Over the years there have been many Western-centric interpretations of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’, the AQ single narrative, claims the ‘West is Winning‘ or that Salafi-Jihadi groups are ‘defeated’.
The shift to using social media made the material the Salafi-Jihadi movement produce easier to locate which created an opportunity for greater numbers of researchers to comment on these groups. Some of this commentary, often from within orthodox Terrorism Studies, has based the analysis on what they understand from the writing, images, nashid and video they came across – in effect they are asking; what does this mean to me?
It is only in a western-centric context or an environment, which tends towards neo-colonialist approaches, that ‘Utopia’ might seem a reasonable interpretation. Look back – how many articles claiming to have identified material about a jihadi ‘utopia’ quote any Salafi-Jihadi text talking about utopia?
When you take a moment to examine references to Utopia in Salafi-Jihadi texts, a stark reality becomes clear – there are more articles by researchers claiming to have found evidence of a ‘jihadi Utopia’ or a ‘Utopian narrative’, than there are genuine references to Utopia in Salafi-Jihadi literature.
This is because the focus on concepts such as ‘Utopia’ and Western interpretation of victory and defeat are artefacts which result from Western researchers’ tendency to view material through their Western-centric lens or habitus.
In the current context, the message that ISIS is defeated, may be politically expedient when tweeted by Donald Trump, echoed by supporters and reinforced by researchers pushing their new book in that policy environment. It is possible to produce a definition to back expedient claims of ‘defeat’, as authors of the ISIS Reader have attempted to do. This type of commentary may provide easy and comfortable material for policymakers to read. However producing material that is comforting for policymakers is not the purpose of progressive research.
The purpose of research is to develop a deeper understand the object of study.
Claims of ‘Utopia’ and ‘defeat’ fail to reflect reality on the ground, do not capture what the Salafi-Jihadi movement means or believes, and as such do not act as useful predictor of the future behaviour of Jihadi groups.
Far from defeated, al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, as a fighting force, “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, a claim supported by a CIA assessment. UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.
Instead of contorting definitions to fit a Western-centric notion of defeat, a more progressive approach would focus on analysing what the intended audience understands by the material such groups produce, and what the groups themselves intend to communicate. This means being able to quote prior Salafi-Jihadi material to back that interpretation. In effect, progressive Terrorism Studies would focus on reading the lips of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, as Reuven Paz suggested over a decade ago.
As detailed discussion of the meaning of Jihad has already filled many volumes, this post focuses on a single specific issue. A progressive approach leads to a different understanding of what victory and defeat mean for Salafi-Jihadi groups. This post shows how an evidence-based interpretation differs from the more common interpretation produced by neo-colonialist elements of orthodox Terrorism Studies.
The major distinction between a progressive and the orthodox approach to Terrorism Studies can be encapsulated by the difference in interpretation of victory and defeat. In light of the continued fighting and estimates of fighters – consider which would be the more accurate predictor of continued violence:
- The definition of defeat proposed by some within orthodox Terrorism Studies – that losing territory is defeat – based on Western military theory.
- The Salafi-Jihadi understanding of defeat based on the perspective expressed in theologically inspired material produced by the Salafi-Jihadi movement and the demonstrable willingness to continue to fight.
A progressive perspective
A progressive approach proposes the second option and bases the interpretation of contemporary Salafi-Jihadi writing based on the thought expressed in the previous writing, audio and video. This approach is typified by the ability to quote from earlier texts, trace the development of the Salafi-Jihadi ideas, and identify the references to historic writing and Koranic verses which are incorporated into contemporary books, newspapers, magazines and videos. The progressive approach focuses on evidence-based interpretations because these theological concepts anchor contemporary jihadist media to its historical foundations.
Understanding those theological chains of thought and how they are interpreted by the core of the Salafi-Jihadi movement provides the best predictor of the actions of the movement. As a result, research design based on the constants of Salafi-Jihadi theology is a fundamental element in the process of developing an evidence-based approach and strong data culture within a progressive Terrorism Studies.
Media Jihad, like other approaches to Jihad, continues to the final hour – as a result, the missionary work of al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya (IS) has and will continue despite the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. For Salafi Jihadi groups, religion is about constants which are valid for human believers throughout time (since the revelation). Da’wa, missionary work, part of which has been undertaken electronically for the last past two decades, is part of these constants that make up the Jihadi framework of reference.
Salafi-Jihadi definition of defeat
Salafi-Jihadi groups have continued to fight uninhibited by the pronouncements of their defeat. This makes understanding the meaning of events in a Salafi-Jihadi worldview a vital part of research. Salafi-Jihadi worldview is entirely different from the Western-centric interpretations which are abound in orthodox Terrorism Studies.
The progressive approach to analysing Salafi-Jihadi groups uses an evidence-based methodology – this means being able to quote from the archive of Salafi-Jihadi writing to demonstrate the constants which are present in historical and contemporary material as these in combination with the context in which a group finds itself are the best predictors of future behaviour.
Salafi-Jihadi groups interpret events based on their current context and the constants contained in their theological worldview. They take seriously the command encompassed in the recent IS magazine ‘And Prepare Against Them’ – as has been repeatedly shown by Salafi-Jihadi groups over decades. Salafi-Jihadi groups have operated online and offline communicating to those willing to receive their message a mixture of pedagogical content (theology in the framing of “why we fight”) and military/terrorist operational art (“how we fight”).
As a result, when open fighting is not possible, Jihadi groups prepare for their next opportunity, the fertile soil.
..one of the most important fundaments for training in our jihadi Resistance Call is to spread the culture of preparation and training, its programs and methods, with all their aspects, by all methods of distribution, especially the Internet, the distribution of electronic discs, direct correspondence, recordings and every other method.
For example, context plays an important role in determining the meaning of the word da’wa. Da’wa mostly means propagating or calling to Islam, in reference of missionary work, an important pillar for all major religions. However, depending on context, it can also have a much more broad meaning, akin to general calls to act on behalf of Islam, or, as in the case of the title of as-Suri’s famous book ‘Global Islamic Resistance Call’, the word translated here as ‘call’ is Da’wa.
Applying this understanding to the nature of Salafi-Jihadi groups, it is apparent that the Jihadi movement have a dissimilar understanding of their purpose to those with a neo-colonialist agenda within the Terrorism Studies orthodoxy. For Salafi-Jihadi groups from AQ to Taliban to IS – ‘territorial loss’ is not defeat.
This can be shown through a range of writings from previous Salafi-Jihadi authors. For example, Yusuf al-‘Uyairi listed a range of meanings of defeat in Constants on the Path of Jihad, they were, in short;
- Following the way of the kuffar
- Accepting their Supremacy
- Inclination towards the kuffar
- Obeying kuffar
- To lose hope *Some Jihadi translations into English write “loose hope” – the text makes it clear it is to abandon hope e.g. ‘giving up on the victory of God’ so ‘lose’ is used here.
- Giving up the banner of Jihad
- Giving up hope on military victory
- Fear of the enemy
For the Jihadist movement, the timeline for victory extends to a spiritual dimension beyond death. In addition to the meanings of defeat, Yusuf al-‘Uyairi noted 11 meanings of victory in his book, Constants on the Path of Jihad, of which only one meaning is what a post-Westphalian state would refer to as victory on the battlefield. As such, the interrelated concepts of victory and defeat, for al-‘Uyairi, are not limited to the temporal or physical constraints of victory/defeat which dominate the mindset of post-Westphalian states and orthodox Terrorism Studies.
Similar understandings of victory and defeat can be found throughout the writing of the Salafi-Jihadi movement. This is an important reference point for evidence based research, as a key aspect of any struggle is how victory occurs within the minds of an adversary, and when an adversary is likely to believe it has been defeated – or in other words, what is success in an adversarial struggle?
As Anwar al-Awlaki explained in the 44 Ways to Support Jihad;
Victory here doesn’t necessarily mean against their enemies in this world. It means that they would succeed in preserving the religion and fighting for it until they die and meet Allah. It means they will never give up, compromise, or falter in carrying on the banner of Islam.[i]To illustrate the importance of this meaning of victory / defeat, Anwar al-Awlaki recalled, in 2009, the story of the “people of the ditch” (Companions of the Ditch). This is a theological element that appears consistently within the Salafi-Jihadi literature[ii];
These were a nation who became Muslim and the king wanted to force them to apostate and they refused. So he dug for them trenches and he filled these trenches with wood and he set fire to them and he would throw them one after the other in the fire until they would burn to death. They didn’t win, they were all killed till the last man. Men, women and children were all burnt alive and they did not win. It was the king who won against them. But what does Allah say about it in Quran? After he mentioned the story Allah (Azza wa Jal) says: “That is the great victory”. Why is it called victory? Because they were steadfast till the last moment, they didn’t give up. If they gave up, they would have lost.[iii]The “Companions of the Ditch” illustrates a specific concept of victory / defeat, which would be familiar to readers of other texts produced by the Jihadist movement. We can show both purpose and success consistently extend beyond the physical world from earlier iterations of the movement to the more recent material from al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya.
For example, in The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance, Abu Mus’ab as-Suri quoted Sura at-Tawbah: 111.
Verily, Allah has purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the Paradise. They fight in Allah’s cause, so they kill and are killed. A promise binding on Him in truth in the Taurat [Tora] and the Injeel [Bible] and the Qur’an. And who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah. Then rejoice in the bargain which you have concluded. And that is the great victory.[iv]
Defeat and al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya
In addition to familiar figures from the past such as al-‘Uyairi, al-Awlaki, and as-Suri, the interrelated concepts of victory and defeat are equally clear in the media produced by al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya. For example, a nasheed released by al-Hayyat Media Center, about the battle for the Philippine city of Marawi begins:
Diamonds and pearls and palaces are waiting the men of tawhid, virgins and wine, never ending time in gardens with rivers beneath. Holding firm to the rope of Allah are the brothers in Marawi. Engraved in their heart is the love for their lord and for him they continue to bleed.[v]
Those ‘brothers’ who remain steadfast, by ‘holding firm to the rope of Allah’ will receive the reward for victory in paradise. This continuing element in the meaning of victory within contemporary Jihadist content was exemplified by another example from the province of Kirkuk (ولاية كركوك). In this video entitled The People who are Steadfast (اهل الثبات) an ISIS fighter speaking directly to the camera references both Marawi and Mosul as demonstrations of the Jihadist interpretation of victory.
I guess it is clear from the overall situation that we have already won the battle on the field of morale and ideas, winning it on the ground is just a matter of time, by the grace of Allah.[vi]He goes on to explain this perspective in a way which is important to the understanding of victory within the Jihadist movement. First, he highlights the importance of hardship in attaining victory by linking their actions to the experience of prophet Muhammad;
For a Muslim, trials and tribulations carry great gifts from Allah within them, we’ve been living under siege in Wilayah Kirkuk, although it seems like a hardship for a moment, however it is a divine honour from Allah to simulate those who were the first carriers of this message. We are under an embargo similar to the embargo that the prophet (Peace and blessings be upon him) along with his followers went through in Mecca. We are under siege just like the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and his companions were under siege during the battle of the trench.[vii]Accordingly, hardship has a role as part of attaining victory:
This is the nature of this path, this is how it has always been for anyone who carries this message throughout history. It is the path of trials and tribulations which purifies our ranks and prepares us for the upcoming victory … and ultimately grants us the highest ranks in Jannah.[viii]
This echoes many earlier writings for example, in the section entitled ‘The Fourth Path – Patience and Steadfastness’ in Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir’s Paths to Victory, the following verses are used to highlight the struggle on the ribat:
‘O you who have believed, persevere, outlast [your enemy] in patience, perform ribat, and fear Allah that you may succeed’” (Reported by Malik from Zayd Ibn Aslam).[ix]“We will surely test you with something of fear, hunger, poverty, death, and lack of food – and give glad tidings to those who are patient” (Al-Baqarah 155). At-Tabari said, “Allah tells the followers of His Messenger that He will test them and try them with hardships in order to distinguish those who will continue to follow the Messenger from those who will turn back on their heels” (At-Tafsir).[x]
Where the Coalition information operations and commentators have emphasised the killing of many fighters and demolition of formerly IS held cities as defeat for the Jihadist forces, Jihadists interpret these events differently. Addressing ‘the crusader coalition lead by the pharaoh of today’ (America) the ISIS fighter from Kirkuk continues;
When will you understand that you are fighting people who view the rockets and bullets or whatever weapons you use against them as keys to the highest ranks of paradise. We chose this path to either live as (honoured) Muslims, worshiping Allah as he commanded us, or even better to meet our lord; there is no third option.[xi]
Although commentators mistakenly claim ISIS does not mention losses[xii], here the video directly references losses but is clear that this is not how victory is measured.
victory is not measured in square kilometres rather it is measured by the overall outcome, including the outcome in the hereafter, and not short-term achievements. It is true that we lost ground, but with every day that passes the reality of the battle is becoming apparent to the Muslims worldwide, that this is a global campaign against Islam and the Muslims, it is a campaign against the Sharia and the very basic fundamentals of Islam.[xiii]
While within orthodox Terrorism Studies ‘territorial loss is defeat’ passes as an acceptable interpretation, for the individuals involved, victory / defeat is not about the area of land held. It is in following what they believe to be the true path of Allah measured through entrance into paradise.
Equally through their actions, demonstrating steadfastness they act as role models to others.[xiv] The final section of the video also shows the value which IS (and the Jihadist movement) place on the physical destruction caused by Coalition and other anti-ISIS operations. This is used to create a connection between contemporary events and historic events. In doing so they demonstrate their steadfastness (as they believe others have before them) in continuing to fight until the city around them is reduced to rubble.
The recent statement by the ‘Spokesman of the Islamic State’ Abu Hamza al-Qurashi continued this theme.
They found no way to battle the Islamic State except by pouring their hatred in the form of molten lava over the Muslims in Iraq and Sham. Thus they destroyed their cites, killed and maimed thousands, until the epics of Ramadi, Mosul, Sirte, and al-Baghuz took place. After which they declared their victory over the Islamic State, without celebrating their alleged victory for too long. As they know with certainty their claims of eliminating it are belied just as they were from before. How [could they claim victory] and its soldiers remain in various lands, with some of them maintaining empowerment within, by the bounty of Allah, while the affliction upon the kafirin and apostates has not ceased for an hour?
This complex combination of interpretations is not an attempt to build a brand around violence or presenting themselves as victims. It is giving da’wa. In following this approach, recent statements mirror the interpretations of ‘defeat’ laid out by previous generations of writers within the Salafi-Jihadi movement. Abu Hamza al-Qurashi’s statement highlighted the history of premature claims of victory from the West;
Thus we say to the protectors of the Cross, America, and her allies from the Arab and non-Arab rulers: Verily, you experienced the war of the Islamic State when fighting was centered in Iraq, in the alleys of Fallujah, Ramadi, the north and south of Baghdad, Diyala, Salahuddin, and Mosul. You repeatedly alleged and announced eliminating it. You become surprised after every announcement the expansion of operations of its soldiers, by the bounty of Allah.
In later sections of the statement he claimed, (after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi);
many kafirin, murtaddin, and munafiqin thought it the actual end of the Islamic State, while the transgressing Crusaders declared that it is not so based on their long experience in dealing with the Islamic State. They were assured that the word “baqiyyah” was not a mere slogan the muwahhidin used to provoke their disbelieving enemies. But rather, it is an expression based on a firm methodology among the soldiers of the Khilafah that prompts them to preserve what their preceding brothers left behind, completing what they started, and recovering what they lost.
Therefore, O tawaghit of America, O worshipers of the Cross, occupy yourselves with something two dogs who ruled America before you, Bush and Obama, also claimed and declared they had defeated the Islamic State a number of previous times. Or do you have no shame? You all have been declaring and claiming for 15 years the elimination of the muwahhidin…
… If in your estimation you believe you have concluded a battle and the mujahidin have retreated, then know that the matter, all of it, is in hands of Allah, the Mighty. Far removed is it that He would grant victory to you over His believing slaves. However, He tests His slaves to distinguish the truthful from the liar in jihad for Him. This is the tradition of Allah, the Mighty, in relation to His creation. Allah said: “And certainly, We shall test you with something of fear, hunger, and loss of wealth, lives, and fruits, but give glad tidings to the patient” (Al-Baqarah: 155)
In contrast to researchers focused on short-term trends and repeating pronouncements of defeat, the Jihadi movement maintains the assessment of success over a long timeline, which extends into the afterlife. Contemporary difficulties are frequently interpreted as tests of faith. For example,
And He said: “And We will, verily, try you till We know who from among you are patient mujahidin; and We will test your pronouncements” (Muhammad: 31).
Endure and be patient; guard your posts, and fear Allah, so that you may be successful. Know (may Allah keep you steadfast) that what you are facing is nothing but the tradition of Allah concerning His believing slaves, just as it is His tradition concerning the Prophets and Messengers. Allah said: “Or do you think you will enter Paradise without such (trials) that came to those who passed away before you? They were afflicted with severe poverty and ailments and were so shaken that even the Messenger and those who believed along with him said: ‘When is the help of Allah?’ Verily, indeed, the help of Allah is near” (Al-Baqarah: 214).
The reward for remaining steadfast in faith is entry into paradise (and emphatically not the physical world utopia of Western imagination).
Strive in your endeavors and seek Paradise, as we have only come out for the two best outcomes: a martyrdom pleasing to the Lofty Lord or a great conquest that gathers the Muslims and guides the astray.
“Then for him who transgressed all bounds and preferred the life of this world, verily, his abode will be the Fire. But as for him who feared standing before his Lord and restrained himself from desires and whims, verily, Paradise will be his abode” (An-Nazi’at: 37-41).
The interpretation of the interrelated concepts of success, victory and defeat are clear in jihadi writing (and these examples are easily available in English). With the Jihadi interpretation in such stark contrast to what appears within orthodox Terrorism Studies research, and the ongoing fighting casting significant doubt on the so-called ‘defeat’, one may wonder what the ISIS reader would look like if the authors had more than faux Arabic access to the documents not reproduced in English.
UK Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter has emphatically rejected claims that IS is defeated. It should be clear to those even loosely acquainted with the facts on the ground that the group and theology that al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya sought to promote is far from defeated in Iraq and Syria and the media production, through which they pursue their missionary work, has not collapsed.
In 2019 there was an unseasonal two month increase in attacks in Iraq by IS, with sharp increases in both Baghdad and Ninewa. In addition, since the so-called ‘defeat’ of IS the US military spent over $1 million dropping 40 tonnes of explosive on a single island in Iraq, and IS attacks continue across Iraq and Syria, not to mention Egypt or it’s operations in Africa in general. The New York Times has noted ISIS Is Regaining Strength in Iraq and Syria, a view also shared by a report of the Pentagon inspector general. Furthermore, the US Special Representative for Syria and the Coalition to Defeat Daesh, Jim Jeffrey, has stated there were somewhere between 14,000-18,000 ISIS fighters “active between Syria and Iraq.” UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, has suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, with up to a 100,000 civilians having some level of dependency on the group.
A series of videos from IS showed groups around the world pledging allegiance (bay’a) to their Caliph al-Baghdadi, which then sparked over 200 individuals to also post images of their bay’a or post videos showing them listening to pro-IS Nashid in public claiming to be in locations ranging from the UK, to Turkey and the Middle East. This has since been repeated with bay’a to IS’ new Caliph.
Claims of defeat may give policymakers a feeling of success and reassurance, perhaps even allow some to withdraw troops from key locations in the region, but the study of the Salafi-Jihadi movement needs a progressive approach based on evidence-based research and a strong data culture. When such evidence-based methods are applied, as we have shown here, the Jihadi worldview is a much better predictor of continued fighting than attempts within orthodox Terrorism Studies to find a definition that will allow claims of ‘defeat’. As such while orthodox Terrorism Studies, with systemic problems with data and evidence based analysis, announces defeat, from a progressive approach it is entirely predictable that IS continues to fight.
Artefacts of Western Habitus
Inserting Western artefacts such as the focus on crime, rap music, jihadi cool and naïve notions of a Jihadi ‘Utopia’, say more about the western-centric and neo-colonialist perspective of the researchers than what the material means to the Salafi-Jihadi movement. Where, for example, do you find Salafi-Jihadi groups writing about a physical world utopia? Why is the work of those who posit Salafi-Jihadi material is communicating about ‘Utopia’ not full of quotes showing Salafi-Jihadi groups writing about ‘Utopia’?
Consider, what would it mean to engage in suicide bombing to enter a physical world Utopia? What use would someone who joined Jihad to continue their life of crime have for a bomb vest?
As with all elements of Salafi-Jihadi theology, nuance and context are important. Some proposing a Terror-Crime Nexus (re-branded as the the Crime-Terror Nexus) have claimed repeatedly “Theft – any form of crime – is equated with ghanimah, which translates as ‘the spoils of war’”. While the transliterated Arabic word makes this claim seem authoritative, ghanimah emphatically does not cover all forms of crime. It focuses primarily on elements of property and wealth (as Salafi-Jihadi theology would define those concepts).
‘All crime’ inserts an artefact of Western habitus into the analysis of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, potentially exacerbating the tendency toward threat inflation and confirmation bias others have previously noted. To neocolonialists within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies the nuance of this distinction between property based crime and all crime may seem the pedantic nitpicking of a pedant. However, the distinction is important to Salafi-Jihadi groups. As such it is a distinction which is of concern to progressive and evidence based research.
These examples highlight how, despite the huge archive of theologically inspired Salafi-Jihadi material available online, researchers and commentators within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies have repeatedly chosen to focus on artefacts of their western habitus which they perceive to be part of Salafi-Jihadi material. It is this reliance on western habitus, fueled by confirmation bias, which has led those within the orthodoxy of Terrorism Studies to repeatedly define Salafi-Jihadi groups as defeated, even when Jihadi theology clearly indicates they will continue to fight.
These neocolonialist notions of defeat owe more to western-centric policy circles’ need for affirmation than to the theology expressed Salafi-Jihadi writing. In doing so these researchers place the interpretation based on their western habitus ahead of the meaning transmitted by Salafi-Jihadi groups and understood by their intended audience.
A Western-centric definition of defeat
It has been a policy imperative in the US and elsewhere to declare ISIS defeated and backed by some researchers. This despite, as highlighted earlier, al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya maintaining a fighting force which “is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago”, according to Kurdish forces – a claim supported by a CIA assessment.
The study of the Salafi-Jihadi movement has seen this type of positive endorsement of policy before, only for the stark reality to subsequently intervene. For example, recent document releases relating to lessons learned in Afghanistan have shown:
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers, according to the Post. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
In contrast to the ‘best possible picture’, “enemy-initiated attacks” rose sharply last year, with the fourth quarter seeing a total of 8,204 attacks – up from 6,974 in the same period in 2018”, according to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
Just as events in Afghanistan were interpreted in positive light, many have sought ways to represent IS as in decline and have engaged in a race to come up with a definition which will allow researchers to pronounce IS defeated.
We have been in this position many times before. There have been many instances where academics, commentators and policy makers have been keen to take victory laps celebrating the defeat of Jihadi groups. Unfortunately, once the hyperbole infused fanfare has died down, these groups have continued to fight – many continue to this day – with or without sections of territory.
Misunderstanding how Salafi-Jihadi groups derive meaning from events can lead to disastrous misinterpretations. One may recall how al-Qaeda leadership had been cut off from foot soldiers in 2005-2006 only in 2007 for the New York Times to report American officials had “mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan”.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in defeating AQI and killing its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, believed that by 2009-2010 “we had essentially crushed Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)” Rohan Gunaratna argued that a year before Osama Bin Laden was killed Al Qaeda had “already lost significant public support and was on the path of decline”. The subsequent killing of Bin Laden was hailed as a crushing, but not necessarily lethal, blow. Some terrorism analysts including Paul Cruickshank thought the Arab Spring could be al-Qaeda’s fall. Indeed there were many ways in which the Arab Spring could be presented as bad news for Al-Qaeda as it “appeared to undermine core tenets of the Al-Qaeda doctrine”. Fawaz A. Gerges wrote that “Only a miracle will resuscitate a transnational jihad of the al-Qaeda variety”. Ian Black wrote that “Al-Qaida had already looked marginal and on the back foot for several years. But the dawn of largely peaceful change in the Middle East and North Africa this year rendered it irrelevant.”
In 2012 Peter Bergen argued it was time to declare victory as al Qaeda was defeated. Similarly, many have been keen to proclaim the defeat and collapse of the Islamic State. Jason Burke wrote in October 2017 “a victory is a victory, and there are few reasons for cheer these days. So let us celebrate the defeat of Islamic State and its hateful so-called caliphate – and keep a wary eye out for the next fight”. He was not alone, many have been keen to claim victory. So many have followed some form of the logic, “Now that ISIS has been defeated in Syria and Iraq, it will become more violent outside this area” as Charlie Winter told the Sun Newspaper.
In 2020 ISIS is defeated because, as a recent CTC Sentinel article claimed;
“territorial loss is defeat for the movement, that is what the authors have decided to call it. By every measure, the group is defeated…”
This sounds very similar to earlier attempts to define a defeated Taliban and AQ. These definitions have one thing in common. The commentary of a largely male, pale, and stale orthodox Terrorism Studies were unable to find evidence Salafi-Jihadi groups consider themselves defeated, so instead they found ways to define groups as defeated based on their own western habitus – independent of the objectives of the groups in question.
In effect orthodox commentary was not focused on how events were interpreted by the jihadi movement. Instead much of the orthodoxy has focused on what groups of predominantly English-speaking white men define as victory and defeat based on their Western-centric perspectives. As white Western-centric frames of reference have little resonance or relevance to the core of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, it should come as little surprise that the purportedly defeated groups continue fighting – apparently unaware of their defeat.
This image circulating on Salafi-Jihadi Telegram channels shows where the focus of attacks from the so-called ‘defeated’ IS have taken place. Some may quibble with the specific numbers – but the overall perspective significantly tests Western ideas of defeat and shifts to violence elsewhere.
73% of attacks in Syria and Iraq indicates where the movement thinks attention is focused. Furthermore, being more violent elsewhere after the so-called defeat, is difficult to square as the battle for Marawi which occurred prior to claims of ‘defeat’ still outstrips contemporary activities outside Iraq and Syria.
If it were Europe rather than Syria / Iraq would ISIS still be “defeated”?
As time has passed it has become increasingly common to find researchers from orthodox Terrorism Studies wrestling with the problem of having claimed a group has collapsed or is defeated, only for it to be increasingly obvious that group is continuing to fight – whether it is IS (with combinations of claims of post-Caliphate and a post-ISIS Iraq/Syria etc.) or earlier iterations which refer to AQ and the Taliban.
For example, even at the point of claiming IS is defeated the authors of the ISIS reader seem acutely aware they have become entangled in this problem. The quote (from above) continues…
“the group is defeated, but it is not destroyed and it remains active. Defeat is not permanent, as Clausewitz says.”
In contrast to claims of ‘defeat’, as highlighted earlier, there is evidence of somewhere between 14,000-18,000 ISIS fighters “active between Syria and Iraq.” Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, who puts the number of fighters around 20,000, has argued:
“Yes, they have lost much of their leadership. They have lost many of their capable men. But they’ve also managed to gain more experience and to recruit more people around them”.
UN Under-Secretary General, Vladimir Voronkov, suggested that the number is even higher, some 27,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq. While Christopher Lee has highlighted that
“The biggest concern is Daesh appears to have created a dependency among up to 100,000 civilians in areas they have moved into and in the many displacement camps.”
Those within the orthodox Terrorism Studies who pursue a neo-colonialist agenda seem comfortable claiming that ISIS with thousands of fighters perpetrating hundreds of attacks fits the definition of a ‘defeated’ group.
One wonders if those pushing that perspective would consider ISIS ‘defeated’ if the group was roaming Western Europe rather than Iraq/Syria with thousands of fighters, tens of thousands of followers, and perpetrating hundreds of attacks?
Recall the impact on European countries from comparatively few attacks. The shock of attacks in Paris, Brussels, Madrid, London on 7/7 or Westminster Bridge were profound – internationals politicians flocking to Paris and the UK is seeking to change the law after two knife attacks.
Attacks of a vastly greater scale are virtually a daily occurrence in Iraq and Syria, but some from the orthodox approach to Terrorism Studies still claim ISIS is ‘defeated’.
One of the major distinctions between a progressive and the orthodox approach to Terrorism Studies can be encapsulated by this difference in the interpretation of victory and defeat. In light of the continued fighting and estimates of fighters – consider which would be the more accurate predictor of continued violence:
- The definition of defeat proposed by some within orthodox Terrorism Studies – that losing territory is defeat – based on Western military theory.
- The Salafi-Jihadi understanding of defeat based on the perspective expressed in theologically inspired material produced by the Salafi-Jihadi movement and the demonstrable willingness to continue to fight.
A progressive approach to Terrorism Studies insists on option two. By seeking to extend their predominantly white, masculine and Western-centric definitions of defeat and victory, sections of the orthodox Terrorism studies echo the earlier “9/11” temporal narrative. While the temporal narrative was “an extension of US hegemony over world time”, according to Harmonie Toros, the neo-colonialist element of orthodox Terrorism Studies now seeks to claim hegemonic power for their definition of victory and defeat – irrespective of what the participants in the conflict think and whether the conflict continues.
[i] Anwar al-Awlaki, 44 ways to support Jihad, (Victorious Media)
[ii] Nico Prucha, A Look at Suicide Fatwas: The Case of Algeria, RIAS, http://www.rieas.gr/researchareas/2014-07-30-08-58-27/islamic-studies/1331-a-look-at-jihadists-suicide-fatwas- (2010)
[iii] Anwar al Awlaki, State of the Ummah, (Victorious Media 2009)
[iv] This is quoted in:
Abu Mus’ab as-Suri, Call for a Global Islamic Resistance, Part One: The Roots, History and Experiences. December 2004.
[v] Nasheed, Brothers of Marawi, al-Hayyat Media Center, 2017
[vi] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. Punctuation has been added where it seemed appropriate from the speech pattern of the speaker. .
[vii] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. Punctuation has been added where it seemed appropriate from the speech pattern of the speaker.
[viii] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. Punctuation has been added where it seemed appropriate from the speech pattern of the speaker.
[ix] Abu Hamzah al-Muhaiir, Paths to Victory, Jumada al-Akhirah 1438 (Translation by Himmah Productions)
[x] Abu Hamzah al-Muhaiir, Paths to Victory, Jumada al-Akhirah 1438 (Translation by Himmah Productions)
[xi] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words.
[xii] Within a day after losing the Syrian city of Manbij, ISIS issued a document explaining how the physical loss does not mean that the war is lost. After losing the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, ISIS again issued a lengthy statement outlining how they consider themselves in the exact footsteps of early Muslims and that losses are deemed as temporary as “the weapon that can kill belief has yet to be invented” as stated by British hostage John Cantlie in a video released in December 2016.
[xiii] Transcription from the audio of The People who are Steadfast, Wilayat Kirkuk. Some sentences may have slight errors due to the speaker wearing a balaclava which obscured some words. The video goes on to encourage attacks in Western cities as these would have a greater impact than traveling to Syria or Iraq. This echoes Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, “If one of you wishes and strives to reach the lands of the Islamic State, then each of us wishes to be in your place to make examples of the crusaders, day and night, scaring them and terrorizing them, until every neighbour fears his neighbour. This message appeared again in (وحرض المؤمنين)
‘And Inspire the Believers’, al-Taqwa 25th February 2018 and follows the same logic as work by Abu Sa’eed al-Britani, ‘Advice To Those Who Cannot Come To Sham’, 23/12/2015 and the earlier Abu Mus’ab as-Suri.
[xiv] See for example:
‘Abdul-Qādir Ibn ‘Abdil-‘Azīz, The Obligation Of Holding Steadfast To The Book And The Sunnah (The Manhaj Of Ahl As-Sunnah Wal-Jama’ah), (Translated edition, al-Tibyan Publications)