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Hosham Dawod On DAESH

« Short Of a Political Solution, a Force Even More Baleful Than Daesh Will Emerge”

Translated Monday 21 December 2015, by Isabelle Métral

In this interview with l’Humanité, CNRS researcher Hosham Dawod, an anthropologist and specialist of Iraq where he headed the Iraqi department of the Institut français du Proche-Orient (The French Institute in the Near-East) until September, 2014 reviews numerous questions about the terrorist organization that claimed the Paris attacks on November 13.

HUMA :Daesh, Dawla, Islamic State, “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), “Islamic State” (IS), Organization of the Islamic State… what should we call “our main enemy in Syria”, sometimes branded as terrorist, jihadist, or Islamist?

DAWOD : We are confronted with an ultra-radical organization whose trademark is extreme violence, and for which the only kind of relation to the outside world is terrorism. As for its economy, it is largely based on smuggling, trafficking, racketing. In short this is a basically predatory enterprise. Violence is what marks off this socially communitarian, Sunni movement from other Islamist persuasions or movements. The origin of this self-styled “Dawla al-khilafa” (State of the Caliphate” dates back to 2003 when the Us invaded then occupied Iraq. As early as September 2003, Jordanian Abou Moussab al Zarqawi set up the Group for Uniqueness and Jihad” with the aim of uniting under the same banner all Iraqi Jihadists, whether Arab or Kurdish. And a year later, Zarqawi had imposed himself as head of one of the most powerful movements that set a successful model for other Iraqi Jihadist movements to follow. He decided to join the nebulous al-Qaida in October that year and owe allegiance to its chief, Usama bin Laden. Despite this official allegiance, there were actually divergences between al Qaida’s main branch and its Iraqi branch both as concerned their basic views and their tactics.

After Zarqawi was eliminated in 2006 the organization struck deeper roots, gained wider recognition, and took on a more specifically Iraqi identity by appointing to its head Abu Omar al Baghdadi, a former member of Saddam Hussein’s army, and changed the organization’s name to “the organization of the Islamic State in Iraq”. In April 2010 he was eliminated by the Iraqi forces. A month later, the “Islamic State” in Iraq appointed to its head Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali al Badri, alias Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The new name remained until 2012, then in April 2013 was changed to the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”. In June 2014 Abu Bakr al Baghdadi re-baptized the organization as “Dawla al khilafa” (State of the Caliphate). We must bear in mind that Daesh (the Arabic acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wa –I-Sham) is a pejorative name for its members.

And yet “dawla” and “khilafa” are antonyms. “Dawla” (the State) is a modern concept, whereas the caliphate (“khilafa”) is a political structure that vanished in the wake of WWI and with the emergence of the modern States. The name “Khilfafa” implies a caliph and commander of the believers at its head, to whom all Muslims worldwide owe allegiance. Strangely, Daesh combines an incompatible duality, on the one hand a notion know to all as expressing a desire for territorial definition and limitation, and on the other a desire for infinite expansion.

HUMA : Several ministries, for justice, the army, the economy, the territory… Specialists disagree as to whether Daesh is a State. What do you think?

DAWOD : Definitely not. Daesh is an organization that occupies a territory, an important territory to be sure, but this territory has shrunk significantly, notably in Iraq. Since May 20, it has lost hundreds of square kilometers, quite a few major towns, and above all, it has so far proved incapable of launching a counter-offensive. This is a major change since this organization boasted it was an invincible conqueror and made the most of this brand image. Its motto is “I shall remain and am spreading.” But true it is that it still administrates several major cities in Iraq as well as in Syria like Mosul, Raqqa, and slightly less important ones like Falouja in Iraq, and other “minor” ones. The territory it controls is divided into zones: the green zone (with a civil administration almost), the orange zone (between the green zone and the frontline), and the red zone (a war zone). Daesh’s army is tens of thousands strong and pays each fighter a salary.

Moreover the region it controls is rich farming land that produces for local and foreign consumption. This part of Syria and Iraq is rich in oilfields that have no difficulty finding buyers of all origins. Even though Iraqi Kurds can boast a territory, an army, and institutions, and even though they enjoy international recognition, they do not constitute a State. Those who maintain they do are clearly cherishing the hope that the region will break up and new borders appear. Hence all the debates in France especially, as the centenary of the Sykes-Picot accord approaches, after Daesh announced its intention to “cancel the Sykes-Picot border”.

Historically, the division that the accord proposed in May 1916 was never implemented, but strangely enough, when one compares the map it proposed and the space Daesh occupies together with the autonomous Kurdish region, it becomes clear why some influent politicians were easily persuaded that a century later borders would be re-defined in the Middle East along identity lines.

This fabrication of the Middle-East’s history proves that no actor in the region or on a global scale had a disinterested position regarding Daesh. Each tried to reckon what it could gain in terms of its zone of influence, which is why it is so difficult today for all those protagonists to reach an agreement. Meanwhile the Syrian and Iraqi populations are still paying a heavy price for this impasse.

HUMA : Who leads Daesh? Some claim that Baghdadi would be merely a front, that the real power would rest with former Iraqi army members that “love whiskey more than Allah”.

DAWOD : Abou Bakr al Baghdadi is the leader. The organization he heads has several committees (military, religious, economic affairs, and communication, safety…) that are sometimes called “ministries”. And Daesh divides the territories it controls into provinces (wilaya). Baghdadi, the “commander of the believers”, is seconded by two important bodies. One is composed of his alternates, the other is a consultative committee. Now the caliph is elected by this commission on which no former member of Saddam Hussein’s army sits, whereas some of his alternates are former Baathist army members promoted on account of their military competence rather than their Baathist ideology. More important still, the Iraqi party in Daesh’s top decision-making bodies is infinitely more important than the Syrian party or than that of any of the other Jihadists movements. No foreigner sits on the military commandment of Daesh’s Iraqi branch, while quite a few Iraqi hold executive posts in the Syrian branch.

So whatever may be alleged as concerns the breaking up of the Syrian-Iraqi border by Daesh, the cultural and spatial distinction is still paramount in those Jihadists’ mental frame despite their proclaimed exclusive devotion to Allah. Some Jihadists from its Syrian branch are dissatisfied with the Iraqi stranglehold and with the dominance of the Baghdadi party on account of its extremely local, territorial hold, intimately connected with former military servants of Saddam Hussein’s. Added to this is the fact that Jihadists from all over the world want to fight in Iraq and elsewhere, like al Qaida. And so, in view of the West’s and Russia’s engagement some Daesh members might very well defect to the groups with which Daesh has recently been battling for preeminence.

HUMA : What about Daesh’s doctrine? Is The Management of Savagery really its handbook, as some contend?

DAWOD : This book, which was written in 2004, holds pride of place on Daesh’s shelves. Its author is a Jihadist called Abu Bakr Naji, no doubt a pseudonym for an individual or a group. It’s an easy read and can be understood by everybody. Immediately spotted by the US it was translated into English one year later, then three years later into French. The strategy it professes consists in bringing about chaos in order to sap the legitimacy and credibility of the established order by inciting individuals and groups to turn in upon themselves until the State collapses under the repeated blows of a violence that keeps getting blinder and striking wider, and the Jihadist alternative is imposed as the only possible solution.

That is why the French Gestion de la barbarie does not translate the author(s)’ meaning. A better title would be “Management ou Administration de la sauvagerie”. But there are other manuals on Daesh’s shelves. The Jihadist conglomeration includes all literature that legitimizes Jihad. The most important handbook for Daesh is Abu Abdullah al Muhajir’s Fiqh al Jihad, or Fiqh al Dima (Jihad’s judicial and theological norms).

HUMA : Can Daesh boast a real popular following?

DAWOD : That’s a difficult question. Daesh has been trying to make the most of the weariness and hostility of part of the Sunni population in Iraq to Nouri al Maliki’s central government as it became more and more denominational. If you consider the Ninive province and its capital Mossoul, which according to some is a successful example of Daesh administration, you’ll find that a year and a half later almost a third of Mossoul’s population has fled. There is not one Christian left. This town is famous for its rich ethnic composition, but now uniformity prevails: the Yezidis have been slaughtered and thousands of their wives sold away as slaves.

Tall Afar, the province’s other major town (it had 300,000 inhabitants before Daesh), lost two thirds of its Shiite and Turkmen populations. Even Sunni Arabs who did not obey Daesh’s radically fundamentalist dictates were cracked down upon by the Jihadists. Still, it would be a mistake to under-estimate some degree of allegiance to Daesh’s project here and there, especially among disillusioned, marginalized and humiliated youth. But there certainly is no massive and popular adhesion. The easy progress of Daesh in 2014 and in early 2015 in the Sunni portion of Iraq is rather due to the deficiencies of the State, corruption, the legacy of occupation than to I know not what idyll with the Jihadist cause.

HUMA : Can the current international military campaign effectively eliminate Daesh?

DAWOD : It can’t. To defeat Daesh you must support the local people or provide troops on the ground. The former is the better solution provided a political project is attached to it. For if after the victory you support a government that accentuates its denominational bent, the real problems will only be put off, and other kinds of Jihadists may appear, maybe even more dangerous than Daesh. Daesh is worse than Al Qaeda, who was worse than the earliest opponents to the US occupation of Iraq.

The fate of Syria, also partially that of Iraq, has unfortunately turned into a global issue, which means that a political solution must be devised in preparation for the aftermath of the war, with a collective guarantee. Important though it is to preserve states that have existed for a century, it is just as urgent to think out forms and supple, accommodating modes of administration and government, like federalism, the empowerment of some regions, and guarantees for ethnic and religious minorities. Devising adequate political solutions is a must for Daesh to be eradicated.

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