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The Cockroaches of War. And of Jihad

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a "zen"]

John Robb had a cool post on the ultra-radical takfiri insurgency ISIS/ISIL and their self-proclaimed SunniCaliphate“, the Islamic Statewhom he gave as an example of “the cockroaches of war”:

ISIS Opens The World’s Biggest Bazaar of Violence

ISIS is a marketplace — a freewheeling bazaar of violence – and it is rapidly expanding.   

So far, it’s been very successful:

  • it operates freely in an area bigger than most countries (and it has lots of oil),
  • it has been attracting the participation of a growing number of organizations and individuals, and
  • it’s financially successful and self-funding (it’s already made billions of $$ from oil, crime, bank robberies, and more).

This success is due to the fact that ISIS isn’t trying to build a “state.”  It’s not a government. 

….This bazaar was built for one purpose:  perpetual expansion and continuous warfare.

To keep things running, ISIS offers a minimalist, decentralized governance.  Day-to-day life is governed by a simple, decentralized rule set: Sharia Law.

Participation is open to everyone willing to live under Sharia and able to expand the bazaar to new areas.

The strategies and tactics ISIS uses are open sourced.  Any group or individual can advance them, as long as they can demonstrate they work.  

Weapons and other technologies needed for war are developed, shared and sold between participants and the pace of development based on previous examples is very quick.

Making money through criminal activity is highly encouraged.  Mercenary work is encouraged.  

Read the whole post here.

ISIS recently captured a town in Lebanon and Iraq’s largest dam, adding to the dams they already control in Syria. More importantly, ISIS fighters outsmarted a Kurdish Peshmerga equivalent of a battalion, using artillery and snipers, to force the Kurds to withdraw from the town of Sinjar where they have begun persecuting the Yezidi minority. This is significant as the fearsome Peshmerga are no pushovers. To put this in perspective, this was a military feat by ISIS that Saddam’s vaunted Republican Guard had great difficulty accomplishing without air support. It also reveals the Kurds may have some deficiencies with their logistics and operational level leadership (allegedly, the Peshmerga ran out of ammunition).

Absurd mummery about “Caliph Ibrahim” aside, as a fighting force and religious-political movement, ISIS has momentum and possesses the initiative. Despite their flamboyant cruelty, ISIS is attracting jihadis to a broken Iraq the way disaffected and radicalized German ex-soldiers swarmed into Freikorps units after the Great War. Reportedly, more British citizens have signed up with ISIS this year than have joined Britain’s territorial Army. Part of the reason is that ISIS, despite its obvious extremism and malevolence, is fighting successfully at the moral and mental levels of war and not merely the physical.

The strategist Colonel John Boyd described the purpose of fighting at the moral level of war as follows:

Essence of moral conflict

Create, exploit, and magnify
• Menace:
Impressions of danger to one’s well
being and survival.

• Uncertainty:
Impressions, or atmosphere,
generated by events that appear
ambiguous, erratic, contradictory,
unfamiliar, chaotic, etc.

• Mistrust:
Atmosphere of doubt and suspicion
that loosens human bonds among
members of an organic whole or
between organic wholes.

•Idea:

Surface, fear, anxiety, and

alienation in order to generate

many non-cooperative centers of
gravity, as well as subvert those
that adversary depends upon,
thereby magnify internal friction.

*Aim:

Destroy moral bonds
that permit an organic
whole to exist

To be a politically attractive force at the grand strategic level while doing morally reprehensible  things at the tactical level on a regular basis is no small strategic feat. Not a unique or impossible one though; both the Nazis and especially the Communists were able to continue to attract credulous Western supporters despite voluminous evidence of crimes against humanity and genocide (Communism still has western apologists in the media and academia). ISIS uses extreme violence but does so strategically with a vision of Caliphate to – 1)  to split Iraqi society into Sunnis vs. everyone else and split Sunnis into those who support ISIS and those who are “apostates” like the Shia, and are deserving of death; and 2) to destroy the Western concept of nation-states, replacing Iraq, Syria, Lebanon with a borderless Caliphate to rule over the Ummah.

The ISIS message is simultaneously highly exclusive (extreme Salafi version of Sharia) as well as wholly universal. This – along with identifying the Shia as the enemy force -allows ISIS to fold in a large array of disaffected, angry, rival Iraqi Sunni factions under the aegis of their movement while still attracting a global swarm of jihadi volunteers.  Compare this with the self-isolating messaging and behavior of HAMAS who, despite fighting the “Zionist enemy” Israel, are thoroughly despised in the region by most of their natural Arab state allies, the Palestinian Authority and even the radical jihadi groups. Nor is HAMAS able to escape moral damage from committing war crimes in the eyes of the international community the way ISIS escapes harm from committing worse ones ( Not only do they escape moral costs, ISIS flips their atrocities into a net positive by terrorizing the potential opposition and looking self-confidently defiant of world opinion in Islamist eyes).

In ISIS, Global Guerrilla strategy is fusing with the penultimate radical jihadi ideology.

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Easter celebrations 3: the Middle East

Monday, April 21st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- third and last of three Easter posts ]
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**

Voice of Russia reports:

The Holy Fire has been descending in the Holy Sepulcher Church, in a small chapel called Kuvuklia, for more than one millennium. The famous Church Father St. Gregory of Nyssa is believed to be one of the first to mention the miracle back in the 4th century.

The church service of the Holy Fire begins about 24 hours before the Orthodox Easter begins. This year it coincides with the Easter celebrations of other Christian confessions. Traditionally at 10-11 a.m. on Holy Saturday the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem clad in inner-rason brings a big icon lamp where the Holy Fire is expected to descend and 33 candles – the number of the years of Christ’s earthly life. After a series of rituals, the priest stops near the entrance to the chapel. His chasuble is taken off, and he is left wearing the linen chimer only for everyone to see that he is not taking any matches or other fire-making devices with him. The Patriarch goes inside, and the doors behind him are sealed with a big piece of wax and a red ribbon.
Then light is switched off in the church and anticipatory silence follows as believers pray, confess their sins and ask God to grant them the Holy Fire. When the Holy Fire finally descends, then the doors of Kuvuklia open and the Patriarch comes out to bless the believers and gives them the fire.

A group of pilgrims will deliver late on Saturday the Holy Fire from Jerusalem to the central Russian cathedral.

**

For the dismal wider Middle Eastern context, Phillip Smyth tweets:

I usually wait for 2 times in a year when media remembers Mid East Christians exist: Easter and Christmas. Coverage today has been light. The stories which are run usually encompass 2 main themes: “They’re still there, but shrinking” or “Uncertainty for __ community”. In honor of the lack of Mid East Christian coverage (despite fact it’s Easter), I’ll go through some trends which impact communities.

  • Increased Iranian (via proxies & from Tehran) messaging to craft sense of minority (Shi’a) alliance with Christians.
  • Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has also pushed this “minority alliance” theme. Christians are viewed as group(s) to be utilized.
  • The Kurdish-Christian relationship has grown & changed depending on actors. #Syria/#PYD is the place to watch vis-a-vis cooperation.
  • Identity politics within Christian communities will continue to grow, create difficulties, and eventually settle a bit–just not now.
  • Lebanese Christians are ones to watch–Will certain communities (looking at Armenians/Syriacs) grow more involved in Syria?
  • My perception is sense of decline in influence for Christian groups is far more ‘palpable’ among those in upper-echelon poli circles that doesn’t mean those circles want that, but accepting that reality has been hard for many ideologues.
  • I expected there’d be a bit more “unity” btw Levant Christian groups & Copts. Not much change there. Albeit,expats a little different
  • Intra-Christian sectarian/ethnic identities will probably further a continuing state of disunity. Likely no fix to that.
  • BTW, since it’s Easter, I find it really unnerving & sick when AQ lovers who follow me, “favorite” material about Christians leaving M.E.

    **

    Phillip Smyth also points us to Suzannah George‘s NPR piece, ‘A Wound That Doesn’t Close’: Armenians Suffer Uncertainty Together:

    At St. Elie Armenian Catholic Church in downtown Beirut, Zarmig Hovsepian lit three candles and slowly mouthed silent prayers before Easter Mass. After reciting “Our Father,” she added a prayer of her own: “For peace, for Lebanon and the region,” she said, underscoring the deep sense of apprehension beneath the surface of otherwise festive Easter celebrations.

    Next door in Syria, violence recently displaced thousands from the historic Armenian town of Kessab, which rests in northwestern Syria, along the Turkish border. Groups of Syrian rebels, including some with ties to al-Qaida, swept into the Latakia province last month, seizing a number of towns in the strategically important mountains.

    **

    Hope and hatreds.

    Bringing our varied strands together we have the Economist, with a piece blog-friend Michael Robsinson pointed me to titled The fire every time:

    Water, soil, wind, the sun, salt… in religious language, all the primordial elements of human experience have taken on new layers of meaning, as prophets, preachers and scribes down the ages, inspired or otherwise, struggled to express their intimations of the divine. Often the same element (water, for example) has two or more opposing meanings, standing either for nurturing or for retribution. And so it is with fire.

    Over this weekend, more than a billion Christians round the world are proclaiming their belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; this happens to be one of the years when the Christian West and the Christian East (which use different computational systems) are marking their faith’s defining event on the same Sunday. And especially for Christians of the East, one of the defining symbols of Easter is fire — not the fire of retribution but the redeeming, death-conquering power of a God-man who, they believe, freely submitted to all the trials besetting humanity, including mortality, and overcame them.

    { … ]

    As in all recent years, the flame was whisked by air to Russia by an organisation with close presidential ties; this year it is also being taken to Crimea in celebration of its annexation. In Athens, a row broke out after a sceptical writer, Nikos Dimou, complained over the public funds that are used to air-lift the flame to Greece “with honours befitting a head of state”, escorted by a government minister. Presumably the faithful managed to celebrate Easter before the age of air travel, added Stelios Kouloglou, another well-known journalist. But Mr Dimou resigned from a newly founded political movement after his words earned him a rebuke.

    Meanwhile, in other places where the Jerusalem flame cannot easily be air-lifted, there were equally impressive celebrations as candle light cascaded through darkened churches and exhausted but eager choirs sang hymns like “Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem, the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.” In Damascus, Easter ceremonies were decently attended despite the muffled shell-fire in the background. In Kiev, Easter messages were mingled in some cases with denunciations of Moscow. In the Turkish-controlled Cypriot port of Famagusta, the holding of a Good Friday ceremony for the first time in over half a century offered a glimmer of inter-communal hope. And in the Ulster Protestant stronghold of Ballymena, Erasmus can report, about 200 Romanian migrants lit one another’s candles at midnight with nostalgic pleasure. The flame remains the same, but the world it touches keeps changing.

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    An interesting peek into the PKK

    Monday, November 12th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron -- the PKK and religion, my own ignorance and curiosity ]
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    Flag of the Iraqi Kurds, not a PKK flag -- but see below...

    **

    The PKK is important in a “first cousin once removed” kind of way, if I’m understanding Karen Kaya‘s piece in SWJ this past May correctly:

    As Turkish military and government officials often say, the PKK is to Turkey what Al-Qaida is to the U.S., or that “the PKK is Turkey’s Al-Qaida.”

    **

    So I was trawling the web today, and the mention of religion in this paragraph from McClatchy caught my eye:

    Volunteers who join the Kurdish insurgency against Turkey must abandon Islamic religious practice and must forego “emotional ties” to anyone outside the group, as well as swear words and sex, or face trial and prison, according to a Syrian-born Kurd who defected from the group to Turkey over the summer.

    People who “defect” not uncommonly offer prejudiced accounts of the organizations they’ve left, so I read on to see how trustworthy this source might be:

    The 21-year-old defector, who surrendered in June, brought with him not only a tale of life inside the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish initials as the PKK, but also detailed information about a planned attack inside Turkey that helped Turkish authorities beat back the PKK offensive.

    McClatchy obtained a copy of a 19-page Turkish-language account of his debriefing, which was dated July 4 and was not marked classified. The debriefing contained his name, but McClatchy is identifying him only by his initials, R.S., to protect family members who might still be in territory held by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate.

    It seems his military intelligence was quite accurate — so far so good. Next, my own curiosity naturally led me to wonder what the PKK’s religious stance, apart from being opposed to Islam, might be. After all, it’s called the the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and was founded on Marxist principles…

    Okay, I skipped a few paragraphs, and found this:

    R.S. portrayed the PKK as anti-Islamic. Performing daily prayers, fasting and reading the Quran are among the offenses that could land a recruit in prison, he told Turkish authorities. Instead, fighters were told that the religion of Kurds is Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s most ancient religions, and they should worship fire. There are said to be fewer than 200,000 Zoroastrians today, mostly in Iran and India.

    Now that’s a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain.

    **

    For an alternate viewpoint, here’s the University of Utrecht grad student in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, Wladimir van Wilgenburg, writing for Rudaw in English and sounding knowledgeable, though his own or Rudaw’s potential biases are unknown to me:

    The idea that Kurds are actually Zoroastrians is not something new. Kurdish nationalists such as the Bedirkhan brothers tried to revive Zoroastrianism and Yezidism as the original religion of the Kurds in the 1920s and 1930s. By this the Bedirkhans aimed to separate the Kurds from their Muslim neighbors and give them a glorious pre-Islamic history that had once boasted many empires.

    They did not emphasize much on the Kurdish Islamic warrior Salahadin al-Ayyubi that rallied the Muslims against the crusaders in the twelfth century. Similarly, Turkish nationalists tried to promote Shamanism as the original religion of the Turks. But despite these efforts, Islam remained an important element among Kurdish nationalist movements.

    It is unlikely that Yezidis are originally Zoroastrians. The Zoroastrian religion is a dualist religion (with good and evil constantly fighting each other), while the Yezidi faith revolves more around a single deity as the Satan.

    Therefore it is possible that the Zoroastrians would regard the Yezidis as devil-worshippers, just as some Muslims do.

    There are still many Kurds (especially in Europe) who think Kurds are originally Zoroastrians and wear Zoroastrian symbols, even though they are non-religious and do not have much knowledge about Zoroastrianism and its rituals.

    The PKK was particularly influenced by the ideas of early Kurdish nationalists. Its media promoted the idea that Kurds are originally Zoroastrians. Other Kurdish political groups also came under the same influence.

    But in 1991 the PKK took a positive approach about Islam and thus managed to win some sympathy. Some say the PKK tried to merge Kurdish nationalism and Islam for its own cause.

    In recent years the PKK has also used Imams, Friday prayers and Islamic language as a means to compete with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In return, the Turkish government is said to have plans to recruit 1000 Kurdish Imams in its battle to win the hearts and minds of the Kurdish people.

    **

    That (Iraqi) Kurdistan National Flag at the top of this post has a golden sun with 21 rays as it’s central feature — but it’s from Iraq. The PKK has used a variety of flags, some of them reflecting the group’s Marxist origins, but one in particular appears to borrow from the Iraqi flag:

    As noted on this Flags of the World page:

    This seems to be a variant of the original PKK flag, since it has the star and the red background of the PKK original flag but also the sun disc of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.

    That, in brief, is why the symbolism of the Iraqi Kurdish flag may be significant in understanding symbolism associated with the PKK.

    The Kurdistanica page on the Iraqi Kurdish flag is a little coy on the topic of the sun, noting:

    The primary Kurdish characteristic of the flag is the golden sun emblem at the center. The sun emblem has a religious and cultural history among the Kurds, stretching into antiquity. The sun disk of the emblem has 21 rays, equal in size and shape. The number 21 holds a primary importance in the native Yazdani religious tradition of the Kurds.

    The sun might also be associated with Zoroastrianism, and the number 21 with the 21 nasks of the original Zoroastrian scriptures — but the issue of Kurdish religious nationalism is another area I’m unfamiliar with…

    **

    The nice thing about knowing that one doesn’t know is that it makes leaping to conclusions so much more difficult.

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    Honor killings

    Monday, March 7th, 2011

    [ by Charles Cameron -- cross-posted from ChicagoBoyz ]

    *

    I had occasion today to give myself a quick refresher course on honor killings, one form of which is already present in the Torah as of Leviticus 21.9:

    And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.

    and found myself once again noting that there is a substantial swathe of regions of the world where honor killings are found, and that where it is found (including in immigrant communities from those parts of the world) the practice is not confined to any one religious group.

    Hence this DoubleQuote:

    I think it is appropriate to consider honor killing a form of religious violence when the claim is made by those who do the killing that they are acting in the name of their religion — but that it is also important to distinguish such acts committed in a cultural context in which they are practiced across religions from acts that are the exclusive province of one religious tradition.

    There are examples of honor killings which are performed in the name of Islam, and/or advocated by Islamic scholars — and the same could no doubt be said of other religious traditions — but honor killing as a genre is fundamentally more cultural than religious.

    Sources: Brandeis studyBBCSydney Morning Herald

    The analytic point:

    From my point of view as an analyst, it is important to note and compare both religious and cultural drivers — neither avoiding mention of the one out of “correctness” — nor overlooking the other for lack of comparative data.

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    Friday, August 10th, 2007

    ENTERRANS AMONG THE KURDS

    Steve DeAngelis of ERMB has journeyed to the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq a second time on Enterra business. He’s had several posts reflecting on his experiences working in ” the other Iraq” or about the Mideast in general.

    Probing the Edges of Globalization

    Lessons from the Edge of Globalization: Part 2, Day 1

    Labor Reform in the Middle East ( Dubai focus)

    Islamic Finance

    Kurdistan’s clan-based rulers and Peshmerga leaders have been exceptionally deft players in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, managing to have excellent relations with the United States, Iran and ( allegedly on the quiet) Israel. Quite a neat trifecta. Only Turkey remains a serious problem, deeply fearful of Kurdish revanchism, PKK terrorism and having assumed the role of protector of the Turcoman minority in Iraq ( ironically, reprising the posture that imperial Russia once assumed toward Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire that the Sublime Porte found so offensive).

    To be a state or not to be a state, a choice the Kurds must make. One of the few things most countries can agree on is that international borders are no longer up for grabs via the use of force – Europe’s peace was built on the permanence of German borders and the Europeans are not going to reopen that topic, even in principle. The road to sovereignty, independence and NATO membership for Kurdistan runs only through Ankara but it requires strategic choices not seen in Mesopotamia since 1919.

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