Archive for July, 2014

And why reporters won’t talk about it
By Staff Notes
Tablet Magazine |July 29, 2014

The idea that one of Hamas’ main command bunkers is located beneath Shifa Hospital in Gaza City is one of the worst-kept secrets of the Gaza war. So why aren’t reporters in Gaza ferreting it out? The precise location of a large underground bunker equipped with sophisticated communications equipment and housing some part of the leadership of a major terrorist organization beneath a major hospital would seem to qualify as a world-class scoop—the kind that might merit a Pulitzer, or at least a Polk.

So why isn’t the fact that Hamas uses Shifa Hospital as a command post making headlines? In part, it’s because the location is so un-secret that Hamas regularly meets with reporters there. On July 15, for example, William Booth of the Washington Post wrote that the hospital “has become a de facto headquarters for Hamas leaders, who can be seen in the hallways and offices.” Back in 2006, PBS even aired a documentary showing how gunmen roam the halls of the hospital, intimidate the staff, and deny them access to protected locations within the building—where the camera crew was obviously prohibited from filming. Yet the confirmation that Hamas is using Gaza City’s biggest hospital as its de facto headquarters was made in the last sentence of the eighth paragraph of Booth’s story—which would appear to be the kind of rookie mistake that is known in journalistic parlance as “burying the lede.”

But Booth is no rookie—he’s an experienced foreign reporter, which means that he buried the lede on purpose. Why? Well, one reason might be that the “security sources” quoted whenever the location of the Hamas command bunker is mentioned—which, as evidenced by this 2009 article by the excellent and highly experienced foreign correspondent Steven Erlanger of the New York Times, happens every time there’s a war in Gaza—are obviously Israelis, not members of Hamas. It might be hard to believe the Israelis, the simple logic might run, since they obviously have an investment in arguing that Hamas is using hospitals and schools as human shields.

The Israelis are so sure about the location of the Hamas bunker, however, not because they are trying to score propaganda points, or because it has been repeatedly mentioned in passing by Western reporters—but because they built it. Back in 1983, when Israel still ruled Gaza, they built a secure underground operating room and tunnel network beneath Shifa hospital—which is one among several reasons why Israeli security sources are so sure that there is a main Hamas command bunker in or around the large cement basement beneath the area of Building 2 of the Hospital, which reporters are obviously prohibited from entering.

Hamas obviously has no interest in having a photo-layout of one of its command bunkers beneath Shifa Hospital splashed on the front pages of newspapers. After all, such pictures would show that the organization uses the sick and wounded of Gaza as human shields while launching missiles against Israeli civilians. What Hamas wants is for reporters to use very different pictures from Shifa—namely, photos of Palestinians killed and wounded by Israelis, which make Palestinians look like innocent victims of wanton Israeli brutality.

To that end, the rules of reporting from Shifa Hospital are easy for any newbie reporter to understand: No pictures of members of Hamas with their weapons inside the hospital, and don’t go anywhere near the bunkers, or the operating rooms where members of Hamas are treated. While reporters can meet with members of Hamas inside the hospital—because it’s obviously convenient for everyone—they are not allowed to take pictures. Reporters inside Gaza who are risking their lives to bring the world whatever news they can should hardly be blamed for obeying Hamas’ media rules, which the organization has helpfully written down in case anyone has doubts about what they are permitted to show.

Reporters who bravely or foolishly violate Hamas’ rules even on their social media accounts can be seen to repent with such alacrity that it’s not difficult to imagine how scared and dependent they are. Nick Casey of the Wall Street Journal, for example, tweeted that “You have to wonder w the shelling how patients at Shifa hospital feel as Hamas uses it as a safe place to see media.” Casey then quickly deleted his tweet, which didn’t save him from being put on a list of journalists who “lie/fabricate info for Israel” and “must be sued” – a threat which is surely the least of Casey’s fears. Last week, French-Palestinian journalist Radjaa Abu Dagg was summoned to Shifa by Hamas and interrogated. He wrote about the experience of “attempted intimidation” for Liberation—and then quickly had the paper take down the article.

It can hardly be lost on any sane journalist that tempers in combat zones can be short, and that Hamas has used the kidnapping of foreign journalists like Alan Johnson of the BBC to advance its own agenda. The fact that Hamas has closed the border and will not let journalists in or out of Gaza can’t make journalists who being used as de facto human shields by a terrorist organization feel any more eager to offend their hosts.

What Hamas has done, therefore, is to turn Shifa Hospital into a Hollywood sound-stage filled with real, live war victims who are used to score propaganda points, while the terrorists inside the hospital itself are erased from photographs and news accounts through a combination of pressure and threats, in order to produce the stories that Hamas wants. So if reporters aren’t entirely to blame for participating in this sick charade, then who is?

The answer is that reporters write what they can, and some do their job better than others, and some are braver or more foolhardy than their peers. But it’s the job of editors, sitting thousands of miles away, at a very safe remove from the battlefield, to note that dispatches were produced under pressure, or that key information was removed by a government—as nearly all mainstream media outlets do when battlefield dispatches pass through the hands of the IDF censor. A good editor might attach similar notes to dispatches from combat zones controlled by terrorist organizations. He or she might also decide that reporting only the news that Hamas deems fit to print from Shifa Hospital isn’t actually reporting at all: It’s propaganda.

By Raymond Ibrahim | July 17, 2014

The Ridda wars against “apostates and hypocrites”

The new “caliphate” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—the Islamic State, formerly “ISIS”—recently made clear that it means to follow in the footsteps of the original caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Sadiq (632-634), specifically by directing its jihad against fellow Muslims, in Islamic parlance, the “hypocrites” and “apostates,” or in Western terminology, “moderates.”

This came out in the context of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, with some Muslims asking the newly formed “caliphate” when it would launch a jihad on the Jewish state.

The Islamic State’s response? “Allah in the noble Koran does not command us to fight Israel or the Jews until we fight the apostates and hypocrites.”

On one of the Islamic State’s question-and-answer websites, some asked why it was “not fighting Israel but instead shedding the blood of the sons of Iraq and Syria.”  The new caliphate responded:

The greater answer is in the noble Koran, when Allah Almighty speaks about the near enemy.  In the majority of verses in the noble Koran, these are the hypocrites, for they pose a greater danger than the original infidels [born non-Muslims, e.g., Jews and Christians].  And the answer is found in Abu Bakr al-Sadiq, when he preferred fighting apostates over the conquest of Jerusalem [fath al-Quds], which was conquered by his successor, Omar al-Khattab.

There’s much to be said about this response, rife as it is with historical allusions.

First, it is true.  After the prophet of Islam died, a great number of Arabian tribes that had submitted to his rule by becoming Muslims—the word muslim simply means “one who submits”—thought they could now renege, and so they apostatized in droves.  This sparked the first Ridda, or “apostasy wars,” waged by Abu Bakr al-Sadiq, who became the first caliph on Muhammad’s death in 632.  For nearly two years, till his own death in 634, his caliphate’s entire energy was focused on waging jihad on all the recalcitrant Arab tribes, forcing them by the edge of the sword to return to the fold of Islam.

Tens of thousands of Arabs were burned, beheaded, dismembered, or crucified in the process, according to Islamic history, especially by the “Sword of Allah.”  It was only afterwards, under the reign of the second caliph, Omar al-Khattab (634-644), that the great Islamic conquests against the “original infidels”—those non-Arab peoples who had never converted to Islam, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, etc.—took place.

Islam’s war on the apostate, so little known in the West, figures prominently in Islamic history.  Indeed, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most influential Islamic clerics today, while once discussing the importance of killing any Muslim who apostatizes from Islam on Al Jazeera, correctly stated that “If the [death] penalty for apostasy was ignored, there would not be an Islam today; Islam would have ended on the death of the prophet.”

In short, and as the Islamic State is now arguing, the first and greatest enemy of Islam—the “nearest” enemy—is the “apostate” and “hypocrite,” for they are the most capable of subverting Islam from within.

The Islamic State executes “apostate and hypocrite” Muslims

This phenomenon of “pious” Muslims fighting and killing “lukewarm” Muslims, or Shia and Sunnis fighting one another—while the original infidel stands by or gets away—has many precedents throughout history.  For example, in its response, the Islamic State further justifies not fighting Israel by saying:

The answer is found in Salah ad-Din al-Ayubi [Saladin] and Nur ad-Din Zanki when they fought the Shia in Egypt and Syria before [addressing] Jerusalem.  Salah ad-Din fought more than 50 battles before he reached Jerusalem.  And it was said to Salah ad-Din al-Ayubi: “You fight the Shia and the Fatimids in Egypt and allow the Latin Crusaders to occupy Jerusalem?”  And he responded: “I will not fight the Crusaders while my back is exposed to the Shia.”

All of this history quoted by the Islamic State is meant to exonerate the new caliphate’s main assertion: “Jerusalem will not be liberated until we are done with all these tyrants, families, and pawns of colonialism that control the fate of the Islamic world.”

Some observations:

  • Although the Islamic State is trying to suggest that only autocrats like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad are “apostates” and “hypocrites,” and that most average Muslims are eager for Sharia, the fact is, a great many of the world’s Muslims fit under this rubric.  The largest revolution in history, Egypt’s June 2013 anti-Brotherhood revolution, attests to this.  Thus the new caliphate’s jihad is not just against “tyrants,” but many average Muslims as well, as the organization’s carnage in Iraq and Syria attests.
  • The Islamic State’s declaration justifying non-confrontation with Israel is not winning it much popular support in the Arab world and is naturally portrayed as a copout. It further validates the popular Arab narrative that the United States is siding with the Islamists to create havoc in the region; to have the various sects (Sunni vs Shia, Moderate vs. Islamist) fight each other in order to divide and weaken the region.  Thus Dr. Ahmed Karima, a leading professor of Islamic jurisprudence in Al Azhar, said that the Islamic State’s position concerning Israel proves that “it is a creation of U.S. and Israeli intelligence” and that the new caliphate “is the biggest of all hypocrites.”
  • Alternatively, others, especially Islamists, appreciate that the Islamic State is patterning itself after the first caliphate of Abu Bakr—hence why its first caliph chose that name—because it finds itself operating in the same circumstances.  Nascent and without much support, it first mission, like Abu Bakr, is to re-subjugate Muslims to Islam.  Only then can it focus on the “original infidels.”
  • While this approach may be temporarily good for Israel (and all infidel states), in the long run, a fully functioning and unified caliphate with “reformed” Muslims next door is not a pretty picture.  After all, the Islamic State is not exonerating the infidel, but rather saying his turn will come once the caliphate is capable of an all-out assault.  At best, it’s a temporary reprieve.

Jihadists in Iraq Erase Cultural Heritage
Nour Malas
WSJ | Jul 25, 2014

People walk through the rubble of the Prophet Younis Mosque after it was destroyed in a bomb attack by militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in the city of Mosul, July 24, 2014. —REUTERS

A campaign by Sunni insurgents to establish an Islamic caliphate across Iraq and Syria and expel other Muslim sects and religions is taking a severe toll on the countries’ cultural heritage.

The latest casualty was a shrine in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul said to contain the tomb of Jonah, who is revered as a prophet by Jews, Christians and Muslims—who call him Younes. The Nabi Younes Mosque, a towering structure that housed the shrine, was also destroyed in Thursday’s blast.

Militants from Islamic State, the al Qaeda spinoff that seized Mosul on June 10, wired the periphery of the mosque with explosives and then detonated them, residents said, erasing a revered piece of Iraqi heritage. It collapsed in a massive explosion that sent clouds of sand and dust tumbling into the air.

“They turned it to sand, along with all other tombs and shrines,” said Omar Ibrahim, a dentist in Mosul. “But Prophet Younes is something different. It was a symbol of Mosul,” said Mr. Ibrahim, a Sunni. “We cried for it with our blood.”

Though its population is predominantly Sunni, Mosul was a symbol of religious intermingling and tolerance in Iraq. Nineveh, the wider province, is a Assyrian Christian center dating back thousands of years. That Jonah’s shrine was in a mosque was a proud reflection of that coexistence.

Visitors used to stream from across Iraq to pray at the mosque, unique in the country for its grand ascending stairs and alabaster floors. Its large prayer rooms had arched entrances inscribed elaborately with Quranic verses.

The site was a monastery centuries ago before it was turned into a mosque, said Emil Nona, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul. “Nabi Younes was famous in the city of Mosul, the most famous mosque in the area,” Archbishop Nona said. “I’m very sorry to see this place destroyed.”

Islamic State and other groups following ultraconservative Sunni ideology believe the veneration of shrines or tombs is unholy. Many also denounce the veneration of any prophet besides Muhammad, believed by Muslims to be God’s messenger.

The group has announced by decree its plan to destroy graves and shrines, a strategy it has already followed in neighboring Syria, where the militants have thrived in parts of the north and east.

Iraqis inspect the wreckage of the Nebi Younes mosque in Mosul on Thursday. European Pressphoto Agency

In Mosul, they have already destroyed at least two dozen shrines, as well as Shiite places of worship, and raided the Mosul Museum, officials said.

"This most recent outrage is yet another demonstration of the terrorist group’s intention to shatter Iraq’s shared heritage and identity," said Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations secretary-general’s special representative for Iraq, on Friday.

Iraqi officials at the tourism ministry and religious officials in Mosul confirmed the shrine as destroyed in a militant attack on Thursday. The attack is captured in amateur video footage shot by locals and posted online. In one, a thick plume of brown smoke rises in the air, presumably over the mosque as it collapsed, as the narrator says: "No, no, no. There goes the Prophet Younes."

The shrine held particular significance for Iraqis because Jonah—who in stories in both the Bible and Quran is swallowed by a whale—"was a prophet for all," said Fawziya al-Maliky, director of heritage at the tourism ministry. "We don’t know what these backward militants are thinking, what kind of Islam they are pursuing," she said. "They are pursuing the end of civilization."

The attack was another blow to the country’s Christian community. The Islamic State has been pursuing a deliberate anti-Christian campaign in Iraq.

Thousands of Christians fled Mosul last week after Islamic State posed an ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a tax, flee or face death. Christian residents said they were terrorized and humiliated in their own city as militants singled out their homes.

Candida Moss, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, called it "part of the irreversible eradication of Christian history and culture in Iraq."


Islamic State destroys sacred shrine in Mosul
Ali Mamouri
Al-Monitor | July 25, 2014

The Islamic State (IS) bombed and destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Jonah east of Mosul on July 24.

Previously, IS had carried out numerous bombings, destroying important cultural sites such as the shrine of the Prophet Daniel west of Mosul, the shrine of one of the grandchildren of the second Caliph Omar Bin al-Khattab, as well as mosques, various shrines and numerous other churches. These sites are not only for Shiite Muslims or non-Muslims. Most of them are sacred places for Sunni Muslims as well, and some are even only affiliated with them, in addition to a significant number of statues of famous figures and other cultural sites that also were destroyed.

Sources inside the city confirmed this information to Al-Monitor. Activists on social media networks uploaded pictures and several videos showing the magnitude of the destruction of cultural sites around the city. Sources told Al-Monitor that a state of sorrow and regret reigns in the city and that they have seen plenty of people crying while witnessing the destruction of Jonah’s tomb. Jonah is considered sacred by all Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

What these groups are doing is based on an endemic Salafist principle common to most Salafist movements, whether they are jihadists or not. This principle underlines the need to purify the earth of polytheism and disbelief. These groups consider religious shrines or any other sites related to a certain person to be a kind of sanctification, which is, according to them, a true sign of polytheism.

The destruction of these sites is part of the process of returning to the authentic Islam and eliminating all alien elements, according to the Salafist understanding. This contradicts the traditional understanding of Islam by all Muslim confessions, which means that Islam does not contradict other sanctities, but rather understands them and considers them sacred, especially when the people of these sacred places are prophets of the Quran, such as the prophets Jonah and Daniel and many others from both the New and Old Testaments.

Therefore, international Muslim figures, such as the mufti of Egypt, condemned the destruction of sacred places by IS. The mufti also called for an urgent intervention from the authorities in Iraq and international organizations such as UNESCO to protect these sacred places.

The destruction of sacred places also happened during the establishment of Saudi Arabia, which was described as the first political entity for Salafists in the Islamic world. Hundreds of shrines of the prophet’s companions and family have been destroyed, in addition to other important historical sites related to different eras of Islamic history, from the establishment of the first and second Saudi states until this day. These actions also occurred in Afghanistan, Syria and certain areas in Iraq that fell under the control of Salafist groups.

IS threatened to continue the process of destroying sacred places of other confessions and religions, as well as others related to Sunnis. These threats raised the concerns of most Iraqis, especially the Shiites and the religious minorities, in addition to Sunnis who share the same respect and sanctification for these shrines and religious places.

It’s mandatory for the international organizations concerned about human rights and preserving religious freedom and heritage, specifically UNESCO, to work harder and on a larger scale to put an end to this destruction. This is essential since a large number of these places are sanctified and respected by Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The concerns about the destruction of sacred places are not limited to them being historic and cultural sites; they include forgiveness and coexistence between different religions and confessions in Iraq. Such destruction harms the long history of coexistence among Iraqi religions. It targets the symbols and main sites which attracted and gathered all confessions and paved the path for communication and understanding, and thus, their coexistence.

It also heightens intolerance and religious hatred and hostility between different confessions. This usually does not quickly fade away, and could create social divisions and demographic subdivisions on a large scale across Iraq. This could eliminate any sort of communication between the various elements of society and create severe conflicts between them.

Iraq is heading toward total destruction of its historic and human heritage, which will turn it into a barren desert isolated from its time-honored cultural and religious history. This is taking place in light of chaotic circumstances involving terrorism that is on the offensive, Iraqi government ignorance, global silence and an international letdown — specifically from the United States, which completely abandoned its responsibilities toward the situation in Iraq.


The silence is deafening
The Arlington Catholic Herald | 7/29/14

Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf took to the House floor July 29 to speak out for Christians and other religious minorities who are being systematically targeted for extinction in Iraq. It is the fifth time in the past week that he has addressed the subject. Following is the text of his remarks:

I want to read the following piece that was posted on yesterday. The headline was: “Has last Christian left Iraqi city of Mosul after 2,000 years?”

Here is how it began: “Samer Kamil Yacub was alone when four Islamist militants carrying AK-47s arrived at his front door and ordered him to leave the city. The 70-year-old Christian had failed to comply with a decree issued by the Islamic State of Iraq and [Syria] (ISIS). Yacub’s hometown of Mosul had boasted a Christian community for almost 2,000 years. But then the al Qaeda-inspired fighters who overran the city last month gave Christians an ultimatum.

“They could stay and pay a tax or convert to Islam – or be killed. Yacub, 70, was one of the few Christians remaining beyond last Saturday’s noon deadline. He may have even been the last to leave alive.

“[A] fighter said, ‘I have orders to kill you now,’” Yacub said just hours after the Sunni extremists tried to force their way into his home at 11 a.m. on Monday. ‘All of the people in my neighborhood were Muslim. They came to help me – about 20 people – at the door in front of my house. They tried to convince ISIS not to kill me.

“The rebels spared Yacub but threw him out of the city where he had spent his entire life. They also took his Iraqi ID card before informing him that elderly women would be given his house.”

Mr. Speaker, this is but one example of what is unfolding in Iraq right before our eyes. The end of Christianity as we know it is taking place in Iraq.

This is the fifth time I have come to the floor over the last week to try to raise awareness of what is happening. To talk about the genocide. It is genocide. Yes, genocide: the systematic extermination of a people of faith by violent extremists seizing power in a region.

Churches and monasteries have been seized. Many of them looted then burned. Last week it was widely reported that ISIS had blown up the tomb of the prophet Jonah. Christians – threatened with their lives if they do not leave the region – are being robbed as they leave lands they have lived on for more than 2,000 years.

With the exception of Israel, the Bible contains more references to the cities, regions and nations of ancient Iraq than any other country. The patriarch Abraham came from a city in Iraq called Ur. Isaac’s bride, Rebekah, came from northwest Iraq. Jacob spent 20 years in Iraq, and his sons – the 12 tribes of Israel – were born in northwest Iraq. The events of the book of Esther took place in Iraq, as did the account of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Many of Iraq’s Christians still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

The pope has spoken out.

His Beatitude Ignatius Ephrem Joseph III Younan, overseer of Syriac Catholics around the globe, has spoken out.

His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, has spoken out.

Archbishop Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans, has spoken out.

Russell Moore, a key leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, has spoken out.

Despite these Christian leaders speaking out about the systematic extermination of Christians in Iraq, the silence in this town is deafening. Does Washington even care?

Where is the Obama Administration? The president has failed.

Where is the Congress? The Congress has failed.

Time is running out. The Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq are being targeted for extinction. They need our help.

Literally, during our time, we will see the end of Christianity in the place it began.,26738


Assyrian Christians Demand Protection
By Mardean Isaac

(AINA) — Following the invasion of northern Iraq by the Islamic State, Assyrian Christians and other minorities have found themselves in grave peril. On June 10th, the Islamic State captured Mosul from the Iraqi state. Those Christians who returned after the dwindling of violence following that original onslaught — lacking the means to secure accomodation elsewhere — found their property tagged with an ‘N’ for ‘Nassarrah,’ the Quranic word for Christians.

Last Saturday, the Islamists declared that Mosul’s Christians had three choices: to convert to Islam, pay a hefty jizya tax, face murder, or flee permanently. A mass exodus of Christians ensued. They were not permitted to keep any of their possessions. Louis Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, has declared that no Christians remain in Mosul. As evinced by the seizure of the ancient monastery of Mar Behnam, the apparent destruction of the tomb of Jonah, and several other acts of vandalism and looting perpetrated on historic churches, Iraq’s architectural heritage is also threatened by the extremist group.

The Assyrian town of Qaraqosh, located in the Nineveh Plains around 32 km from Mosul, was emptied of almost all of its inhabitants as ISIS assailed it on June 26. Around 40,000 people fled north, often with nothing but the clothes on their back.

The migration was desperate and chaotic, and the destination entirely uncertain.

These recent events follow a broader pattern of persecution and atrocity unleashed against the Assyrians. Since the 2003 invasion, 73 churches have been attacked or bombed across Iraq. Dozens of priests have been kidnapped or murdered. Thousands of Assyrians have been the victims of violence, and regions and cities, including neighbourhoods Baghdad, have been largely emptied of their indigenous Christian inhabitants.

Marginalised and discriminated against for asserting their ethnic identity under the Fascist Ba’ath regime, the Assyrians now find themselves on the receiving end of violence because of their religion.

Assyrians have absolutely no means of self-defence, let alone legal or political recourse. A chronic failure to create and buttress local security forces populated by members of local communities has led to a state of desperate insecurity in Iraq. As the country’s army and security forces disintegrate, minorities, who are bereft of the patronage fuelling militia activity as well as any effective representation in the state, have been left exposed to violence and dispossession. A similarly grim fate is being forced upon the Assyrians of Syria as large swathes of that country fall to Islamist militants. More than half the Christians of Iraq have fled, and the same exodus is being repeated in Syria. For the first time in history, there are more Assyrians in diaspora than in their ancient homelands of Iraq and Syria.

I am a British-Assyrian writer and the UK leader of a new campaign, A Demand for Action, spearheaded by the tireless Swedish-Assyrian journalist Nuri Kino, which seeks to protect Christians and other minorities in their ancestral homelands.

We are not affiliated with any existing political organisaions or religious groups: we are a free association comprised of the Assyrian diaspora in over a dozen countries who have organised over social media.. On a daily basis, we disseminate media, coordinate e-mail and letter campaigns, write and publish articles, and contact parliamentarians, ministers, officials, and persons of authority and influence.

Please join our group to strengthen our efforts and keep abreast of developments as well as responses to them.

If we do not act immediately to protect and support the Assyrians of Iraq and Syria, they will be exterminated. And with their extermination, the legacy of one of the oldest indigenous peoples on the planet will disappear. This tragedy will never be lifted from the conscience of the world. We must act now.

Why Did ISIS Destroy the Tomb of Jonah?
Mark Movsesian
First Things | 7 . 28 . 14

On Friday, the media reported that ISIS, the Islamist group that has established a “caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq, had destroyed the centuries-old Tomb of Jonah in Mosul, Iraq. Present-day Mosul encompasses the site of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, where, the Bible teaches, the Prophet Jonah preached. Although this is disputed, a tradition holds that Jonah was buried within the city, on Tell Nebi Yunus, or Hill of the Prophet Jonah.

An Assyrian church stood over the tomb for centuries. After the Muslim conquest, the church became a mosque; the structure that ISIS destroyed last week dated to the 14th century. In addition to the tomb, the mosque once held the supposed remains of the whale that had swallowed Jonah, including one of its teeth. At some point, the tooth disappeared. In 2008, the U.S. Army presented the mosque with a replica.

Last week, ISIS closed the mosque and prevented worshipers from entering. Then it wired the structure with explosives and reduced it to rubble. You can see a video of the explosion here, taken by a Mosul resident, who mutters, in Arabic, “No, no, no. Prophet Jonah is gone. God, these scoundrels.”

Some commentators have explained the destruction of the tomb as part of ISIS’s anti-Christian campaign. Scholars Joel Baden and Candida Moss point out that, in Christian interpretation, the Old Testament story of Jonah prefigures the death and resurrection of Christ. “The destruction of his tomb in Mosul is therefore a direct assault on Christian faith, and on one of the few physical traces of that faith remaining in Iraq.” Another scholar, Sam Hardy, told the Washington Post that the destruction of the tomb shows that ISIS is willing to destroy “pretty much anything in the Bible.”

On this analysis, ISIS destroyed the tomb because of its Christian associations. But that mistakes ISIS’s motives in this case. True, ISIS has no respect for Christians or their sites of worship and, in fact, has driven Mosul’s Christians from the city. The fact that the tomb was sacred for Christians as well as Muslims—and contained a present from the US Army—cannot have endeared it to ISIS. But something else is going on here. The shrine was, after all, a mosque, and Jonah figures in the Quran as well as the Bible. To understand why ISIS destroyed the tomb, one has to appreciate something about the version of Islam the group espouses.

ISIS is part of the Salafi movement, a branch of Sunni Islam that seeks to return to the practices of the earliest Muslims – the salaf— who lived at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and just after. The movement rejects the centuries of subsequent developments in Islam as unjustified innovations–pagan accretions that adulterated the faith. In particular, the movement opposes the veneration of the graves of Islamic prophets and holy men. Salafis see this practice, which is associated most frequently with Sufi Islam, as a kind of idolatry, or shirk, that detracts from the absolute transcendence of God.

Salafi Islam prevails in Saudi Arabia, where it enjoys the patronage of the royal family. On the Arabian Peninsula, as now in Iraq, Salafis have destroyed the tombs of Islamic holy men. Indeed, when the Saudi royal family captured the city of Medina in the 19th century, Salafis systematically destroyed the tombs of several of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions and family members, leaving only the Prophet’s tomb itself unmolested. There is some thought that the Saudi government plans on dismantling even that tomb, but hesitates to do so because of the uproar that would result in other Muslim communities.

In short, one should see ISIS’s destruction of the tomb of Jonah as an act principally directed at other Muslims, not Christians. That doesn’t make it any better, of course. Will the outside world do anything in response? Unlikely. Besides, as Professor Hardy told the Post, “If we didn’t intervene when they were killing people, it would be kind of grotesque to intervene over a building.”


Iraqi Christians’ nightmare
Thanks to ISIS persecution, Mosul is without Christians for the first time in 2,000 years
Kirsten Powers
USA Today | July 29, 2014

Iraq’s Christians are begging the world for help. Is anybody listening?

Since capturing the country’s second largest city of Mosul in early June, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has ordered Christians to convert to Islam, pay jizya taxes levied on non-Muslims, or die. The extremist Sunni group is also persecuting and murdering Turkmen and Shabaks, both Muslim religious minorities.

Human rights lawyer Nina Shea described the horror in Mosul to me: "(ISIS) took the Christians’ houses, took the cars they were driving to leave. They took all their money. One old woman had her life savings of $40,000, and she said, ‘Can I please have 100 dollars?’, and they said no. They took wedding rings off fingers, chopping off fingers if they couldn’t get the ring off."

"We now have 5,000 destitute, homeless people with no future," Shea said. "This is a crime against humanity."

For the first time in 2,000 years, Mosul is devoid of Christians. "This is ancient Nineveh we are talking about," Shea explained. "They took down all the crosses. They blew up the tomb of the prophet Jonah. An orthodox Cathedral has been turned into a mosque. … They are uprooting every vestige of Christianity." University of Mosul professor Mahmoud Al ‘Asali, a Muslim, bravely spoke out against ISIS’ purging of Christians and was executed.

Lebanon-based Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, who heads the Syrian Catholic Church, called the crisis "religious cleansing" in an interview. "I want to tell American Christians to stand up, wake up and no longer be a silent majority. American-elected representatives need to stand up for their principles on which the U.S. has been founded: the defense of religious freedom … and respect for human rights."

Mosul’s Christians have fled to Kurdistan, which is providing refuge. Going back to Mosul is not an option: ISIS has given their houses and businesses away. There is nothing to go back to even if ISIS left.

Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf has taken to the House floor three times in the past week to plead for action from the U.S. and world community.

Wolf told me, "The Kurds have done a good job, but they are bearing the burden. President Obama should thank and encourage the Kurds for protecting the Christians. He also needs to provide (humanitarian aid), including funds for water and food."

Though many Iraq War boosters have claimed that keeping U.S. troops there would have avoided this atrocity, Shea pointed out that a million Christians left Iraq in the decade before ISIS’ purge campaign. The U.S. invasion "did not benefit the Christians at all. Back in 2007, jihadists moved into Baghdad’s Christian Dora neighborhood and did just what they are doing in Mosul now. We had 100,000 troops on the ground and we pushed them out, but the Christians never got back their property."

Patriarch Younan concurred, telling me, "Christians used to live (peacefully) and get educated. But since the invasion in 2003, there is…no safety."

Kirsten Powers writes weekly for USA TODAY.


Does Jonah’s tomb signal the death of Christianity in Iraq?
Opinion by Joel S. Baden and Candida Moss, Special to CNN
July 25th, 2014

(CNN) The destructive force of  the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the militant Sunni movement, is epitomized in a video released Thursday of ISIS members smashing a tomb in Mosul, Iraq.

The tomb is traditionally thought to be the burial place of the prophet Jonah, a holy site for Christians and many Muslims.

Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, is built on and adjacent to the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, the setting for the biblical book of Jonah and once the most powerful capital of the ancient world.

Indeed, for most people familiar with the Bible, Nineveh is inseparable from the figure of Jonah.

In Christian tradition, the story of Jonah is an important one. Jonah’s descent into the depths in the belly of the great fish and subsequent triumphant prophetic mission to Nineveh is seen as a reference to and prototype of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The destruction of his tomb in Mosul is therefore a direct assault on Christian faith, and on one of the few physical traces of that faith remaining in Iraq.

Despite its acknowledged antiquity, however, it is a virtual certainty that the tomb destroyed by ISIS was not that of the biblical prophet.

His purported tomb was in a mosque dating back to the time of the Muslim conquest in the middle of the first millennium. The mosque, known as the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus (Arabic for Jonah), was built on an even earlier Christian church that stood on the spot.

It’s likely that the association of the site with Jonah’s burial goes back to the early Christian period when the practice of linking geographical features with biblical figures was all the rage. (See: Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, David’s Tomb in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, etc.)

Jewish tradition suggests that Jonah returned to his hometown of Gath-Hepher after his mission to Nineveh (as we read in the book 3 Maccabees, from around the first century B.C.).

This was certainly the belief held by the church father Jerome, and was local tradition in Gath-Hepher in the 12th century and remains so today.

(Perhaps less likely is the rabbinic claim that his experience in the belly of the great fish was so terrible that God granted Jonah a rare exemption from the travails of death and he went up to heaven alive.)

In the end, speculations about the actual location of Jonah’s burial are probably moot, as virtually all scholars agree that the book is a work of pure fiction is perhaps even a comedic novella of sorts and that it is quite likely to have been written around the fifth century B.C., around 200 years after the city of Nineveh was destroyed.

But it is not the historical reality that is at stake in Mosul today.

The destruction of Jonah’s tomb was not an attack on archaeology. It was an attack on both those Christians living in Iraq today and on the rich, if little-known, Christian heritage of the region.

When people think of ancient Christianity, they don’t ordinarily think of Iraq. But the Christian communities there are among the oldest in the world.

According to church tradition, Christianity was introduced to the region by the Apostles Thomas and Thaddeus. These stories may be legendary, but by the second century we have references to Christian converts with names associated with the region and later histories refer to the persecution of Christians in Iraq in the fourth century. The Mar Behnam Monastery, for example, is believed to go back to the fourth century.

In the past two millennia, Iraq has been a center for Christian theological enquiry, learning and devotion. Important monasteries were built there in the sixth and seventh centuries, and various forms of ancient Christianity that had died out elsewhere persisted in Iraq into the 21st century.

Mar Mattai, which is to the southeast of Mosul and is maintained by the Syriac Orthodox Church, became one of the most important Christian monasteries by the eighth century, and was particularly renowned for its library.

The significance of Christianity in Iraq extends beyond even religion.

It is likely that Syriac monks were partly responsible for the preservation of Greek philosophical, medical and scientific texts by translating them into Syriac and Arabic. A ninth-century Syriac patriarch named Timothy wrote that the best Syriac manuscripts of Greek writers were to be found at Mar Mattai.

All that has been erased in a matter of days.

Last week, ISIS reportedly issued an ultimatum to Christians that they must convert to Islam, flee or face the sword. Earlier this month ISIS had allowed Christians to pay a non-Muslim tax known as jizya. On July 17, Christians were notified that jizya was no longer an option. They must now convert, flee or die.

Among the last Christians to leave the city were monks residents of the ancient Mar Behnam Monastery who left behind them 1,400 years of rich Christian tradition, as ISIS refused to let the monks take any of their precious relics with them.

Despite its antiquity and rich tradition, Christianity in Iraq is on the brink of eradication.

The heirs to those who first discovered the tomb of Jonah, and those who helped to keep Greek philosophy alive in the medieval period, are being ejected from their homes and from a land they have held sacred for centuries. This is the face and reality of Christian persecution.

Jonah was one of the earliest symbols of the resurrection for Christians. Will Christianity ever rise again in Iraq?

Joel S. Baden is professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. Candida Moss is a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed in this column belong to Baden and Moss.

NYT | JULY 29, 2014

MEMENTOS FROM CAPTIVITY: Items saved by Harald Ickler, a Swede living in Germany, from his 54 days as a hostage in 2003. He was on what he thought would be a four-week adventure vacation when he was kidnapped in the Algerian desert by jihadists who would soon become an official arm of Al Qaeda. Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times

BAMAKO, Mali — The cash filled three suitcases: 5 million euros.

The German official charged with delivering this cargo arrived here aboard a nearly empty military plane and was whisked away to a secret meeting with the president of Mali, who had offered Europe a face-saving solution to a vexing problem.

Officially, Germany had budgeted the money as humanitarian aid for the poor, landlocked nation of Mali.

In truth, all sides understood that the cash was bound for an obscure group of Islamic extremists who were holding 32 European hostages, according to six senior diplomats directly involved in the exchange.

The suitcases were loaded onto pickup trucks and driven hundreds of miles north into the Sahara, where the bearded fighters, who would soon become an official arm of Al Qaeda, counted the money on a blanket thrown on the sand. The 2003 episode was a learning experience for both sides. Eleven years later, the handoff in Bamako has become a well-rehearsed ritual, one of dozens of such transactions repeated all over the world.

Kidnapping Europeans for ransom has become a global business for Al Qaeda, bankrolling its operations across the globe.

While European governments deny paying ransoms, an investigation by The New York Times found that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just in the past year.

In various news releases and statements, the United States Treasury Department has cited ransom amounts that, taken together, put the total at around $165 million over the same period.

These payments were made almost exclusively by European governments, who funnel the money through a network of proxies, sometimes masking it as development aid, according to interviews conducted for this article with former hostages, negotiators, diplomats and government officials in 10 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The inner workings of the kidnapping business were also revealed in thousands of pages of internal Qaeda documents found by this reporter while on assignment for The Associated Press in northern Mali last year.

In its early years Al Qaeda received most of its money from deep-pocketed donors, but counterterrorism officials now believe the group finances the bulk of its recruitment, training and arms purchases from ransoms paid to free Europeans.

Put more bluntly, Europe has become an inadvertent underwriter of Al Qaeda.

The foreign ministries of France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Germany denied in emails or telephone interviews that they had paid the terrorists. “The French authorities have repeatedly stated that France does not pay ransoms,” said Vincent Floreani, deputy director of communication for France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Several senior diplomats involved in past negotiations have described the decision to ransom their citizens as an agonizing calculation: accede to the terrorists’ demand, or allow innocent people to be killed, often in a gruesome, public way?

Yet the fact that Europe and its intermediaries continue to pay has set off a vicious cycle.

“Kidnapping for ransom has become today’s most significant source of terrorist financing,” said David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in a 2012 speech. “Each transaction encourages another transaction.”

And business is booming: While in 2003 the kidnappers received around $200,000 per hostage, now they are netting up to $10 million, money that the second in command of Al Qaeda’s central leadership recently described as accounting for as much as half of his operating revenue.

“Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil,” wrote Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, “which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.”

The stream of income generated is so significant that internal documents show that as long as five years ago, Al Qaeda’s central command in Pakistan was overseeing negotiations for hostages grabbed as far afield as Africa. Moreover, the accounts of survivors held thousands of miles apart show that the three main affiliates of the terrorist group — Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in northern Africa; Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen; and the Shabab, in Somalia — are coordinating their efforts, and abiding by a common kidnapping protocol.

To minimize the risk to their fighters, the terror affiliates have outsourced the seizing of hostages to criminal groups who work on commission. Negotiators take a reported 10 percent of the ransom, creating an incentive on both sides of the Mediterranean to increase the overall payout, according to former hostages and senior counterterrorism officials.

Their business plan includes a step-by-step process for negotiating, starting with long periods of silence aimed at creating panic back home. Hostages are then shown on videos begging their government to negotiate.

Although the kidnappers threaten to kill their victims, a review of the known cases revealed that only a small percentage of hostages held by Qaeda’s affiliates have been executed in the past five years, a marked turnaround from a decade ago, when videos showing beheadings of foreigners held by the group’s franchise in Iraq would regularly turn up online. Now the group has realized it can advance the cause of jihad by keeping hostages alive and trading them for prisoners and suitcases of cash.

Only a handful of countries have resisted paying, led by the United States and Britain. Although both these countries have negotiated with extremist groups — evidenced most recently by the United States’ trade of Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl — they have drawn the line when it comes to ransoms.

It is a decision that has had dire consequences. While dozens of Europeans have been released unharmed, few American or British nationals have gotten out alive. A lucky few ran away, or were rescued by special forces. The rest were executed or are being held indefinitely.

“The Europeans have a lot to answer for,” said Vicki Huddleston, the former United States deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, who was the ambassador to Mali in 2003 when Germany paid the first ransom. “It’s a completely two-faced policy. They pay ransoms, and then deny any was paid,” she said. “The danger of this is not just that it grows the terrorist movement, but it makes all of our citizens vulnerable.”

A Letter Under a Rock

On Feb. 23, 2003, a group of four Swiss tourists, including two 19-year-old women, woke up in their sleeping bags in southern Algeria to the shouts of armed men. The men told the young women to cover their hair with towels, then commandeered their camper van and took off with them.

Over the coming weeks, another seven tour groups traveling in the same corner of the desert vanished. European governments scrambled to find their missing citizens.

Weeks passed before a German reconnaissance plane sent to scan the desert floor returned with images of their abandoned vehicles. More weeks passed before a scout sent on foot spotted something white through his binoculars.

It was a letter left under a rock.

In messy handwriting, it laid out the demands of a little-known jihadist group calling itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.

Armed with a few hunting rifles and old AK-47s, the kidnappers succeeded in sweeping up dozens of tourists over several consecutive weeks, mostly from Germany, but also from Switzerland, Austria, Sweden and Holland. Though they planned the first few ambushes, they appear to have grabbed others by chance, like a pair of hapless 26-year-olds from Innsbruck, Austria, who were spotted because of the campfire they had lit to cook spaghetti.

Beyond the initial grab, the kidnappers did not seem to have a plan. The only food they had was the canned goods the tourists had brought with them. The only fuel was what was in each gas tank. They abandoned the cars one by one as they ran out of fuel, forcing their hostages to continue on foot.

A 47-year-old Swedish hostage, Harald Ickler, remembers being so hungry that when he found a few leftover Danish butter cookie crumbs, he carefully scooped them into the palm of his hand, and then let them melt in his mouth.

At least $125 million in ransom money has been paid to Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates since 2008 for kidnappings that have been reported.

$91.5 million has been paid to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Year Amount in 2014 Dollars Paid By Hostages

2010-13 $40.4 million A state-controlled French company 4 French nationals

2010-11 $17.7 million A state-controlled French company 1 French national, 1 from Togo and 1 from Madagascar

2009 $12.4 million Switzerland 2 Swiss nationals and 1 German

2011-12 $10.8 million Could not be determined 1 Italian and 2 Spaniards

2009-10 $5.9 million Spain 3 Spaniards

2008 $3.2 million Austria 2 Austrians

2008-9 $1.1 million Could not be determined 2 Canadians

$5.1 million has been paid to the Shabab.

2011-13 $5.1 million Spain 2 Spaniards

$29.9 million has been paid to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

2012-13 $20.4 million Qatar and Oman 2 Finnish nationals, 1 Austrian and 1 Swiss national

2011 $9.5 million Could not be determined 3 French nationals

Note: Ransom amounts have been converted into U.S. dollars using the currency exchange rate from the year of the payment in cases where the payment was made in euros. The ransom amounts were then adjusted for inflation so that they are in 2014 dollars.

Sources: Ransom amounts were determined through interviews with former hostages, negotiators, diplomats and government officials in 10 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The amount paid in the 2009-10 kidnapping was reported in El Mundo, one of Spain’s largest newspapers.

“Once they had us, they didn’t seem to know what to do with us,” said Reto Walther of Untersiggenthal, Switzerland, who was in one of the first groups to be grabbed. “They were improvising.”

Despite the amateur nature of the operation, the jihadists had hit a soft spot. Almost none of their hostages had resisted, simply putting up their hands when they saw the gunmen. And although the Europeans outnumbered their captors, the hostages never tried to run away during what turned into a six-month captivity for some of them, and described the foreboding desert surrounding them as an “open-air prison.”

Crucially, although the European nations had firepower superior to that of the scrappy mujahedeen, they deemed a rescue mission too dangerous.

The jihadists asked for weapons. Then for impossible-to-meet political demands, like the removal of the Algerian government. When a 45-year-old German woman died of dehydration, panicked European officials began considering a ransom concealed as an aid payment as the least-bad option.

“The Americans told us over and over not to pay a ransom. And we said to them, ‘We don’t want to pay. But we can’t lose our people,’” said a European ambassador posted in Algeria at the time, who was one of six senior Western officials with direct knowledge of the 2003 kidnapping who confirmed details for this article. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information remains classified.

“It was a very difficult situation,” he said, “but in the end we are talking about human life.”

‘Not Just Normal Criminals’

The exploits of the band of fighters in the Sahara did not go unnoticed.

A year later, in 2004, a Qaeda operative, Abdelaziz al-Muqrin, published a how-to guide to kidnapping, in which he highlighted the successful ransom negotiation of “our brothers in Algeria.” Yet at the same time, he also praised the execution of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was grabbed in Pakistan in 2002 and beheaded nine days later by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a senior Qaeda member believed to be one of the architects of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Within a few years, there was a split within Al Qaeda, with the group’s affiliate in Iraq grabbing foreigners specifically to kill them.

In Algeria, the kidnappers of the European tourists followed a different path.

They used the €5 million as the seed money for their movement, recruiting and training fighters who staged a series of devastating attacks. They grew into a regional force and were accepted as an official branch of the Qaeda network, which baptized them Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. As kidnapping revenue became their main lifeline, they honed and perfected the process.

By Feb. 2, 2011, when their lookouts in southern Algeria spotted a 53-year-old Italian tourist, Mariasandra Mariani, admiring the rolling dunes through a pair of binoculars, they were running a sleek operation.

Her tour guide was the first to spot them, and screamed at her to run. As their cars sped toward her, she sprinted to her nearby desert bungalow and locked herself inside. She could do nothing but sit frozen on the mattress as they broke down the door. They threw her in a waiting car, handcuffing her to the dashboard. Before they sped off, they made sure to place a rolled up blanket next to her, so that the jihadist sitting next to her would not accidentally make contact with a woman.

Who are you?” she asked them.

“We are Al Qaeda,” they replied.

If previous kidnapping missions did not seem to have a thought-out plan, the gunmen who seized Ms. Mariani drove for days on what appeared to be a clearly delineated route. Whenever they were low on fuel, they would make their way to a spot that to her looked no different in the otherwise identical lunar landscape.

Under a thorn bush, they would find a drum full of gasoline. Or a stack of tires to replace a punctured one. They never ran out of food.

Ms. Mariani would later learn they had an infrastructure of supplies buried in the sand and marked with GPS coordinates.

One afternoon they stopped just above the lip of a dune. The fighters got down and unfastened a shovel. Then she heard the sound of a car engine. Suddenly a pickup truck roared out. They had buried an entire vehicle in the mountain of sand.

“It was then that I realized, these aren’t just normal criminals,” said Ms. Mariani.

The Sounds of Silence

Weeks passed before Ms. Mariani’s captors announced that they were going to allow her to make a phone call. They drove for hours until they reached a plateau, a flat white pan of dirt.

Years earlier, their strategy for broadcasting their demands had been to leave a letter under a rock. Now they had satellite phones and a list of numbers. They handed her a script and dialed the number for Al Jazeera.

“My name is Mariasandra Mariani. I am the Italian who was kidnapped,” she said. “I am still being detained by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”

The Italian government scrambled to create a crisis unit, including a 24-hour hotline for the kidnappers.

During her 14-month captivity, whenever the kidnappers felt that attention had flagged, they erected a tent in the desert and forced Ms. Mariani to record a video message, showing her surrounded by her armed captors.

A total of 11 former hostages grabbed by Qaeda units in Algeria, Mali, Niger, Yemen and Syria who agreed to be interviewed for this article reported a similar set of steps in the negotiations, beginning with an imposed period of silence. Video messages and telephone calls were infrequent, often months apart. The silence appeared purposeful, intended to terrorize the families of the captives, who in turn pressured their respective governments.

In the Italian village of San Casciano in Val di Pesa, Ms. Mariani’s 80-year-old mother stopped sleeping in her bedroom, moving permanently to the couch in front of the TV. Her aging father would burst into tears for no reason. In France, the frantic brother of a hostage held for a year in Syria developed an ulcer.

All over Europe, families rallied, pressuring governments to pay. Ms. Mariani was ultimately released, along with two Spanish hostages, for a ransom that a negotiator involved in her case said was close to €8 million.

Qaeda Oversight

The bulk of the kidnappings-for-ransom carried out in Al Qaeda’s name have occurred in Africa, and more recently in Yemen and Syria. These regions are thousands of miles from the terror network’s central command in Pakistan. Yet audio messages released by the group, as well as confidential letters between commanders, indicate the organization’s senior leaders are directly involved in the negotiations.

As early as 2008, a commander holding two Canadian diplomats angered his leaders by negotiating a ransom on his own. In a letter discovered by this reporter while on assignment for The A.P. in Mali last year, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb blamed the commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, for securing only the “meager sum” of €700,000 — around $1 million — saying the low amount was a result of his unwillingness to follow the instructions of their leadership in Pakistan.

In his last broadcast before his death in 2011, Osama bin Laden spoke at length about the case of four French citizens held by Al Qaeda in Mali, making clear that he was keeping close tabs on individual kidnappings.

Hostages held as recently as last year in Yemen say it was clear the negotiations were being handled by a distant leadership.

Atte and Leila Kaleva, a Finnish couple held for five months by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2013, deduced this from the voluminous correspondence they saw being delivered to their captors.

“There were lots of letters back and forth,” said Mr. Kaleva. “It was clear that they had a hierarchy, and they were consulting their leaders about what to do with us.”

A Valuable Commodity

In the dozens of kidnappings that Al Qaeda has carried out, the threat of execution has hung over each hostage, reinforced in videos showing the victim next to armed and menacing jihadist guards. In fact, only a minority of hostages — just 15 percent, according to an analysis by The Times — have been executed or have died since 2008, several of them in botched rescue operations.

The potential income hostages represent has made them too valuable to the movement. In a 2012 letter to his fellow jihadists in Africa, the man who was once Bin Laden’s personal secretary and who is now the second in command of Al Qaeda, wrote that at least half of his budget in Yemen was funded by ransoms.

“Thanks to Allah, most of the battle costs, if not all, were paid from through the spoils,” wrote Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. “Almost half the spoils came from hostages.”

Mr. Kaleva realized his captors did not intend to kill him when he became ill with what he feared was a giardia infection, and his worried kidnappers immediately brought him medicine.

How Much Countries Have Paid

Total amount paid to Al Qaeda and its affiliates in ransom money since 2008 for kidnappings that have been reported. In 2014 dollars.

France $58.1 million

Qatar and Oman $20.4 million

Switzerland $12.4 million

Source could not be determined $21.4 million

Spain $11.0 million

Austria $3.2 million

When Ms. Mariani fell ill from violent dysentery in the burning sands of the Malian desert, a jihadist doctor hooked her up to an IV, nursing her back to health.

Elsewhere in the Sahara, the jihadists trucked in specialized medication for a 62-year-old Frenchwoman who had breast cancer.

“It was clear to us,” said Mr. Kaleva, “that we are more valuable to them alive than dead.”

But hostages from countries that do not pay ransoms face a harsh fate.

In 2009, four tourists were returning to Niger from a music festival in Mali when kidnappers overtook their cars, shooting out their tires. The hostages included a German woman, a Swiss couple and a British man, Edwin Dyer, 61.

From the start of the negotiations, the British government made clear it would not pay for Mr. Dyer’s release. Al Qaeda’s North African branch issued a deadline, then a 15-day extension.

“The British wanted me to send a message saying one last time that they wouldn’t pay,” said a negotiator in Burkina Faso, who acted as the go-between. “I warned them, ‘Don’t do this.’ They sent the message anyway.”

Sometime after, the public information office of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb published a communiqué: “On Sunday, May 31, 2009, at half past seven p.m. local time, the British captive, Edwin Dyer, was killed,” it said. “It seems Britain gives little importance to its citizens.”

The Swiss and German nationals held alongside Mr. Dyer were released after a reported ransom of €8 million was paid, according to one of the Swiss negotiators who helped win their release. The same year, lawmakers in Bern voted on a national budget that “suddenly had an extra line for humanitarian aid for Mali,” said the official.

Mr. Dyer was a British citizen, but he had spent the last four decades of his life in Austria, a country that pays ransoms. In his early 20s, he settled in the mountain village of Attnang-Puchheim, a one-hour drive from the home of an Austrian couple who were released in Mali a few months before Mr. Dyer was killed. Austria paid €2 million to the couple’s Qaeda captors, according to Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, a Malian parliamentarian who negotiated their release.

In England, Mr. Dyer’s grieving brother, Hans, said his brother’s citizenship cost him his life.

“A U.K. passport is essentially a death certificate,” he said.

Europe’s Outsize Role

Negotiators believe that the Qaeda branches have now determined which governments pay.

Of the 53 hostages known to have been taken by Qaeda’s official branches in the past five years, a third were French. And small nations like Austria, Switzerland and Spain, which do not have large expatriate communities in the countries where the kidnappings occur, account for over 20 percent of the victims.

By contrast, only three Americans are known to have been kidnapped by Al Qaeda or its direct affiliates, representing just 5 percent of the total.

“For me, it’s obvious that Al Qaeda is targeting them by nationality,” said Jean-Paul Rouiller, the director of the Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, who helped set up Switzerland’s counterterrorism program. “Hostages are an investment, and you are not going to invest unless you are pretty sure of a payout.”

Mr. Cohen, the United States under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said information gathered by the Department of Treasury suggested that Al Qaeda may no longer want to kidnap Americans, a tectonic shift from a decade ago.

“We know that hostage takers looking for ransoms distinguish between those governments that pay ransoms and those that do not — and make a point of not taking hostages from those countries that do not pay,” he said in a 2012 speech to the Chatham House think tank in London. “And recent kidnapping-for-ransom trends appear to indicate that hostage takers prefer not to take U.S. or U.K. hostages, almost certainly because they understand that they will not receive ransoms.”

Western countries have signed numerous agreements calling for an end to ransom paying, including as recently as last year at a G8 summit, where some of the biggest ransom payers in Europe signed a declaration agreeing to stamp out the practice. Yet according to hostages released this year and veteran negotiators, governments in Europe — especially France, Spain and Switzerland — continue to be responsible for some of the largest payments, including a ransom of €30 million —about $40 million — paid last fall to free four Frenchmen held in Mali.

A presidential adviser in Burkina Faso who has helped secure the release of several of the Westerners held in the Sahara said he routinely deals with aggressive Western diplomats who demand the release of Qaeda fighters held in local prisons in an effort to win the release of their hostages, often one of the additional demands kidnappers make.

“You would not believe the pressure that the West brings to bear on African countries,” he said. “It’s you — the West — who is their lifeblood,” he said. “It’s you who finances them.”

The suitcases of cash are now no longer dropped off in the capital of the respective country, he said.

The official, who would speak only on the condition that his name be withheld for security reasons, went on to describe how the money is transferred. He said European governments send an escort, who travels with the money several hundred miles into the desert until the last safe outpost, usually leaving from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, or Niamey in Niger. The official says the negotiator and his driver then continue driving all day, and sometimes all night, traversing a roller coaster of undulating dunes.

Once the negotiator arrives at the meeting point, he waits until his satellite phone beeps with a text message. In the message is a pair of GPS coordinates.

He drives another five to six hours until he reaches the new address in the sand, and waits for the next text, containing another set of coordinates. The process is repeated a minimum of three times, until the jihadists finally show themselves.

The money is counted on a blanket on which the fighters sit cross-legged, their guns at their sides, the official said. The millions are then divided into stashes, wrapped in plastic and buried in holes hundreds of miles apart, a detail he was able to glean following repeated meetings with the terrorist cell. They mark the location on their GPS, keeping track of it just as they track their buried cars and fuel drums.

The money is written off by European governments as an aid payment, or else delivered through intermediaries, like French nuclear giant Areva, a state-controlled company that a senior negotiator said paid €12.5 million in 2011 and €30 million in 2013 to free five French citizens. (A spokesman for Areva denied in an email that a ransom had been paid.)

In Yemen, the intermediaries are Qatar and Oman, who pay the ransoms on behalf of European governments, including more than $20 million for two groups of hostages released in the past year, according to European and Yemeni officials.

Almost a year into her captivity in 2012, Mariasandra Mariani thought she could not take it anymore. Her captors were holding her in a landscape of black granite in northern Mali, which amplified the suffocating heat. When the wind blew, it felt as if someone were holding a blow dryer inches from her skin. She spent all day next to a bucket of water, sponging herself to try to keep cool.

She told her guard that her modest family, which grows olives in the hills above Florence, did not have the money, and that her government refused to pay ransoms. Her captor reassured her.

“Your governments always say they don’t pay,” he told Ms. Mariani. “When you go back, I want you to tell your people that your government does pay. They always pay.”

Robert F. Worth and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington. Sheelagh McNeill in New York contributed research.

Related Coverage

Document: Letter From Leaders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to a Sahara-Based Militant Commander JULY 29, 2014

Document: Al Qaeda Letter on the Importance of Kidnapping Revenue JULY 29, 2014

Robert Pape, Keven Ruby and Vincent Bauer
The Washington Post | July 21, 2014

With the recent spikes in terrorism in Syria, Lebanon and now Iraq, it is important to ask: Is the threat of terrorism around the world greater today than at the height of the Iraq war?  The New York Times, CNN, Reuters and other news media outlets have used government-sponsored data sets that paint a scary picture of world events, claiming that the number of radical terrorist attacks in 2013 exceeded those in any previous period. If true, the world is more dangerous today than during the George W. Bush administration or before 9/11.

There are a lot of ways to assess the current danger from radical terrorist organizations, but the best way is by tracking the number of suicide attacks. Suicide attacks are the most deadly form of terrorism, killing on average more than 10 times as many people as ordinary attacks and demonstrating the extreme commitment of the person carrying out the attack. The Global Terrorism Database (GTD), maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is a common source of data on suicide attacks used by the news media.

There’s only one problem: The GTD data cannot be trusted. The problem with interpreting recent trends from GTD’s data lies with its inconsistent collection of data, which severely undercounted the violence during the Iraq war. As a result, the recent increase in violence seems more extreme than it really is. The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism’s (CPOST) database of suicide attacks does not suffer from the same inconsistency. This competing source of data shows that the number of suicide attacks has increased over the past few years but remains below the global peak of violence set in 2007 during the Iraq war.


The main trouble with the GTD is that its collection standards have changed several times, making it an inappropriate source for measuring trends. The GTD was initially funded by the DHS in 2006 and began by compiling data from three independent projects, each with its own collection methodology and standards for inclusion: one standard of collection from 1970 until 1998, another through 2008 and another through 2011. It was not until November 2011 that the GTD became responsible for collecting its own data, at which point it changed its methodology and standards. No surprise, the type and number of events in the data set changed every time the methodology changed.

The GTD has qualified that its data set should not be used to look at trends over time, but this has not stopped numerous national and international news services, think-tanks and non-governmental organizations from doing precisely that. Indeed, the online database itself presents images of the data over time, and even releases reports, without any qualification about the differences in time periods. Accordingly, it is more than understandable that most viewers would treat the differences in methodologies across the time periods as irrelevant.

These shifts in methodology are largely responsible for the appearance of an abrupt upward trajectory of global suicide attacks in recent years.  The most recent iteration of the GTD pulls its sources from a wider pool of information than ever. This shift in collection guarantees that more suicide attacks are found after 2011, not necessarily because there are more attacks but because the GTD is better equipped to find them. Since this methodology was not applied retroactively, it is no surprise that violence after 2011 appears to overshadow the 2007 peak.

To be clear, improving methodological standards is all to the good – as long as historical data is recollected according to the new and improved standards. Changing standards without correcting past data creates opportunities for gross under- and overcounting of events. Comprehensive use of either the old or new methodology would create comparable data.

There are better approaches. The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism maintains a frequently updated data set of worldwide suicide bombings since 1982 that is available on its Web site. The CPOST database was the first publicly available complete set of suicide attacks around the world published first as an appendix to an academic article in 2003.

CPOST has maintained a consistent methodology in collecting attacks since its foundation, and ensures that its database contains every verified instance of suicide attack. CPOST collects every instance of a suicide attack, defined as an attacker killing himself or herself during the course of a mission to kill others, and confirms that an attack actually occurred by requiring at least two independent sources. These are suicide attacks in the classic sense that people expect and the complete sources for each attack are available on the CPOST Web site.

How does using CPOST data instead of GTD data affect our understanding of world events? By continually looking for past suicide events that did not have enough evidence, CPOST captures all time periods with the same inclusion criteria. In some periods, CPOST captures nearly twice as many suicide attacks as the GTD.

This consistent collection of data creates a very different picture of world events today. Although there has been a recent increase in the number of suicide attacks worldwide, the level of violence in 2007 still exceeds this number. Moreover, the violence in 2007 was driven almost entirely by the Iraq war, although the current sources of violence are more dispersed, with each ongoing conflict seeing fewer suicide attacks.

Government-funded data sets are not always unreliable. For decades, the Federal Reserve has competently compiled reliable statistics on economic growth, while many municipalities collect excellent data on local crime. However, these successful government-sponsored data-collection efforts have been ongoing for many decades and so many of the original methodological issues have long since been resolved.  The systematic study of terrorism events is much more recent.

So although it is important for the government to collect data, it is also important for universities and other institutions to do so as well.  And it is important for the news media to understand data from all of these sources. Government sources are ostensibly the most authoritative source for data related to national security, but this does not absolve the news media of keeping a critical eye on these authorities. Independent institutions can help them do this. If the numbers produced by competing databases paint different pictures of the world, the media should ask why.

Robert A. Pape is a professor at the University of Chicago, where he heads the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.  Keven Ruby and Vincent Bauer are research director and research analyst at CPOST, respectively.

Perspectives on ISIS

Posted: July 28, 2014 in ISIS

How ISIS Shook Off al Qaeda And Became Even More Powerful In Iraq
By Matt Schiavenza
International Business Times | June 17 2014

Sometimes, even terrorist organizations need a divorce. On Feb. 3, 2014, al Qaeda formally severed its relationship with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a fellow terrorist organization. Problems between the two groups were numerous: al Qaeda felt that ISIS’s targeting of civilians alienated the local population, and that the group — Sunni hardliners — did not share al Qaeda’s mission to unite all Muslims.

In the months since, ISIS has emerged from al Qaeda’s shadow. In the past two weeks, ISIS has captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and Tikrit, the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein. Videos that appear to show ISIS fighters executing Iraqi security forces — most of whom fled rather than fight — appeared on the Internet. The organization continues to maintain a major presence in neighboring Syria. Once just a branch of a declining al Qaeda, ISIS is now arguably stronger, more powerful — and more feared — than its fellow terror organization.

The splintering of al Qaeda and ISIS — and the deadly consequences for Iraq — demonstrate how, for the United States and its allies, the quest to eliminate Islamic terrorism has remained so elusive.

Radical Islamism, which has existed in Iraq for decades, flourished in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003, which removed the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein from power. In the security vacuum that emerged during the American occupation, a Jordanian militant named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi conducted a series of violent attacks across the country, and in 2004 swore allegiance to al Qaeda and its founder, Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi’s group became known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

Before long, the relationship between the two groups began to fray. Zarqawi’s sectarianism — he frequently targeted Iraqi Shias — ran afoul of al Qaeda’s mission to unite all Muslims in a single caliphate. Zarqawi’s indifference to civilian casualties also posed a problem. In an extraordinary letter written in 2005 and later surfaced in the media, Ayman al-Zawahiri (a Bin Laden deputy) warned Zarqawi to focus on the “media battle” by winning the “hearts and minds” of the local population.

Zawahiri’s words proved to be prophetic. Iraq’s Sunni population soon began to cooperate with the Shia government and American forces, providing valuable intelligence that led to successful, coordinated attacks against the terrorist organization. Zarqawi himself was taken out by a U.S. airstrike in 2006, and AQI’s influence sharply faded.

But in the ensuing five years, the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reneged on a promise to integrate Sunnis into the Iraqi government. This development — combined with the complete withdrawal of American troops in 2011 — created a security vacuum in Sunni territories and made a population, shut out of legitimate government, amenable to sectarian politics. And when the Syrian uprising erupted in a full-scale civil war, with much of that country out of government control, the successor to AQI — ISIS — came in to fill the breach.

During its peak in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, al Qaeda was often described as a sort of “venture capital” organization, a decentralized force that financed and organized operations planned by others. ISIS, on the other hand, more closely resembles a conventional force.

“They’re ferociously well-organized … this isn’t a loosey-goosey network of guys who get together on the fly to do operations,” said Austin Long, an expert in Middle East politics at Columbia University.

“This isn’t just a terrorist organization, or an insurgent organization. It’s more of a military organization.”

ISIS’s hierarchy has allowed them to capture Syrian and Iraqi territory with systematic efficiency, withstanding large, well-equipped military forces of two separate sovereign states. That, combined with their brutality — ISIS fighters released propaganda videos Sunday announcing the execution of over 1,700 Iraqi security forces — make them a more formidable force in the region than al Qaeda has been.

Can ISIS be stopped? In 2006, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi reached the height of his influence and power in Iraq, the Sunni population declared its allegiance to the Iraqi government and turned against al Qaeda. That — combined with American military power — enabled Iraq to push al Qaeda back.

The same scenario is unlikely to play out this time. The United States and its allies have shown little inclination to commit ground forces to the country, and, Long said, the utility of air strikes are likely to be minimal without local intelligence. Also, given that Maliki broke an earlier promise to the Sunnis, they’ll be less willing to compromise in the future. ISIS appears to have staying power.

After 13 years of being in the international spotlight, al Qaeda is a shell of its former self — a fact frequently touted by President Obama. But a larger, more violent, better-organized organization has emerged, and already controls an area the size of Belgium.


‘Jihadistan’: Can Isis militants rule seized territory?
Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent
8 July 2014

Can Isis – the small but fanatical jihadist army now controlling large tracts of Syria and Iraq – rule the lands it has conquered?

Since the beginning of June, Isis – which has recently rebranded itself as "Islamic State" – has burst out of its stronghold in eastern Syria to seize Mosul, Iraq’s second city, then advance down the length of the Euphrates Valley to threaten the edge of Baghdad itself.

Wherever it has taken over, its black-clad and balaclava’d fighters have imposed a draconian version of Sharia, or Islamic law, prompting thousands to flee as refugees.

Analysts point out that seizing territory is one thing, governing it is quite another.

But given the internal problems and weaknesses besetting both the Syrian and Iraqi states, there is no sign that Isis is about to be dislodged soon. So, are they actually in a position to rule?

That, of course, depends on many factors – local tribal support, economic viability, access to fuel and water, perceptions of their religious authority and that of their leader and self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and whether or not Isis overreach themselves.

‘Punching above its weight’

So far, Isis has enjoyed phenomenal short-term military success, largely through a combination of fear and firepower.

Even if they were crushed tomorrow, military historians are unlikely to forget the effect of their blitzkrieg "psyops" campaign, the Isis psychological operation to terrify their opponents by flooding social media on the internet with gruesome images and videos of what happens to their enemies.

The sight of beheadings, crucifixions and summary executions, all filmed with a ghoulish commentary, was enough to make Iraq’s poorly motivated security forces lay down their weapons and flee last month.

But Isis has effectively been "punching above its weight", to use a boxing analogy.

As the remnants and successors to a badly damaged "al-Qaeda in Iraq", the group had only about 10,000-15,000 fighters at most when it began taking over much of western Iraq in June.

Reportedly, Isis took over Mosul with no more than 800 fighters. But these were just the shock troops.

Isis’ fortunes were, and still are, heavily dependent on the support of local tribes and militias, without whom they could not hope to hold down a city of two million like Mosul.

"Isis’ ability to control lands has been based on deals with local militants willing to do the ‘ruling’ for them," says Mina al-Orabi, assistant editor of pan-Arab Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper and originally from Mosul herself.

"Some of these deals are based on fear, others on a temporary meeting of interests, at times it is as crude as financial deals being struck between different gangs," she adds.

Maintaining power, order and loyalty in the longer term will mean keeping those interests onside and sufficiently "invested" in rule by Isis.

Learning from mistakes

The last time jihadists ruled a sizable chunk of Iraq for a sizable amount of time was when Isis’ predecessors held sway over much of Anbar province in 2006, and they blew it.

Under the crude, brutal, and sadistic leadership of the Jordanian ex-convict, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the jihadists managed to alienate most of the local population.

They cut off the heads of Sunni sheikhs who refused to pledge allegiance, they blew up Shia mosques, trying to start a sectarian civil war, and they cut off the fingers of people they caught smoking (a practice they deem as un-Islamic).

This did not exactly win them hearts and minds.

Stop persecuting your fellow Muslims, implored al-Qaida’s leadership back in Pakistan, but it was in vain – al-Zarqawi ignored his nominal masters.

In the end, Jordanian intelligence tracked him down, he died in a US airstrike and the jihadists were driven out by the local tribes backed by a "surge" of US troops.

Eight years on and the jihadists of Isis are firmly back in Anbar after a spectacular squandering of the advantage by the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who sent troops to besiege a protest camp in Falluja late last year.

So has Isis learned from the mistakes of its antecedents?

Ask some of the residents of Raqqa in north-east Syria, where Isis has been in control since May 2013, and they would say "no".

Stories abound of harsh punishments imposed for the slightest of offences, women being confined to the home, public crucifixions, kidnappings and extortionate levies imposed on businesses.

Once again, al-Qaeda’s much diminished leadership scolded Isis or its excesses, and in February they formally disowned the whole organisation.

Oil and water

But others under Isis rule tell a different story.


Reports have filtered out of efficient municipal garbage collection, safer streets, generous distribution of fuel and food to the poor.

Sound familiar? This is exactly how the Taliban started out in Afghanistan in 1994, gradually increasing their territory until the 9/11 attacks on the US provoked the campaign that drove them from power in 2001.

One of the biggest advantages for a puritanical, religiously-cloaked militant organisation like Isis is the poor governance and perceived corruption of its secular alternative – the national government of Iraq.

To succeed as a viable state, let alone as a transnational "caliphate", Isis will need access to oil and water.

It has both. In Syria its forces control the oil-producing region around Deir Az-zour, including Syria’s largest oilfield at al-Omar, reportedly even selling oil to their enemies, the Assad regime itself.

They also control Syria’s largest dam, the Tabqa Dam at Lake Assad.

In Iraq they control the Falluja dam and have some, disputed, access to Iraq’s largest oil refinery at Baiji. In a part of the world where oil and water are the two key commodities, Isis finds itself in a powerful position.


Leaving aside for now whether or not the wider Muslim umma (community) will accept the recently proclaimed khilafa (caliphate) of Isis – and it has been swiftly denounced by many Muslim scholars – the fact remains that Isis controls a large area of the Middle East and it is not going away.

Neither the forces of President Assad in Syria, nor the forces of the Iraqi government alone can dislodge Isis from the ground it has taken, it is too well entrenched.

Syrian air strikes will have some impact, so will Iraq’s newly bought Sukhoi-25 jets and assistance from the US and Iran, but ultimately this is about holding onto territory on the ground.

The only force capable of permanently ejecting Isis will be the tribes in those regions, and they have little incentive to do so while the Syrian civil war rages on and a non-inclusive government sits in Baghdad, led by a Shia prime minister perceived as discriminating against Sunnis.

Which leaves the prospect of a violent, extremist, well-armed, well-funded and religiously intolerant militia becoming a permanent part of the Middle East landscape, a sort of de facto "jihadistan".

Would it stop there?

Unlikely. As far back as last year its adherents were proclaiming their ultimate aim of conquering territory as far away as Spain (ruled by Muslims for centuries as al-Andalus), Austria and China.

Even if Isis remained within the boundaries of the areas it has taken so far, it would likely be a springboard for attacks on neighbouring countries like Jordan and Lebanon, as well as attracting hundreds of young jihadists from the UK and the wider West.

Shiraz Maher, an expert on the Syrian jihad at King’s College London, says there is little appetite for concerted international action to dislodge them.

"The fact Isis has taken a large amount of territory is not unique. We’ve seen jihadist organisations achieve this in the past, for example, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, and Mali most recently.

"In every one of those cases, Western-backed intervention tipped the balance against jihadist gains. That’s the key difference here. Both Iraq and Syria are failed states with ineffective armies, and there is no appetite in the West to intervene."

Isis, concludes Mr Maher, could therefore continue to hold their ground, ruling an area the size of Pennsylvania for the foreseeable future.

But Mina al-Orabi believes there are signs that Isis deals with local militants are already starting to unravel, meaning:

"Isis can only rule depending on brute violence or the threat of using it."


The jihadist governance dilemma
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Amichai Magen
The Washington Post | July 18, 2014

After making astounding territorial gains in its war against the Iraqi government, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – which has refashioned itself “the Islamic State” – declared that it had reestablished the caliphate. The group’s gains put a spotlight on several questions related to Salafi jihadists’ efforts at building states. Can jihadists govern? Can they sustainably control and extract resources from territory and populations? As Ariel Ahram recently wrote for The Monkey Cage, insurgent groups face a “resource curse” that has a significant impact on their conflicts; this is true of Iraq, where the Islamic State has gained momentum in its efforts to control oil and water resources. But beyond these factors that confront any insurgency, jihadist groups face distinctive governance problems that they won’t be able to overcome in the near future, and will struggle mightily to address in the longer term.

Academics have grown increasingly interested in non-state actors’ attempts at governance. In Inside Rebellion, Jeremy Weinstein finds that a violent non-state actor’s discipline is central to determining whether it will build governance structures and protect populations from violence or kill indiscriminately. Weinstein concludes that richer organizations have a harder time maintaining discipline because they attract opportunists obsessed with immediate gain, and thus predisposed to violence, while resource-poor organizations instead attract committed individuals with a shared sense of purpose. Thus, Weinstein believes resource-poor organizations are more likely to establish governance and provide services. In Rebel Rulers, Zachariah Cherian Mampilly examines the variance in governing strategies among insurgent groups, focusing on the groups’ initial leadership decisions and subsequent interactions with various actors. Among other things, he argues insurgent groups are more likely to establish governance if the state had significant penetration prior to insurgent takeover of a region.

Jihadists have now had several experiences with governance: In Iraq (2006-08), Somalia (2007-12), Yemen (2011-12), North Mali (2012-13), and again in Iraq (2014-??). There have been some efforts by scholars to examine jihadist governance, but given how important governance is to jihadists, this is an area ripe for more detailed examination.

Jihadists are afflicted by a fundamental dilemma: They cannot attain their goals if they don’t govern, yet the record shows them repeatedly failing at governance efforts. Paradoxically, when these groups appear strongest – when they gain control of state-like assets – their greatest weaknesses are exposed.

One well-established Salafi jihadist goal is the forcible imposition of sharia (Islamic law). The late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden said in 1998 that al-Qaeda’s struggle should continue until “the Islamic sharia is enforced on the land of God.” This goal has remained constant, as a militant’s notebook that Reuters journalists recently unearthed near the Yemeni town of al-Mahfad memorializes similar goals: “Establishing an Islamic state that rules by Islamic sharia law.”

Jihadist groups’ rigid religious outlook drives their belief that sharia must be imposed and also the shape that sharia takes for them. Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholar Aaron Y. Zelin notes that the Islamic State’s city charter after the group captured Mosul on June 10 provided for amputation of thieves’ hands, required timely performance of all required prayers, and forbade drugs and alcohol. Further, “all shrines and graves will be destroyed, since they are considered polytheistic.”

This charter has much in common with previous jihadist governance efforts: They tend to have a legalistic and all-encompassing interpretation of sharia, insisting upon even obscure rules. In a previous period of jihadist rule over Mosul – when the Islamic State’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), controlled the city until May 2008 – citizens were required to follow intricate and bizarre rules. AQI banned the side-by-side display of tomatoes and cucumbers by food vendors because the group viewed the arrangement as sexually provocative, in addition to banning a local bread known as sammoun, the use of ice, and barbers’ use of electric razors. These restrictions might be Monty Python-esque, but the punch line was grim: Iraqis were killed for violating them.

Jihadist groups’ rigid understanding of Islamic law and brutal methods of coercing populations give rise to the governance challenges they confront: Those of legitimacy, effectiveness and sustainability.

Jihadist groups face a double test with respect to the legitimacy of their rule. The first test relates to the degree of acceptance by the subject population. Sociologist and political economist Max Weber defines legitimacy as a relationship of authority between ruler and ruled that both sides perceive as binding. Jihadist groups will be legitimate in the eyes of the population if that population comes to see these groups as having the right to dictate behavior, and views the groups’ rules as worthy of being obeyed.

Jihadist groups’ alienation of the population caused them deep problems during the Iraq war, when AQI was the dominant actor in Anbar province and ruthlessly imposed its will, torturing, slaughtering and even beheading citizens to eliminate dissent. This sparked a backlash among Sunni Anbari tribes, and in September 2006 a number of sheikhs publicly announced their plan to fight al-Qaeda, calling their movement the Sahwa, or “Awakening.” The turning of tribes and former insurgents made a significant difference in Anbar, and the program was expanded beyond that province. Though it later made a comeback, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate had been largely defanged by early 2009 – a victim of its excesses and the surge in U.S. troops.

Al-Qaeda eventually tried to ameliorate this vulnerability. A letter that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emir Abdelmalek Droukdel wrote to his fighters in North Mali when they controlled territory there warned of “the extreme speed with which you applied sharia, not taking into consideration the gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is ignorant of religion.”

Internal legitimacy problems don’t mean hard-line jihadist rule will automatically trigger a successful “awakening”-style movement. AQI might have wiped out the Anbari Sahwa, as it did to previous uprisings, had it not been for the U.S. military’s ability to defend the movement. Jihadists have been able to suppress resistance in places like the Syrian city of Raqqa, where the Islamic State has dealt with dissent by imprisoning, torturing and killing opponents.

In addition to this internal legitimacy challenge, jihadists face external challenges to their legitimacy because neighboring states, global powers and major NGOs view jihadist rule as illegitimate. Jihadist groups’ adversaries mobilize as these groups begin to govern because the urgency of the jihadist threat is heightened once these groups seize territory. Further, taking on state-like qualities makes them more vulnerable to military operations.

Jihadist groups additionally face the challenge of effectiveness. One aspect of a political actor’s effectiveness is determined by whether it can assume basic functions of government, including delivery of services (such as trash collection, water and electricity, and road maintenance). Commentators have noted jihadist groups’ increasing provision of social services, but actually governing territory is a different matter.

Jihadist groups have trouble replacing the state as the primary service provider because they lack experience in service delivery and the will to refocus on more mundane aspects of governance, and also because their rule is vulnerable. A letter that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi wrote recently acknowledged these problems. In explaining AQAP’s decision not to declare an emirate in southern Yemen, Wuhayshi stated that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership advised against it because “we wouldn’t be able to treat people on the basis of a state since we would not be able to provide for all their needs, mainly because our state is vulnerable.”

Governments also frequently cut revenue to areas under jihadist control, forcing jihadists to pay civil servants or lose a valuable portion of the workforce. While jihadists frequently lose the support of the population because of brutal coercive measures, there is also a more gradual process of disillusionment when the groups fail to effectively provide goods and services.

A final governance challenge that jihadists face is sustainability – the ability to govern over significant periods. Sustainable governance generally requires reaching some modus vivendi with other actors, domestic and international, and at least minimal capacity to control borders, territory and populations. The Islamic State’s failure to achieve such a modus vivendi is apparent in Syria, where it has spent more time locked in combat with other rebel groups than with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Further, jihadist groups’ aforementioned inability to provide services effectively undermines the sustainability of their governance efforts. Jihadist groups’ lack of capacity generally forces them to try to capture preexisting institutions or work with others who are able to provide these services. Regardless of their success, sustaining the population’s support becomes more difficult for jihadist groups as time passes.

Governance will continue to be a challenge for jihadist groups. These actors have grown more competent at what may be described as “pre-governance” efforts – such as undertaking sophisticated dawa (proselytism) efforts or providing limited social services. Yet legitimate, effective, and sustainable governance has eluded them.

Can jihadist groups become more “legitimate” in the eyes of the international community? For now the answer is no, in part due to their inflexibility. Most Salafi jihadists are uninterested in acquiring legitimacy because they view the international system as illegitimate. But this may change: Jihadists may develop strategic principles that seek to ameliorate their governance disadvantages. Another factor that may help make jihadist rule more lasting is the increasing number of places where jihadist groups are locked in a cycle of governing territory, retreating as their enemies advance, and then regrouping. Even when major jihadist groups seem to have been defeated – as AQI and Nigeria’s Boko Haram did in 2009 – they prove resilient. As the number of these destructive cycles grows, jihadist groups could find themselves maintaining power for extended periods as the international system is overwhelmed.

This risk makes it important for Western countries to exploit the jihadists’ governance dilemma. Given the brutality of jihadist rule, this is an area ripe for sophisticated information-operations campaigns that starkly illustrate life under their dictates. Western countries should also carefully examine lessons learned from localized resistance to jihadists, by groups like the Sahwa or Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa in Somalia, and develop new ways to support them. Local resistance depends on opportunities for success: If groups agitate against jihadists but are crushed, they might serve only as a cautionary tale. Any examination of these uprisings should focus on effective points of intervention. For example, during the Islamic State’s recent advance, it relied on an awkward coalition of ex-Baathists, tribesmen and other groups whose goals clashed with the jihadists’. Is such a coalition more likely to fall apart early, or after jihadists have established their rule? When will the United States attempting to support local resistance groups have the opposite effect from that intended, and delegitimize rather than bolster them?

Moreover, since a dominant path by which jihadist groups can enjoy long-term rule is widening circles of instability, Western countries should be reluctant to take actions likely to produce regional chaos. A quintessential example is NATO’s war in Libya, which was partly designed to speed up the Arab Spring, but has proved advantageous to jihadists: It left behind a country beset by instability, whose chaos had a destabilizing effect on such neighbors as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.

Though the jihadist impulse to brutal excess presents opportunities, this vulnerability will not automatically result in setbacks for the groups responsible. As jihadist groups gain power, their weaknesses are exposed – and Western states’ goal as jihadists gain strength should be more ambitious than just pushing them back. The goal should be to deliver a killing blow.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. Amichai Magen is the head of the Governance & Political Violence Program and the Marc & Anita Abramowitz Senior Researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IDC, Herzliya, and a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


A Point of View: Isis and what it means to be modern
BBC | 11 July 2014

Although it claims to be reviving a traditional Islamic system of government, the jihadist group Isis is a very modern proposition, writes John Gray.


When you see the leader of Isis, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, in Mosul announcing the creation of a caliphate – an Islamic state ruled by a religious leader – it’s easy to think that what you’re watching is a march back into the past. The horrifying savagery with which the jihadist organisation treats anyone that stands in its way seems to come from a bygone era. The fact that Isis – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has now changed its name to the Islamic State – claims that it wants to restore an early type of Islam, leads many of us to see it as trying to bring about a reversion to mediaeval values.

To my mind, this gives too much credence to the way Isis views itself. There’s actually little in common between the horribly repressive regime it has established in parts of Iraq and Syria and the subtle Islamic states of mediaeval times, which in Spain, for example, exercised a degree of tolerance at a time when the rest of Europe was wracked by persecution. Destroying ancient shrines and mosques, Isis is trying to eradicate every trace of Islamic tradition. It’s probably even more oppressive than the Taliban were in Afghanistan. In power, Isis resembles a 20th Century totalitarian state more than any type of traditional rule.

Surprising as it may sound, Isis is in many respects thoroughly modern. Like al-Qaeda before them, these jihadists have organised themselves as a highly efficient company. Initially funded by donations from wealthy supporters, they’ve rapidly expanded into a self-financing business. Through kidnapping and extortion, looting and selling antiquities, siphoning off oil in territories they conquer, seizing gold bullion and other assets from banks and acquiring large quantities of American military hardware in the course of their advance, Isis has become the wealthiest jihadist organisation in the world. According to some estimates, it’s worth well over $2bn.

Isis uses this wealth to expand its popular base, providing public services and repairing damaged infrastructure in the areas it controls. Its use of social media is highly professional. On its websites it issues annual reports containing detailed accounts of its acquisitions and operations, including breakdowns of the bombings, assassinations and suicide missions it has carried out.

Isis makes effective use of the internet to broadcast the brutal manner with which it deals with anyone judged to be an enemy. Isis’s savagery isn’t impulsive. Everything suggests it’s a strategy developed over a number of years. When it posts videos of people being beheaded or shot, Isis advances several of its goals – simultaneously inspiring dread in its enemies, teaching the communities it controls the dire consequences of departing from an exceptionally extreme interpretation of Islam and sowing chaos in the population as a whole. There’s nothing mediaeval about this mix of ruthless business enterprise, well-publicised savagery and transnational organised crime. Dedicated to building a new society from scratch, Isis has more in common with modern revolutionary movements.

Though al-Baghdadi constantly invokes the early history of Islam, the society he envisions has no precedent in history. It’s much more like the impossible state of utopian harmony that western revolutionaries have projected into the future. Some of the thinkers who developed radical Islamist ideas are known to have been influenced by European anarchism and communism, especially by the idea that society can be reshaped by a merciless revolutionary vanguard using systematic violence. The French Jacobins and Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guards all used terror as a way of cleansing humanity of what they regarded as moral corruption.

Isis shares more with this modern revolutionary tradition than any ancient form of Islamic rule. Though they’d hate to hear it, these violent jihadists owe the way they organise themselves and their utopian goals to the modern West. And it’s not just ideas and methods that Isis has taken from the West. Western military intervention gave Isis its chance of power. While Saddam was in charge, there were no jihadist movements operating in Iraq – none at all. With all the crimes Saddam’s dictatorship committed, it was a regime that applied secular law and had made some steps towards emancipating women.

Islamist fighters in the Syrian province of Raqqa celebrate the declaration of the caliphate

In my view, toppling Saddam was bound to unravel this secular state and the Iraqi state itself. Even if the American-led occupiers hadn’t made the mistake of disbanding the army and dissolving the ruling party, the country would eventually have broken up. Iraq was constructed from provinces of the former Ottoman Empire by the British in the 1920s, with the Sunni minority being the ruling group. The Sunnis had ruled since 1638, when the Ottomans took Baghdad from the Persians. The Kurds, who were included in the new state because the British prized the oil resources in the north of the country, were sure to take any opportunity to seize independence. Whatever the failings of the Maliki government, the idea that a stable federal system could develop in these circumstances has always been far-fetched. As some of those who opposed the war from the start foresaw, regime change created many of the conditions for a failed state. These are the same conditions that have allowed Isis to emerge and thrive.

It’s sometimes suggested that ideology played no real part in the invasion of Iraq – grabbing the country’s oil was what it was all about. No doubt geopolitical calculation played a part, but I think an idea of what it means to be modern was more important. The politicians and opinion-formers who clamoured for the invasion believed that all modern societies are evolving towards a single form of government – the type that exists in western countries. If only tyranny was swept away in Iraq, the country would move towards democracy and the rest of the Middle East would follow. Until just a few months ago, some were convinced that a similar process could take place in Syria.

As I see it, this has never been more than an ideological fantasy. The modern world isn’t evolving in any single direction. Liberal democracy is only one of several possible destinations. With its delusional ambitions (which, if we are to believe recent statements, include reconquering Spain) Isis illustrates a darker aspect of the modern world – the practice of using terror and violence in an attempt to achieve impossible goals.

Isis may have already over-reached itself. It’s facing determined opposition from many sides – not just from Shia militias but also rival Sunni jihadists such as Al Qaeda, from which it’s an offshoot. There are conflicting interests among the disparate elements Isis has recently recruited, and it’s not clear that it can govern a state on any long-term basis. Moreover, Baghdadi’s claim to speak for all Muslims is dismissed by Islamic scholars and rejected as absurd by practically the entire Muslim world. Even so, Isis poses a real danger – and not just in the Middle East.


Statue of Suleiman the Magnificent, Istanbul

  • Name given to Islamic state led by supreme religious and political leader known as caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad
  • Succession of Muslim empires described as "caliphates"; most famous is Ottoman caliphate or empire (1453-1924)
  • Centring on power of Turkish sultans, Ottoman Caliphate expanded to cover the Balkans and Hungary under Suleiman the Magnicient in 16th Century, and reached gates of Vienna
  • Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk abolished Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 and exiled the last caliph, Abdulmecid

It’s hard for anyone to estimate in precise terms the scale of the threat Isis poses to countries such as Britain. Its main targets are in the Middle East. Still, there must be a danger that Western citizens who have gone to Syria and Iraq as Isis fighters will return battle-hardened and with new bomb-making skills. Also, Isis has now declared war not only on the west but also on al-Qaeda. In these circumstances there may be an increased risk that one or other of these groups will be tempted to stage a spectacular act of terror in order to secure a position of leadership in the global jihadist struggle.

Through their policies of regime change, Western governments have pursued an ideological vision that leaves out the dark side of the modern world. In doing so, they’ve unwittingly let loose a particularly nasty version of modern savagery. Whatever happens to the self-styled caliphate, the forces it embodies aren’t going to fade away. Isis is a part of the revolutionary turmoil of modern times, and until we grasp that uncomfortable fact we won’t be able to deal with the dangers we face.

By Paul Crompton
Al Arabiya News | 30 June 2014

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the mysterious leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has “become the leader for Muslims everywhere,” his organization said Sunday while declaring the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.

A caliphate has not existed since the Ottoman Empire was abolished in 1924.

Profile: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

(Design by Farwa Rizwan/ Al Arabiya News)

Only two known photos of Baghdadi are said to exist, and he does not appear in video statements common to other jihadist leaders such as the late Osama bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Baghdadi – whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai – is believed to have been born in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, in 1971 to a “religious family,” according to a biography purporting to be written by his supporters.

The biography says he obtained a doctorate at Baghdad’s Islamic University.

He was a cleric in a mosque in his home city around the time of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled long-time President Saddam Hussein.

Some believe Baghdadi was already a militant jihadist during Hussein’s largely secular reign.

However, others say he turned towards his radical, hard-line interpretation of Islam during the four years he was held at Camp Bucca, a U.S. detention facility in Iraq.

Upon his release in 2009, Baghdadi reportedly told his captors: “I’ll see you guys in New York.”

One American jailer took this to mean that Baghdadi had “known all along that it was all essentially a joke, that he had only to wait and he would be freed to go back to what he had been doing.”

Baghdadi then joined the fledgling Islamic State of Iraq, Al-Qaeda’s successor in the war-torn country.

ISI soon became the dominant Sunni force in Iraq, known for suicide bombings, kidnappings and executions. Al-Qaeda denounced this apparent bloodthirsty streak.

In late 2011, Washington officially designated Baghdadi a “terrorist,” and offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture or death.

Baghdadi appeared to take on his tenure at ISI with enthusiasm, quickly climbing the ranks.

He was declared leader in 2010 after then-leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed by American and Iraqi forces.

When the Syrian revolution began in 2011, Baghdadi saw an opportunity to expand his group.

He sent Abu Mohammed al-Golani to create the Nusra Front to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army.

Among the fray of seemingly countless groups battling for control of Syria, the success of the Nusra Front led Baghdadi in 2013 to move across the border and merge the groups into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

In so doing, he had ignored decrees from Zawahiri that the merger was invalid and that Baghdadi should return to Iraq.

Baghdadi said in an audio recording: “I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God.”

Escalating tensions between their parent group, ISIS said Al-Qaeda “is no longer the base of jihad,” and its leaders “have deviated from the correct paths.”

In Feb. 2014, Al-Qaeda released a statement that “it is not linked to [ISIS], as it was not informed of its creation” and “did not accept it.”

Baghdadi’s hard-line interpretation of Islam has been enforced in towns where the group has a heavy presence.

In the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, where ISIS has complete control, heavy-handed laws abound, including corporal and capital punishment for crimes, public floggings, mandatory prayers, and total bans of alcohol and cigarettes.

Baghdadi is reportedly barely recognized even within his own organization, earning him the nickname “the invisible sheikh.”

An investigating officer in Iraq told Middle East affairs site Al-Monitor: “Many of the… members of the organization, some of them in the leadership, have either never met Baghdadi or met him while he was wearing a face cover.”

A major milestone for ISIS came in June, when the group took Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul and numerous other cities in the north of the country.

This took the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – and the international community – by surprise.

As the armies of both Maliki and Assad struggle to combat ISIS’s sweeping cross-border campaigns, many analysts say the group has far more power than Al-Qaeda ever did.

However, Paul Sullivan, a Middle East security expert at Georgetown University, says ISIS could be reaching the peak of its capacity.

“As ISIS grows, it’ll be more difficult to manage and control its members. It seems to be growing quickly with the additions of deserters, criminals, hangers on, and those lost people looking for a reason to be. These aren’t exactly the easiest folks to manage,” he told Al Arabiya News.

Richard Barrett, a former counter-terrorism chief with the British foreign intelligence service, told Agence France-Presse:

“Baghdadi has done an amazing amount – he has captured cities, he has mobilized huge amounts of people, he is killing ruthlessly throughout Iraq and Syria. If you were a guy who wanted action, you would go with Baghdadi.”


Profile: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
BBC | 5 July 2014

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), has been careful to reveal little about himself and his whereabouts.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first appearance on video when he gave a sermon in Mosul in July

Before appearing in a video delivering a sermon in Mosul in July, there were only two authenticated photos of him.

Even his own fighters reportedly do not speak about seeing him face to face.

The ISIS chief also appears to wear a mask to address his commanders, earning the nickname "the invisible sheikh".

But Baghdadi – a nom de guerre, rather than his real name – has good reason to maintain a veil of mystery, says the BBC’s Security Correspondent, Frank Gardner.

One of his predecessors, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi who headed the most violent jihadist group in Iraq until his death, was a high-profile showman whose secret location was eventually tracked down. He was killed in a US bombing raid in 2006.

The leader of al-Qaeda’s current incarnation in Iraq may be a shadowy figure, but his organisation ISIS is pulling in thousands of new recruits and has become one of the most cohesive militias in the Middle East, our correspondent adds.

Highly organised

Baghdadi is believed to have been born in Samarra, north of Baghdad, in 1971.

Reports suggest he was a cleric in a mosque in the city around the time of the US-led invasion in 2003.

Some believe he was already a militant jihadist during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Others suggest he was radicalised during the four years he was held at Camp Bucca, a US facility in southern Iraq where many al-Qaeda commanders were detained.

He emerged as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of the groups that later became ISIS, in 2010, and rose to prominence during the attempted merger with al-Nusra Front in Syria.

He has not sworn allegiance to the leader of the al-Qaeda network, Zawahiri, who has urged ISIS to focus on Iraq and leave Syria to al-Nusra.

Baghdadi and his fighters have openly defied the al-Qaeda chief, leading some commentators to believe he now holds higher prestige among many Islamist militants.

"The true heir to Osama bin Laden may be ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," David Ignatius wrote in The Washington Post.

Zawahiri still has a lot of power by virtue of his franchises in Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.

But Baghdadi has a reputation as a highly organised and ruthless battlefield tactician, which analysts say makes his organisation more attractive to young jihadists than that of Zawahiri, an Islamic theologian.

In October 2011, the US officially designated Baghdadi as "terrorist" and offered a $10m (£5.8m; 7.3m euros) reward for information leading to his capture or death.

It notes Baghdadi’s aliases, including Abu Duaa and Dr Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai.

As well as the uncertainty surrounding his true identity, his whereabouts are also unclear with reports he was in Raqqa in Syria.

So there remain more questions than answers about the leader of one of the world’s most dangerous jihadist groups.

How Zarqawi’s terror network morphed into ISIS
Octavia Nasr
Al Arabiya News | 1 July 2014

Forgetting is one of our survival mechanisms and, thankfully, it works most of the time when dealing with trauma or painful memories. However, forgetting history can yield unpleasant results; while constantly picking and choosing what to remember and what to forget is a disaster.

When in conflict, people seem to refer to the very last thing that triggered their reaction. They focus more on the end result rather than the root of the problem. In the Middle East the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has always taken center stage. It served as an excuse for many extreme political views to thrive and terrorist groups to form.

Remember Osama bin Laden’s diatribes in which he blamed his terrorism on the mistreatment of Palestinians at the hands of Israel and its “accomplice” America. That was one of the main reasons why he claimed he was determined to “bring America to its knees.” Many others around the world joined him and set up their own franchise of al-Qaeda.

Idolized the terror leader

Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was one of those who idolized the terror leader and had a desire to go even further. He came to Iraq following the fall of Baghdad where he set up his Islamic “Emirate” and lured disillusioned and brainwashed young men to participate in his own version of Jihad.

His pledge of allegiance to bin Laden was not quickly accepted. Even for bin Laden, Zarqawi seemed harsh and ad-hoc. Lest you forgot, Zarqawi’s Islamic State of Iraq also known as al-Qaeda in Iraq is the genesis of what is known today as ISIS.


Let us remember that Iraq under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein had no Zarqawi, bin Laden, nor al-Qaeda of any kind. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the pretext of fighting al-Qaeda and ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction was utterly frugal and unfounded. Saddam Hussein was secular and the archenemy of any religious fundamentalist group; but Bush and his warmongers were intent on war to eliminate Saddam Hussein.

With the introduction and quick rise of brutal Zarqawi, the solution seemed to be then nabbing Zarqawi in an air raid and pretending this is the end of his terror.

In ten years, Zarqawi’s terror network grew exponentially in size and brutality. It morphed into ISIS, a serious regional – soon to be international – threat. Suffice it to remember that the region has been a fertile ground for infiltration and terrorism to understand the real problem and do something about it.

This article was first published in al-Nahar on July 1, 2014.

The Daily Beast | 07.27.14

He fought with the Soviets, then led the cavalry and B-52 bombers to rout the Taliban. In an excerpt from ‘What We Won,’ the story of Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Ahmad Masood/Reuters

Shibirghan, the capital of Jowzjan province, is a remote and barren place, even by Afghan standards. To the north, Jowzjan borders on the Amu Darya River and Turkmenistan, a former part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Shibirghan is a city of about 150,000 on a flat, dry plain that extends past the river into Central Asia. Most of the city’s population is made up of ethnic Uzbeks, with a minority of Turkmen; the province as a whole is 40 percent Uzbek and 30 percent Turkmen. Natural gas has been exploited in the province since the 1970s, initially by a Soviet energy project. Shibirghan is on the Afghan ring road, the country’s main highway, which connects the country’s main cities. Shibirghan lies between the largest city in the north, Mazar-e Sharif, to the east and the largest city in the west, Herat.

Since the 1980s, Shibirghan has been the stronghold of Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek Afghan warlord who has played a complex role in the wars that have wracked Afghanistan since 1978. In 1998, Dostum was my host during a visit to Shibirghan. I had met him before, in my Pentagon office, where he had related his life’s journey to me. A physically strong and imposing man, he has an Asian appearance, a hint of his Mongol roots. That day he was dressed to look like a modern political leader, in a suit and tie. The notorious warlord was hosting a meeting of the Northern Alliance, the coalition of Afghan parties that opposed the Taliban, in his hometown. In addition to Dostum, Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, Hazara Shia leader Karim Khalili, and Mohammad Abdullah, a deputy of the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud, were in attendance. The U.S. party was led by Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Karl “Rick” Inderfurth, assistant secretary of State. At the start of the meeting, all the Afghans and Americans held each other’s hands in a symbol of unity for the cameras.

In the photo my face is grim. I was bleeding slowly from a bad leg wound that I’d received just an hour earlier, when we got off the small plane that the UN had provided to fly us from Kabul to Shibirghan. Dostum had arranged an elaborate welcome for us. At the airport an honor guard greeted us, and we boarded a convoy of vehicles to drive into the city. Hundreds of children and adults lined the road to welcome the U.S. delegation to Jowzjan, waving flags and banners in English that proudly carried the names of their schools, businesses, and trade unions. Many of the children were in their school uniforms. Most striking was that almost half were girls without head scarves, a rare sight in 1998 in Afghanistan, where very few girls went to school. The event had the look of a communist state celebration of May Day or the Russian Revolution—and it looked that way because Dostum was once a prize pupil of the Soviet Union’s intelligence service, the KGB.

Once we arrived in the city center, we moved rapidly into the main stadium. There we were to watch a game of buzkashi, a much more violent variant of polo played by Uzbeks and other Afghans. As we entered the stadium, I slipped and cut my leg badly. Watching the game, I realized that I was in distress and asked for help. Dostum himself summoned a doctor, who arrived carrying a satchel with a large saw on top that was used for amputating limbs. I demurred. Fortunately, NBC News anchor Andrea Mitchell had come along to do a story on the talks, and her camera team included a former British Royal Marine commando who had been trained as a medic. He stitched me up quickly, using a can of 7UP as disinfectant. Ten hours later, doctors at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, gave me more thorough medical treatment. Andrea described the whole scene very well in her autobiography, Talking Back to Presidents, Dictators, and Assorted Scoundrels.

Dostum certainly falls into the scoundrel department. He is a useful subject to study for those seeking to understand the violent politics of Afghanistan over the last half-century—especially the intrigues of Afghanistan’s communists, who seized power in 1978 and invited the Soviet Union to send an army into their country, setting the stage for the covert involvement of the United States. Participants on both sides in the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s claimed to be more than warlords and militias. The Afghan communist government claimed to represent a new modern socialist world order. The Afghan resistance, the mujahedin, claimed to be holy warriors—jihadists—and freedom fighters defending their country from foreign invasion. The mujahedin narrative was much more honest than that of the communists.

At the commander level, however, there was not much difference between the two sides. Most commanders were warlords and behaved like warlords. The best of them, like Ahmad Shah Massoud, the commander of mujahedin forces in the Panjsher Valley, rose above the others in caring for the welfare of his supporters and the people of his fighting zone. The worst—like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the strongest mujahedin leader in the Pashtun community, and Dostum himself—exemplified the more typical commander on both sides: ruthless, corrupt, volatile, and violent. Dostum switched sides many times during his blood-soaked career. He has been backed over the years by the Soviet Union, Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Russia, and the United States. He even temporarily aligned himself with the Taliban and Pakistan. After 35 years, Dostum is still a major player, so taking a more in-depth look at my host in Shibirghan is a good introduction to the Afghan war.

Dostum began his political life as a communist. Born in 1955 into a peasant family in a village near Shibirghan, he joined the communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), as a teenager, and in 1973 he became a paratrooper in the Afghan army. The Afghan communist party was badly divided from its birth in 1965. The two factions of the party, the Parcham (the Banner) and the Khalq (the People), were literally at each other’s throats throughout the party’s history. The Parcham drew its support from urban Afghans and from the country’s diverse ethnic groups. The Khalq was more oriented toward rural areas and drew its support almost exclusively from the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. The Soviets tried endlessly to convince the two to work together, with only the most limited success. The PDPA’s deep factional conflict would bedevil it and the Soviets until the collapse of the communist state in 1992, a collapse in which Dostum was a central player.

On April 27, 1978, the PDPA’s supporters in the Afghan army staged a coup d’état in Kabul and overthrew the government of President Mohammad Daoud Khan, who had staged his own coup five years earlier, ousting King Zahir and creating the first Afghan republic. The Saur (April) Revolution would precipitate an Afghan conflict that continues to this day. Dostum was then commander of an armored unit in the army and a member of the Parcham faction. The April coup was led by the Khalq faction and its leader, Nur Muhammad Taraki, who became president of the new People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The Khalq quickly purged many Parchamists from the party and the country, ignoring advice from Moscow to try to build a broad-based government, including noncommunists. The Khalqis were violent ideologues who saw enemies on every side, and they quickly acquired them.

Dostum fled the country to Pakistan, where he lived in exile in Peshawar. As a communist, Dostum did not fit in well in Pakistan, which was rapidly emerging as the main patron of the resistance to the communist takeover and the principal sponsor of the mujahedin. Dostum stayed in exile until December 1979, when the Soviet 40th Red Army invaded Afghanistan and killed Taraki’s successor, Hafizullah Amin, and installed Babrak Karmal in his place. Dostum then returned to Afghanistan to become a local militia commander defending the natural-gas fields, the only domestic source of energy in the country, in his home province of Jowzjan. Dostum was a natural soldier and a good leader whose troops admired his charisma and tough military approach. He specialized in frontal assaults on the enemy, and he quickly acquired a reputation for brutal and extreme violence. In 1982 Dostum was promoted to command a battalion of the militia run by the communist government’s secret police, the State Information Service, known as the KHAD (Khedamati Ittlaati-e Dawlat). The KHAD was the KGB’s Afghan protégé; it also got some assistance from the East German intelligence service. At its height it had about 30,000 employees and an additional 100,000 informants. Its founder was Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, a Pahstun known for his ruthlessness in a regime that extolled extremism. In 1986 Najibullah would become Afghanistan’s fourth and last communist dictator. He was nicknamed Najib (the bull) for his cruelty.

Under Najibullah’s leadership, Dostum thrived as a commander of the KHAD militia in Jowzjan, and soon his Jowzjani militia was the most successful communist fighting force in the country. Dostum’s Jowzjanis formed a disciplined force that often defeated mujahedin commanders in the northern part of the country and even persuaded some to defect to the communist cause. Within a year Dostum’s force was upgraded to a division of 10,000 men, called the 53rd Division or the Jowzjani Division. The Jowzjani Division became one of only a few Afghan communist units that the 40th Red Army felt that it could rely on to fight well. For his performance, Dostum was given the Hero of Afghanistan award, the highest honor bestowed by the People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. In 1988, with the 40th Red Army withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Jowzjani militia was given responsibility for leading the communist military campaign in north-central Afghanistan along the southern border of the Soviet Union. After its defeat in Afghanistan, Moscow wanted Dostum controlling the Amu Darya. By then his control of his home province and the surrounding area was complete.

In 1989 Dostum was promoted again, becoming commander of the 7th Afghan Army Corps, with even more responsibility for the north. Najibullah was by now president of Afghanistan, and the KHAD effectively ran the communist state, which was under siege by the mujahedin. Estimates of the size of Dostum’s command in the north range from around 20,000 to 45,000. His forces included three infantry divisions, an armored brigade, 60 MiG aircraft, 60 helicopters, and 200 Soviet-made tanks. He ruled a state within a state. He sent elite units of his force to buttress Najibullah’s garrisons in other parts of the country, including at the key battle of Jalalabad in 1989, which halted the mujahedin advance on Kabul.

Early in 1992, Dostum read the handwriting on the wall. The USSR had ceased to exist, and its aid to Najibullah was coming to an end. In December 1991, Dostum turned to the newly independent country of Uzbekistan and its dictator, President Islam Karimov, for aid. In 1992 Dostum “defected” to the side of the mujahedin and joined in the battle to take Kabul and oust Najibullah. Afghanistan’s civil war entered a new phase: the communists were finished, and a new power struggle arose, between the warlords. Dostum would be a central player, shifting alliances constantly from his power base in Jowzjan. He solicited aid from many regional players, including Iran and Uzbekistan in particular but also Russia and Turkey. In 1998 it was Iran that backed him most actively. A senior delegation from the Iranian intelligence service, MOIS, arrived right after my delegation left to check on what Dostum had been up to with the Americans. He went into exile twice in the late 1990s, on both occasions spending much of his time in Turkey. In 2001 he again became an Iranian protégé, fighting the Taliban from exile. The United States became his new patron when he joined the CIA campaign to oust the Taliban in the last months of 2001, after the 9/11 attacks. Dostum famously led Uzbek cavalry charges supported by U.S. B-52 bombers to defeat the Taliban.

Dostum remains a power broker today, although his health has deteriorated from the effects of a hard life and heavy drinking. He still commands Jowzjan and can deliver one million votes, mostly Uzbeks, in a national election. He was a key supporter of President Hamid Karzai’s reelection in 2009. Dostum is a warlord par excellence and a classic product of Afghan politics, which is both local and volatile. He has been accused of numerous war crimes against prisoners and sadistic treatment of his own supporters when they crossed him. In a country with many brutal warlords, his brutality is legendary. Yet in his state-within-a-state in the 1980s and 1990s, Dostum ensured more gender equality than almost any other Afghan leader. In the second decade of the 21st century, he is one of the few prominent communists from the 1980s to still play a role on the Afghan stage. In the deadly politics of Afghanistan, Dostum is a proven survivor.

He sold weapons to African warlords, double-crossed dictators and fuelled a civil war. But is there another side to ‘Merchant of Death’ Viktor Bout?
Colin Freeman
Sunday Telegraph (London) | July 27, 2014

For anyone who remembers the early days of family home videos, the footage will be all too familiar. Filmed by a father with more enthusiasm than skill, the shaky camera covers the usual fare of family outings, road trips and birthdays, as well as endless landscape shots. Occasionally, the voice of an exasperated wife can be heard saying, "Quit recording random nonsense."

There are other segments, however, that make these particular tapes rather more intriguing than the average home movie cache. Most such films, for example, do not feature jaunts to remote airstrips in the Congo in battered Soviet era cargo planes, or guest appearances by international arms dealers. Nor do they involve visits to Kalashnikov factories in the company of African warlords. The excited voice behind the camera is similar in tone to the narration thousands of us will have on our own family videos. But the cameraman is not some ordinary middle-aged father with 2.2 kids; it is Viktor Bout: arms smuggler extraordinaire, "Merchant of Death", and, it turns out, wannabe movie director.

Bout, who ran guns to half the wars in Africa during the Nineties, is currently serving 25 years in an American jail after falling victim to a "sting" operation where he agreed to sell weapons to undercover investigators. But as he languishes behind bars, his dream that his own camerawork might one day make the big screen is about to come true – courtesy of The Notorious Mr Bout, a biopic based on his vast home archive.

The film, a real-life example of the "found footage" genre pioneered in horror movies, is the work of New Yorker Tony Gerber (Full Battle Rattle) and Russian co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin, maker of the Sundance Festival hit Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Gerber first learnt of Bout while making a documentary about Russian bush pilots in the Congo, where he became fascinated by their accounts of a near mythical character, and approached Bout’s family to make a film before he stood trial in America in 2011.

Bout’s wife, Alla, agreed – not least to set the record straight following the 2005 film Lord of War, in which Nicolas Cage played an arms dealer loosely based on Bout’s story. In Alla’s view, Lord of War made her husband out as an amoral monster, when in fact he was also a caring, fun-loving family man and committed Christian, whose planes carried aid shipments as often as they carried weapons. But for Gerber, it was only when she mentioned Bout’s home video collection that that other side of his character really came to life.

"One of the first things that any film-maker does is to find out what footage already exists of his subjects," Gerber tells me. "At that point, his wife said, ‘We have hundreds of hours of footage, Viktor has been filming everything for the last 20 years.’

"It was a very odd thing to hear about somebody who was otherwise so secretive, and it made us realise that not everything was quite as it seemed. The reality of any lawbreaker is that there is some humanity there, rather than black and white."

Certainly, the Bout who appears in Gerber’s film is very different from the man who was a bête noire of the international community in the Nineties. The United Nations claimed he was a key quartermaster to Charles Taylor, the Liberian dictator whose arms-for-gems deals in Sierra Leone helped fuel a civil war that cost some 150,000 lives. Media reports, meanwhile, had him supplying arms to everyone from Colonel Gaddafito al-Qaeda.

Instead, the man once described by Witney Schneidman, a senior American diplomat in Africa, as the "personification of evil" comes across more like a midlevel travelling sales rep. His shirt and tie hang over his belly, he is never too far away from a drink, and never short of a joke for his long-suffering wife or his employees, even during tense deals in the African bush. Indeed, a travelling sales rep was pretty much how Bout saw himself – a man whose job was simply to shift products from seller to buyer, and leave the moral questions to others. Not for nothing was his other nickname "the world’s most efficient postman".

As well as contributions from his family and friends, the film splices in news footage and interviews others from Bout’s past, from formerUN weapons inspectors through to the DEA men who put him behind bars. But it is Bout himself who narrates his rise to fame, via an actor who reads the emails that he sent from his prison cell.

Prisoner 91641054 tells of how he was born to Russian parents in Tajikistan in 1967, then part of the Soviet Union. A former army linguist who eventually mastered six languages, one of his hobbies as a boy was Esperanto, the universal language. "I believed one day the world would all speak in the same tongue," he says.

Esperanto never really did catch on. But as Bout discovered when communism collapsed, the world outside the Soviet Union was already fluent in another global tongue: money. Like many other Russians, he went into the importexport business, earning a decent living for the first time by bringing in beer, Coca-Cola and other long-absent consumer goods.

Among those boxes arriving in his warehouse were the early generations of hand-held video cameras, on which Bout records what must have been some of the first excursions by a Russian couple as tourists, holidaying in Paris with Alla. A petite, gamine fashion designer who in no way resembles a mobster’s moll, she had met Bout in the late Eighties while he was serving with the military in Mozambique, and they moved into a one-bedroom apartment together in St Petersburg in 1993.

"It was a new world, new people, a new culture. I understand why he wanted to film it all," she tells the film, in between shots of her pouting foxily for Viktor’s camera. In the best tradition of amateur camcorder operators, he deploys his full range of MTV-style special effects buttons on her, not that it gets the desired results. "Alla, a bit more energy, please," he implores.

Good times as they were, the Russian business world of the early Nineties was still a dangerous one. Moaning that "you had to have protection and then protection from your protection", Bout relocated to the rather safer environs of the Emirate of Sharjah, where his air freight business quite literally took off.

Central to his success were his refurbished old Ilyushin 76 cargo planes, vast freighters specially designed for servicing the remoter corners of the Soviet empire. Capable of landing on unpaved airstrips, they were perfect for the needs of one of Bout’s first major clients, Jonas Savimbi, the late leader of Angola’s Unita rebels.

It is here, admittedly, that The Notorious Mr Bout somewhat underplays his notoriety. Bout’s former arms supplier, a Bulgarian named Peter Mirchev, later told newspapers that Bout provided armoured personnel carriers, rockets and machine guns to Unita, in breach of an embargo. And in an interview years later, Bout himself admitted arming Savimbi’s enemies in the Angolan government as well, saying glibly: "If I didn’t do it, someone else would." Yet in the film, this particular act of doubledealing is confined to Bout saying that he simply offers Savimbi "logistical support".

Then again, even Bout’s critics concede that much of the time he worked in a legal grey area. Brian Johnson-Thomas, a UN weapons inspector who met Bout in a hotel bar in Congo in 1996 – and found him pleasant company – tells the film: "On occasion, yes, his aircraft were carrying guns for people who used them to carry out human rights abuses. But one of the problems with the illegal arms trade is that most of it is not terribly illegal. Governments are loath to make international laws tougher, because it stops us helping our friends."

Instead, Johnson believes that Bout simply typified how Russia’s early entrepreneurs viewed capitalism, assuming that its pursuit of personal rather than collective gain absolved them of any wider moral responsibility. "The Russian slang word for a gangster is ‘biznizman’, and many ordinary Russians are unable to understand the difference between a businessman and a crook," Johnson says. "Viktor did not have the moral fibre to understand when he was necessarily overstepping the line."

And there was another reason why that line was particularly difficult to discern: Bout often dealt with factions that theWest saw as the lesser of many evils, such as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, which was later used to overthrow the Taliban.

"In 1995, I got a phone call to say that a shipment of 30 tons of weapons had been held by the Talibs," says Bout, recalling the incident as if it were a minor paperwork foulup at Heathrow. "I met with [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar to get the pilots released but the f——Talibs hate me because I fly for the government in Afghanistan. My pilots were held hostage for more than a year."

Similarly, in 2000, Bout and a team of his "Moscow guys" were brought in to train the troops of Rwanda’s new president, the former rebel leader Paul Kagame. Bout’s video camera captures a surreal moment in the Rwandan bush, during which baffled soldiers try to put on chemical weapons outfits. Filming as they struggle into gas masks, Bout can’t help seeing the funny side of the chemical weapons game. "It’s a circus, the most hilarious shot in the movie," he sniggers.

A millionaire by 25, Bout had an entire aviation empire by 30, even earning a gift from the Sheikh of Sharjah for "developing the emirates airport infrastructure". At his birthday party that year, friends joined in with a band as they sang a song in his honour: "Born 30 years ago today, went to Angola many times, sold all kinds of shady stuff. What’s his name? Bout!"

Soon, though, his success led to his name being mentioned in other circles, sparking the media interest that would ultimately force the authorities to act against him. A Belgian journalist, Dirk Draulans had read a UN report about Bout’s activities and, in 2001, tracked him down in the Congo. He remembers him as a strange combination of arms seller and tourist, doing business in the morning and then getting his camera out in the afternoon. Unsurprisingly, Bout dismissed the accusations made against him by the UN. "He said, ‘I am a businessman. I have lots of planes and I don’t care what I transport because that is not my responsibility,’" Draulans tells the film.

All the same, for a legitimate businessman "Viktor Bout of Central African Airways" was very publicity-shy. When Draulans’s colleague, photographer Wim van Cappellen, tried to take pictures, a bodyguard brandished a knife and drew it across his throat. The two journalists did eventually snatch a few photos of him, though – the first ever taken of Bout "in the field" – at which point, his days of operating in the shadows were over.

"The end was clear, the moment the pictures were taken," Draulans says. His story was followed up by other media organisations and Bout was described in the House of Commons as a "Merchant of Death" by Peter Hain, the Labour MP. In the wake of 9/11, scrutiny of the illicit arms trade increased hugely. Bowing to American pressure, Bout’s friends in the governments of Rwanda and the Central African Republic cut their ties with him. At Britain’s request, his Emirates firms were shut down.

Eventually he moved back to Russia – which does not extradite its citizens abroad – where he tried and failed to make a living selling reindeer and kitchen tiles. Soon, he was mired in debt, and giving interviews to Russian radio in which he claimed to have been made a "a scapegoat for the war on terrorism".

"If there is a Russian entrepreneur abroad, they always attach some labels," he said in one interview. "’Russian’ followed by ‘mafia’, followed by ‘weapons’. I should go around smelling of vodka and garlic, the Russian bear scaring the West." Bout even agreed to an interview with the New York Times, titled "Arms and the Man" and accompanied by an arresting portrait.

But if he thought all this would quell the interest, he was wrong: two years later Lord ofWar, a film inspired by Bout’s story, hit the screens, and it was not a sympathetic portrayal. Nicolas Cage’s character’s self-stated mission was to sell guns to every single person on the planet. "I feel very sorry for Nicolas Cage," said Bout subsequently. "It’s a bad movie." Still, despite the limited success of his charm offensive, Bout was convinced the good times would return. "Sometimes you feel the whole world is against you," he tells guests at another raucous family gathering. "But you always have friends who won’t betray you."

Except in Bout’s case, they did. In 2007, a South African associate, Andrew Smulian, was approached by a friend secretly working for America’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and asked to broker an arms deal between Bout and men he was told were Colombian Farc revolutionaries. (Bout often accepted drugs as payment.) Bout agreed to a rendezvous to discuss the deal at a hotel in Thailand. Once again, the meeting was recorded on videotape, only this time it was a secret camera planted by the agents, who recorded Bout offering to sell them anti-aircraft missiles. While Smulian claims not to have known that he was setting Bout up at the time, he later agreed to become the prosecution’s star witness.

The film ends with a gaunt-looking Alla smoking nervously outside court in New York, just as her husband – now much thinner after time in a Thai jail – is getting to his feet to protest his innocence after hearing his sentence. "If you’re going to apply the same standards to me, you should jail all the arms dealers in America too," he told the judge. Bout’s lawyers argued that, until the DEA sting, he had never actually committed a crime chargeable in an American court, and that a charge of "conspiring to kill Americans" was only brought because the agent posing as a Farc soldier told Bout that he wanted to do so.

Certainly, watching the tape, the remarks sound more like idle boasting than any serious intent. Yet the DEA still considers it to have been a legitimate tactic. "I don’t see this being entrapment in any sense," one DEA agent tells the film. "If you are in a meeting and somebody starts talking about killing Americans, the first place I would be heading is the door."

Bout will not be heading for any door for a long time now. All his appeals have been turned down, and prisoner 91641054 has now taken up a new hobby to pass the time: salsa dancing.Then again, even in a high-security American jail, it is easy to imagine a procurer of Bout’s resourcefulness getting hold of a camera-equipped iPhone. Could there one day be a seQuel? For all we know, filming could already be underway.

‘The Notorious Mr Bout’ is released in cinemas on August 15

Bout issues directions to hiswifewhile filming. ‘Alla, abitmore energy, please,’ he implores

‘One of the problemswith the illegal arms trade is that most of it is not terribly illegal’