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Of what is Islamic State the name? Since September 2014, the self-styled caliphate and its adherents have captured and then lost thousands of square kilometres of territory in Syria and Iraq, killing – and in many cases enslaving and torturing – thousands of people in the process; faced aerial bombing campaigns by both the US and Russia; established affiliate groups in at least eight countries; and carried out (or won the allegiance of the perpetrators of) at least seventy attacks outside of Syria and Iraq. In the summer of 2016 alone, ISIS, or people claiming affiliation to them, launched seventeen separate attacks. ISIS is qualitatively different to any previous terrorist organisation. The forces of Islamophobic reaction, not least the new US president, have lost no time in occupying the hard-right space opened up by mainstream policymakers in response.
ISIS’ attacks, and the now-clichéd slick production of their ghastly propaganda videos, induce a feeling of political vertigo – of living in collapsing times. That the creation of this effect is precisely the intention of ISIS does not make it any less appropriate.
Amongst those who reject the securocratic response to ISIS, a sequence of displacement usually follows. No one seems able to argue the old saw that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter: on behalf of whose freedom are ISIS fighting? Instead one finds the impulse to decolonise mourning: insistent reminders that for every Orlando there is a Beirut, for every Paris a Quetta, as if once grief is equitably distributed a solution will be reached. Or else a kind of security politics from below: the arguments that ISIS is not being bombed properly; the (false) claims that Western powers have somehow created ISIS by arming the Syrian opposition, or those (true but inadequate) that the organisation is a result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Not all these responses are equally wrong: the gut reaction that something is falling apart is probably right. Where to begin with a materialist analysis of this horrifying mess?
One requires a general analysis of Islamism as a phenomenon of late late capitalism. At the end of the 1980s Chris Harman, then pre-eminent theorist of the International Socialist Tendency, sought to elucidate such a Marxist position on Islamism, which came to be politically relevant, especially in Egypt (the country in which he was to die suddenly, by cardiac arrest, in 2009). His starting point – that analysis should start from the political economy of capitalist imperialism, and the relations between dominant and dominated classes rather than an opposition in thought between belief and un-belief – holds true. However, the argument that follows from that starting point must necessarily change as the external world does.
More than the expression of the politics of a particular class, ISIS are the noxious by-product of the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’. The political project of disaster.
It is unfortunate that the myth of ISIS as US creation has spread so widely, since it forces serious discussion of the topic to begin with a lengthy rebuttal. More fruitful is to understand the organisation through the political theology it practices, its relationship to the state and exploiting classes in the countries in which it operates, and the lineage of Islamism from which it both derives and departs. But to begin with the necessary myth debunking.
Getting ISIS Wrong
There are numerous ways to misunderstand ISIS, and the Anglophone Left has experimented with them all. Most prevalent, popularised and false is the argument that runs as follows: the US has pursued a policy of regime change to topple the Ba’athist Assad regime in Damascus, funding and arming Islamist proxy militias – these either morphing into ISIS or representing it in utero.
What is most dispiriting about the prevalence of this claim is not its deliberate ignorance of the Syrian popular uprising that began in 2011 – understanding of and solidarity with Syrian revolutionaries were jettisoned long ago, before ISIS became a significant player – but the dogged resistance it displays to empirical evidence.
To begin with, the model Syrian uprising → Islamist militias → ISIS is false. It is true that after five years of unconscionable slaughter and abandonment, Syrian opposition politics has come to be dominated by a form of Sunni Islamo-nationalism. The softer form of this trend is found in parts of the (still extant) Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades, its hard sectarian Jihadi variant in Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Al-Qa’ida affiliate known previously as Jabhat Al-Nusra) with Ahrar al-Sham, the main militia in Northern Syria, occupying a continuum in between. This trend is, to say the least, deeply worrying for the future of any revival of the hopes of the Syrian revolution[*]. Besieged and bombed by not one but two imperial powers; assassinated by militias largely recruited from the non-Sunni minorities; abandoned and slandered by the external Left for their inconvenient uprising against a self-proclaimed ‘resistance’ regime – in this context the turn towards Sunni identity politics amongst the Syrian populace is a tragedy. It is not a surprise.
ISIS is not, however, the inevitable outcome of that politics. The organisation’s exterminationist Sunni chauvinism against religious minorities, such as the Alawites from whom the core of the Syrian Ba’athist security apparatus are drawn, is undeniable. But in word, thought and deed ISIS has always considered its foremost enemy ‘apostasy’ (the revolution, the FSA and the anti-Assad opposition more generally) rather than ‘unbelief’ (the Assad regime).
It is important to restate this history, since the belief that the US has funded and armed anti-Assad militias that somehow transmogrified into ISIS has become almost hegemonic on the Left. We must first of all recognise that some fighters in the FSA have indeed passed into ISIS, taking their weapons with them. In some cases, as Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan document in their book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, ISIS operatives worked as double-agents inside some FSA brigades, turning some of the fighters and coming back to attack the rest. Since the amount of weaponry and ammunition actually supplied by the US has been highly limited and the precondition of its supply was that it be used against ISIS rather than Assad, it is unlikely that this materiel forms a large portion of the organisation’s armoury. Far more significant were the arms dumps of US weaponry seized by ISIS from the Iraqi military, on whom the anti-anti-Assad commentators are often rather keen and who show no compunction in naming their own military operations in Shi’a sectarian terms – such as Operation We Obey You, Oh Hussein! in the summer of 2015.
The FSA and its descendants, by contrast, are rarely spoken of without the adjective ‘US-backed’, and often with reference to their insufficiently ‘moderate’ character thrown in. Why one would expect moderation of people engaged in a life-or-death revolutionary struggle is a question for another time, but the nebulous ‘US-backed’ demands some unpacking. Apart from Operation Inherent Resolve, the air campaign targeting ISIS, which has also killed around 1500 civilians[†] – and those who believe the ‘regime change’ narrative are welcome to point out a single instance of regime forces targeted by US bombers – the US has had two means of intervening in Syria’s civil war. One is through open channels and recorded in congressional appropriations: one is secret and through the CIA.
The first type of initiative is the Train and Equip programme, beginning in 2015, and continuing with the formation of the ‘New Syrian Army’ a year later. These initiatives began once the civil war was already in full swing: they cannot plausibly be claimed to have caused it, nor the uprising of 2011. They were also explicitly directed against ISIS and Nusra, not Assad. The Congressional authorisation for the $500 million spent on Train and Equip (available in Congressional Research Service report R43727 ‘Train and Equip Program for Syria’) states that it was to be used for ‘defending the Syrian people from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ and ‘protecting the United States, its friends and allies, and the Syrian people from the threats posed by terrorists in Syria’. The trainers themselves interpreted the mandate strictly, telling the putative Syrian commander of the force, interviewed in McClatchy’s in December of 2015 ‘you should not shoot a bullet against the regime’. In the end, fifty-four men were sent back into Syria under the auspices of ‘Division 30’ in July 2015: they were soon attacked and routed by Nusra forces taking revenge for a US airstrike. There have, nonetheless, been renewed incarnations of Train and Equip units in the north of Syria, such as the ‘Liwa al-Mu’tasim’. Having experienced little success in the north, the US has since 2015 focused more effort on the south and east of Syria.
The Southern Front of the FSA has retained much of the character of the early armed insurrection: mostly Sunni but not Islamist, organised along parallel lines to the regime army from which much of its leadership defected. It continued to score successes against regime forces until early 2016: the incursion of hard Islamist forces – both Nusra and ISIS – began in the south in 2014, but the decision of Jordan in agreement with Russia in late 2015 to freeze arms supplies to anti-Assad forces crippled the operations of the Southern Front[‡]. By the time the ‘Fateh Haleb’ coalition fought and broke through the siege of Aleppo in August 2016, the Southern Front was largely inactive or concentrating on the jihadists, alienating it from the wider opposition. US policy has now offered a section of the anti-ISIS resistance around Deir Ezzour in the east weaponry and training under the name of the ‘New Syrian Army’. One can expect this programme to replicate the failures of its predecessor. Where the US has the most influence over weaponry supplies we see less or no fighting against Assad. The evidence is conclusive; and incompatible with the claim that the US has armed the FSA to overthrow the Ba’athist regime.
Covert US operations, meanwhile, have been confirmed in Syria since at least 2013. According to a New York Times article of January 2016, a programme called ‘Timber Sycamore’ was in place from 2012 to ‘deliver nonlethal aid to the rebels but not weapons’. Only in the spring of 2013, two years after the beginning of the uprising and after at least eighteen months of armed conflict, did Obama authorise the CIA to involve itself in arms deliveries to the FSA: this decision, too, cannot possibly be responsible for either the original uprising nor the civil war that was already well underway by the time it was taken. Moreover, the aim of the operation was not to increase the supply of weapons – mainly, again according to the New York Times, of Saudi provenance – but to ‘try to gain control of it.’ Being covert, these activities are more difficult to track than the Train and Equip programmes, but their main sites are the two ‘Military Operations Centres’; in Jordan for the Southern Front and Turkey for the Northern. When FSA groups are described as ‘vetted’ or ‘US-backed’, the term means they have been permitted to receive weapons or ammunition from these MOCs. One FSA commander summed up the function of the Amman-based MOC in an interview with the Emirati newspaper The National in June 2016 as ‘we get enough to keep going but not to win’.
The clearest evidence of this function lies in the supply of heavy weaponry: the availability of anti-tank missile systems and the unavailability of anti-aircraft man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS). The anti-tank systems, which do seem to have had an effect against Assad’s armoured forces, are closely controlled: doled out in small batches for individual missions, for which a record is then kept. Around seventy groups have been permitted to receive these weapons. The recipients must even return the shell-casing as proof of use and are required to film their firing[§].
Contrast this with the supply of anti-aircraft MANPADS. Air power, first his own and then Russian, is the primary reason that Assad has not fallen. If you were intent on toppling a regime and were arming its bloodthirsty sectarian opponents to the teeth, would you not supply them with anti-aircraft weapons as a matter of urgency? Yet these have not been forthcoming, because US policy was, and remains, in the words of Obama’s deputy national security advisor quoted in the New York Times article above, to avoid the ‘transfer of heavier weapons’. The FSA desperately requested anti-aircraft weapons from the US to defend Aleppo in the summer of 2013. None were sent, nor offered. Not only this, but the US actively blocked attempts by Qatar to supply Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft weaponry, as reported in the New York Times article of 13 August 2013, ‘Arms Shipments from Sudan seen to Syria Rebels’. The US administration believed – probably accurately – that such weaponry might be used against American or Israeli interests. If this is an attempt to overthrow the regime, it is a rather poor show.
Contrary to fantasy (based on misinterpretations of low-level intelligence revealed by Wikileaks), and allowing that there have been debates within US ruling circles, and that its strategies have been incompetent and/or incoherent, there is not, and never has been, an American imperial policy to overthrow the Ba’athist regime in Damascus. In December of 2011, by which time Assad’s inability to fully rule the country had become clear, the US recognised the Syrian National Council as the ‘leading and legitimate representative of the Syrian people’ for a period of ‘transition’. But the US preference for this ‘transition’ has always been that it be a ‘managed’ one from within the regime. The model for US policy on Syria was the ‘managed’ – now distinctly unmanageable – transition from the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. President Obama reiterated the point in his press conference in October 2015, stating that US policy in Syria was for an outcome that ‘keeps the state intact, that keeps the military intact’. The only difference with Russia was the status of Assad himself. David Petraeus, former US viceroy of Iraq and proponent of a more muscular US policy on Syria – and the man responsible for Sycamore Timber – was explicit to the Kurdish news organisation Rudaw in March 2015 that the priority was not Assad but ‘clearly ISIS because that supports the effort in Iraq’.
Indeed, US crocodile tears with regard to the real barbarity taking place in Aleppo notwithstanding, US policy has now more-or-less openly converged with Russian, based on ‘deconfliction’ and the identification of the post-Al-Qa’ida groups ISIS and Nusra/Fateh Al-Sham as the problem. This policy reached its apogee with the proposal by the US and Russia in September 2016 to bomb Syria together – not the Syrian regime but only forces opposing the regime. The swift collapse of this agreement was a result of US embarrassment at the revelation of the regime’s (and Russia’s)evident true aim: to retake all of Aleppo under widespread bombardment, including of hospitals and aid convoys. When US bombs accidentally hit regime soldiers in Deir Ezzour, the apologies were swift and fulsome: ‘we did it’, admitted John Kerry, referring to the bombing as a ‘terrible accident’ that would be investigated. Colonel John Thomas of the USAF confirmed that ‘we have never struck regime targets in this conflict. We wouldn’t, we didn’t intend to at the time and we won’t in the future’. The US was reported to be considering offering condolence payments to the Syrian regime army for the deaths. Compare this response to that following the US bombing of Manbij, then site of a battle for control between ISIS and the Kurdish-led, US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces on 19 July 2016. At least seventy-three civilians were killed. Like so many of the victims of US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, or Pakistan, their deaths were not even acknowledged, let alone compensated[**].
The Manbij bombing was part of a wider US campaign in Syria, but not against the Assad regime. US intervention in Syria has pivoted quite openly and wholeheartedly towards the Kurdish PYD and its military arm the YPG, whose receipt of American weaponry, intelligence, advisors and air support has not precluded their lionisation by the Euro-Atlantic left.
(The achievements of self-government in Rojava should not be gainsaid, especially in a region in such a bleak political state. And the PYD’s enemies are our enemies too: the Turkish intervention in Northern Syria in August of 2016, in alliance with FSA and Islamist brigades, marked an extension across the border of the counter-insurgency campaign against the PKK inside Turkey, racing to defeat ISIS in the town of Jarablus so that it could be denied to the YPG. Nonetheless, the strategy of the YPG has not endeared it to the non-Kurdish, Sunni majority areas that would have to participate in any ‘democratic confederal system’ such as the organisation has proclaimed as its aim for Syria: ambiguous in its stand towards the regime, while castigating its opponents universally as Al-Qa’ida, it opportunistically thrust into non-Kurdish areas during the siege of Aleppo to link up their non-contiguous cantons. The cost of such tactical opportunism became clear when the regime, for the first time, began seriously to fight the YPG in Hassakeh. Anyone who believes that a Syria in which Assad has ‘retaken every inch’ will be kind to the Kurds is ignorant of both history and strategy.)
ISIS, then, is not the result of a US strategy of regime change in Syria, for the simple reason that there was no such strategy. Of course, the CIA is not a reliable purveyor of the truth. Nevertheless, if it were heavily arming and supporting the Syrian opposition to overthrow the regime, we would have seen very different results.
And so to a more fruitful enquiry: given that the US did not create it, how do we understand the nature of ISIS? What can we learn about the organisation from the political theology it practices? What is its relationship to the state and to the exploiting classes in the countries in which it operates? And what are the lineages of Islamism from which it both derives and departs?
The Politics of Anathema
In 1996 the Emir of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), Antar Zouabri issued a fatwa declaring as apostates the whole of Algerian society that had ‘forsaken religion and renounced the battle against its enemies’ who had not joined the GIA in its campaign against the ruling generals[††]. That regime annulled the victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in free elections in 1991 leading to the massacres and civil breakdown that hung over the country. The GIA, as its omnidirectional anathema indicates, opposed both the FIS and the regime albeit in murky fashion. Intelligence assets were not few in number amongst the GIA, and the appalling mass killings they carried out had more than a whiff of collusion. Most notorious of these was the Rais massacre in a poor, FIS-supporting village in 1997: over five hours, 238 people were slaughtered – by, the official commission of inquiry later claimed, only four perpetrators. There was an army barracks one hundred metres away.
ISIS resembles a GIA writ large – and it is indeed, by the standards of armed insurgencies, if not states, a very large organisation. Estimates of its fighting strength in Syria and Iraq – no doubt depleted in its increasing losses as a result of the air and ground campaigns against it since 2014 – range from 30,000 to 50,000 men. And these estimates exclude its affiliates in North Africa, South Asia and the scattered networks of Europeans, Americans and Australians who have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. In part, of course, ISIS’ growth (and decline) is simply a function of the dynamics of civil war, in which access to weapons, money and the likelihood of victory attracts greater numbers of recruits. Nonetheless, the political and ideological appeal of the organisation and the skill with which it has bound together differing predecessor groups must be taken seriously.
One of the most sterile questions asked is whether ISIS is truly ‘Islamic’ or not. A plausible answer might be given by religious scholars, but not political commentators. Nor should one be demanded. The answer ‘no’ is given to defend Muslims from Islamophobic attack – which should be a matter of principle – given that the answer ‘yes’ would of course legitimate such attacks. But the ‘Islamic’ nature of a phenomenon is a matter for those religious authorities who believe that there is such a thing as authentically Islamic belief and practice. This is not compatible with materialist analysis beginning not with religious – or political – ideas themselves but, per Marx, the ‘definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent’ of the will of believers.
Of course, ISIS has its own place in the history and tradition of political Islam. It is nonetheless vital to understand the varieties, histories and social bases of that tradition if we are to attempt to undersand ISIS. The insight of Chris Harman was to treat the question of how to achieve an Islamised society as a political one, with the same kind of wellsprings, dilemmas and fractures as others. The aspiration to overturn the existing order is not enough on its own: one requires a social base to pursue any meaningful political project. This confrontation with external reality has always posed a dilemma for Islamists, as indeed it has for the revolutionary Left.
Harman identified four different types of response to that dilemma and their respective class affinities. The first of these Harman termed ‘the Islamism of the old exploiters’: the classically conservative classes of landowners, awqaf holders, bazaar merchants, master craftsmen and so on. The second was ‘the Islamism of the new exploiters’ – that is, the owners of financial and industrial capital who had seized the opportunities of the Egyptian infitah (economic opening) policies adopted in the 1970s and ’80s, of which the Muslim Brotherhood was the central example.
‘The Islamism of the poor’, Harman identified with formerly rural migrants to the cities – who found themselves thrown into a maelstrom of economic insecurity and reached for the certainties of their previous way of life. This group, however, did not provide the core cadres, ideologues and sustenance of Islamist politics: such came from the ‘Islamism of the new middle class’. Far from being an atavistic throwback, this Islamism represented a form of populism; the classic politics of the modernising middle classes in the Global South taking on a new form following the failure of the proclaimed ‘socialism’ of the national liberation regimes. In this regard, formations such as the neo-Salafist movements or the Khomeinist Islamic revolutionaries were much closer to earlier national liberation movements built upon students, engineers, lower civil servants and so on. From this milieu, then, the lineages of Al-Qa’ida and ISIS were born.
If Harman’s method forms the right starting point, we need not accept the content wholesale. One point in need of revision – revealed by the course of the Arab revolutions and counter-revolutions – is the categorisation of the Muslim Brotherhood as ‘reformist’. (In the general sense of desiring political reform and operating within the bounds of existing systems to achieve it, they of course are: but in the specific sense in which the concept is usually used by Marxists, they are not.) The programme, and indeed the political culture, of the Brotherhood is an eminently bourgeois one without the ‘organic link’ to labour movements of such organisations as the UK’s Labour Party. The organic links of the Brotherhood are almost always with capital, small and large, and their relationship to the poor and subaltern classes is one of charitable clientalism rather than political integration.
This is no reason to condemn co-operation between the Left and Brotherhood forces, especially given the wide mass appeal of the organisation in some countries and the severe repression to which it is subject. However, one must recognise that the trajectories opened up by such co-operation are not those of a shared horizon of socialism or working-class political organisation, but a far more limited one of political democracy.
Although they certainly do represent such a harvest, ISIS cannot – as they have been by many on the Left, including many standing in Harman’s tradition – be read as simply the ‘bitter fruits’ of imperialism[‡‡]. Harman acutely analysed in his discussion of the GIA and other such trends that the cadre and programme emerged from a particular social milieu and a particular political dilemma. Likewise, ISIS’ wellsprings lie in the fusion of ‘wahhabism’ and that tradition of ‘political Salafism’ that became known as the sahwa (awakening)[§§] in the 1980s. Wahabbism refers to the version of Sunni Islamic thought and practice founded by Muhamamd Ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the inner Arabian peninsula in the 19th Century, which later went on to conquer almost the entire land mass in alliance with the Ibn Saud tribal confederation. The Wahhabists prefer to be known as followers of the salafa, the first generations after the Prophet, and seek to bring into being societies that resemble the moral community of that (imagined) historical past.
ISIS’ lineage lies in a further branch, the melding of Wahabbist sensibilities with politicised Salafism of a particular time. In its original form – and indeed in the majority of such movements to this day – Salafism was a quietist movement preaching submission to the established ruler on the grounds that order is God-given and any order is better than chaos. The origins of armed Islamist groups such as ISIS lies in the metamorphosis of Salafism after the execution in 1966 of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian pre-eminent theorist of political jihad.
Qutb’s writings are fundamentally concerned with how to achieve an Islamic society. His method of propaganda of the deed and consciousness-raising – essentially borrowed from the urban guerrilla movements of his time – stood in contrast to the prevailing Salafist practice, which was to be the change you wish to see: to keep one’s head down in political matters, and seek to influence the surrounding community by exhortation, public piety and good works. The latter has historically been, and remains, the majority Salafi practice. Additionally, of course, there is the strategy pursued by the Muslim Brotherhood – of embedding a political strategy in a particular social base, gradually increasing one’s strength inside and outside the state – with varying degrees of success.
Qutbism and its descendants are characterised by a synthesis of the excluded elements of both these latter methods. It proposes a political programme, and condemns existing society as in a state of pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyya) due at least in part by the cultural intrusion of Western imperialism. The answer to this degeneration is not to seek a social base within the society thus corrupted but to flee it – in metaphorical if not physical terms – and establish a vanguard taking Islam as its ruling point of reference, only then to return and Islamise society by both preaching and physical force. The key characteristic of almost all Islamist currents, as Harman recognised, is transforming material struggle against imperialism and capitalism into a matter of ‘ideological struggle against what they see as its cultural effects’. Qutbism takes this logic to its final point: proposing takfir
wal-hijira, or ‘anathema and exile’ (as one of the early groups espousing this worldview was known), from the society that had allowed itself to be so corrupted.
Qutb was not alone. Among his epigones was Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the central ideological influence on Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS. Two instances of foreign occupation in the Islamic world, the USSR in Afghanistan and the US in Iraq, provided coagulants to neo-Salafism embodied by these two figures. In contrast to the earlier Salafist thinkers such as Rashid Rida, who were relatively flexible in their attitude to Islamic renewal, the lodestar for this milieu was Ibn Taymiyyah, the 7th/13th Century Sunni scholar. Ibn Taymiyyah’s principles, or at least those ascribed to him by his epigones, present an especially rigid form of Islamic monotheism: that one must worship God, only God, and to do so with ‘right practice’, thereby enabling the casting of anathema onto those, such as Shi’a, accused of wrong practice or of shirk, ‘associating’ other entities with God. Ibn Taymiyyah also enjoined the killing of rulers who do not follow right practice or belief.
These principles form the theological underpinning for a political strategy. The ills of the Arab and Muslim world are ascribed not to capitalism, nor to imperialism in any Marxist sense, but to the corrupt rule of the taghut (tyrants) who have forsaken the true Islam. Moreover, Maqdisi argued in his influential book The Path of Abraham, that Islam revolves around a fundamental distinction between ‘loyalty’ (wala) to the Islamic and ‘disloyalty’ to the un-Islamic. On this basis, anathema may be extended to a near-universal degree to encompass not only non- and
mis-believers but those who passively accept the rule of apostate authority. The populace has become corrupt, living in pre-Islamic ignorance and forming a passive base on which the new world is to be imposed. Savage violence is a way to bridge the gap between political programme and social bases. As one ISIS cadre interviewed by Weiss and Hassan put it: ‘You have a ready project, you should place it on society like a tooth crown and make sure to maintain it.’
The degree to which this worldview and programme penetrate ISIS’ lower cadres is unclear. At the higher military level, ISIS fuses a disparate series of elements largely deriving from the US invasion of Iraq and the social catastrophe that ensued from it. As is well known, a large chunk of the remnants of the Iraqi Ba’athist security apparatus – dominated, in a inverse image of its Syrian neighbour, enemy and politico-ideological sibling by a minority Sunni community – fused with the Iraqi franchise of Al-Qa’ida in the mid-2000s. The Islamic State in Iraq, as ISIS was known in its mid-2000s incarnation, allied with an Islamo-Ba’athist militia, the Jaish al-Rijal Al-Tariq al-Naqshibandi (‘The Army of the Men of the Naqshibandi Order’)[***], led by one of Saddam Hussein’s closest henchmen, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. This alliance was the origin of the Islamic State in Iraq. Interviews with captured ISIS fighters in the Nation reveal a demographic picture of Iraqi Sunni youth: children of the occupation born into a besieged but Ba’athist Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War but came of age in the terrifying violence of the mid-2000s, when their community and its men in particular were targeted by the occupation and its Iraqi local representatives.
The transition from quietism to anathema to state-building in political Salafism was thus formed of political choices, not theological ones – as Harman understood well. ISIS is the result of the deadlock caused by trying to impose an Islamic order on society as a whole without the support of the state or the majority of the population. But the preconditions of this project lay not just in imperial occupation but also in revolution, or rather a revolution that did not establish a durable or nationwide political alternative. ISIS is a state-building institution without a social base: the Syrian revolution had a social base but did not achieve, beyond the local level, institutional power. It is this contradiction, and the connivance of the Assad counter-revolution, that accounts for ISIS’ expansion.
Creatures of the Common Ruin
Any revolution, as students of the French and Russian instances might be expected to understand, is a terrifying and exhilarating mixture of collapse and rebirth. They are always a form of disaster, and always salvation.
The wholesale imposition of a neoliberal order requires a moment of destruction and disaster as opportunity, or so argues Naomi Klein, putting forward her case that we live in ‘disaster capitalism’. The disasters generated or exacerbated by neoliberal capitalism then provide more opportunities to deepen the project. Klein quotes Milton Friedman on the impact of Hurricane Katrina: ‘This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity.’
If the case is overstated, and the implied vision of a benign, non-disastrous capitalism a chimera, Klein’s intervention has nonetheless proved productive. The Out of the Woods Collective developed in response the notion of ‘disaster communism’ as a strategy for emancipation on the ruined planet of the Anthropocene. Disasters, they argue, create ‘disaster communities’ in which egalitarian practices are prefigured, and the generalisation of disaster under late late capitalism creates a path to ‘disaster communisation’, the self-organisation of social reproduction once capitalist normality breaks down. The characteristic of this self-organisation, they argue, is likely to be that of ‘bricolage’ repurposing (contra the position of the Endnotes group and others that the material structures of capitalism are unsalvageable) the logistical infrastructure of existing societies.
The people of Iraq and Syria are certainly suffering from disaster, albeit a political and man-made one. For the Iraqis, the disaster consists of imperialist invasion and ensuing civil war; for the Syrians it is Assad’s extraordinarily destructive counter-revolution and the tactics of all-out siege, starvation and bombardment it has employed. Especially in Syria, however, the organs of local self-governance thrown up by the revolution have had something of the character described as ‘disaster communism’ – although, given that these represented political rather than social emancipation, ‘disaster bourgeois democracy’ might be the better term. It is these organs against which both ISIS and the Assad regime have directed their energies, often in concert and with a great degree of success.
The process began with the infiltration of Al-Qa’ida operatives (then under the banner of Al-Nusra) into areas liberated from the regime. The first infiltrators were few in number, and often brought with them cash, guns and medical relief. Especially after the split between ISIS and Nusra, however, they began wholesale takeovers of areas liberated from the regime and run by local revolutionary councils. As Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami relate in their essential history of the Syrian Revolution Burning Country, in the town of Saraqeb, site of a particularly active council, ISIS closed the revolutionary media centre and printing press and arrested the relatives of local co-ordination committee members. Likewise, the whippings and crucifixions carried out by ISIS in Raqqa in 2013 were not of regime supporters but opposition activists. Christoph Reuter reports in Der Spiegel that the group seized power in Raqqa by physically liquidating the local FSA brigade, abducting local revolutionary leaders and executing an outspoken anti-Assad journalist and activist – emailing his contacts pictures of the corpse with the comment ‘are you sad for your friend now?’
The same pattern was repeated in all of the areas seized by ISIS, entirely in line with the Ba’athist model of control it inherited from the section of Iraqi intelligence officers who form such an important part of its leadership. All of which is also in keeping with ISIS’ doctrine that the revolutions of 2011 would ‘replace the better with the worse’. For this reason, ISIS consider the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood the worst of apostates for participating in democratic elections that issued from January 25 Revolution.
ISIS are counter-revolutionaries, and proud of the fact.
As a result, the actor to whom ISIS has proved most useful is not the US or even Turkey, but rather the Assad regime itself – though ISIS is not simply a tool or creation of the regime, any more than of the Gulf States. Many of the instances of co-operation between them, for example in the sale and production of energy, might be reasonably dismissed as the exigencies of war. There is a much longer history between the two, however. Before the ‘Islamic State in Iraq’ was even born, the Syrian Ba’athist intelligence services were co-operating with Sunni groups fighting the US occupation of Iraq. As the seized ‘Sinjar documents’ reveal, the regime established the supply lines and transit links from Syria into Iraq that were later reversed for ISIS to infiltrate Syria once the revolution had begun.
At the outset of the Syrian revolution, the regime adopted the strategy that has allowed it to persist with such resilience: extreme violence and sectarianisation. In his speech to the People’s Assembly, the rubber-stamp parliament of the Ba’athist regime, in March 2011, Assad accused protestors of being part of the ‘tentacles of a great conspiracy’ based on the ‘sectarian element’ and called on Syrians to do their ‘national, moral and religious duty’ of ‘burying sedition’. This was at a time when there was not even a Free Syrian Army. When the first such groupuscules did begin to appear in the summer of 2011, they were composed not of bloodthirsty jihadists but of defectors from the Syrian Army and protestors defending themselves against regime gunfire. These units were in some instances trained by Zubaida Al-Meeki, an Alawite general who was the highest-ranked female defector to the revolution from the regime army. In the coastal city of Latakia, in the Alawite heartland (albeit with a slight Sunni majority), protestors ejected from their midst jihadists raising sectarian slogans. In mixed areas, such as the centre of Homs, the regime concentrated devastating firepower on Sunni districts while preserving Alawite ones.
Without doubt, one of the regime’s most astute moves was to imprison, torture and kill revolutionary activists while simultaneously releasing from prison large numbers of the most bigoted jihadists. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians were imprisoned after 2011, large numbers of them tortured to death and their bodies photographed. The photographic archive released by the regime defector ‘Caesar’ revealed the grim extent of this, showing over six thousand individuals. Yet in the spring of 2011, Assad released several hundred Islamist detainees from violent Takfirist groups, including most of what would become ISIS’ Syrian leadership. The prevalence of such groups, and the relative absence of the civilian activists of the early stage of the Syrian revolution is not a mystery, nor the consequence of some ingrained ancient hatred of the majority Sunni population for religious minorities. It is because Assad released the jihadists, and killed the activists.
This collusion continued as counter-revolution developed into civil war. When ISIS seized territory from the FSA, it was largely spared the bombardment the regime unleashed elsewhere on hospitals, bakeries, and civilian districts. Until the start of Inherent Resolve in 2014, Assad barely fought ISIS at all: the main clashes were and remain around Deir Al-Zour in the far east, a centre of oil production. The battle for Palmyra, site of world-renowned archaeological treasures, won the regime much positive press as protector of international heritage against fundamentalist barbarism. ISIS documents, leaked to Sky News in May 2016, show collusion between ISIS and Assad to produce precisely this outcome, including an order given shortly before the regime attempt to retake the site to ‘withdraw all heavy artillery and anti-aircraft machine guns in and around Palmyra province to Raqqa province’[†††].
The Assad counter-revolution was the disaster in Syria; ISIS were its beneficiaries. It was ISIS who mastered the infrastructure – above all the oil fields – of the liberated Syrian territories, allowing them to destroy the local revolutionary structures. It was ISIS who proved able to assemble an order from the ruins capable of ruling in a new way. It was ISIS who showed the nerve and ideological unity to impose the counter-revolution of catastrophe.
There is an important lesson for revolutionaries here: if you do not impose a plan to repurpose the ‘bricolage’, someone else will.
Does ISIS’ role in repressing the Syrian revolutionaries mean that it is a form of fascism? The rhetorical valence of the term is obvious: outside fascist circles one cannot be seen to argue in favour of fascism. More: defining an enemy as fascist permits of the formation of urgent broad alliances against them. For this reason, the term ‘Islamofascism’ has been adopted most widely by those intellectuals and political forces supportive of the US war on terror and local despotisms that paint themselves in laic colours. By the same reasoning, opponents of that war have mostly fought shy of identifying Islamist politics with fascism for fear of legitimising imperialist warfare or the Islamophobic reaction it trails.
The case of ISIS in Syria has begun to upset this wariness. The Syrian leftist intellectual Yassin Haj Saleh, no supporter of the war on terror and himself a native of Raqqa whose own family members have been kidnapped by ISIS, describes the regime as the ‘fascism of the neck-tie’ and ISIS as ‘the fascism of the beard’. Ghayath Naisse of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current has presented perhaps the foremost Marxist analysis arguing that ISIS is fascist in nature. It falls within the classic definition of fascism, Naisse claims in the pages of the journal International Socialism, because the organisation rests on the social layers described by Trotsky in the case of Germany as ‘human dust’ – the atomised layers of the petite bourgeoisie spearhead by a party-militia that seeks to found a new form of state. Rather than reflect and mobilise the will of the masses to overhaul social relations, however, this party-militia perceives itself as a warrior elite bound to remould humans themselves through the use of extreme violence. Fascism is thus an anti-status-quo movement that functions to preserve capitalism by destroying all independent political space, most of all the organisations of the subordinate classes – a destruction that ISIS has certainly wrought. For this reason, fascist politics only truly arises in times of crisis when those subordinate classes are threatening enough, and the ruling class sufficiently threatened by them, to call upon the unpredictable services of a far-right party army.
On the other side of the argument from Naisse, in the pages of the same journal, are Haytham Cero and Anne Alexander. ISIS, they retort, cannot be considered fascist because it lacks the petite-bourgeois mass base characteristic of European fascism and is more of a local sectarian militia under the helm of an ambitious warlord. It is then an opportunist reaction, most similar to a formation such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. ISIS neither seeks nor requires a mass base by which to smash a revolutionary workers’ movement such as that of Italy and Germany in the 1920s, because no such movement was present in either Syria or Iraq – in Iraq there was no revolution at all.
Neither of these perspectives is to be dismissed, but nor does either seem adequate. Indeed, the question itself – is ISIS fascist? – seems more worthwhile if posed in a different way: how much fascism is there in ISIS? A procrustean definition of fascism will not help here. One requires no special political nous to understand that the second decade of the twenty-first century is witnessing the collapse of political orders in a fashion reminiscent of that of Europe between the two world wars, and that this crisis is giving birth to strange effects under the sign of ‘populism’. The rise of far-right electoral contenders in liberal democracies, such as President-elect Trump and the Front National in France, offer the most notable examples. Not every symptom is morbid, as the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns demonstrate. Yet the crisis of political mediation and representation that has followed from the form of settlement of the capitalist crisis of 2008 is undoubtedly giving rise, in the main, to political movements that feel quasi-, proto- or pseudo-fascist.
Feeling is not definition, however. The familiar problem of fascism is whether it is to be defined by its ideological programme, its political practice or the conditions from which it emerges. Fascist ideology tends to be eclectic, assembling parts of other political traditions around a core idea of the nation as collective, to be rejuvenated and purified under a monolithic political organisation. Fascist political practice tends to be both violent and aesthetic. The classical conditions for the emergence of fascism, as far as Marxists are concerned, are those of capitalist crisis outlined above: the inability of the ruling class to continue with normal forms of politics and its willingness to ally with a violent party militia to destroy an insurgent workers’ movement.
If one looks for these features in the contemporary far right – including ISIS – they will only ever be found in part. The displacement of post-crisis resentment onto (Muslim) outsiders one finds in ample amounts in UKIP, Trump or Le Pen. ISIS exudes the aesthetic of black flags, hand gestures, and extreme counter-revolutionary violence albeit in the form of sleek social media presence and high production values. However, nowhere is the full checklist met and nor should it be expected to be. In large part, this is because of the common missing absence: that of the threatening workers’ movement that fascism seeks to smash. The contemporary crisis calls forth reactionary movements that are not so much tools of a ruling class in extremis but projects of the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’. If ISIS is a fascism, it is the fascism of ruins. This only makes the case more relevant for the world outside of the Middle East.
Just as one must beware the over-free application of the term fascism, so must the bounds of analogy between ISIS and disaster capitalism be remembered. The fact that ISIS is a particular Islamist formation, and that its central worldview has a particular character, is important and consequential. However, the perspective of disaster clarifies more than framing ISIS as a particular class project. ISIS is certainly a project in capitalism, as we shall see below. It is not, even in the sense of receiving Gulf funding, a project of capitalists. The core of the organisation, the amalgam of Iraqi Ba’athist security officers and international Sunni jihadists might be seen at the very most as a class-in-formation, congealing around exceptional violence and sectarian identity. Nor can ISIS be seen as plausibly representing the Syrian or Iraqi petite bourgeoisie: its members do not, largely, hail from these groups and their relationship with them is quite brutally extractive. ISIS does cultivate relationships with particular social groups, most of all oil traders and tribal sheikhs, but this is part of its strategy of building alliances rather than representing a class base as such.
ISIS is a counter-revolutionary force, and one that functions to destroy all of the independent popular organisations that emerged during the revolution. The relationship of that counter-revolution to the underlying relationships of production lies not in the conscious direction of a class project, but the limits of reproduction imposed on a vision without a sure social base. Nowhere is this seizure of capitalist infrastructure clearer than in ISIS’ funding.
Social relations impinge most obviously on states and organisations through their search for funds. It is through this mundane reality that the causal bounds of a mode of social reproduction are established: an organisation that seeks and receives its funding from organised workers’ unions, their co-operatives and the like will prove fertile ground for a certain kind of worldview – and one that is funded by oil – billionaires another. ISIS presents a puzzling case in this regard, the illumination of which is not helped by the wide dissemination of myths about who sponsors and supports the organisation.
The foremost of those myths, held on both right and left, is that ISIS is funded by Saudi Arabia. One should never underestimate the ghastliness of the Saudi regime: the leading petro-reactionary state remains as externally counter-revolutionary (witness Riyadh’s wholehearted support for the Sisi coup in Egypt) and domestically repressive as ever. One thing of which the Ibn Sauds cannot be accused, however, is support for ISIS. Argument to the contrary reflects a conflation of all Sunni Islamist trends – eliding the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia and ISIS with each other, when in fact their relationships are characterised by a triangular enmity. Saudi jets, when they are not bombing Yemeni towns, are employed in the military operations against ISIS. The Saudi state has not sent a riyal to Al-Baghdadi’s men and has been by far the most successful of the Gulf States at stopping private flows to the group. Indeed, according to Congressional testimony on the funding of ISIS to the House Financial Services Committee by Matthew Levitt in November 2014, Saudi donors have had recourse to funnelling their money through the more permissive jurisdiction of Kuwait[‡‡‡].
But if Saudi money is not paying for ISIS, who is? Private donations form a part of the group’s funding, but nothing like the proportion of flows to Jabhat al-Nusra/Fateh al-Sham. Al-Qa’ida in general has relied heavily on private money, but ISIS is almost independent of such a source. Again, according to Congressional testimony on the subject, by 2014 ISIS had established reserves of about $40 million from private Gulf donations. This is substantial, but only equivalent, according to the Financial Times, to about one month of its 2014 earnings from oil sales alone.
ISIS would certainly suffer a large setback if its entire external funding were cut off, but it would not be devastated. This complicates rather than simplifies the picture: if ISIS were truly just a catspaw of Gulf money it would be easily understood as a tool of the most Sunni chauvinist section of the oil bourgeoisie. Yet ISIS acts as other capitalist states must, to ensure the reproduction of its revenues, and extracts those revenues through taxation and trade.
ISIS, again according to the FT, levies at least four forms of taxes and duties in the territories it controls: a general zakat of 2.5 per cent of income on businesses whose goods are assessed by ISIS auditors; an agricultural tithe of 5 per cent on irrigated and 10 per cent on rain-fed crops; the jizya , or poll tax, levied on religious minorities or more likely on their property once they have been murdered or expelled; and the cut ISIS takes from transit trade through its territories. The organisation has also seized considerable booty from its conquests, including bank deposits, a portion of which is promised to those who fought in the battle to take it. Non-military goods are sold at ‘loot markets’ at an extraordinary mark-up – reminiscent of the so-called ‘Sunni markets’ in Damascus in the early stages of the Syrian civil war where regime militias would sell their loot from their repressive forays into the revolutionary cities.
ISIS raises hefty amounts from these sources, or at least they did until the air strikes of Operation Inherent Resolve began to tell. The FT estimates the transit duties brought in $140 million a year, having built up reserves of $875 million before 2014 and netting a $23 million windfall in the form of taxes on Iraqi civil servants’ salaries with the fall of Mosul. By far the single most important source of revenue, however, is the most obvious one: oil.
Syria’s oil reserves are small and the wells and refineries old: the resources in Western Iraq are much more significant. In both countries ISIS has succeeded in a conscious plan to take control of the logistical life’s blood of the capitalist economy. A glance at a map reveals this: rather than a contiguous state, the caliphate covers oil fields, the transport links to and from them, and the cities from which control over those can be exercised. On the very day that ISIS took Mosul in 2014, a local sheikh from near Kirkuk told the Financial Times: ‘They were ready, they had people in charge of the financial side, they had technicians that adjusted the filling and storage process … They brought trucks in from Kirkuk and Mosul and they started to extract the oil and export it.’
Oil is dealt with by ISIS’ central committee, the shura, not by any of the subordinate governorates to which local affairs are devolved. This control garners the organisation in the region of $450 million a year: ISIS refines some of its own oil and licences traders to sell the rest, also at very high mark-ups. ISIS oil sells at, according to the FT, $20–$45 per barrel. It sells oil (and more so natural gas) to the Assad regime and to the rebel forces, and to Turkey. Although instances of ISIS–regime collusion are numerous enough to be classified as strategic, this trade is more likely the result of the confused dynamics of civil war – everyone buys from, and fights with, everyone else. ISIS also has a captive market. All of the inhabitants of Western Iraq and Northern Syria have to continue using energy in their lives, and when that energy is controlled by ISIS, they are the ones who benefit.
ISIS’ vision of a caliphate is not, of course, incompatible with capitalism. Indeed, it is not even incompatible with running joint ventures with the Assad regime, as in the Tuweinan gas refinery in eastern Syria. ISIS takes a 60 per cent cut of the production and gives the remainder to the regime, which continues to pay the workers’ salaries and even to dispatch hapless new engineers to the plant. HESCO, the state energy conglomerate run by George Hasawni – a paradigmatic figure of the regime-linked Syrian bourgeoisie – apparently pays the jizya for its non-Muslim employees. Needless to say, the labour discipline enforced by ISIS is nakedly brutal, based on whipping and summary execution.
It is a mistake to think that capitalist social relations are inherently incompatible with tyranny. However, the depopulation of areas under ISIS’ control – an understandable response by the inhabitants – naturally affects the revenues collected from their economic activity. ISIS, characteristically, has responded to the flight of its population by coercive means: issuing a fatwa forbidding such attempts at escape.
The mutual usefulness of the takfiris and the tyrants should be clear. They provide each other with a permanent strategy of tension, a means, in the words of the jihadist ideologue Abu Bakr al-Naji to ‘eliminate the grey zone’. The tyrants do the oppressing, and the takfiris do the frightening, until there is no one left who is neither oppressed nor frightened. The Arab counter-revolutions since 2011 have seen the strategy of the Ra’is massacre writ large.
It should go without saying that anyone committed to emancipatory politics should be an enemy of ISIS. It should also go without saying that just because someone is an enemy of ISIS (whether rhetorically, as with Assad, or actually, as with the Western powers) they are not necessarily a friend to emancipation. ISIS was born in the catastrophes of counter-revolution and imperialism. The victory of these two forces, even if ISIS is itself temporarily defeated, will bring forth more such monstrosities, not fewer.
There is more to come. It would be complacent to imagine that the death throes of a degenerate social order will be confined to one region. The disaster is upon us. ISIS were ready. Who else is?
[*] The rehabilitation of prominent figures from the anti-Alawite ‘Fighting Vanguard’ of the late 1970s is particularly disturbing. The publication of a declaration on behalf a coalition of FSA brigades following the fall of Aleppo, that they would ‘protect the lives of every Syrian, regardless of their views or background’ was a positive sign that the ideals of the revolution have not been completely lost although whether the strength to back them still exists or not is another question entirely. One would, of course, search in vain for any such declaration on behalf of the Russian pilots bombing Aleppo’s hospitals or the pro-regime militias massacring Sunni villagers.
[†] airwars.org compiles a running total of civilian casualties due to the coalition air campaign in Iraq and Syria. The Anglophone Left has remained remarkably low-key on this war, except to argue, in the vein of Christopher Hitchens, that it was being pursued with insufficient vigour.
[‡] This agreement was reported in the Jordanian press – see Fahd Al-Khitan’s ‘Al-Itifaq al-Urdunii-al-Rusii’ (‘The Jordanian-Russian Agreement’) Al Ghad, 25 October 2015, and Omar al-Sharif’s ‘How will Jordan’s Pivot to Russia Pay Off?’, Al Monitor, 3 November 2015, for an English summary.
[§] A comprehensive list of these groups and the mechanisms of supply can be found in the blog post ‘BMG-71 TOW ATGM Syrian Opposition groups in the Syrian Civil War’, on medium.com.
[**] The narrative of the Manbij incident and related quotations come from Charles Davis’ article, ‘US airstrikes have allegedly killed over 850 civilians. So where is the outrage?’, from In these Times, 27 September 2016.
[††] Zouabri later claimed he had intended no such universal anathema, but the text seems clear. This anecdote appears in Giles Kepel’s book The Trail of Political Islam.
[‡‡] There are a number of short histories of ISIS’ intellectual and political lineage: Adam Hanieh’s ‘Brief History of ISIS’ on jacobinmag.com and the chapter ‘Loyalty and Disloyalty’ in Hassan and Weiss’ Inside the Army of Terror from which this section draws are the most notable.
[§§] The same word was used for the formation of Sunni militias that defeated the original Islamic State of Iraq in the mid-2000s under US tutelage, and for several other political movements.
[***] The Naqshibandis are a Sufi order common across Iraq and Syria.
[†††] The relevant document is quoted in the story ‘IS files reveal Assad’s deals with militants’, on Sky News, 2 May 2016.
[‡‡‡] The most invaluable information on the funding of ISIS is to be found in the Financial Times series ‘ISIS Inc.’ from which the quotations in this section are drawn.