By Tam Hussein
April 12th, 2017
I entered Najiyeh, a small town of no consequence, without their permission. The town claimed to be an ISIS principality. The claim seemed ridiculous but as we drove in to the town it seemed less so. They had fixed the prices, the markets were bustling, even the gold shops were open. It was a stark contrast to what I had heard about their ‘state’. I understood why the people accepted their rule; order is key in conflict especially in one as brutal as this. Even non-ISIS people in the surrounding countryside told me good things about them. “You could bring your case to their courts”, they would say, “and it would be resolved with out fear or favour”. Their entry reminded me of the Taliban being welcomed with loud cheering and flowers in Kabul but they left with the inhabitants shaving off their beards and smoking cigarettes even if they had never touched one before.
A few months later I met Abu ‘Ali in Tarsus, Turkey. The young commander from Ansar al-Sham looked like a young St. Paul, dark black beard with long hair that was slightly thinning on top. He was recovering from a leg injury that if miracles weren’t real, should mean him being minus one leg. The wound was horror personified. Abu ‘Ali informed me that the people alongside the local battalions had kicked ISIS out of Najiyeh.
“Why?” I asked.
“They were harsh people” he replied, I noticed disappointment in his face, it was as if they had betrayed the Syrians. The Revolution, if you will, had made these insignificant men into Mujahideen, warriors of God. Some of these men had been eking out their existence as smugglers, farmers or hiding from the authorities. The Revolution had made them. Now the likes of Abu ‘Ali who had emerged from the mosques calling for the removal of Assad, facing live bullets after Friday prayers were lectured to by Abu so-and-so al-Britani who, only six months ago, was checking out some winding girl’s batty rider in some funked up club. Here came Abu so-and-so to the land of Muslim scholarship and lectured the people on the intricacies of kufr, taghut, tawheed and the incompatibility of Islamic theology with democracy. Syrians didn’t need lessons in creed. They wanted to stop the barrel bombs from killing their children.
A few years later in Saraqeb, whilst filming with Jund al-Aqsa, I was told that the local leader of Ahrar al-Sham had shot the local ISIS emir in the back. The ISIS emir, a native of the city, considered it sacrilege to turn his gun against his co-religionists. However, the leader of Ahrar had no compulsion in dispatching him to eternity. The people had liked the ISIS emir but these same people had also defaced the testimony of faith in the Islamic State’s court house. They wrote sarcastic comments over it. ISIS would no doubt consider it apostasy, still none of the locals had renounced Islam but they too, like the Kabulis had shaved off their beards, increased their smoking even though they readily admitted that smoking was ‘forbidden’ in Islam. More recently, incredulously, I heard an Iraqi man preferring the Iranian backed Shi’te militia, the Popular Mobilisation Group in Mosul instead of ISIS. Moslawis had few issues in raising the Iraqi flag and lowering the ISIS flag, even though everyone knew that the former banner was born in the gentlemen’s clubs in London and the latter in Abbasid Baghdad. And yet without any sense of irony, Moslawis had preferred the latter. Why when everyone professed to be Muslims, did the ISIS come to this? Why did al-Baghdadi’s nascent project fail?
Arguably, ISIS did not lose because of a determined opponent, for they are not short of courage and military experts attest to their mastery of asymmetric warfare. ISIS lost because the local populace stopped believing in them. So much so that the people reviled them more than they reviled Assad. People hate Assad because he killed their children but they hate ISIS for stabbing them in the back whilst they were trying to overthrow former. Assad never claimed to be ‘Islamic’ and in a way, nothing was expected from him. He could do what he wanted, he was after all from a long tradition of Middle Eastern tyrants who crushed uprisings whether they be Muslim Brotherhood, Iraqi marsh Arabs or Shi’ites. Brutal cruelty was expected. Even though the deaths inflicted by ISIS remain minuscule compared to the former, when ISIS claimed to be ‘Islamic’ and acted with such wanton cruelty, it provoked disgust and revulsion from even the most dissolute of Muslims. Even that hard drinking, stripper ogling Muslim who puts his head down on the carpet once a year if that, knows that the bar has been raised. He knows that it is unbefitting for a ‘holy warrior’ to behave thus.
Whatever Graeme Wood argues about ISIS and its level of ‘Islamicness’, what Ahmed on the street recognises instinctively is that al-Baghdadi and his group are far from ‘Islamic’; no Fatwa needed. Muslims are inculcated with a conception of what a Mujahid or ‘holy warrior’ is meant to be. The stories of the Companions of the Prophet, Hamza the lion of God or Omar Mokhtar the lion of the desert, both usually in the guise of Anthony Quinn are found in their mothers’ milk. Sons are named Mujahid, Ghazi, Faris and Shaheed in the hope that they epitomise that exceptional person who perfects his moral and martial virtues in a situation where bestial brutality is permissible and yet he manages to retain his humanity. The nobility of man is truly tested in war.
It is here that al-Baghdadi and his men have failed so miserably. His heroes who populate the telegram channels make Muslims recoil. Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, his deputy, is certainly eloquent and no doubt courageous but ordinary in his brutality and harshness, no matter how many texts his eulogist claims he has studied. Jihadi John too is ordinary in his inhumanity. Go to the local halal butcher on Harrow Road, London and he will tell you that Islamic rites dictate that an animal should be given its final sip of water and slaughtered away from the gaze of another animal to lessen its distress and that of the other animals. Yet, here stands Jihadi John slaughtering innocent men in front of the whole world so brazenly. There is no sense of shame, even Cain felt ashamed after he killed Abel.
There seems to be something thoroughly modern about Jihadi John’s actions as he points that knife at you. Arguably, Jihadi John’s actions have roots in the London of the Nineties, when Jihadi snuff tapes were sold openly outside mosques. These videos showed in graphic detail the exploits of the Chechen mujahideen against Russian aggression in Chechnya. One of the Imam’s who used to teach in Lisson Green youth club, where Mohammed Emwazi used to attend, recalls that soon those tapes:
“…became dark there was a Russian beheaded by some Chechens, and whenever I saw the brothers, some of them would creep up from behind and greet you by cutting you in the neck.”
Perhaps the mood music for Mohammed Emwazi’s deeds had been set up then. The Imam continues:
“I remember, even at the time that this is not how you greet each other, and I always reminded the brothers that the point of Jihad is not to be blood thirsty and I used to quote the hadith of the Prophet: “Don’t look forward to meeting your enemy, but if you meet him remain steadfast.”
Jihadi John is unrecognisable as a Mujahid by your average Muslim, but take Jihadi John to the cold harsh streets of West London and any road man who listens to Stormzy recognises his deed to be pure gangster.
The Mujahid of now is very different from the Mujahid of then. Let us demonstrate this with a tangible example, let us use a paragon of a holy warrior of the 19th century, Abdel Kader al-Jaza’iri. He was also known as the Commander of the Faithful although, admittedly, under the suzerainty of the Sultan of Morocco. Abdel Kader, like al-Baghdadi, tried to build a state by uniting the various tribes in Algeria and was harsh to those who collaborated with the French. Like al-Baghdadi, he was a scholar, a jurist and descended from prophetic lineage. He fought the French invaders and was described by his foes and friends alike as a fearless military genius and as elusive as al-Baghdadi. William Thackeray wrote of him:
Nor less quick to slay in battle than in peace to spare and save,
Of brave men wisest councillor, of wise councillors most brave;
How the eye that flashed destruction could beam gentleness and love,
How lion in thee mated lamb, how eagle mated dove!
And yet the gulf between al-Jaza’iri and al-Baghdadi, as Thackeray’s poem shows is vast. Whilst war is harsh and brutal, the former was known for his chivalry and treated his prisoners humanely; so much so that these prisoners of war petitioned France to release him when he found himself in the same predicament. Some even offered to be his guard of honour on account of the kindness he had shown them. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi showed no quarter. He burns and drowns his prisoners alive. Abdel Kader condemned his brother in law for massacring prisoners, the latter revels in it and encourages it. The sadism is so creative that one wonders whether there is a whole unit in Raqqah whose sole job is to come up with creative and cruel ways to execute people. Al-Baghdadi, this product of the Iraq war, has embraced terror wholeheartedly.
Abdel Kader is careful not to harm civilians. When sectarian riots broke out in the Christian quarter of Damascus he saves countless number of Christians. Al-Baghdadi sends a suicide bomber on Palm Sunday to a Coptic church in Tanta and murders countless. The former honoured men of religion; priests were allowed to minister to the French POWs and act as go-betweens. The latter kidnaps the Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio. The fate of the man committed to building bridges between faiths, remains unknown. Abdel Kader stops the practice of beheading prisoners, the latter puts their heads on social media. The former releases those who renounce their faith to escape, al-Baghdadi doesn’t care if they have converted or not. If they do not accept the Caliphate he’ll send one of his soldiers to ram an explosive laden car into a busy market or get one of his soldiers to line up in rows and offer the evening prayer and then detonate his explosives belt.
As one former ISIS fighter told me, “Dawla [Islamic State] isn’t all that it’s made out to be you know.”
You think? One can’t help but ask how many lives he had to take to come to that conclusion?
“Don’t worry” he reassures me, “they were apostates anyway.”
Fantastic. Lessons have been learnt then, no nightmares when he goes to sleep.
On a final note, Abdel Kader realised that noble ends have noble means. He surrendered because he realised that his battle with the French would be too hard on the surrounding tribes and submitted to Providence. For as the old Islamic adage goes, victory lay in His hands. And yet History wrote this loser to become the victor. Abdel Kader gained universal admiration. His enemies who once reviled him honoured him. The ultimate proof of his moral character comes from the people of Bordeaux who voted to get his name on to the ballot paper for the French presidential elections. As the Progres d’Indre et Loire notes:
“We have learned that certain voters of Bordeaux were so impressed by the manners, the character and royal air of Abd el-Kader, they put his name on the ballot for president of the Republic. If this idea spreads it will hurt Louis-Napoleon. To be a good president one must have a reputation of courage, wisdom and talent. Of the two, would not Abd el-Kader better meet those conditions?”
ISIS and the Challenge of Modernity
In Reims, the nameless flowerless grave of Saïd Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo attacker, is slightly apart from the other dead souls. It is as if he would offend the repose of the interred Muslim souls. In this solitary place one of the sons of the dead asked me what I was doing taking photographs of this newly dug grave. I couldn’t deceive the man and told him whose grave it was. The Franco-Algerian spat on Kouachi’s grave and cursed him. The man, no doubt loved the Prophet just as much as Saïd Kouachi did and yet he shouted: “How is my father going to have peace next to this dog!”
Kouachi didn’t belong to ISIS, but Kouachi and indeed Ahmed Coulibaly one of his companions had the same father. I pitied Saïd Kouachi, few Muslims will ever raise their hands in prayers for this man’s soul. His children would be ashamed to acknowledge him and they will feel strongly the shame of Oedipus Rex himself. I would wager that if I had asked that French Algerian visitor to his father’s grave whether Kouachi was a Mujahid, I would know what that reply would be. He may have understood Kouachi’s anger, he may have experienced the deep racism of French society towards its Muslim population, but I know what his reply would be. I have asked similar questions in all the major terror attacks in the European mainland, Paris, Brussels, London, Stockholm and the average Muslim knows that these men are far from Abdel Kader or Hadji Murat. Kouachi lies in a nameless grave remembered by none. Abdel Kader has a city named Elkader no less than in Iowa and Hadji Murat has a novella written in his honour by an old foe of his, Leo Tolstoy. Both Abdel Kader and Murat lost, and yet Providence in spite of the victor writing history, has preserved their names. They inspire universal admiration. They were ‘holy warriors’ if you will, where as Saïd Kouachi at best was just a ‘warrior’ and at worst a butcher- and a very modern butcher at that.
Let us use General Petraeus’ playbook, Jean Lartéguy’s, The Centurions, to demonstrate the last assertion. Ostensibly, The Centurions follows the journey of several French paratroop officers from defeat at the hands of the Communists in Indo-China to a victory of sorts in Algiers. But in the process of defeating the F.L.N in Algiers they loose something of themselves. Whilst the novel is blind to the century of oppression that Algerians tasted, it is nevertheless a deep rumination on modern warfare and based on Lartéguy’s own experiences as a paratrooper and war correspondent. Lartéguy realises very quickly that the F.L.N used Jihad as a rallying cry for independence, but what it produced was something thoroughly different: it created an Ersatz France. This is why the novel is useful for this essay. Arguably, ISIS too has done the same and produced something that appears to be a bastardised version of what a caliphate is ‘meant’ to look like in their very modern mindsets.
In some ways what Abbas and Mohammed expected of these very ordinary fighters who called themselves mujahideen were exceptional standards in virtue. What they got instead were merely the usual fare. They were like everyone else, they looted, they robbed, they killed and behaved just like every other militia in the world. There was a banality in them and an absence of holiness. Al-Baghdadi was just like Saddam Hussein, ordinary. He was part of the fabric of rulers and tyrants in the region’s bloody history from Saffah to Sisi who massacred men for worldly authority. There was very little difference between a Mujahid, a warrior and a terrorist. It is as an F.L.N leader opines in The Centurions:
“What difference do you see in the pilot who drops cans of napalm on a Mechta from the safety of his aircraft and a terrorist who places a bomb in the Souq- the terrorist requires far more courage.”
But the F.L.N leader forgets that what was expected from the Mujahid was not just the courage to step into a truck laden with explosives. The modern mujahid might be a master of asymmetric warfare but he was not meant to be stuffing explosive booby traps into dolls and toys such as those found in Mosul. For whilst the Prophet has said “war is trickery” would he sanction such an act? Does the Muslim martial tradition not abhor such things? Otherwise surely the ‘holiness’ of the warrior has been lost to the banal ordinariness of all warriors. Is he merely an ‘atheist’ mujahid like Mahmoudi in The Centurions, who prays but does not believe in God? Is he then the sort of Mujahid who has to suppress his moral conscience for the sake of victory? The modern Jihadi seems to have sent paradise to hell, and is simply not too bothered if children, the elderly, women, monks, fruit trees or the enemy’s flock are destroyed, even if his religious tradition forbids him from touching them. This Jihadi seems to revel in it. Mohammed Rezgui, for instance, filmed himself elated before gunning down innocent British tourists in Sousse, Tunisia. But the post mortem autopsy seems to suggest that the drugs found in Rezgui’s body created:
“The feeling of exhaustion, aggression and extreme anger that leads to murders being committed. Another effect of these drugs is that they enhance physical and mental performance.”
Why would a holy warrior need to take an amphetamine type drug in order to commit a ‘virtuous’ act? What exactly was he suppressing? Was he like those French paratroopers who were suppressing that feeling of guilt that the intangible soul within knows is committing something morally reprehensible?
In some ways then, the Jihadi is so thoroughly modern that the average Muslim on the streets turns around and says: hang on, this isn’t what we were told by our mothers and fathers. We weren’t reared on Osama bin Laden or Zawahiri but on Hamza, the Lion of God. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had become just like the French Paratroopers and F.L.N leaders in The Centurions: in order to win they had to loose their souls.
Come, let us be generous, and afford al-Baghdadi some empathy as we do with the protagonists in The Centurions. We are generous towards Esclavier even as he slits the throats of all the men in an Algerian village. Perhaps the reason why al-Baghdadi joined Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda franchise was for similar reasons outlined by the head of French intelligence in Algeria, Jean Vajour who noted the heavy handed tactics of the French:
“To send in tank units, to destroy villages, to bombard certain zones, this is no longer a fine comb, it is using a sledgehammer to kill fleas. And what is much more serious, it is to encourage the young- and sometimes the less young to go into the Maquis [rural guerrilla fighters]”