Who are the jihadists in the Syrian war?
In Syria there is no clear front line anymore, with the regime on one side and the rebels on the other. The maps of UN mediators are all colour coded: Yellow means Assad, red is for the rebels, green is for jihadists, blue for the Kurds. And further: here you’ll find the Kurdish forces that are fighting alongside the rebels, while over there are the ones that are in alliance with Assad. Rebels backed by the United States, or rebels backed by Turkey. The map I am examining now is not focused on defining geographical areas anymore; the colour coding divides the terrain group by group, commander by commander. Rather than a map, it looks like one of those paper sheets you might find in a stationary shop, for testing pens in different colours. And there are more criminals than armed groups.
Multiple battles. After the fall of Aleppo last December, fighters and activists who didn’t surrender moved to Idlib, a city some 59 kilometres to the southwest. Idlib is ruled by two militias: Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham, which is actually the latest denomination of the al-Nusra Front – which in turn is described as the Syrian Al-Qaeda. “We all expect the regime to focus on Idlib now. To raze it to the ground just like they did with Aleppo. But there is no need for it,” admits the logistician who sketched the map. “Most of the time, I have to watch my back for fellow rebels, rather than for the regime forces,” he says. “We will wipe out Idlib by ourselves.”
Since the start of Russia’s intervention in support of Assad in September 2015, jihadists have been in disarray, fragmented into countless militias. They all advocate, vaguely, the enforcement of Sharia law – but they don’t have any political vision anymore. Nor do they have a military strategy. Fighters move endlessly from one group to next, but not because of ideological differences. They relocate based on where they can get more guns, or where there might be fewer airstrikes. And it is only when my map is done that I realise there is one essential group missing. The very group that all the world is supposedly here for: the Islamic State.
“Whoever wins, nothing changes in Iraq.”
For jihadists, it’s already over. Assad may be back in power in Syria – but in neighbouring Iraq, the battle for Mosul is still going. This is despite the fact that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi already conceded defeat in February, urging his men to flee and scatter, or to blow themselves up in attacks on the enemy. Al-Baghdadi himself disappeared. “The Prophet, instead, has been always on the front line like any other fighter,” I’m told by a Tunisian who has just arrived. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, there were approximately 2 000 new jihadists were crossing every month from Turkey into Syria until recently. Today, that number is closer to 50. Is it as you expected it, I ask the Tunisian. He looks at me. “It is what it is,” he says.
Foreign fighter from holiday paradise. Over the course of the last few months, ISIS has lost about 10 000 fighters. But most importantly, it lost the Libyan city of Sirte, and it is about to lose Mosul. It is expected that Raqqa, Syria will be next. If so, the three strongholds of ISIS will all be history. In 2014, at its height, the Islamic State had 11 million inhabitants. According to the latest estimates of the Rand Corporation, that number is now down to only 2,5 million. Jihadists are still crossing the border between Syria and Turkey, but in the opposite direction. They are coming back. But with an understanding of victory and defeat that sounds quite different from ours. Because what matters, they say, is not the daily news; it’s history. The direction of history. “Before 9/11 Islam didn’t exist for you,” I’m told by a fighter who is still in Syria – let’s call him Mohamad. “Now we hit the headlines every day, everywhere. Forget Raqqa,” he says, “think of Hamtramck. Hamtramck has a Muslim majority, and it is near Detroit. It is an American city.”
“In the beginning, no one thought that the Prophet would succeed,” he said. “He was pursued and harassed so much that he had to leave Mecca. And he triumphed in Medina. Defeat is not the loss of a city, should it even be a capital city, nor is it the death of a caliph, nor of a whole army: Defeat is only the loss of the will to fight.” “In the end,” Mohamad says, “where does al-Baghdadi come from? From the defeat of bin Laden.”
And Mohamed is from the Maldives. And this points to the real problem, which is that we assume we know the world. Especially now, with the internet: it’s all on Google, isn’t it? You just need to search. But even so, how many of us know that the Maldives are a Muslim country? A country ruled by Sharia law? And an Afghanistan-like Sharia law at that, complete with public flogging? It is the non-Arab country with the highest number per capita of foreign fighters. But who would ever imagine it?
Outside of the luxurious tourist resorts, the Maldives is a nation of violence and of heroin – and most of all, of poverty. They have only 350 000 inhabitants, and as much as 3,5 billion dollars of tourism revenues yearly; they could have been like Switzerland. But the Maldivian economy is owned by a network of well-connected businessmen. All the rest of the population are packed in the capital city of Male, typically in two-room houses with ten people each. A survey on street violence found 43 per cent of respondents feel unsafe even when at home. On Himandhoo, an island that only a few years ago was an al-Qaeda emirate, I was told by the young managers of the Chuck Café, who are trying to challenge the ban on music: We don’t stand with al-Qaeda, but the answers they provide are wrong answers to right questions. To questions of concern for all of us. To calls for change.
Western jihadists. Our attention is all on Western jihadists, who are often twenty-somethings with police records for drugs, theft, petty crimes: they turn to Islam looking for a second chance. For a sort of redemption. Looking for a role, an identity. A purpose. Rather than a radicalisation of Islam, in Europe we see an Islamisation of radicalism, said French sociologist Olivier Roy. But however interesting – and challenging – Western jihadists can be for us, they are still only a few hundred. And importantly, they are quite different from other jihadists. Because jihadists speak of a universal caliphate; but for now, they seem to be deeply influenced by national backgrounds. They immediately tore down the border fence between Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the only real choice remains the choice to support Assad or stand against him, and many Syrians are viewing jihadists as simply the lesser evil. In Iraq, however, there is a showdown between the Shia majority and the Sunnis who were once in power through Saddam. For jihadists, Syria and Iraq are the same country. But they are not the same war.
And it’s like that everywhere. Jihadists have different motivating forces. And different goals. If in the Maldives fighting in Syria means fighting for justice, in Tunisia young men leave for Libya as they were once leaving for Italy, for Europe: looking for a job. They don’t want the caliphate: they want a salary. Because they are hungry. In Tunisia unemployment is so high, and so chronic, that last October in Kasserine, in the South, there has been a mass suicide attempt. But how many of us heard of it? Read about it?
Search Amazon for a book on the Maldives. You’ll find only the Lonely Planet.
“For jihadists, Syria and Iraq are the same country. But they are not the same war.”
Second class lives. When it comes to Islamic fundamentalism, the only structural cause mentioned by analysts, if any, is the Sunni-Shia divide. In other words, the same ancestral hatred that we have seen so many other places: Just like with Serbs and Croats, Hutu and Tutsi. Arabs and Jews. It all started in 1979, we are told, with the revolution in Iran. The event turned the country into a major international player once again; a champion of the oppressed which was pressuring Saudi Arabia, a country devoted more to luxury than charity, to follow. That is, to back jihadists of all sorts. The rivalry for hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia matters, of course – but that’s just one part of the picture. Today, eight individual billionaires possess as much wealth as one half of the entire world population. And within the Arab section of the world, 60 per cent of the population is under 25 years old – with no job, no property, no freedom. And most critically, no hope. Nothing. Why should they give in to a second class life?
Many jihadists are disappointed; but disappointed by ISIS, not by jihad itself. The answer they found might have been wrong, yes, but the they are still an attempt at answering the right question. “We didn’t fail,” I was told in Iraq by an al-Qaeda deserter. “We just never really tried.”
“You are here to cover the ‘liberation’ of Mosul,” he told me. “But whoever wins, nothing changes in Iraq. No Iraqi even uses the word liberation anymore.” Despite all the money the United States has spent in order to rebuild the country, no one in Baghdad remembers who their own mayor is. Whatever your problem might be – a robbery, plumbing leaks – the authority in charge is not the municipality, or the police, but a specific clan or a certain militia. The recruitment requirements of the special forces deployed in Mosul are devastatingly telling: All fighters have brothers, sons, fathers killed by jihadists. “It was the only way to get motivated men,” a general explained to the New Yorker. Because at this point, that’s what is keeping Iraq united: blood. The thirst for revenge. Nothing more.
And that’s what undermines our war on extremists: Extremists are found on both sides of the frontline.