricity (3.9%). The confiscations in question take the form of a whole number of enterprises, ranging from the looting of homes and businesses that have been abandoned by fleeing residents to confiscating the property of civilians as a punishment for violating Daesh’s laws.
The element of Daesh’s income that is drawn from ‘taxes’ is of much interest in terms of Daesh’s will for statecraft. Far from Daesh being cloaked in conspiracy and somehow anomalous, in terms of its taxation it is not much different to any modern nascent state enterprise. In fact, Daesh’s initial and, in many cases, current appeal doesn’t come from something innate among Muslims or from some conspiratorial enterprise, but rather precisely because it has, while attempting to eradicate borders, attempted often successfully to continue on order amidst perceived chaos. In the context of the Syrian revolution, with the Assad regime unleashing unprecedented violence and destruction against civilians, the state enterprise offered by Daesh, and of course, as previously discussed, allowed to function by the Assad regime, has appealed to those who simply want normality.
As well as this, Daesh has actively attempted, rather successfully, to diversify its income greatly, so that it doesn’t over-rely on one single commodity, which could be damaged or curtailed and thus existentially de-stabilise its project. What the conspiracies and allegations of direct or indirect external state funding miss is that Daesh couldn’t exist if it relied on these things – it’s entire raison d’etre is to exist by itself and for itself as an expanding state. State funding would massively hinder that. When you declare war on the whole world, your weaknesses will be identified and exposed by enemies that are ultimately much stronger than you – if only it was as easy as pressuring a state to stop funding this entity.
Yet this idea prevails at the highest level of politics – Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, reacted to the Paris attacks by saying that instead of bombing Daesh, the UK ought to ‘follow the money’, claiming that Saudi Arabia funds Daesh at the ‘aid level’. While I fear Corbyn is here repeating the propaganda narratives of his comrades in the Iranian regime, this solution he offers is just as narrow and as wrongheaded as the idea that Daesh can be bombed out of existence. In fact, it’s not even a plausible solution, as Daesh does not rely on any kind of aid from Saudi Arabia or any other state. Those who perpetuate these narratives are committing a double crime – one is by obfuscating the material circumstances in which Daesh arose and which its logic is maintained (i.e. Assad’s much more destructive genocidal war), which does a deliberate disservice to those who are victims of such violence, as well as by obfuscating the material realities of Daesh. Both bombing and the fantasies of pretenders like Jeremy Corbyn are pretty much drawn from the same inability and unwillingness to understand either of these things.
While Daesh’s targeting of the ancient heritage of Syria and Iraq is often cited as an example of their nihilistic barbarism or fanaticism, the latter of which they also proudly claim, calling its well publicised demolitions of ancient historical sites as the cleansing of shirk from Dar al-Islam, again, in reality, there is a much more considered reason co-existing alongside its dedication to cleansing the Muslim world of ‘polytheism’. The structures themselves are of no use to Daesh, so they can be blown up, but not before the artefacts contained within these sites have been looted, after which they can be sold for extremely high prices on the black market. This is all part of its attempts to diversify its income for the purposes of protection against ‘economic warfare’ and the targeting of its oil capabilities.
All of this revenue is directed towards statecraft. As Nadan Feldman writing for Haaretz put it:
“ISIS’ increasing economic empowerment, along with its continuing conquest of territory, has strengthened its financial confidence. Last June, it even announced plans to mint its own currency, which it rolled out in September. This plan is yet another step in realizing its desire to establish a sovereign state. Equally importantly, it illustrates the well-oiled administrative apparatus it has developed over the past decade. In fact, according to a report by the Rand Corporation last November, the basis for ISIS’ management model is “more akin to that of General Motors than a religious dynasty from the Dark Ages.””
This is precisely the raison d’etre of its taxation system, which, as has been shown, is the largest part of its income. These taxes are thought to amount to $500 million per annum, which in addition to bank robberies, ransoms from kidnappings and the so-called ‘piggybacking’, where the Iraqi and Syrian states continue to pay for local government in Daesh held territories, money which is of course either seized by Daesh or used for the creation of its own ‘civil society’, such as its police forces, schools, religious education centres.
Daesh is a state whether one likes it or not – totalitarian, gangsterish, violent and ideologically fascistic, but a state nonetheless. Generally speaking and in a less immediate sense than its regional-historical roots, the aforementioned traits are hardly unique to Daesh when it comes to the formation and concretisation of states, which history shows is almost always necessarily violent, especially the brutal, genocide of directly colonial projects, which almost always, as with Daesh’s Khilafah came into the world, to paraphrase Marx, dripping from head to foot and from every pour in blood and dirt.
Daesh has both a centralised hierarchical bureaucracy and devolved bureaucracies, each determined to implement the functions of a state, sometimes in a ramshackle manner, but sometimes in a manner that has proven to be far more effective than its often incompetent and corrupt predecessors, especially in the urban areas where it has successfully entrenched itself among the populace and instituted its repressive apparatuses. It nonetheless has attempted to keep the social relations of statehood alive. Indeed, in an article for the New York Times, there was an eyewitness description of the manner in which the state apparatuses and social relations of Daesh-held territory function much like before:
“Raqqa’s City Hall houses the Islamic Services Commission. The former office of the Finance Ministry contains the Shariah court and the criminal police. The traffic police are based in the First Sharia High School. Raqqa’s Credit Bank is now the tax authority, where employees collect $20 every two months from shop owners for electricity, water and security. Many said that they had received official receipts stamped with the ISIS logo and that the fees were less than they used to pay in bribes to Mr. Assad’s government. “I feel like I am dealing with a respected state, not thugs,” said a Raqqa goldsmith in his small shop as a woman shopped for gold pieces with cash sent from abroad by her husband.”
These are the realities of how Daesh operates. And it was precisely because of this whirlwind of circumstances – Assad’s strategic collaboration, the ‘normality’ of statecraft offered by Daesh, the manner in which it absorbs vast amounts of income etc., – that Daesh was able to rise into a Khilafah. The Syrian war was a goldmine for Daesh both literally in terms of the resources it managed to gather, and figuratively in the way its ultra-sectarian logic was boosted by the sectarian slaughter of the Assad regime.
It’s not merely convenient rhetoric to say that the Assad regime’s slaughter provides logic for Daesh’s ideology; indeed, it allows such an ideology to be reduced to the level of material relations – it exploits and distorts the horrors and instability unleashed by Assad, as well as by imperialisms counter-productive reaction the rise of the Khilafah. In other words, regardless of the extent to which the Assad regime directly fostered this entity, it is ultimately its parent. As order collapsed, and as Syrians were faced with what Zarqawi referred to as ‘annihilating death’, something else was able to rise in its place – something that moulds its own particular fascistic ideology with the usual social relations of a modern state.
We see this most tragically and aptly for those who are forced to live under Daesh’s rule. In an article for the The National, Syrian journalist and author Hassan Hassan describes how Daesh has managed to exploit the circumstances created by Assad to make itself a material necessity:
“A family of eight, for example, left the city of Deir Ezzor due to shelling and bombardment and lived in an ISIL-controlled town in the countryside. The family’s breadwinner could not find a job to sustain his family of four daughters and two sons, including one disabled son.
Eventually the father sent one of his sons to join ISIL which paid a monthly salary of $400 (Dh1,469). The son was since displaced to fight for the group in Hasakah.”
Another case is of a family from Hatla, near Deir Ezzor, who were displaced to a town called Subaykhan. The family’s breadwinner, their 21-year-old son, joined ISIL to support a family of five. The man, who has only visited his family once since he joined the group five months ago, was sent to fight in the Iraqi town of Haditha.”
Almost every state appeals both to material necessity (i.e. military recruitment among the poor), the distortion of fear (using real fears to exploit people for the purposes of servitude and subservience to the state or a particular government) and appeals to identity and existential threats to such identity (characterising a particular enemy as an existential threat and posing as the only force capable of taking on that threat). Daesh is in this sense no different. It appeals to all these things, with the difference being that its particular ideology is directly fascistic and immediately genocidal, while there is very real existential threat to Syrians.
During the ‘war on terror’ al-Qaeda was never going to sack New York City or London, but in Syria the Assad regime has become an ultra-sectarian revanchist entity, backed by a host of foreign brutal sectarian actors ranging from Hezbollah to the Iraqi militia Asayib Ahl al-Haq, which distinguished itself in the sectarian war in Iraq for its brutality towards Sunni civilians. Add to this the fact that Assad’s counter-insurgency tactic, bombarding rebel-held or rebel-supporting areas of Syria, which of course are almost wholly populated by Sunnis, and which has been the number one cause of civilian deaths and displacement, and you have a symbiotic sectarianism playing out. It’s in this context that you could find a Syrian teenager from Deir ez-Zor as part of Daesh’s genocidal invasion force in Hasakah in Iraq.
Daesh embody the chaos of Syria in a very direct manner. Unlike the austere, clinical Salafi Jihadism of al-Qaeda and its cousin in Saudi-Wahhabism, which of course have every interest in maintaining order, Daesh espouse an apocalyptic vision that sinisterly mirrors the crumbling of order during the revolutionary war and their will to build a Khilafah from within this chaos. Indeed, Daesh literally teaches its cadre that a great battle will occur in Syria between the true Muslims and the armies of the ‘Romans’, a battle that will precede Yawm ad-Din (Day of Judgement) and malahim (apocalypse). The location of this battle according to a Hadith of Abu Hurayrah will be located in no other place than the Syrian town of Dabiq near the Turkish border.
As well as naming their English language magazine after Dabiq, they also fought a vicious battle to capture the strategically unimportant town. So not only are Daesh claiming to be fighting for the one true Khilafah, but they also claim to be fulfilling a prophecy to bring about the end of the world and the direct reconciliation of mankind with Allah. This is the project Daesh are building from chaos. The horrors and cleansing are necessary preludes to the ultimate peace – the perfect society. These grand narratives are something that expansive totalitarian, genocidal enterprises have in common, whether it was Nazism’s dream of the Thousand-Year Reich or the perfect society so vividly envisioned by Stalinism. They too cultivated chaos in order to impose brutal order, all for the purposes of some kind of unreachable utopia.
More aptly, to link the phenomenon of Daesh to a process of sectarianisation discussed previously, some of the Shia militias (including Hezbollah) that have invaded Syria at the behest of the Iranian regime are also driven by apocalyptic fervour – many, citing a prophecy believed to be contained in the book of Al-Jafr, believe that the Syrian war is actually a prelude to the coming of Imam Mahdi and the beginning of the apocalypse, while anti-Assad Syrians form the basis of the armies of ad-Dajjal (the anti-christ, who will apparently emerge from Syria) as described in the prophecy. The prophetic and apocalyptic connotations among Shia jihadists of the Syrian war has been fostered by the Iranian regime as a means to rally the troops – as with Daesh but on a much grander scale, they need to work towards a fantasy apocalypse in order to unleash very real apocalypse upon the Syrian people.
On a side note, the apocalyptic factor in Daesh’s ideology represents something of a deeper class divide between the leadership of Daesh and that of al-Qaeda – al-Qaeda’s leaders are drawn mostly from privileged, highly educated elite classes, such as both Osama Bin Laden and Aymen al-Zawahiri, while Daesh’s leadership are drawn much more from the middle and lower middle classes, who are generally much more in tune with and to some extent inspired by the superstitious folkish Islam of the Sunni Arab communities. Along with this, Daesh also have a paradoxical modern quality that can best be seen by its appeal to elements of its foreign cadre, especially the young recruits from Europe raised more on Lords of the Rings and video games than the Hadith. The appeal of this kind of apocalyptic imagery, which Daesh have exploited so well by creating videos utilising footage from Hollywood period epics, has been a successful recruiting tool among people whose relationship to their faith is spliced with popular culture in the West or who can best understand their faith through such manichean and ostentatious modes of expression.
One of the truly disorienting things about Daesh is that it is a genuine anachronism and anomaly. It certainly harks back to the Islamic revivalist movements with state-building intentions of the 19th Century, such as the previously mentioned Saudi-Wahhabi state or something like the messianic Mahdi movement in Sudan that rose up against the Turco-British occupation government in Egypt. It of course finds some kind of affinity, not necessarily ideological, in the histories of various transnational ascendant and collapsing religio-political entities throughout the history of Islam, whether it’s the 11th Century Nizari Ismaili state of the Hashashin, the notorious Qarmatians or the various so-called Khawarij insurgencies, or even in the great caliphates that formed the backbone of the Islamic world. In this sense it’s somewhat rooted in a particular culture within history of the region, but it’s also unique – its form determined by political circumstances and the changing cultural aspects of Islam in the ear of the ‘war on terror’, or the melding of different cultures beyond the middle east with the Islamic faith and, perhaps most intriguingly, in its congruence with settler colonialism.
Daesh have twisted the meaning of hijra, a historic term of great religious and cultural significance to Muslims that refers to the beginning of Islam itself, when Muhammad and his earliest followers migrated under the threat of persecution from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. They present a reimagining of this term and its historical, cultural and religious significance to perpetuate the idea that there is an obligation for every Muslim to come and fight for or work to build the one true Khilafah. It’s an attempt to push the spiritual and emotional buttons of those who understand the significance of this term. The close-knit, persecuted early Muslim community taking flight is an extremely important foundational aspect of Islam, one that has been applied and reapplied to specifically persecuted Muslims throughout the ages – in this sense Daesh’s use of it as a means to promote the migration of jihadis to participate in a genocidal, colonialist persecutory project against local populations in the Arab world is a perfectly crude and brutal inversion of the foundational moral understanding of hijra according to most Muslims. This s desgned to have resonance for Muslims in Europe or around the world who face racial and religious discrimination and persecution. The cliche is that Daesh has no firmer friend than Islamophobia – the cliche is an apt one. They want Muslims to be alienated from and bitter towards their perceived ‘host’ cultures. They relish in the triumph of Islamophobic discourses in the Western world and beyond.
However, beyond even this crude manipulation, Daesh has used hijra in a manner that it is directly colonialist. Shortly after the declaration of the Khilafah, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a statement saying that hijra to the Islamic State was a duty for all Muslims, but he also issued a ‘special call’ for doctors, engineers, people with military experience, administrators and engineers. The east is a career, as Benjamin Disraeli once wrote. It calls to mind the manner in which European imperialist governments used to advertise for professionals to settle and colonise newly conquered lands. But it’s this combination of anachronism and anomaly that gives Daesh a sense of otherworldliness, as if it has leaped into existence straight out of the pages of either a history or fantasy book.
This is why conspiracies are abundant when it comes to every aspect of understanding the group. In this regard, all of its behaviours are given a fantastical significance and thus can only be interpreted conspiratorially – observers often treat its perfectly prosaic behaviours as signs of a fantastic conspiracy because they simply cannot fathom that such an entity, in its spectacular alien grotesqueness, could possibly act in a prosaic manner. Alternatively, such is the lack of understanding and the need for simplicity that Daesh’s anomalistic nature is necessarily reduced to easy to understand conspiracy theories.
There’s one element to Daesh’s rise that is by far the most contentious and the most vital – the perceived failures of the Syrian rebels to function as a force able to fight Assad and Daesh. The conspiracy theorists in the western media, who are by no means marginal, have attempted to say that the Syrian rebels, particularly the Free Syrian Army (FSA), never really existed to begin with and that they were always on an ideological spectrum ranging from Daesh to Daesh-lite. This is of course self-evidently absurd propaganda to any objective analyst of the Syrian revolution, but when one hears it from the much-praised journalist Patrick Cockburn, one has to take it seriously. Or at least take seriously its debunking.
In truth, the very existence of the Syrian rebels, by which we mean those forces whose primary goal is the overthrow of the Assad regime and the institution of a system of governance not determined according to one particular faction, is a miracle. These forces find themselves squeezed between the exterminationist threat of the Assad regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah and various Shia jihadist militias from around the world, as well as now air force and artillery units of the Russian Federation, as well as the counter-revolutionary fascism of Daesh. Yet still they endure.
When Russia intervened directly on behalf of the Assad regime, it was not primarily against Daesh, as they claimed, but almost entirely against these Syrian rebels that allegedly don’t exist. Indeed, Russia has assumed the Assad regime’s role of not just almost completely ignoring Daesh, but of allowing them to advance against rebel positions, as we’ve seen most extraordinarily in Aleppo – the jewel in the revolution’s crown.
As previously mentioned, one of the reasons that these conspiracy theories exist is to obscure why Daesh exist. If Daesh exist because they are part of a conspiracy fuelled by the Gulf states led by Saudi against Assad and Iran, then every Syrian and the entire world must rally behind the Assad regime, but if the reason why Daesh has flourished is everything to do with indirect and direct collaboration with the Assad regime and, more significantly, the unprecedentedly brutal sectarian war, then every Syrian must surely rally behind those seeking to overthrow the Assad regime.
And that’s precisely what the Syrian rebels have been crying out for the world to do. For they, unlike both Assad and Daesh, had to start from scratch – with an extremely limited core of experienced soldiers, the high-ranking defectors from Assad’s Syrian Arab Army, with a periphery comprised of low-ranking inexperienced conscript defectors and civilian volunteers. Even among the defectors, including the experienced ones, they, unlike entities like Daesh that have battle experience against the US, the most advanced military force in the world, have no experience of ‘asymmetric warfare’ against standing armies backed and supplemented by formidable fighting forces like Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah.
It was in this context that in early 2014, after months of Daesh attacking other rebel forces, including abducting and assassinating rebel commanders, and civil uprisings in Daesh-held territories, that a coalition of rebel forces, led by the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front of the Free Syrian Army, a secular nationalist force that received limited funding from, rather ironically given the conspiracy theories, Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Front, launched an offensive against Daesh. This was them announcing to the world that not only was Daesh a growing and very real threat, but that they were the only force that was willing and able to take it and Assad on.
While the offensive was initially successful, the Assad regime, as ever, took advantage of the rebels diverted attentions and limited resources and launched an attack on Yabroud, forcing the rebels to lessen their offensive against Daesh and divert resources to fight Assad. It was the eventual failure of this offensive, due to the rebels being stretched between Daesh and Assad, and a lack of material support from those who had posed as ‘Friends of Syria’, which led Daesh being able to sweep Iraq and declare the Khilafah.
There are those who look at the rise of Daesh and immediately place the blame on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. As I’ve demonstrated, these arguments are by their very nature arguments in favour of the Assad regime and its allies. As well as being flatly false, they seek to necessarily obscure several key facts that point not only what the immediate cause of an entity like Daesh is, but also who are the only forces capable of dealing with it. They seek to obscure the fact that without the Assad regime and its brutal war effort, there simply would be no Daesh in its current form. If Bashar al-Assad had stepped down in 2011, following the popular civil uprising against his tyrannical dynastic rule, Daesh would never have had a presence in Syria, let alone have control over a large part of the country and the fates of its peoples.
The so-called ‘realists’ in the media and political class imagine that the only way to defeat Daesh is to support the existing state formations, agents of the regional status quo, such as the Assad regime, an argument that somehow misses that the Baathist rump state, propped up as it is by massive Iranian and now Russian intervention, controls only 25% of Syria. They utilise conspiracy theories and bogus narratives about the supreme ‘terror threat’ of Daesh to justify the Assad regime’s counter-revolutionary war against Syrians who stand opposed to both Assad and Daesh.
To put it bluntly: the fact is that as bad as Daesh is, the Assad regime is worse. It is it and not Daesh that is responsible for as much as 95% of the deaths in Syria and is a much bigger threat to the people of Syria than Daesh. Of the refugees forced to flee their homes and takes perilous and deadly journeys to foreign lands that are often far from welcoming, the vast majority have fled Assad’s brutal counter-insurgency tactic of targeting civilian areas with his air force in order to separate armed revolutionaries from the people they seek to liberate – to sully the act of liberation itself.
There’s no doubt that an entity like Daesh, as with all forms of chauvinistic ultra-sectarian Salafi Jihadism, represents a wider phenomenon within the Arab and Sunni Islamic world, but this phenomenon will not be confronted by supporting an order that both generally and immediately provides roots for these kind of fascistic entities. The order is itself fascistic. These forces feed off one another – the logic of Daesh is provided most forcefully by the continued sectarian slaughter being carried out by the Assad regime, Iran and Russia, while the logic of the Assad regime, with its appropriation of the ‘war on terror’ is provided most forcefully by Daesh.
There is a third alternative. As with the Sahwat against Daesh’s predecessors in Iraq, the Syrian rebels are the only force capable of tackling Daesh, but this itself can only be achieved if these forces are able to overcome the much more destructive root cause of Daesh, namely the Assad regime and the sectarian war that he and his allies have unleashed.. As long as these forces continue to be ignored, their aspirations once again trampled and smashed by the unprecedented, intransigent brutality of the Assad regime, buoyed by the active imperialist intervention of the Iranian regime and the Russian Federation, as well as passively but so destructively discarded by those in the West who posed as their friends, such aspirations will eventually be transformed into, conquered by or surrendered to the fascistic order offered by Daesh. These catastrophic realities are what the conspiracy narratives seek to obscure. This is why it’s an imperative for all who support the Syrian revolutionary forces to expose these narratives for what they are.