Killing bees with a sledgehammer?

So after about two months of intense work through a number of lectures, interviews and talks, for which I am grateful to have been invited to give, I notice that many of the continuing questions I receive currently are aimed at understanding not only how, but why IS still advances. Military experts seem to be in total agreement that the caliphate decreases geographically as coaliation forces and joint efforts on the ground are seizing control over strategically important cities. This is only partially true. In the main region yes, however IS expands its provincial reach by establishing affiliating bases in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and other mostly North African countries, but also in the far east towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is easy to be blinded by potential military success in Syria and Iraq, however it is an overestimation to say that current military efforts decrease the strength and spread of IS. That aside, the ideological and regional context are not only more worrying but at the same time also constitute the framework in which the true possibilities to engage and facilitate resistance exist. Reasons for this has an important historical outline.

Sunni vs. Shia context

IS takes a narrative point of departure in the treatment of sunni muslims in Iraq after the US invasion 2003. When removing the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein regime, the sunni minority in the country (which in comparison to shia muslims had been favoured the most by the regime and constituted about 20 % of the Iraqi population before the declaration of the caliphate) became politically marginalized. An insurgency grew from the dismantlement and former Baath Party members, leading generals etc in the former regime, became a strong part of this insurgency. Groups like Al-Quaida and above all IS absorbed this insurgency and politicized it in forms of seeking to build its state.

Two major dimensions must be regarded in this political, religious and weaponized project. First, the importance for IS to restore sunni political power in Baghdad after the war(different from Saddam Hussein as his politics were more secular and promoted Arab nationalism) and second, to unify Aleppo in Syria and Baghdad in Iraq under a joint rule of government. This unification is one of many endeavors by IS which can clearly be related to the islamic theology and history they are relying on. In addition, unification of that kind also constitutes a significant message of a vision needed to be sold to the sunni populations and tribes in these countries. By embedding this message in fear of ’kufr’ (non-believers) and a firm belief in the ’tawhid’ (the concept of monotheism and oneness with God) –  IS is to be perceived as the restorer of ”true” muslim faith and the great caliphate. So it’s a messianic vision with a strong political project underneath that in combination is not only powerful but also lethal in the increasingly tensed divisions between sunni and shia in these countries.

Speaking oh this division, what IS primarily has done over the years is to appeal to local sunni populations, playing on the concept of victimhood, mantling the role as defender of marginalized sunni groups in the region. The US left power in Baghdad to a shia minority and it didn’t take long for domestic and religious tensions to accelerate. In Syria, the Assad-regime continously tormented its citizens and still contributes widely to the deconstruction of Syria as we once knew it. So in the world of IS, there is an interplay between victimhood and strong aggression. These perpetual factors are intertwined and one cannot exist without the other.

The real enemy for IS, or primary might be a better word, seems to be the’rafik’ (their word for shia muslims) of Iraq. They are currently under the influence (and protection) of the Iranian revolutionary guard due to intense negotiations between the US and Iran, regarding operations in Iraq. One of the main figures in sunni islamist terrorism and Al-Quaida operations in Iraq after the US intervention 2003, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi (dead 2006), early targeted the shia muslims as main enemies to destroy in order to have any possibilities to advance in the sunni jihadist project that later became IS. His approach and strategy to gain support from the sunni populations for Al-Quaida in Iraq was to strike against shia muslims in the most explicit way (burning their mosques, ruthless killing through religios motivations etc.) and make them retaliate. Because when an aggregated shia population were to do so, sunni muslims in the region would be empowered to join Al-Quaida in defending the sunni tradition and people of the (true) islam – a role now taken even further by IS.

The need for sunni awakening and cooperation

And today? Iranian, US and Syrian airstrikes bombing IS (self- proclaimed protectors of sunni islam and sunni muslims under their governing). Present foreign policies and military efforts of these coalition countries are increasingly playing in the hands of IS and also makes their messaging of victimhood and protectors against enemies and threats, more powerful for the sunni muslims in the region. Considering the historical context, this message is not hard to sell to ravaged and marginalized sunnis in fractioned countries. Many simply see an alliance between US, Iran, the Assad-regime in Syria and the shia-muslims in Iraq, Iran and other actors joining, and this makes the threat more evident, one-dimensional and enhances the image of IS as protectors, not villains, in the eyes of sunni groups and populations. I consider this to be the main reason for why there is no sunni insurgency within the ruled areas, rising against IS.

And let’s be honest. The only initial thing that truly and effectively can challenge the spread and further establishment of the IS caliphate, is to have sunni-muslims, regionally and internationally, to work together in a new joint rise (comparable to the Anbar Awakening in 2006 when roughly 30 tribes in the Anbar province stood up against Al-Quaida in Iraq) – something IS is determined to prevent from happening again and towards them. If acknowledging this, western states and policy makers are to engage in altering not only the political (military) strategies but also challenge the deeply rooted and continously growing belief among sunni muslims, that the US (and west in general) are out to get them.

Understanding the basis of IS, its core, background, vision, aim and especially strategies to achieve it expands our knowledge about these issues. Through it we can better prepare and execute the necessary ideological countering against islamic extremism. But by only advancing on a military front we can easily draw an analogy to hitting a nest of bees with a sledgehammer.

It just doesn’t work. No matter how hard you hit.

 

Women in IS media enterprise of violence

 

After the attacks against Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this year as well as the more recent mass-shooting in San Bernardino, California, much media attention has been given to the role of women in radicalization and processes of recruitment to the Islamic State (IS) and other radical islamist terrorist organizations. Reasons for this are primarily a result of the fact that women in different levels were involved in these attacks, which seem to have come as a surprise as it contradicts a norm of terrorists are equal to men (especially in islamist radical organizations). This post is about this misconception.

In a time of a rhetoric of war, followed by political decisions supporting the verbal strategy, a much needed interest for how women are recruited has almost been neglected. The obvious reason why would be that military operations, islamic terrorism and all the discourses surrounding these issues – are framed through a very male perspective and understood through the same lens. Yes, the vast majority of foreign fighters travelling to join IS, or for that matter other self-proclaimed jihadists operating in Iraq and Syria, are men. However, a crucial fact is that far more women than mainstream media highlights, have been and are travelling to join as well. Men and women are socially vulnerable for exposure of radical ideologies, but in somewhat different ways. Extremist organizations use these differences in their attempt to target potential recruits (and simultaniously play on and exploit the established gender roles of western society).

Is the Islamic State different than similar organizations in this matter? Yes. Several reports on the quantity and frequency of tweets coming from pro-ISIS accounts (some argue for around 100 000 tweets each day). A large part of these tweets seem to come from women, which totally reverse the way Al-Quaida or the Taliban regime work with women as a central part of the propaganda machinery. IS truly puts effort in trying to make women visible, not only in terms of media quantity, but also in qualitative terms in virtual and physical spaces. Let me give you some excerpts.

The fact that IS recruitment strategies reach beyond online engagement and above all focus on physical presence in communities and mosques around Europe, is especially important to consider when higlighting the attempt to reach out to women from mainly a younger generation. Female recruiters are commonly used as a mean to make contact with younger female muslims in diasporic communities, for instance by physically handing out leaflets on the streets of London. Since much of the radicalization processes aimed at women involve promises of a new and better life, a life in which they have a significant role to play, an honorable existence and prospects of a future to practice their faith without feeling alienated – it differs from how men are primarily being targeted. There are ideological positions given to men and women respectively (basically enhancing their function in the nationbuilding and the utopian future) and this type of differences in gender-based emphasis must be stressed before attempting to draw political lines for effecient countermeasures.

In the media productions coming out of IS, female representations are significantly different in comparison to how men (usually younger male fighters) are being framed. Women are primarily portrayed as core of the family and of the intimate spheres of life in the caliphate. Messaging reveals how belonging and unity around the notion of freedom to practice religion and faith (the opposite of life in alienated European countries characterized by polarization and islamophobic measures) are clearly being adressed. In these type of messages, IS certainly draws upon the notion of contemporary polarizing nodes and structural injustice in western countries (muslims/non-muslims, religious/atheists and also men/women) and thereby attempts to further divide and appeal to especially muslim womens desire to improve life.

But also, if we look at the actual storytelling in many of the produced videos and reports coming out of the media centers under IS, much evolves around younger male jihadists, their journey towards martyrdom, their preserverence for the cause and their heroic efforts for the caliphate. So there is an attractive adventurism and heroism attached to men in the strategic media messaging, with hopes of targeting potential female recruits. The glorification of male jihadist fighters is central in this matter and constitute a substantial part of the propaganda.

In addition to this, IS consider women to be essential for the state itself to function both now and in the future. At present women dominate tasks of collecting taxes, medical and caring duties and above all within the educational system. They are also targeted for raising children, establishing family structures and values and appear as equal to men in terms of importance, however with different tasks and obligations

 

Life for women under the ruling of IS, is though completely different.

 

Taking all these aspects into consideration, it is not surprising to find women as being key figures in attacks inspired by the enterprise of violence that is the Islamic State.