Posts Tagged With: jihadism

Child Protection or Security Agendas? NGOs address the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon (Estella Carpi & Chiara Diana, March 2016)

March 1, 2016

by Estella Carpi and Chiara Diana

     In the wake of the massive influx of refugees from Syria to Lebanon (2011-2014), some international NGOs have intervened in specific regions of Lebanon to prevent Lebanese and Syrian youth from “radicalizing” themselves and joining armed groups. In the presence of security and political risks, these NGOs play a sizable role in territories that often become destinations for refugees and migrants. We recognize their work as an effort to “neutralize” social spaces by stifling any factor causing local instability. 
     In this framework, youth quickly come to be addressed as objects of concern but rarely as subjects of decision-making and aware action. Our study seeks to unpack international NGOs’ discourses about children’s vulnerability and protection, which are generally formulated according to universalized conceptions of childhood. This research is aimed at understanding the space between global security agendas, child protection, and humanitarian action. Finally, our study shows the controversial character of humanitarian agencies that alternate between depoliticizing younger generations and complying with the social order established by local power holders.

Armed young boy in the Syrian War

Armed young boy in the Syrian War

Syria’s conflict is impacting neighboring countries in myriad ways. Since the conflict started in 2011 as a result of several anti-government street protests and the consequent heavy shelling of the opposition areas, more than one million Syrians fleeing violence and political persecution arrived in Lebanon. Among these Syrians are those who are registered with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and in search of social and legal protection.

Refugee influxes are generally considered to pose diverse challenges, ranging from the political to the socio-economic. Here, we choose to focus on the humanitarian programs meant to prevent North Lebanon-based children from joining armed groups currently combating in Syria. An example of these is Disarmament–Demobilization–Reintegration programs (DDRs) directed by international NGOs at 15-18 year-old youth. These programs target childhood in a bid to avert suitable conditions for armament.

Through ethnographic research, semi-structured interviews with two large international NGOs, and in-depth interviews with local residents (both Syrians and Lebanese) in North Lebanon, our study primarily focuses on the Akkar region and the city of Tripoli.

Child protection map of north Lebanon

Child protection map of north Lebanon

The research we are presently conducting unpacks international NGOs’ discourses about children’s vulnerability and protection, discourses formulated according to universalized conceptions of childhood. It also demonstrates the controversial character of humanitarian agencies that alternate between depoliticizing young generations and complying with the social order established by local power holders.

 Informal refugee camp next to the Syrian border. 'Akkar (North Lebanon), 2013. Photo taken by Estella Carpi.

 Informal refugee camp next to the Syrian border. ‘Akkar (North Lebanon), 2013. Photo taken by Estella Carpi.

A number of international NGOs[1]attempt to dissuade children who resettled in Lebanon from joining combating factions – especially the several armed Syrian opposition brigades—while prompting their families to send them to school and lead a “decent life.” Some of these NGOs provide vocational training to 14 and 15 year-old teenagers who dropped out of school in an attempt to discourage them from joining armed factions. “If the youth have education and professional skills, they won’t fear for their income and they won’t feel hopeless. That’s how they end up warring or even becoming suicide bombers,” an NGO worker affirmed during an interview.

Similarly, another international NGO offers common school programs to Syrians and Lebanese children and youth, as the education and overall future of both communities are jeopardized. Indeed, young men from both nationalities are in fact recruited in takfiri (Salafi ideology) armed groups combating in Syria. As “beneficiaries,” both Syrian and Lebanese children do not need to be “infantilized,” that is to say, emptied of their political afflatus. In any situation of conflict and violence, they are always defensible since they are presumed to never have individual viewpoints. While here we are not promoting practices which would simply place blame on children and youth, we rather seek to highlight that the youth are the easiest vessels of humanitarian sympathy and generosity (Rieff 2002: 26), and this belief often leads to the humanitarian misconceptions of childhood that we will illustrate below.

Informal refugee camp next to the Syrian border. 'Akkar (North Lebanon), 2013. Photo taken by Estella Carpi.  

Informal refugee camp next to the Syrian border. ‘Akkar (North Lebanon), 2013. Photo taken by Estella Carpi.

Although the Syrian government criminalized the recruitment of children by armed forces and non-institutional groups in 2013, such legal protection measures continue to be disregarded by all warring sides. As mentioned above, employment is considered the most effective dissuasive factor to avoid war recruitment. As a 2015 livelihoods assessment indicates (Save the Children and UNICEF 2015), families are struggling to meet their basic needs and feel they have no other alternative than putting their children to work, marrying off their daughters, and allowing their children to join armed groups. Moreover, official work permits are unlikely to be obtained nowadays for the Syrians who have relocated to neighboring nations. Without work permits, those working illegally risk imprisonment, fines, return to refugee camps, or even deportation to Syria. In addition, some children live in areas without functioning schools, as they have mostly been bombed by the Asad military aviation. Joining an armed group remains one of their few available options (HRW 2014: 2).

Nevertheless, it seems to be quite difficult to gather reliable and detailed information about recruitment efforts inside Syria and in the neighboring countries. Indeed, war recruitment is a strategy that is inherent neither to Jihadist groups nor to Lebanon. For instance, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, a child labor assessment found that 30% of children interviewed had been approached for recruitment (UNICEF 2014). Therefore, in the whole region affected by the Syrian crisis, joining presents benefits to children. Children who join armed groups can in fact receive monthly salaries of up to US$400. Others participate without pay in order to join family members or friends, or because they have suffered on a personal level at the hands of one of the warring parties and desire to exact revenge.

There is also very limited information about the willingness of children and young boys to join and serve armed groups in Syria today. However, generally, it has been noted that many children and adolescents are abducted and conscripted at an early stage. They latter turn into loyal fighters (Depuy and Peters 2010: 67). Likewise, young people recruited by government forces, or informal groups of government-affiliated thugs–Asad’s shabbiha in Syria—are often told that they are protecting their families and homes against “terrorists” who oppose the government. In this sense, indoctrination in governmental armed groups becomes a continuation and expansion of state propaganda.

Children militarily recruited by the “Islamic State”

Children militarily recruited by the “Islamic State”

Reflecting media biases, international NGOs likewise maintain a number of misconceptions about the children they aim to serve. In fact, Syrian refugee children are homogeneously represented as vulnerable. They are quickly classified as innocent victims and impartial, with little opinion about the current conflict. More specifically, according to the analysis we have conducted so far, the misconceptions of the international NGOs are threefold. The first misconception resides in the definition of childhood and child vulnerability, influencing how need and aid are imagined. Indeed, the translation of “vulnerability” variously refers to local conceptions and ways of being addressed in Lebanon. “Vulnerable people” in Lebanon are often referred to with the expression “mustad’afun,” which literally means “the weakened.” This particularly stresses the political agentivity behind the low status and miserable condition of the individual. In other words, individuals are not weak per se, but they have been weakened by historical processes, usually started by political foes.

The second misconception of the international NGO apparatus lies in the standardization of age-focused individual rights and social categories as a result of a universalization of western cultural standards. Indeed, childhood is not approached as a relative process that varies according to culture and context, but rather as a fixed age range.

Thirdly, the NGOs addressing children tend to view regional sectarianism and violence as innate characteristics of Lebanon and Syria and as the very cause of conflict, thereby ignoring the territorial political issues and their connections to the whole region. Nevertheless, the lack of a constructive sense of citizenship and engaged civic participation are certainly not to be blamed on the international NGOs’ action per se, but rather on the longstanding state abandonment and state hostility in the northern Lebanese region, in addition to the widespread use of violence as an instrument to pursue political goals and elitist privileges.

NGO language and implementation strategies thus largely influence and reify the category of “children in need,” who, in the Lebanese context, are merely associated with war and displacement. In brief, youth quickly come to be addressed in terms of objects of concern and rarely subjects of decision-making and aware action.

Syrian primary school for refugee children, Tripoli (North Lebanon). Photo taken by Estella Carpi, 2013.  

Syrian primary school for refugee children, Tripoli (North Lebanon). Photo taken by Estella Carpi, 2013.

As our current analysis indicates, the international NGOs that operate in North Lebanon believe they can act in a social void, one in which armament and recruitment are regarded and addressed as motivated simply by the ongoing conflict in Syria and hardly ever correlated to longstanding social rifts and unresolved political issues–sometimes not associable with community frictions–which concern the local residents to greater extent.

From a local perspective, the children who join the activities promoted by these NGOs are not viewed in the same way as those exposed to higher risk of being recruited or voluntarily recruiting. According to the in-depth interviews that we conducted thus far with Tripoli’s residents connected to armed groups in Syria, the families whose children join the international NGOs’ activities are generally affluent or plugged in international networks. This local perception is noteworthy, as it illustrates how non-beneficiaries view addressed vulnerability as an empowered condition, as the privileged social status of some social groups. The parents collaborating with these NGOs are therefore believed as unwilling to send their children to fight, not being themselves prone to political violence.
On the one hand, our interlocutors have so far expressed perplexity about the external–essentially “western”–way of conducting studies on this issue. In an interview conducted in Tripoli, two Lebanese, ‘Abdallah and Walid, recounted, “international NGOs lack direct access to local communities, and end up addressing families that are not much prone to let their children fight in Syria and that have not been politically oppressed. How can they imagine having tangible results?”
On the other hand, the local interviewees who were neither addressed nor approached by international NGOs highlighted how their children were not “manipulated” to undertake violence for the parental cause, but rather they reasserted that childhood is integral part of the parental effort to implement local and regional social justice. The recruitment of young boys in armed groups, across Lebanon as elsewhere, is a product of much complex social factors which are not simply associable with “evil adult recruiters” or structural features. While international law wants to see adults as conveyers of an inherently and unchangeably “violent culture,” it aprioristically tackles children as unaware perpetrators and objects of manipulation (Rosen 2010: 50), therefore detachable from the local predominant culture and society in which they grow up. To the same extent, these international NGOs tend to believe that the institutional and cultural environments they are able to provide structurally enable children to start a better life, or at least protect them against armed violence on a sustainable basis.

While international humanitarianism is unlikely to see any act of the child as an expression of local culture and therefore “blameless,” the violence of adults is deemed as inherent to the cultural pattern at hand. This marks the epistemological contradiction which underlies the NGO efforts to foster an unconditioned primary depoliticization of children in North Lebanon. At the antipodes of a conception of childhood as politically engaged and aware beyond their exposition to war recruitment, international human rights protectors are overlooking a much more needed protection for children exposed to state and non-state terrorist attacks in schools and public spaces. This clearly points to a close correlation between child recruitment prevention and the generalized concerns of international security apparatuses. Our study will provide insights on how such global politics concerns are addressable through the ongoing NGOization of Lebanon.

Works Cited

Depuy, K. E., Peters, K. (2010) War and Children. A Reference Handbook, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International, in the Contemporary Military, Strategic, and Security Issues.

Human Rights Watch (2014) Maybe We Live, and Maybe We Die. Retrieved from:

Rieff, D. (2002) A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. With an Afterword on Iraq, New York City, NY: Simon & Schuster Publishers.

Rosen, D. M. (2010) “Social Change and the Legal Construction of Child Soldier Recruitment in the Special Court for Sierra Leone”, in Childhood in Africa, an Interdisciplinary Journal, Issue 1, Vol. 2, p. 48-57.

Save the Children and UNICEF (July 2, 2015) Small Hands, Heavy Burden. How the Syria Conflict is Driving More Children into the Workforce. Retrieved from:

UNICEF (2014) Assessment of the Situation of Child Labor among Syrian Refugee Children in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Estella Carpi is presently a Research Fellow at Lebanon Support (Beirut) and a Research Consultant for the New York University (Abu Dhabi). She received her PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Sydney (Australia), with a research project on the social response to humanitarian assistance in Beirut’s southern suburbs and in the Akkar villages (Lebanon). In the past she also worked as a researcher at Trends Research & Advisory – Abu Dhabi, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – Cairo, and the International Development Research Center (IDRC) – Cairo, mostly focusing on social development, welfare, NGOs, and humanitarian emergencies in the Middle East. She has lectured extensively in the Social Sciences in Italy, Lebanon, and Australia. After studying Arabic in Milan and Damascus (2002-2007), she wrote her MPhil dissertation in Linguistic Anthropology on the everyday speech in contemporary Lebanon (2008). To access all her publications:

Chiara Diana is a Research Associate for the French Center for Economic, Juridical, Social Studies and Documentation (CEDEJ, Egypt). In 2015, she received her PhD in History from the Institute for Research and Studies on Arab and Muslim World (IREMAM) and the Aix-Marseille University (France). Her thesis research is a socio-history of social and political construction of childhood in Egypt during the Mubarak era (1981-2011). In the past, she taught at the Aix-Marseille University and the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris). Her current research interests include childhood and youth in Arab countries, activism and political socialization of young generations in revolutionary, post-revolutionary and conflict contexts. Her latest work is entitled “Children’s Citizenship: Revolution and the Seeds of an Alternative Future in Egypt” in Herrera Linda (ed.) and Sakr Rehab, Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East. New York: Routledge (2014). To access her publications:

[1]The NGOs included in the present study will remain anonymous in order to protect the identity of their beneficiaries and their specific territories of intervention.

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A dialogue with the “Islamic State”?

Something I wrote in December 2015, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. An excerpt was published in al-Jazeera a couple of weeks ago. The Al-Jazeera text is followed by the full (unpublished) original English version. Then I’m posting the full Italian version, which  was published in Osservatorio Iraq on March 1, 2016. 


Machiavellians and ordinary youth in Syrian civil war


ISIL is likely to be dismantled militarily, but who will address the diverse grievances of its former militants?


To counter the ideals of the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the long-run and to identify potential negotiation partners, it is necessary to rethink the mainstream understanding of Sunni violent extremism and highlight its human and pragmatic features. Religious ideology is not the only driving force behind militancy.

In 2013, while in Syria, I got to know Abu Khalid, a rebel commander who was fighting in Ras al-Ayn for a Muslim Brotherhood-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade (one of the so-called Shields). Later on, Abu Khalid pledged his military support to the al-Nusra Front, linked to al-Qaeda in Syria.

When Abu Khalid is asked about his reasons for siding with the al-Nusra Front, the pragmatic considerations – that is to say, for example, how the FSA’s corruption slowed down the overthrowing of the Asad regime – are greater than his commitment to al-Qaeda’s dogmatic tenets.

Total chaos


Paradoxically, Abu Khalid is now profiting from taking foreign hostages: he turned out to be after the money, just like the corrupt FSA, which was the target of his criticism.

The kidnapping business under the auspices of the al-Nusra Front has most likely upgraded his stature, something not possible under the FSA. He is also fully aware of his limited options in northern Syria, where the al-Nusra Front has almost wiped out the FSA.

Just like the clan leaders in Syria and Iraq – first under the Baath regimes, and then under ISIL – Abu Khalid sought protection and empowerment under the shadow of the umpteenth ruling party. It is worth remembering that the United States-backed Sunni tribal councils (also known as Sahawat or Awakening) were largely successful in crushing al-Qaeda’s insurgency in Iraq between 2007 and 2008, only because al-Qaeda had started challenging their interests – as in reconstruction contracts and illegal revenues – thus prompting Sunni tribal fighters to defect from al-Qaeda’s ranks.

However, Washington left them unemployed a few years later, when its troops started withdrawing from Iraq, and failed to integrate the defected Sunni tribals in the security apparatus due to the resistance of Nouri al-Maliki’s pro-Iranian central government.

The result was that many of these former tribal members rejoined insurgent groups. Numerous Iraqi tribes have remained neutralrejecting the US’ attempts to revive the Sahawat to fight ISIL, and they have their good reasons to do so in absence of long-term guarantees.

On the other hand, pragmatism might be understood as a call for a new patronage system between central governments and tribal leaders, which is one of the aspects of patriarchal autocracy the Arab youth rose up against in 2011. However, the most progressive Syrian activists have long been sidelined by the militarization of the uprising, and are unable to destabilise the ISIL territories.

Young people clearly are playing a crucial role in ISIL. Counterterrorism centres are obsessed with profiling “radicalised” youth. Nonetheless, even in Syria, the red lines between “moderate” and “radicalised” youth are particularly blurred.

No distinction for the Western powers


In 2011, during the peaceful phase of the Syrian uprising, I met a young Syrian musician in southern Damascus. We were chatting about politics and he touched upon the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, praising him as a fearless mujahidin who fought the Americans in Iraq.

He was passionate about a musical genre that originated in the US, but this did not prevent him from admiring Zarqawi, who would have despised his love for haram music. In his neighbourhood and in Syria in general, many young men went to fight for their “just cause” in Iraq during the US occupation.

If the musician, too, had gone to Iraq in those years, he could have become an ISIL militant. Would he have shown no regret in giving up on Western music – the same music that earned him a significant audience in Syria? As noted by some “terrorism” scholars, behind the balaclava, a jihadist is still a troubled human being.

The fascinating story of a young Syrian citizen journalist from Deir Az Zor is worth pondering: He saw his three best friends joining ISIL, and despite that, he kept meeting them secretly for a chat over a cigarette from time to time.

I got to know his story a few months ago. He still considered the militants as his friends, being aware that the reasons why they started fighting for ISIL were only partially ideological. They were given weapons, started earning a salary and found their own destructive redemption from the failure of the Syrian uprising they took part in.

However, they were not ready to spend the rest of their lives under the “Caliphate” and, later on, they managed to flee Syria. The journalist is now “exiled” in Turkey, fearing arrest at the hand of ISIL. He is deeply opposed to the Russian offensive on his city, which has resulted into the death of many civilians. In the end, even his friends could have remained trapped inside the country and died under the air strikes.

Unfortunately, international powers rush to conclusions when tracing the above-mentioned red lines between “moderates” and “radicals” in the conviction that shelling the militant youths and their families will eradicate ISIL from the region.

Their “civilised” response to ISIL brutality is merely a military one. No one seems to take into consideration the diverse array of motivations that pushed all these men to join “radical” factions, whether it was a voluntary choice and how they would act in times of peace.

Jihadists and local tribes will remain actively involved in the Syrian-Iraqi insurgency once the anti-ISIL war trumpets fall silent, unless they become the targets of far-sighted policies and are granted tangible benefits. After ISIL, young militants will keep fighting under a different banner for their “just cause” against foreign occupations and brutal dictatorships.

The mainstream opinion leaders have portrayed ISIL – and other “radical” groups – as an embodiment of absolute evil, while leaving out of the equation the social, political, ethical and economic variables. ISIL is likely to be dismantled militarily, but who will address the diverse grievances of its former militants?

Reasoning about a dialogue with the Islamic State

By Andrea Glioti

Shelling the “caliphate” is not going to work security-wise, socially and politically. The response should be instead based on a diversified political approach to the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq: an approach aimed to establish a unified anti-IS front in Syria and another one possibly involving dialogue with some components of IS in Iraq. In order to counter the ideals of this organisation in the long-run, it is also necessary to reshape the mainstream understanding of Sunni jihadist movements and highlight their human and pragmatic features.

Warmongering and bogeymen

If you had the disgraced idea of following the news in the last months, you have probably noticed the renewed war hysteria that has dominated the aftermath of the Paris attacks. In a few days the talk-shows were flooded with self-declared experts asserting the Western moral duty to defeat the self-declared Islamic State.

A new fully-functional bogeyman has taken the stage, definitely more effective than the communist bogeyman of the Cold War, since IS is a perfect embodiment of cultural, religious, social and ideological otherness with regards to the mainstream European contemporary zeitgeist. In other words, broadly speaking, waging a war on Muslim second/third-generation unemployed youth mobilized under the cloak of religious fanaticism (and migrants in general) has a wider mass appeal than waging a war against your communist neighbour, with whom you possibly had in common the same income and ethnicity. Not only that, when the war is against IS, you have Russia and the US in the same bed (albeit with divergences).

Warmongering against IS is even more appealing than George W. Bush’s war on terror: in the aftermath of 9/11 the US administration failed to convince its critics that attacking Afghanistan and Iraq was conductive to global security, as both governments were not directly involved in the WTC massacre (in the case of Iraq the casus belli was completely fabricated). In the case of IS, on the contrary, the followers of al-Baghdadi are constantly bragging about their responsibility for attacks. They also control a State no one dares to recognize. In the eyes of many Europeans, the US-led coalition, France and Russia are waging a war to defend their “art of living” (as president Hollande phrased it) and the civilians trapped in Syria are no more than collateral casualties to make sure European teenagers can return to safely attend concerts.

Security wise, a response that is exclusively centred on shelling the “caliphate” is not going to work. Even with boots on the ground, the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan stand as a reminder that resistance movements are going to survive despite the presence of militarily advanced occupiers. Back home, in Europe, suicide bombers will keep retaliating for the air raids, lone wolf attackers are not going to stand idle after the collapse of IS and training camps will be easily set up elsewhere, as it always happened. The counterterrorism rhetoric feeds arm dealers rather than providing a long-term securitisation.

The Syrian context: solving the conflict first

IS is not seen as an autochthonous organization in Syria, the leadership is an Iraqi one and many Syrians compare it to an occupying force. Its rise was made possible by the military escalation of the Syrian uprising and it would have never emerged outside of this context.  The IS leadership knows it well and this is why they forge alliances with local tribes, prompt Syrian rebel groups to surrender and pledge allegiance (baʻyah), and force local women to marry their fighters. It is all about “Syrianising” the base of IS supporters. If the world powers do not come around a table to unify the opponents of IS, it might be soon too late to defeat socially this organization, as it will have become Syrian enough to be perceived as a local resistance movement against Asad and the international airstrikes.

This leads us to the urgent need to reach a settlement in Syria and make the battle against IS a priority on both sides (rebel groups such as the al-Qaʿidist Nusra Front have collaborated with IS in several occasions, while the Syrian regime has concentrated its offensives on the opposition, regaining international legitimacy as the lesser of two evils in light of the uncontested rise of the “caliphate”). A nationwide ceasefire requires the armed opposition’s sponsors to overcome their divergences (for example, the US and Turkey need to reach a compromise and allow the Kurdish-led Popular Protection Units (YPG) to be part of a larger unified anti-IS front). Morally, the ousting of Asad should be part of the settlement, because you cannot expect people to drop their weapons and accept that the icon of the repression they stood up against remains in power, after almost five years of displacements and massacres. The crackdown of an Islamist uprising between 1976 and 1982, when Hafez al-Asad ordered to butcher much less civilians, has left deep scars in the Syrian social fabric, as it is clear to anyone who had a talk with a family that lost its relatives in those years; in certain regions the war has been in fact a recrudescence of some never-healed wounds.

Having said that, judging from the latest Russian intervention, it is self-evident that five years of atrocities have not prompted Asad’s allies to give up on him. Furthermore, the latest military developments seem to herald a debacle of the opposition in northern Syria. Although it implies a fair dose of realpolitik, the permanence of Asad might be accepted for the time being to speed up conflict resolution.

However, this  should be balanced by a set of concessions on the part of the regime, such as the release of political prisoners, the dropping of politically-motivated charges issued against Syrian expatriates and the engagement of all the so-called “terrorist” groups except IS in the transitional phase. In fact, to expect the opposition to come to terms with the staying of Asad in power and exclude the Nusra Front (possibly under the guises of its ally Ahrar ash-Sham) from the negotiations table is just wishful thinking. Only when a largely inclusive political settlement will be finalised on a national scale, the focus could be shifted towards IS to form a unified front.

The Iraqi context: engaging with the Baʿthists

The Iraqi case is a different one, IS is the last output of the Sunni jihadist resistance to the American invasion and the consequent empowerment of Iranian proxies. The followers of al-Baghdadi (previously known as the followers of Abu Musʻab az-Zarqawi) have been active in Iraq for more than ten years and they definitely have a stronger support base than in Syria. Even the term (Sahawat) used by IS to disparage its Sunni jihadist rivals in Syria is telling of its Iraqi nature, in a reference to the Sunni tribal militias supported by the US to counter al-Qaʿidah during the occupation.

To some extent, the “caliphate” stands for a comeback of what Saddam Hussein and the Iran-Iraq war represent in the memory of some Sunni Arabs: the containment of Shiʻa political expansionism. The presence of numerous former Iraqi Baʻthist officers in the echelons of IS (in some cases apparently entrusted with laying down the blueprint of the “caliphate”‘s efficient security apparatus) should stand as a reminder of the less visible components of this organisation. The Army of the Naqshbandi Order – a largely Baʻthist Sufi militia led by Saddam’s former aide ʻEzzat ad-Duri, therefore doctrinally at odds with the IS Salafi interpretation of Islam – has also repeatedly collaborated with the Islamic State.

The relationship between the Islamist and the Baʻthist elements within IS is a troubled one not exempt from internal strife, but it could be worth establishing contacts with the latter in order to split the organisation and open a political dialogue. It would be challenging to convince takfiri zealots that they should tolerate other religious communities, but Baʻthists are driven by political calculations: their cooperation with al-Qaʿidah in Iraq (AQI), under the US occupation, has always been a marriage of interests. Furthermore, this relationship traces its roots to the pragmatic Islamicisation of the Saddam regime in the nineties, which resulted in the cooptation of Sunni Islamists to serve the establishment without renouncing to Baʻthist secularism. Is it then so unconceivable to reach out to this component within IS and try to compensate for the idiocy of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the indiscriminate anti-Baʻthist purges that have exacerbated the rifts of the Iraqi society over the past 12 years? In the end, history is rich of examples of resistance movements (IRA,ETA) that were largely demilitarized through compromises and not violence alone.

Jihadists and tribes under the banner of…pragmatism

I think it is also time to stop analysing Sunni jihadists exclusively under the prism of religious ideology, as if it were the only driving force behind their affiliation to certain factions. This would also help us to identify other potential negotiation partners.

In 2013, while in Syria, I got to know Abu Khalid, a jihadist commander with mixed Arab-Kurdish roots who was fighting in Ras al-ʻAyn (north-eastern Syria) in a Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade funded by the Muslim Brotherhood. In January 2013, when clashes erupted between the rebels and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)-allied YPG, according to the account of a Syrian colleague of mine with no jihadist sympathies, Abu Khalid was raising proudly the Alaya Rengîn Kurdistan flag, eager to reassure the Kurds despite fighting against a Kurdish faction.

Later on, he started showing a completely different attitude towards Kurdish cultural rights. In June, Abu Khalid was sitting in the same tent while I was arguing with a member of the hardline group Ansar ash-Shariʻa, who was affirming that the Kurds are not to be considered a distinct people and Arabic is a divine (samawiyyah) language inherently superior to Kurmanji. I turned to Abu Khalid and asked him what was his stance on this and he just said: “I agree with him.”

Later on, Abu Khalid pledged his military support (munasarah) to the Nusra Front, a group known for stifling ethno-religious diversity under the fist of Pan-Islamism, in what seemed to confirm the path of “radicalisation” taken by numerous opposition fighters or, in his case, the apparently utilitarian nature of his initial support for Kurdish rights.

However, when Abu Khalid is asked about his reasons for siding with the Nusra Front, the pragmatic dimension overwhelms his commitment to al-Qaʻidah’s dogmatic tenets (what is known as ʻaqidah in Islamic terms). “I’ve dealt with the leadership of the (“US-approved”) (FSA), they kept most of the funds for themselves and told us (fighters): ҅Make do with what you have (dabbir halkun)!ʼ The majority of these colonels are now in Europe. I’ve seen so many thefts committed by FSA members…If only they were organized like Daʿish when they seized the oil fields in 2013, Asad would be long gone! With the Jabhah (Nusra Front) it’s different: they pay each fighter 100$ per month, cover your rent if you’re married and they don’t steal. Unlike the  FSA, which has been infiltrated repeatedly by the regime and the PKK, their security apparatus is strong,” Abu Khalid told me in a recent conversation. Although his claims on plundering are disputed by similar reports on the Nusra Front, a widespread resentment against the corruption of  US-backed “moderately” Islamist factions such as the Syria Revolutionaries Front has indeed increased the popularity of hardliners in northern Syria.

Regardless of the credibility of Abu Khalid’s accusations – quite common among the Syrian armed opposition – each time we talked his apology of the Nusra Front was never based on the group’s call for global jihad but rather on pragmatic considerations (that is to say, for example, how the FSA’s conduct slowed down the overthrowing of the Asad regime). As far as I know from him, Abu Khalid is now profiting from the trade of foreign hostages, he turned out to be after the money, just like some of the US favourite rebels. Since his brigade used to be supported directly by the Muslim Brotherhood, Abu Khalid’s closer ties with the Nusra Front might be also a consequence of the warm relationship between one of the major regional sponsor of the Brotherhood, the Qatari royal family, and the al-Qaʿidah Syrian affiliate.

In response to this pragmatic interpretation of a jihadist behaviour, some would argue that “radical” Islamists tend to dissimulate their “true nature” in front of Westerners. This occurs in certain circumstances, but Abu Khalid was rather explicit in voicing his more controversial opinions (on the Kurds, for example) and, once, he even admitted having smuggled foreign fighters (muhajirin) into Syria only to regret that when they joined IS later on. During my experience in Syria, in 2013, those who were passionate about the global jihad call did not dissimulate their views in front of me: in the same conversation, the above-mentioned Ansar as-Shariʿa member told me about his ambition to establish an Islamic emirate in Lebanon. In another occasion, an Ahrar ash-Sham chief stationed in al-Hawl (north-eastern Syria) was particularly vocal of his support for al-Qaʿida and its allies in Mali, who took over large swathes of this country in 2012.

In the case of Abu Khalid, the kidnapping business under the auspices of the Nusra Front has most likely upgraded his status, something that was not possible under the FSA. He is also fully aware of his limited options in northern Syria, where the Nusra Front has almost wiped out the FSA. Similarly to what numerous clan leaders did in Syria and Iraq, under the Baʿth first and then under IS, Abu Khalid sought protection and empowerment under the shadow of the umpteenth ruling party.  With regards to this, it is worth remembering that, in what was one of the few calculated moves during the occupation of Iraq, the US army banked on the expedience of some Sunni tribes  and prompt them to defect from al-Qaʿidah and join the Sahawat starting from 2005. They basically supplied local clans with money and guns to secure their mobilization power, being aware that al-Qaʿida had started challenging their interests (reconstruction contracts, illegal revenues). The Sahawat were largely successful in crashing the al-Qaʿidist insurgency between 2007 and 2008. However, Washington left them unemployed a few years later, when the American troops started withdrawing from Iraqi cities, and failed to integrate them in the Iraqi security forces due to the resistance of the pro-Iranian central government. The predictable result was that many of these former Sahwa members re-joined insurgent groups.

IS controls Sunni Arab-majority tribal regions between Iraq and Syria, but the international community has not prioritised the formation of anti-IS clan-based brigades. The initiatives against the Islamic State have been limited to US-sponsored training programs for minor Syrian “moderate” rebel groups, a US-backed coalition of Kurds, Arabs and Syriac Christians known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose credentials among the Arab population are yet to be verified, and the Russian intervention in support of those State actors (the Iranian and the Syrian regimes) whose crimes are partially responsible for the “radicalisation” of Sunni Arab paramilitary actors.

Numerous Iraqi tribes have remained neutral rejecting the US attempts to revive the Sahawat to fight against IS and they have their good reasons to do that in absence of long-term guarantees on their role in a post-conflict context. The US commitment to the stability of Iraq – and that of its allies who invaded and ravaged the country in 2003 – cannot be limited to ad hoc interventions conceived to address emergencies. An inclusive approach towards the tribes is a complicated issue, the world powers will need to negotiate it with the future Syrian transitional government and Baghdad, to prevent any indiscriminate form of State retaliation against those clan members who joined IS.

Jihadists like Abu Khalid and many Syrian and Iraqi tribal leaders who pledged allegiance (baʿyah) to the “caliphate” do not care about ideology, their loyalty can be easily “bought” with a combination of privileges and fear. In the south of Syria, in the eastern countryside of as-Swaydaʼ, for example, the Arab tribes loyal to IS are still allowed to make business with local arm dealers.

Pragmatism might be legitimately understood as a call to establish a new patronage system between central governments and tribal leaders, which is one of the aspects of patriarchal autocracy the Arab youth rose against in 2011, but the most progressive Syrian activists have long been sidelined by the militarisation of the uprising, thus being currently unable to destabilise the IS territories.

Humanised young jihadists

Speaking about the youth, it clearly plays a crucial role also among the IS militants. Counter-terrorism centres are obsessed about tracing the profiles of this “radicalised” youth. Nonetheless, it remains challenging to single out “abnormity” and condemn unilaterally a crowd of misfits that might resemble too well the large segments of “ordinarily” disillusioned youth in European societies. The Islamic State, after all, is a clear anti-system magnet for young Western foreign fighters. Even in Syria, the red lines between “moderate” and “radicalised” youth are particularly blurred because of a wide range of factors.

In 2011, during the early phase of the Syrian uprising, I met with a young Syrian musician in al-Hajar al-Aswad (southern Damascus). We were chatting about politics and he touched upon the figure of az-Zarqawi, praising him as a fearless mujahid who fought the Americans in Iraq. He was passionate about a musical genre that originated in the US, but this did not prevent him from admiring az-Zarqawi, who would have despised his love for haram music. In al-Hajar al-Aswad, and in Syria in general, many young men went to fight for their just cause in Iraq during the US occupation. If the musician had gone to Iraq in those years, he could have become an IS militant. Would he had shown no regret in giving up on Western music, the same music that earned him a significant audience in Syria? As noted by some “terrorism” scholars, behind the balaclava, a jihadist is still a troubled human being with multifaceted interests.

Recently, I read the story of a young Syrian citizen journalist from Deyr az-Zawr I happen to know personally, who saw his three best friends joining IS and, despite that, he kept meeting them secretly for a chat over a cigarette from time to time. He still saw them as his friends, being aware that the reasons why they started fighting for IS were only partially ideological. They were given weapons, started earning a salary and found their own destructive redemption from the failure of the Syrian uprising they took part in. However, they were not ready to spend the rest of their lives under the “caliphate” and, later on, they managed to flee Syria.

The journalist is now “exiled” in Turkey, fearing an arrest at the hand of IS. He is deeply opposed to the militant group, but he equally rejects the Russian airstrikes on his city, which have resulted into the death of numerous civilians. In the end, even his friends could have remained trapped inside the country and been considered legitimate targets of the airstrikes.

On the contrary, the international powers are particularly expedite in tracing the above-mentioned red lines between “moderates” and “radicals” in the conviction that shelling the militant youths and their families will eradicate IS from the region. Their “civilised” response to the IS brutality is a merely military one. No one seems to take in consideration the diverse array of motivations that pushed each individual to join the “caliphate”, whether it was a voluntary choice and how they would act in times of peace.


IS is already running a State and, in spite of its propaganda, is arguably more interested in preserving its territories than conquering the whole world. The idea of opening a channel for negotiations with some components of this organisation is abhorred by the international community, even though world diplomats are accustomed to shake hands with a great deal of suite-dressed criminals. Therefore, the war on the Islamic State is about preserving a global order rather than an ethical one.

The leading assumption is that IS should not be normalised like any other violent State actor, even though it is already a de facto State. The paradox is that, at least in the Western circles, IS is often compared with a Nazi regime that must be destroyed to circumscribe its expansion, so actually with a fully fledged State entity. Let’s suppose IS was similar to Nazi Germany – an approximate parallelism for a set of reasons, including how it came into existence – then what leads us to believe that an uncompromising approach will limit the damages? If Nazi Germany had been split into factions to engage some of them in diplomatic talks and water down its regime’s ideology well before the war, Europe might have been spared millions of deaths. In particular, there is still a rich historical debate on how WWII could have been avoided and no agreement on a preemptive attack against Hitler as the only viable option. If the Treaty of Versailles (1919) was harsh on Germany upon the conclusion of WWI and it allowed Hitler to capitalise on social discontent, then post-Saddam Iraq has been harsh on the Baʿthists and it as allowed IS to capitalise on the grievances of Sunni Arabs. There is always room for learning from history.

On the contrary, when Putin hints at the use of nuclear warheads against IS, he reminds us of one of the worst ever epilogues of a conflict started under the motto of defending “freedom”. When the French Government feels entitled to enforce emergency laws and enhance surveillance tools, we are all losing the same “freedom” its jets claim to be fighting for in Syria and Iraq. Are we really willing to live in a police State for the sake of the illusion of eradicating IS – and what lies behind it – in a military confrontation?

Un dialogo con lo “Stato Islamico”?

di Andrea Glioti

Bombardare il sedicente Stato Islamico (IS) non può essere una soluzione, sul piano della sicurezza, socialmente e politicamente. La risposta dovrebbe essere basata invece su un approccio politico diversificato, a seconda del contesto, siriano o iracheno: un approccio mirato a creare un unico fronte anti-IS in Siria e un altro improntato al dialogo con alcuni componenti IS in Iraq. Al fine di contrastare gli ideali di questa organizzazione nel lungo termine, è anche necessario mettere in discussione la rappresentazione mainstream dei movimenti jihadisti sunniti e sottolineare i loro tratti umani e pragmatici.

Guerrafondai e spauracchi

Se avete avuto la sventurata idea di seguire le notizie negli ultimi mesi, avrete notato la rediviva isteria interventista che ha fatto seguito agli attacchi di Parigi. In pochi giorni i talk-show sono stati inondati di esperti (autoproclamatisi tali) fautori del presunto dovere morale occidentale di sconfiggere lo Stato Islamico.

Un nuovo spauracchio completamente funzionale è salito in scena, sicuramente più efficace dello spauracchio comunista della guerra fredda, in quanto IS è una perfetta incarnazione di alterità culturale, religiosa, sociale e ideologica rispetto allo zeitgeist dominante dell’Europa contemporanea. In altre parole, generalizzando, dichiarare guerra ai musulmani disoccupati di seconda/ terza generazione (e ai migranti in generale) mobilizzatisi sotto le spoglie del fanatismo religioso garantisce un gradimento di massa ben più ampio di una guerra contro il tuo vicino comunista, con il quale è probabile tu avessi in comune reddito ed etnia. Non solo, quando la guerra è contro IS, anche la Russia e gli Stati Uniti  condividono lo stesso letto (con le dovute divergenze).

Fare i guerrafondai contro IS riscuote più popolarità della guerra al “terrorismo” di George W. Bush: in seguito agli attentati dell’11 settembre, la Casa Bianca non era infatti riuscita a convincere i suoi critici che attaccare l’Afghanistan e l’Iraq avrebbe consolidato la sicurezza globale, poiché nessuno di questi due governi era coinvolto direttamente nel massacro del World Trade Center (nel caso dell’Iraq il casus belli venne completamente inventato). I seguaci di al-Baghdadi, invece, sono alquanto trasparenti nel rivendicare gli attacchi perpetrati e controllano uno Stato che nessuno osa riconoscere. Agli occhi di molti europei, la coalizione guidata dagli Stati Uniti, la Francia e la Russia stanno conducendo una guerra per difendere la loro “arte di vivere” (riprendendo le parole di Hollande) e i civili intrappolati in Siria non sono altro che vittime collaterali per assicurarsi che i teenager europei tornino ad assistere ai loro concerti in sicurezza.

Sul piano della sicurezza stessa, una risposta incentrata esclusivamente sui bombardamenti non può funzionare. Anche in caso si decida di inviare delle truppe via terra, l’ Iraq e l’Afghanistan servono da monito sulla sopravvivenza dei movimenti di resistenza a dispetto della presenza di occupanti miltarmente avanzati. In Europa, la replica ai raid aerei continueranno a essere gli attentati e gli attacchi dei cosiddetti lupi solitari non cesseranno certo con il crollo del “califfato”. Nel post-IS, i campi di addestramento dei militanti verranno facilmente allestiti altrove, come è sempre accaduto. Un circolo vizioso in cui la retorica dell’anti-terrorismo nutre i trafficanti d’armi piuttosto che garantire sicurezza.

Il contesto siriano: la priorità di risolvere il conflitto

IS non è visto come un’organizzazione autoctona in Siria, la leadership è irachena e molti siriani lo paragonano a una forza occupante. La sua ascesa è stata resa possibile dall’escalation militare della rivoluzione siriana e non sarebbe stata possibile al di fuori di tale contesto. I vertici ne sono consapevoli, ed è per questo che stringono alleanze con le tribù locali, costringono gruppi di ribelli siriani ad arrendersi e giurare fedeltà (ba‘yah), e obbligano le donne siriane a sposare i loro combattenti. Si tratta di una vera e propria “sirianizzazione” della base di sostenitori. Se le potenze internazionali non riusciranno a unificare gli avversari di IS, potrebbe essere presto troppo tardi per sconfiggere socialmente tale entità, poiché sarà diventata abbastanza siriana da essere percepita come un movimento locale di resistenza contro Asad e i bombardamenti internazionali .

Di qui la necessità urgente di raggiungere un accordo di pace in Siria e rendere lo smantellamento dello Stato Islamico una priorità su entrambi i fronti (gruppi ribelli come gli al-qaʿidisti del Fronte Nusra hanno collaborato con IS in diverse occasioni, mentre il regime siriano ha concentrato le sue offensive sull’opposizione, riguadagnando legittimità internazionale in qualità di male minore di fronte alla crescita incontrastata del “califfato”). Un cessate il fuoco su scala nazionale passa per il superamento delle divergenze esistenti tra gli sponsor dell’opposizione armata (per esempio, gli Stati Uniti dovrebbero convincere la Turchia a permettere il coinvolgimento delle Unità di Protezione Popolare (YPG) curde nella lotta all’IS). Sul piano morale, la cacciata di Asad dovrebbe essere parte della soluzione, perché non si può pretendere che la gente getti le armi e accetti che l’icona della repressione contro cui è insorta resti al potere, dopo quasi cinque anni di sfollamenti e massacri. L’insurrezione soffocata nel sangue tra il 1976 e il 1982, quando Hafez al-Asad ordinò il massacro di molti meno civili, ha lasciato cicatrici profonde nel tessuto sociale siriano, come è chiaro a chiunque abbia conosciuto una famiglia che ha perso i suoi parenti in quegli anni; in alcune regioni la guerra è stata di fatto una recrudescenza di alcune ferite mai rimarginate.

Detto ciò, a giudicare dall’intervento russo, è evidente che cinque anni di atrocità non hanno spinto gli alleati di Asad ad abbandonarlo. Gli ultimi sviluppi militari sembrano inoltre preludere a una debacle dell’opposizione nel nord del Paese. Anche se implica una buona dose di realpolitik, la permanenza di Asad potrebbe essere momentaneamente accettata, a patto di accelerare la risoluzione del conflitto.

Tuttavia, la permanenza del raʼis dovrebbe essere controbilanciata da una serie di concessioni da parte del regime, come il rilascio dei prigionieri politici, l’archiviazione dei capi d’accusa di natura politica emessi nei confronti degli espatriati siriani e il coinvolgimento di tutti i cosiddetti gruppi “terroristici” nella fase di transizione, con l’eccezione dello Stato Islamico. Non si può infatti pretendere che l’opposizione accetti la permanenza di Asad e, allo stesso tempo, l’esclusione dal tavolo dei negoziati del Fronte Nusrah (possibilmente sotto le sembianze “presentabili” del suo alleato Ahrar al-Sham). Solo quando un accordo politico senza “esclusi” sarà finalizzato su scala nazionale, l’attenzione potrà essere spostata verso la formazione di un fronte coeso anti-IS.

Il contesto iracheno: rivolgersi ai ba’thisti

Il caso iracheno è diverso, IS è l’ultimo prodotto della resistenza sunnita jihadista all’invasione americana e al conseguente rafforzamento degli alleati iracheni dell’Iran. I seguaci di al-Baghdadi (precedentemente noti come seguaci di Abu Musʻab az-Zarqawi) sono stati attivi in ​​Iraq da più di dieci anni e qui godono di una base di sostegno più consolidata che in Siria. Persino il termine (Sahawat) utilizzato da IS per denigrare i suoi rivali jihadisti sunniti in Siria tradisce la natura irachena del movimento, in riferimento alle milizie tribali sunnite foraggiate dagli Stati Uniti per contrastare al-Qaʻidah durante l’occupazione.

In un certo senso, il “califfato” è il ritorno di ciò che Saddam Hussein e la guerra tra Iran e Iraq rappresentano nella memoria di alcuni arabi sunniti: il contenimento dell’espansionismo politico sciita. La presenza di numerosi ex-ufficiali baʻthisti iracheni ai vertici di IS (ai quali, in alcuni casi, sarebbe stata affidata la progettazione dell’efficiente apparato di sicurezza del “califfato”) dovrebbe ricordarci le componenti meno visibili di questa organizzazione. L’esercito dell’Ordine Naqshbandita – una milizia sufi in gran parte baʻthista, guidata dall’ex-braccio destro di Saddam ʻEzzat ad-Duri, e pertanto agli antipodi dottrinali con l’interpretazione salafita dell’Islam propria dell’IS – ha più volte collaborato con lo Stato Islamico.

Il rapporto tra la componente islamica e quella baʻthista di IS è problematico e non esente da conflitti interni, ma si potrebbe tentare di stabilire dei contatti con quest’ultima al fine di dividere l’organizzazione e aprire un dialogo politico. Sarebbe difficile convincere dei fanatici takfiriti a tollerare le altre comunità religiose, ma i baʻthisti sono spinti da calcoli politici: la loro cooperazione con Al-Qaʻidah in Iraq (AQI), sotto l’occupazione statunitense, è sempre stata un matrimonio d’interesse. Inoltre, tale relazione affonda le sue radici nell’islamizzazione pragmatica del regime di Saddam negli anni novanta, che aveva portato alla cooptazione dei movimenti islamici sunniti al servizio delle istituzioni senza rinunciare alla laicità baʻthista.

E’ così inconcepibile mettersi in comunicazione con questa componente di IS e cercare di compensare l’idiozia di Operazione Iraqi Freedom e le purghe anti-baʻthiste che hanno esacerbato le divisioni della società irachena nel corso degli ultimi 12 anni? In fondo, la storia è ricca di esempi di movimenti di resistenza (IRA, ETA) che sono stati ampiamente demilitarizzati attraverso una serie di compromessi.

Jihadisti e tribù sotto la bandiera del … pragmatismo

Credo sia anche giunto il momento di smettere di analizzare i jihadisti sunniti esclusivamente attraverso il prisma dell’ideologia religiosa, come se fosse l’unica forza motrice dietro la loro affiliazione a determinate fazioni. Ciò faciliterebbe inoltre l’identificazione di altri potenziali partner con cui avviare dei negoziati.

Nel 2013, mentre mi trovavo in Siria, ho avuto modo di conoscere Abu Khalid, un comandante jihadista di origine arabo-curda che stava combattendo nella cittadina nordorientale di Ras al-ʻAyn in una brigata dell’Esercito Siriano Libero (Esl) finanziata dai Fratelli Musulmani. Nel gennaio del 2013, quando si erano scontrati i ribelli e le Unità di Protezione del Popolo (Ypg) affiliate al Partito dei Lavoratori del Kurdistan (Pkk), Abu Khalid aveva issato orgogliosamente la bandiera Alaya Rengin del Kurdistan, desideroso di rassicurare i Curdi, a dispetto della battaglia che lo vedeva contrapposto a una fazione curda. A riferirmelo era stato un collega siriano privo di simpatie jihadiste.

In seguito, Abu Khalid aveva iniziato a mostrare un atteggiamento completamente diverso nei confronti dei diritti culturali dei Curdi. Un giorno di giugno, Abu Khalid era seduto nella stessa tenda dove avevo intavolato una discussione con un membro del gruppo fondamentalista Ansar ash-Shariʻa, il quale sosteneva che i Curdi non dovessero essere considerati un popolo distinto e l’arabo fosse una lingua divina (samawiyyah) intrinsecamente superiore al Kurmanji. Mi ero voltato verso Abu Khalid e gli avevo chiesto cosa ne pensasse. “Sono d’accordo con lui,” era stata la sua risposta.

In seguito, Abu Khalid ha concesso il suo sostegno militare (munasarah) al Fronte Nusrah, un gruppo notoriamente dedito a soffocare il pluralismo etno-religioso nella morsa del panislamismo, a conferma apparente del percorso di “radicalizzazione” comune a numerosi combattenti dell’opposizione o, nel suo caso, della natura utilitaristica del suo supporto iniziale per i diritti dei Curdi.

Tuttavia, quando ad Abu Khalid viene chiesto perché si sia schierato con la Nusrah, la dimensione pragmatica prevale su una devozione pressoché inesistente ai principi dogmatici di al-Qaʻidah (ciò che è noto come ʻaqidah in termini islamici). “Ho avuto a che fare con i vertici dell’Esercito Libero (supportati dagli USA), si sono tenuti la maggior parte dei soldi e a noi (combattenti) hanno detto: ʻArrangiatevi (dabbiru halkun)!ʼ La maggioranza di questi colonnelli sono finiti in Europa. Ho visto tanti di quei furti commessi da membri dell’Esl…Se solo fossero stati organizzati come Daʻish quando avevano preso il controllo dei pozzi petroliferi nel 2013, Assad se ne sarebbe già andato da tempo! Con la Jabhah (il Fronte Nusrah) è diverso: pagano ogni combattente 100$ al mese, oltre all’affitto di chi è sposato, e non rubano. A differenza dell’Esercito Libero, che è stato più volte infiltrato dal regime e dal Pkk, il loro apparato di sicurezza è solido,” questo è quanto mi ha detto Abu Khalid in una conversazione recente. Anche se le accuse di razzie non risparmiano solitamente nemmeno la Nusrah in Siria, il risentimento diffuso contro la corruzione delle fazioni “moderatamente” islamiche appoggiate dagli USA come il Fronte dei  Rivoluzionari di Siria ha di fatti aumentato la popolarità delle formazioni più radicali nel nord del Paese.

Indipendentemente dalla credibilità delle invettive di Abu Khalid – abbastanza comuni tra i gruppi dell’opposizione armata – ogni volta che ho avuto occasione di affrontare l’argomento, la sua apologia della Nusrah non è mai stata fondata sull’appello del gruppo al jihad globale, ma piuttosto su considerazioni pragmatiche (vale a dire, per esempio, su come il comportamento dell’Esl abbia rallentato il rovesciamento del regime di Asad). Da un po’ di tempo a questa parte, Abu Khalid è dedito a trarre profitto dal commercio di ostaggi stranieri, ciò che gli interessava era il denaro, paradossalmente, proprio come alcuni dei ribelli sostenuti da Washington. Considerando poi che la sua brigata era un tempo finanziata direttamente dai Fratelli Musulmani, i legami più stretti di Abu Khalid con la Nusrah potrebbero essere anche una conseguenza delle ottime relazioni consolidatesi tra la famiglia reale qatarina – uno dei maggiori sponsor regionali dei Fratelli – e la filiale siriana di al-Qaʻidah.

In replica a una simile interpretazione pragmatica del comportamento di un jihadista, c’è chi obietterebbe che i gruppi islamici “radicali” tendono a dissimulare la loro “vera natura” agli occhi degli osservatori occidentali. Ciò avviene senz’altro in alcune circostanze, ma Abu Khalid è sempre stato piuttosto esplicito nell’esprimere le sue opinioni più controverse (sui curdi, per esempio) e, una volta, ha persino ammesso di aver facilitato l’ingresso di combattenti stranieri (muhajirin) in Siria, per poi pentirsi delle sue azioni nel momento in cui questi si sono arruolati nello Stato Islamico. Durante la mia esperienza in Siria, nel 2013, coloro su cui faceva presa il messaggio del jihad globale non dissimulavano certo le proprie opinioni al mio cospetto: nella conversazione sopracitata, lo stesso membro di Ansar as-Shariʿa mi aveva parlato della sua ambizione di fondare un emirato islamico in Libano. In un’altra occasione, un leader di Ahrar al-Sham di stanza ad al-Hawl (nord-est della Siria) era stato particolarmente esplicito nel suo sostegno ad al-Qaʿidah e alleati in Mali, in seguito alla loro conquista di buona parte del Paese nel 2012.

Nel caso di Abu Khalid, il business dei sequestri sotto gli auspici della Nusrah ha molto probabilmente innalzato il suo status, cosa che non era possibile nelle fila dell’Esercito Libero. E’ anche pienamente consapevole delle sue opzioni limitate nel nord della Siria, dove gli al-qaʿidisti hanno quasi spazzato via l’Esl.

Analogamente a come si sono comportati numerosi capi clan tribali in Siria e in Iraq, prima sotto il partito Baʿth e poi sotto IS, Abu Khalid ha perseguito protezione e potere all’ombra dell’ennesimo ente governante. A questo proposito, vale la pena ricordare che, in una delle poche mosse calcolate durante l’occupazione dell’Iraq, l’esercito statunitense aveva fatto affidamento sull’opportunismo di alcune tribù sunnite e le aveva indotte a disertare al-Qaʿidah e unirsi alle Sahawat a partire dal 2005. In pratica, i clan locali erano stati armati e foraggiati con l’intento di assicurarsi il loro potere di mobilitazione, nella consapevolezza che al-Qaʿidah aveva già iniziato a ledere i loro interessi (contratti per la ricostruzione, introiti illegali). Le Sahawat erano in gran parte riuscite a sedare l’insurrezione al-qaʻidista tra il 2007 e il 2008. Tuttavia, Washington le aveva lasciate senza lavoro qualche anno più tardi, quando le truppe americane avevano iniziato a ritirarsi dalle città irachene, senza riuscire a integrarle nelle forze di sicurezza irachene a causa della resistenza del governo centrale filo-iraniano. Il prevedibile risultato è stato che molti di questi ex-miliziani delle Sahawat sono tornati nelle fila degli insorti.

Lo Stato Islamico controlla regioni tribali a maggioranza arabo-sunnita sia in Iraq che in Siria, ma la comunità internazionale non ha prioritizzato la formazione di brigate su base clanica per combattere tale organizzazione. Le iniziative si sono limitate a programmi americani di addestramento a beneficio di gruppi ribelli siriani “moderati” minoritari, una coalizione di curdi, arabi e cristiani siriaci nota come Forze Democratiche Siriane, anch’essa sostenuta dagli USA, le cui credenziali tra la popolazione araba sono ancora tutte da verificare, e infine l’intervento russo a sostegno degli stessi attori statali (il regime siriano e quello iraniano) i cui crimini sono in parte responsabili della “radicalizzazione” degli attori paramilitari arabo-sunniti.

Numerose tribù irachene sono rimaste neutrali respingendo i tentativi statunitensi di ricreare le Sahawat per combattere IS, e hanno le loro buone ragioni per farlo in assenza di garanzie di lungo termine sul loro ruolo in un contesto post-bellico. L’impegno degli USA per la stabilità dell’Iraq – e quello dei loro alleati che hanno invaso e devastato il Paese nel 2003 – non può essere limitato ad interventi ad hoc in situazioni d’emergenza. Un approccio inclusivo nei confronti delle tribù è una questione complessa, le potenze mondiali dovranno infatti negoziarlo con il futuro governo di transizione siriano e con Baghdad, onde evitare forme indiscriminate di ritorsione contro i membri del clan che si sono uniti allo Stato Islamico.

I jihadisti come Abu Khalid e molti dei leader tribali siriani e iracheni che hanno giurato fedeltà (baʿyah) al “califfato” non si preoccupano degli aspetti ideologici, la loro affiliazione può essere facilmente “comprata” con una combinazione di privilegi e terrore. Nel sud della Siria, nella campagna orientale di as-Swaydaʼ, ad esempio, alle tribù arabe alleate di IS viene ancora permesso di fare affari con i trafficanti d’armi locali.

Il pragmatismo potrebbe essere legittimamente interpretato come un appello a ristabilire un nuovo sistema clientelare tra governi centrali e leader tribali, che è uno degli aspetti dell’autocrazia patriarcale contro cui la gioventù araba era insorta nel 2011, ma gli attivisti siriani più progressisti sono stati da tempo marginalizzati dalla militarizzazione della rivolta, essendo così attualmente incapaci di destabilizzare i territori dell’IS.

Giovani jihadisti umani

Rimanendo in tema di giovani, questi giocano chiaramente un ruolo cruciale anche tra i militanti dello Stato Islamico. I centri antiterrorismo sono ossessionati dalla necessità di tracciare i profili di questa gioventù “radicalizzata”. Tuttavia, resta difficile individuare i tratti “anormali” e condannare unilateralmente una folla di disadattati che potrebbero assomigliare troppo bene a quelle ampie fasce di giovani europei “ordinariamente” disillusi. Lo Stato Islamico, dopo tutto, è un chiaro magnete anti-sistema per i giovani combattenti occidentali. Anche in Siria, le linee rosse tra giovani “radicalizzati” e “moderati” sono particolarmente offuscate a causa di una vasta gamma di fattori.

Nel 2011, durante la prima fase della rivoluzione, ho incontrato un giovane musicista siriano ad al-Hajar al-Aswad (sud di Damasco). Stavamo chiacchierando di politica e aveva accennato alla figura di az-Zarqawi, lodando le sue qualità di mujahid intrepido battutosi a difesa dell’Iraq ai tempi dell’occupazione americana. Era appassionato di un genere musicale che ebbe origine negli Stati Uniti, ma questo non gli impediva di ammirare az-Zarqawi, il quale avrebbe disprezzato la sua passione per tale musica haram. Ad al-Hajar al-Aswad, e in Siria in generale, molti giovani andarono a combattere per la loro giusta causa in Iraq durante l’occupazione statunitense. Se il musicista si fosse recato in Iraq in quegli anni, sarebbe potuto diventare un militante di IS. Davvero non avrebbe rimpianto l’abbandono dello stesso genere di musica occidentale che gli aveva assicurato un seguito significativo in Siria? Come notato da alcuni studiosi di “terrorismo”, dietro il passamontagna un jihadista è pur sempre un essere umano tormentato con molteplici interessi.

Di recente, ho letto la storia di un giovane cittadino giornalista siriano di Deyr az-Zawr, che ha visto i suoi tre migliori amici arruolarsi nell’IS e, nonostante ciò, ha continuato a incontrarli in segreto per una sigaretta in compagnia di tanto in tanto. Li vedeva ancora come i suoi amici, nella consapevolezza che le ragioni per cui si erano uniti allo Stato Islamico erano solo in parte ideologiche. Avevano ricevuto delle armi e uno stipendio, e avevano trovato la propria redenzione distruttiva dal fallimento della rivoluzione siriana a cui avevano partecipato. Ciononostante, non erano pronti a passare il resto della loro vita sotto il “califfato” e, in seguito, sono riusciti a fuggire dalla Siria.

Conosco di persona il giornalista, è attualmente “esiliato” in Turchia, il timore di un arresto per mano dell’IS gli impedisce di tornare. E’ profondamente contrario a tale organizzazione, tanto quanto agli attacchi aerei russi sulla sua città, che hanno causato la morte di molti civili. In fin dei conti, anche i suoi amici sarebbero potuti rimanere intrappolati all’interno del Paese ed essere considerati bersagli legittimi dei bombardamenti.

Al contrario, le potenze internazionali sono particolarmente celeri nel tracciare le sopracitate linee rosse tra “moderati” e “radicali”, nella convinzione che bombardare i giovani militanti e le loro famiglie sradicherà lo Stato Islamico dalla regione. La loro risposta “civilizzata” alla brutalità di IS è meramente militare. Nessuno sembra prendere in considerazione le varie motivazioni che hanno spinto ogni individuo ad aderire al “califfato”, se si è trattato di una scelta volontaria e come si comporterebbe in tempo di pace.


IS è già uno Stato funzionante e, a dispetto della sua propaganda, è probabilmente più interessato a preservare i suoi territori che conquistare il mondo intero. L’idea di aprire dei negoziati con alcuni componenti di questa organizzazione è aborrita dalla comunità internazionale, nonostante i diplomatici siano abituati a stringere la mano a un gran numero di criminali in giacca e cravatta. Pertanto, l’obiettivo della guerra allo Stato Islamico rimane la preservazione di un ordine globale piuttosto che quella di uno etico.

La supposizione principale è che IS non debba essere normalizzato come qualsiasi altro attore violento statale, anche se è già uno Stato de facto. Il paradosso è che, almeno nei circoli occidentali, lo Stato Islamico viene spesso paragonato a un regime nazista che deve essere distrutto per arrestarne l’espansione, quindi in realtà a un’entità statale pienamente formata. Supponiamo che IS sia simile al Terzo Reich – un parallelismo approssimativo per una serie di ragioni, tra cui le circostanze d’origine – cosa ci porta a ritenere che un approccio senza compromessi possa limitare i danni? Se la Germania nazista fosse stato spaccata in fazioni per coinvolgere alcune di queste in trattative diplomatiche e diluire l’ideologia del suo regime ben prima della guerra, l’Europa avrebbe potuto risparmiarsi milioni di morti. In particolare, vi è ancora un nutrito dibattito storico su come la Seconda Guerra Mondiale avrebbe potuto essere evitata, e nessun consenso sull’attacco preventivo contro Hitler come l’unica opzione praticabile. Se il Trattato di Versailles (1919) aveva messo in ginocchio la Germania al termine del primo conflitto mondiale e aveva permesso a Hitler di capitalizzare sul malcontento sociale, l’Iraq del dopo-Saddam è stato duro con i Baʿthisti e ha consentito a IS di capitalizzare sull’insoddisfazione degli arabi sunniti. C’è sempre modo di imparare dalla storia.

Al contrario, quando Putin allude all’utilizzo di testate nucleari contro IS, ci ricorda uno dei peggiori epiloghi di sempre di un conflitto iniziato sotto il motto della difesa della “libertà”. Quando il governo francese si sente autorizzato a introdurre le leggi d’emergenza e potenziare gli strumenti di sorveglianza, stiamo tutti perdendo la stessa “libertà” in nome di cui vengono dispiegati i suoi aerei caccia in Siria e in Iraq. Siamo davvero disposti a vivere in uno Stato di polizia solo per illuderci di sradicare lo Stato Islamico – e ciò che vi giace dietro – in un confronto militare?

Categories: Al-Jazeera, Iraq, jihadismo, Medio Oriente, Siria, Syria, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prisms of Political Violence, ‘Jihads’ and Survival in Lebanon’s Tripoli (by Estella Carpi, December 2015)

In the framework of the recruitment of Syrian and Lebanese fighters combating today in Syria, this paper aims to further problematise the processes in which individuals decide to disrupt their ordinary lives to engage with “Jihadist” armed groups. Such processes are frequently studied and tackled by government programmes and NGO practices aimed at the “rehabilitation” of former fighters in various countries ranging from Muslim majority states to European or North American states. Likewise, some terrorism scholars still tend to trace a linear path to identify the social and psychological causes which push individuals to join militant groups, and trace the causes which, in some cases, lead to subsequent disengagement from fighting and the ideology involved. This study rather shows the cyclic and changing nature of life choices and circumstances which influence Jihadist fighters and supporters. By doing so, it embraces the scholarly approach according to which “extremist” armed groups should be studied and understood as any conventional social group. In specific, this primary research is based on ten in-depth interviews conducted in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli with Syrian and Lebanese ex-fighters, and with sympathisers of the so-called “Jihadi ideology” who never took up weapons. To interpret the narratives I collected, I will intentionally draw on both critical and mainstream security-focused bodies of literature on political violence, “radicalisation”, and extremism. While the experiences recounted by the ex fighters will be analysed through the two constructed categories of contingency and intentionality, the Jihadist supporters who never joined an armed group rather point to how there is no linear and unilateral progression from “extremist” beliefs to violence. The survival of such forms of political violence, ultimately, challenges the survival of politically biased knowledge and the programmes that the latter informs.
Keywords: Tripoli, Radicalization, Political Violence

To cite this paper: Estella Carpi, “Prisms of Political Violence, ‘Jihads’ and Survival in Lebanon’s Tripoli”, Civil Society Knowledge Center, Lebanon Support, 2015-12-01 00:00:00.

Poster in Tripoli, Lebanon. Photograph taken by the author.


This paper aims to question the mainstream linear processes according to which individual ordinary life is disrupted by engagement with Islamist armed groups. This disruption is then addressed and diverted towards disengagement from armed groups via intervention of particular strategies. These linear processes frequently underlie the programmes aimed at “rehabilitating” Jihadist fighters, which are implemented in countries ranging from Muslim majority states to North American and European states.2 Likewise, terrorism scholars tend to trace a linear path to identify the experiential and psychological causes pushing individuals to join militant groups as well as the causes which, in some cases, lead to subsequent disengagement from fighting and the ideology involved. This paper rather illustrates how engagement and disengagement are much more muddled and complex processes, circularly triggered by factors of contingency and intentionality. Moreover, it supports the belief of some scholars3 that, in a bid to understand violent actions, non-violent actions need to be tackled first, and, furthermore, the study of radical engagement does not sociologically differ from the study of conventional engagement.
NGO activities have a reputation of being successful in ruling out re-engagement with extremist armed groups.4 These activities vary from projects focused on community engagement, as done in Algeria, to information campaigns meant to inculcate – and assert once and for all – “moderate Islam”, as done in Jordan and Morocco. Notably, NGOs in Egypt organised prison debates, whilst NGOs in Saudi Arabia and Yemen sought to render the “ex-radicalised” employable and family responsible to eschew re-engagement in extremism. It is also common belief of experts and the general public that the very causes of radicalisation should be eradicated in order to avert returns to violent extremism.

The troubled socio-political history of North Lebanon’s Tripoli, which has historically become a satellite of Syrian political turmoil and repression, emerges here as an illustrative case for highlighting the nonsensical character of potential rehabilitation programmes in providing life alternatives to the interviewees. In fact, providing individuals with assets or life opportunities – like a job or a partner and kids – does not necessarily mean that those more exposed to active violent extremism will no longer feel committed to taking up arms and joining the battle in Syria. Cyclic life crises may hit the immediate certainties that some of these rehabilitation programmes provide to avert re-engagement.

This paper shows how the scholarly constructed process of “de-radicalisation” does not necessarily come with ideological disengagement from violent extremism. Those among the interviewees who had previously fought did not abandon a particular environment or ideology when they quit fighting. They rather went back to the same deprived society that they grew up in. They simply moved from one role to another, a behaviour also observed by Horgan.5 I therefore argue that real disengagement with guarantee of non-return – a dilemma that is vexing present scholars – struggles to subsist. This can be mainly explained by virtue of the political history of North Lebanon, in which the city of Tripoli has long represented the cradle of Lebanese pan-arabism, an “anti-state” microcosm countervailing the French-created non-Muslim State of Lebanon based in Beirut, allegedly offering the only hope for political modernisation but mainly neglecting the peripheral regions outside the capital. In this framework, Tripoli epitomised a pan-Arab entity, where almost half the population6 from all North Lebanon resides: a historically neglected region with socio-economic reasons to be against the central State.7

Through the construction of the two broad categories of “life contingency” and “individual intentionality” as pull factors,8 I align myself with an articulated understanding of political violence as an individualistic phenomenon, relying on the life circumstances of the fighters and their supporters,9 and varying across historical areas, ideologies, and regions of the world.10Moreover, this paper confirms how what is commonly defined as “extreme forms of violence” (i.e. Jabhat an-Nusra11 in this specific case) is influenced by domestic, regional, and international politics.12

Throughout this paper, I will draw on the literature of what is generally defined as “terrorism” (resorting to violence to kill civilians while pursuing a political agenda). Nevertheless, although being a terrorist certainly implies the idea of being a “radical,” a radical is not necessarily a terrorist.13 The paper will proceed by adopting the term “Jihadist” – someone using extreme forms of violence to pursue specific aims in the name of Jihad, endemically meant as a worldview and a personal struggle – rather than “terrorist.” In fact, clarity is also needed in employing the term “Jihadist”, which here simply refers to the way in which the interviewees have defined themselves and their ideological approach to fighting or supporting the fighting. Their life circumstances, inherently associated with contingency, will be particularly highlighted in the data analysis, in the effort to avoid homogenising different individuals on the basis of their common features: active forms of violence, and Islam as a – further, and often not primary – moral legitimacy for fighting or supporting the Jihadi ideology, which will be defined later.

It is noteworthy that this study does not question the rehabilitation programmes as an inherently failing strategy from a scientific perspective, but rather aims to provide intuitive insights based on empirical findings which may undermine the very foundational logic of such programmes. Tripoli represents an insightful case study to question such constructed reifications of radicalisation.

The Tripoli Context

The prolonged and escalating Syrian crisis witnessed an unprecedented participation of Jihadist fighters from Europe and other countries in the Middle Eastern and North African region. Such brigades range from alleged extreme groups, the greatest among them being the “Islamic State” (commonly called in Arabic tanzim ad-dawleh),14 to lesser radical groups such as Jabhat an-Nusra and other smaller groups still deemed as extremists, like Ahrar ash-Sham, Liwa’ at-Tawhid, and Jeiysh al-Islam. Several other sub-groups under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, FSA (al-Jeiysh al-Horr) are considered as more moderate, and are labelled as “terrorists” only by the Assad regime and the regime’s allies. While these moderate sub-groups enjoyed large western and Arab Gulf support on a diplomatic level, the most extreme groups like the “Islamic State” and Nusra seem to have been more sustained on the level of resources.

Among multiple historical and political reasons and views, the proliferation of Jihadism in Syria and Iraq has been deemed as a consequence of the American-friendly regime of Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq and his “mis-government”, as well as the release of large numbers of Jihadists from the Syrian jails at the outset of the Syrian uprisings in 2011, while secular and moderate political activists and revolutionaries are still detained.

Likewise, it is unthinkable to sociologically discuss Jihadism and the reasons for joining or supporting the armed groups in Syria in Tripoli without framing this analysis in the historical past of the city and its periphery.

In order to interpret the local relationship of Lebanese and Syrian generations in North Lebanon with Islam-coloured political violence, it is paramount to recall the Syrian presence in the country from 1975 until 2005. In the wake of Lebanese protests and the so-called March 14 “Cedar Revolution” in February and March 2005, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad decided to withdraw his troops, which, at that time, was meeting the US geopolitical interests. The Syrian national army’s soldiers in Lebanon, especially in the North, were known to rape women, torture prisoners, and detain political opponents.15 Akkar’s people can still remember the geography of the Syrian occupation (officially called al-wikala as-suriyya, “the Syrian protection”), which used to stifle economic development in the region and crack down on any political future other than the submission to Syrian officials and interests.16

Furthermore, the Tripoli neighbourhood of Bab at-Tabbaneh was destroyed in 1986 by the Syrian regime without being reconstructed. At that time, between 300 and 800 people were killed in the neighbourhood. The urbicide and massacres of civilians are still cause of resentment and hatred towards Assad’s supporters for all inhabitants of this Sunni-majority district.

What precedes such massive destruction? The oppression and exclusion of Sunni urban poor in Lebanon, especially in the North, has a political explanation.17North Lebanon’s Sunni grassroots were socially the “losers” of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), which was de facto won by Syria, extending its presence in Lebanon with the excuse of protecting stability (the so-called pax syriana) along with ambiguous Lebanese political élites and other Syria’s allies – mainly the major Shiite political party Hezbollah, which, at that time, was still seeking to trump the second Shiite party Harakat Amal.

Syria set the Sunni urban poor aside in the northern region politically and economically:18 the Northern lower classes were enjoying neither the support of the central state nor of local political actors unlike the South, where Hezbollah was already developing a large administrative role at a local level. The “Sunni” socio-political space in Tripoli was rather fragmented, and this neither helped in countering the Syrian administrative totalitarianism in North Lebanon nor managed to create a solid and cohesive political alternative able to confront the Syrian army. Likewise, the main Sunni political party Taiyyar al-Mustaqbal (“the Future Current”) has always lacked a clear militant cause, which, similarly to Hezbollah’s Resistance against Israel, can raise and preserve social empathy and cohesion. Consequently, the Mustaqbal party has fostered no homogenisable political vision.19

Moreover, the rampant transnational Sunni Islamism led locals to identify to a greater extent with other oppressed Sunnis in the region and worldwide,20therefore preventing a stronger structuring of the Sunni community and leadership in the North and in all Lebanon.

By using security arguments, Tripoli and the whole Northern region were set on the back-burner in regards to economic empowerment and reconstruction, and the Sunni poor remained marginalised by state and non-state policies and services. This enlarged the gap between the wealthy and the poor in the North, as well as between the Northern Christian and Sunni communities.21 The closure of the Qiliy‘at Airport a few kilometres from Tripoli, active for civilian charter flights over the years of the civil war, represented a deliberate act of curbing domestic economic prosperity .22

Opposition to the Assad’s regime and its ally Hezbollah found very fertile ground in this political environment, where the wounds of the Syrian oppression (az-zolm as-suri) are still fresh and painful. In this regard, Harakat at-Tawhid al-Islami (the Islamic Unification Movement) formed by ‘Ali Akkawi with pro-Palestinian and anti-Syrian sentiments in the early 1980s, was meant to end the longstanding deprivation and predicament of the Tripoli neighbourhood of Bab at-Tabbaneh.23 Swelled by an influx of Syrian Islamists escaping Hafez al-Assad’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tawhid seized control over a large part of Tripoli until it was ended in 1986 by the Syrian forces with the above mentioned destruction of Bab at-Tabbaneh. Similarly, the 1964-born Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya (“the Islamic Association”) created the idea of an Islamic state, a political project in opposition to the secular Arab nationalist trends spread out at that time in Lebanon. The chronic disaffection of Sunni Northern Lebanese towards the state and other welfare organisations incubated widespread feelings of frustration among these political movements in Tripoli until today.

These political tendencies have found their instrument of expression and mobilisation in Tripoli after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution and the developing of its internal and external dynamics. The March 14 coalition, led by the Sunni leader Saad Hariri at the helm of al-Mustaqbal Party, conveniently capitalised on the predicament and the victimisation of the Syrian refugees fleeing Assad’s bombing to neutralise its own political agenda and construct a humanitarian façade, while accusing the March 8 parties24 and their welfare organisations of not mobilising their resources for the Syrian newcomers.

In this environment, I met ten informants, whose families were still carrying the weight of the torture, assassination, or imprisonment of one of their family members during the time of Hafez al-Assad or, from 2000 onwards, during the regime of his son, Bashar.25 Hence, in this context, political violence can be interpreted as a home-grown response to internal political, economic, and social oppression. As my field research seems to suggest, radicalisation turns out to be nonsensical when represented as a process disrupting normality: it is rather a construction of politically de-institutionalised violence which allows global politics to influence it and conveniently evaluate the propensity to be “healed”.

The longstanding presence of Syrian migrant workers in Tripoli and Akkar,26 who integrated with the local urban fabric of the mainly Sunni poor, cannot be overlooked. Some of these migrants, economically exploited and often mistreated, have represented an anchor of hope for incoming Syrian refugees who continued to pour into North Lebanon as a result of the Assad regime’s repression.


Ten in-depth interviews have been conducted in the city of Tripoli in May 2015 in private spaces (six Syrian and four Lebanese men between the ages of 20 and 40). Among the interviewees, only five used to fight in Syria (one Lebanese and four Syrians). More specifically, three of them had previously been a part of Jabhat an-Nusra, while one was a part of the FSA, and another of the Jund ash-Sham brigade. The remaining five, who never took up arms in the ongoing Syrian conflict, were still included in the research sample in accordance with a wider self-definition as “Jihadist:” supporters of the Jihadi ideology, of the fighters in Syria and their political and confessional cause. Moreover, the interviewees who never took up arms served as a paradigm of reference for scrutinising the muddled process from “extremist beliefs” to armed fighting. It is also worth specifying that all the interviewed Syrian ex fighters owned kins in the city of Tripoli and surroundings.

The following analysis is based on the encounters with these interlocutors, who spontaneously decided to contribute to this research project under condition of anonymity and identity protection by changing their names, their provenance, and their age. I managed to access the area and meet with the interlocutors through three local gatekeepers in different neighbourhoods of Tripoli (Zahriyye, Abu Samra, and Bab at-Tabbaneh).

The interviewees were initially reluctant to discuss about involvement and sentiments on their “mission” or thinking, since the interviewer – that is myself – was considered as part of the international community, whose inaction is also to be blamed for the ongoing massacres in Syria. Here the typical common ground for research participation and solidarity, which usually creates ethnographic resonance27 between the “informant” and the “informed”, was torn up. It is also necessary to note that great reluctance to share past experiences was only initially encountered when dealing with the ex fighters. The intermediary role of the gatekeepers helped me to positively appear as a possible carrier of their voice – locally described as unheard – outside of their community.

I have met with the interviewees only once. Although all interviewees eventually decided to participate on condition of identity protection – which points in reality to an act of trust – the impossibility of going deeper into mutual knowledge in that frame unavoidably influences the degree of intimacy and trust that the interviewees developed towards me. This, in turn, also affects the research standards of recurrence and consequent representativeness of the sampled data. While the answers provided are also likely to be read in rhetoric terms – as they may have wanted to conceal some details to someone they were not intimate with – such answers are still optimal conveyors of diverse human behaviours and thinking, which can produce insightful findings despite their problematic empirical verifiability.

I have classified my data by constructing two categories of knowledge (contingency and intentionality) in order to make my analysis more manageable and understandable. Nonetheless, this has been done with the full awareness that human intentions are often shaped in life by contingent factors, as contingency plays a role between previous and future series of individual intentional acts. It is noteworthy that the notion of “contingency” should be interpreted as differing from that of “aleatory”, as contingency still carries specific reasons, stemming from contextual factors, and leading to specific material circumstances. While Jihad was mostly identified as a political struggle in the accounts provided, the data analysis28 can be heuristic even if such a struggle is used as a mere rhetoric. In other words, the analysis can still offer insights on how the interviewees have decided to perform in the encounter, and how to verbally convey their experiences during our encounter.
Data Analysis and Discussion

1. Which Jihadism?

Anyone who fights for what he believes is Jihad is a mujahid, or “Jihadist”. However, according to scholarly sources, whoever supports and encourages Jihad can also be defined – or defines oneself – as such. It is in this sense that the term “Jihadist” will be used throughout this paper. I reiterate that Jihadism and terrorism should not be considered and used as synonyms, although they both constitute a means to a specific end, and not an end itself.29 In specific terms, Jihadism implies ideologically and physically fighting against political foes for a major political change, by using a “theologically legitimate and instrumentally efficient method.”30

On the basis of the views of my research participants, I feel entitled to rephrase that Jihadism is not a single analytical category to discuss events on the ground in Syria or elsewhere. Jihadism is definable with respect to the geography one discusses, although it is generally identifiable with religious and political labels adopted to mark “the other” with respect to the Self.

With regard to this, Ahmed, a 28 year-old Syrian ex FSA fighter, claimed how self-definition should be prioritised in accounts about Jihad. His statement basically summarises all the others collected on this matter: “Jihad means removal of oppression for us in Tripoli as much as in Syria. And this has never been addressed in the media… The role of the fighters – mujahidun – is that of making violence secret, as well as the choice of it, to uproot the causes of injustice.” Jihad is portrayed by Ahmed as a very important cause and a challenging task, which requires high levels of accountability acquired by an individual in specific armed groups. He continues by saying:

“The Islamic State is much more easily accessible to potential fighters than al-Qaeda… In fact, to fight with a group you need to be trusted: the fighter’s accountability in the armed group that he desires to join is always an aspect that is taken for granted by journalists, whereas the process of joining an armed group and fight Jihad is much more challenging than expected. It requires a huge effort coming from your inner self. Only some people would be able to accomplish a project of justice.”

With the benefit of hindsight, three factors facilitating the participation of fighters in the so-called Jihadistst groups in Syria are identifiable. Individual vulnerability, often connected to family reasons, like injustice undergone by one of the family members in the past, or even lack of self-confidence and search for a renewed and more assertive Self; social support, which is strongly guaranteed by the armed group one joins, altogether with a supposedly clear-cut ideological worldview, which easily offers solid identities to rely on and life achievements; and, last but not least, the broader and variegated category of contingency, including individual vulnerability and social support mentioned above. Contingency, which is underestimated in part of the literature in favour of intentionality, is able to induce people to take extreme choices (or seen from outside as such), in accordance with material circumstances.

As already underlined in the vast body of literature on Jihadism, terrorism, and the essentialist concept of “Islamic fighters,” psychological abnormality is very rarely observed because it is deemed difficult to measure and define.31

In the present study, all ex fighters or supporters were defining themselves as “followers of the Koranic Jihad”, and the term “Jihadist” was employed to refer to followers of the Jihadi ideology and worldview by simply marking their faith in Islam and the applicability of the very Koranic term “Jihad,” meant as personal effort and struggle for improvement. Although the researcher observed differing views about the way the interviewees envision the political future of Syria and the shape the statecraft should assume, all interviewees mentioned the fact that, by now, even the “moderate FSA brigades” whom the US support still possess a lamsa islamiyye or sabghe islamiyye”(an “Islamic touch” or “Islamic colour”).

2. The “Why You Joined and Why You Left” Worn-out Question

In the following accounts, it is possible to identify two main areas of discussion on joining and leaving the fighting: contingency on the one hand, which encompasses individual vulnerability for joining or leaving, the search for social support and the implementation of personal worldviews; and, on the other hand, intentionality, including Jihad as a nationalist (and liberation) cause, a religious cause, a political goal, and as a way of gaining economic assets acquired by fighting. Needless to say, these subcategories, in turn, overlap with each other. It should be observed that the emergence of the division of the Islamic brigades is sometimes contingent and at other times deliberate, stemming from different ideologies deployed on the ground.

Mustafa, 24 years old, originally from the Hama governorate and resettled in Tripoli, joined Jabhat an-Nusra, “as it was the first brigade [he] came across on [his] way [from] Syria when [he] arrived in ‘Arsal… [he] was already in touch with some of the fighters via Twitter.” After the clashes between Nusra and the FSA in the Lebanese border town,32his friend died before his eyes during bloodshed. Mustafa decided to leave, “maybe out of fear for [himself], or compassion for his [friend’s] family” or his own, fearing he may suffer the same fate. In this case, what resulted from the “Jihadist experience” was neither the often discussed sense of guilt for his own survival,33which he would consequently have wanted to expiate by continuing to fight, nor a desire for vindicating his friend’s life by fighting the enemy. In this account, contingency plays the largest role in providing the reasons why he joined and left Nusra. In addition, individual vulnerability to further suffering contributed to his decision to leave in the wake of his friend’s death.

Fathi, a Syrian man in his forties from Aleppo, joined Nusra believing “it is the only effective thing you can do to liberate Syria”. He noted, “I would say the love for my homeland was the main reason”. Fathi used words like wataniyye (“sense of national belonging”) and tahrir al-balad (“liberation of the country”) to describe his “whys”. Fathi left because he wanted to raise a family,34and that was not feasible while fighting:

“The only fighters who bring the family with them are those with the Islamic State, as they are like a state indeed, owning infrastructures. We cannot do that […] brigades are always on the move. We lose territory as soon as we take it, where would a family lead the life they deserve? It wasn’t feasible…”.

In Fathi’s story, it is interesting to notice how, while joining the battle in Syria to implement his worldview, he eventually sought out for social support by quitting the fight, as he desired to create a family of his own. Nevertheless, Fathi asserts that he still believes in the cause of carrying on an armed resistance against the Assad regime, but his life choices came to a crossroads and he was forced to decide. This account confirms the scholarly view according to which the sense and practice of membership in a group shadow individual life and deprive it of its moral primacy.35 So to speak, undertaking violence is seen as a “sub-product of collective action”.36Fathi rebelled against this process. Even though a segment of the scholarship tends to view radicalisation as a psychological individual process – in which group ideology still plays an essential role – the material circumstances and the root causes of engagement with armed groups are often de-emphasised.37 Processing research data without considering causes and circumstances entails the risk of making the “Islamist radicals” arbitrarily appear as rebels without a cause.38

Fathi’s choice seems to rebel to the “deindividuation” process of the Jihadist fighter, as, according to this theory,39the individual does not respond any longer to one’s own desires, but rather those of the group he decides to belong to. This points to the importance of averting the homogenisation of fighters and their views under the reifyied label of “terrorism”, to which psychology seeks to offer multiple answers.

Amin, a Lebanese ex-fighter, passed to Nusra after joining the FSA. His reasons seem to reveal his desire to avenge the deaths of his loved ones, “tortured and detained for years in Assad’s prisons,” and to acquire a role in life other than that of a father, since he is unable to have kids.40 An increased sense of control and personal agency, involved in the act of joining an armed “liberation”41group – and, in this case, not achievable in the possibility of becoming a father – can in fact contribute to such a choice.42 Amin joined with the explicit purpose of killing prisoners:

“Well, when you do it out of revenge, you don’t take any glory by imprisoning people. And it’s what I used to do when I was with the FSA… In the Nusra Front I would have been able to kill the assassins and their supporters. In the media, I know I am ‘the terrorist’ because I talk of killing prisoners with no regret, but it’s the reality of war, dear. The truth is that you get used to it, and the violence outrages around you… It’s not that you suddenly step in and you’re coming from peace. It doesn’t work that way… In my case, I was coming from hell, and I was already used to death and to causing it.”

In this account, embracing political violence does not seem to be tantamount to escaping ordinary life, as argued by Sageman43 who more generally discusses the general concept of extreme political violence as (temporarily) sacrificing one’s own private life in order to achieve political needs. In the face of contingency, deliberate acts of joining and changing brigade are prominent here, although Amin did not want to mention why and how he finally left the fighting.

Hamed, a Syrian refugee from Homs, and brother in law of an Islamic State fighter in the ar-Raqqa countryside, to the question about whether fighters join for economic purposes responded that economic ambition is actually not a common reason:

“When you fight you don’t lead a normal life… As far as I know there are highly ranked fighters who get up to 2,000 USD per month, but once you become a martyr (shahid), the money isn’t left with your family44… See? Not too many reasons to fight for earning a fortune.”

With similar views, Amin mentioned the case of a wealthy Lebanese shop owner in Tripoli, a happily married father and breadwinner for five kids, who became a suicide bomber in Syria after getting in touch with Islamic State fighters via social media.

In this regard, Sageman’s concept of “Global Salafi Jihad” is not only defined as a “threat to the world” that should be eliminated concertedly, but also as a phenomenon that is created by western policies toward the Muslim world,45 and the lack of employment in the Middle East perfectly meets with this western creation. Although it can confidently be said that fighting is not undertaken for money only, underemployment, rather than poverty per se, can still be seen as a further reason for joining the fighting in Syria, as some among the fighters are educated, like the interviewees of the present study.46

Mohammed, a Lebanese 50-year old man who highly sympathises with the Syrian opposition fighters after spending nine years in Hafez al-Assad’s prisons, reasserted the necessity to overthrow the Assad regime while showing me the pictures of other family members who had been victims of Syrian oppression, and identifying Jihad as the only instrument that can serve that cause. “It’s like a parent with his child… he thinks he’s the best [child] ever. And, likewise, I think Jihad is the best way of managing life now. What should we have done in front of the indifference of the international community, which helped to create the Islamic State… all in cahoots with Iran”. Despite this mutual politics of blame – for which Iran and its allies (mainly Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah) accuse the “West” for having created the Islamic State, and, similarly, the Syrian opposition and its sympathisers rather accuse Iran for that – local political history stands out as the primary cause of the “Jihadist phenomenon” in Syria, as it combines Northern Lebanese and Syrian predicament historically grown in the bosom of Islamic movements, the only actual opposition to the western-founded statecraft in Syria.47

Contradicting those who depicted Jihad as a “political thing” entrenched in Lebanese-Syrian history, ‘Omar,originally from Idlib and brother of a Nusra fighter who died as a martyr in Homs while fighting against Assad’s army, rather contended that:

“There’s no one fighting for the nation or the liberation of Syria nowadays… It’s all about religion now. Don’t believe anyone. The reasons are connected to our belonging, our confessional identity. This started with Hezbollah and Iran: they were also foreign powers killing people in Syria… but no one condemned them. They just blamed the Sunni Jihadists defending their survival on the ground. The truth is that everyone wants to speak with us and then blame us because we pray the holy Koran. It’s our Islam that makes the difference, don’t you think? Many of us have spent more than 10 years in prison… I think what we’re doing is totally normal then. How do you react to continuous oppression? You even forget that Nusra don’t kill people randomly… we’re not like the Islamic State. War prisoners are also killed by the National Army in Syria, and it has always been like this in the history of warfare!”

Likewise, ‘Abdallah, a Lebanese in his 20s,suggested studying the Holy Koran more in depth to know what is behind Jihadism and their ideology, further shedding light on the illusive tension between religion and politics as explanatory tools of current Jihadism:

“You keep asking about our lives, families, professions, stories of family migrations, but I think you should simply study our religion more in depth and listen to what God said if you really want to understand what is going on. We see Jihad as a result of our oppression, any religion would justify this… and this is why the Islamic State is not Islamic! The Holy Koran doesn’t say to kill children and women at will. Assad and Hezbollah are killing people and no one studies them in Syria… If your family died because of a political regime, I really want to see if you would remain there with your arms folded… I’m sure you’d start doing justice by your own!”

It is important to note how a more nuanced explanation of radicalisation48  should neither over-emphasise the role of religion in undertaking political violence, nor discount it.49 Its role is also difficult to analyse, or even nonsensical as a separate element, due to its symbiosis with the lived experiences of politics and cultural habitus. Nevertheless, engagement in armed groups points, by all means, to an “Islamisation of radicalism” – even in a merely normative way – rather than to a “radicalisation of Islam” which cannot subsist tout court, as it would reinforce essential forms of religion talk, unresearchable and unassessable on the ground.

Walid, a Lebanese man who was speaking affectionately of his neighbour who went to Syria to become a martyr a few months earlier, expressed his perplexity about “Westerners” asking for the reasons of “radicalisation.” He stressed the intentionality of the act of fighting and embracing a specific ideology among the several options:

“There will never be a fixed set of reasons… Why should this be ‘extremism’? Stop bombing us, and we’ll be able to negotiate with the Assad regime. We’re just attacked instead, because, from outside, all ideologies look the same. Qaeda is not the Islamic State. Ideologies of fighters were diverse in Syria since the early formation of the FSA. Also the political project we pursued wasn’t imagined in the same way. They talk of extremism, and they are the ones who didn’t do anything at all to end all the suffering caused by Assad. The indifference of the international community caused all this, or we wouldn’t even have taken up the weapons. Now why shouldn’t I have the right to fight if I feel like?”

Mohammed, by the same token, restated the differences between the armed brigades in practice and thinking:

“It is worthwhile to join a brigade that doesn’t compromise with the Syrian regime… several groups of FSA eventually did it, as well as the Islamic State, which is a product of the regime straight away. (Do you want evidence? Why is it never heavily bombed like other groups?) So, if you join, you must do it with a brigade that is effective, and many guys going to Syria don’t take this into account.”

Similarly, Wa’el, a Syrian ex fighter with Jund ash-Sham, argued that he revalued the FSA only after fighting against it in the Damascus countryside, and after seeing the FSA allying with his brigade against the Assad regime, proving not to be corrupt like others. Mustafa contended the artificiality of the brigades’ division, as “the brigades are several because they are divided by the spies of the Syrian army in the effort to destroy [their] cohesion. This [has] guaranteed the regime’s survival!”.

Overall, all interlocutors agreed about the most frequent methods of recruitment by one of the brigades in Syria. Among several others, the main channels seem to be social media like Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook, in addition to having pre-existing friends and kins in a particular brigade,50and, as mentioned, the contingency of joining the first armed group you encounter on your way from Lebanon to Syria (although less probable). In this framework, the roles of contingency and intentionality in “making it happen” obviously intertwine in a complex way, which can be researched only by analysing single empirical cases.

3. Tracking Perspectives and Perplexities Beyond War

One of the issues that is widely discussed in international media and academic environments today is to what extent this process of radicalisation will be resilient or, by contrast, will gradually become integrated into society and normalised in other forms, by decreasing its violence and extremist potential.

In this regard, Fathi said that, “when the war ends, everyone will want to go back to their family and lead a normal life. I don’t see any other purpose for fighting once justice is re-established”. Similarly, Wa’el argued that “no one can really desire war forever.”51
As an ex-fighter, Amin interestingly answered that no future perspectives are influencing their lives now,

“… all what you believe in is the need to fight who oppressed you, until his annihilation. Some of us are still engaging with future resolutions while fighting, as I did… in that case you end up thinking of what is awaiting you outside. Material circumstances eventually push you to leave the fight. But this rarely happens. Even the mutilated, most of the time, get a bone replacement and go back fighting. After the return we’re still persecuted. You never abandon a way of thinking if your family got mad, killed, and tortured by a regime… Some of the ‘returnees’ who got subjected to the violence of the Syrian regime later committed suicide”.

Beyond the diverse character of the life perspectives that each of the interviewees may have, the interlocutors mostly showed perplexity about the external – basically “western” – way of conducting studies on political violence and essential forms of “extremism”. On this purpose, Mohammed, as well as ‘Abdallah and Walid, mentioned the massive presence of NGOs that, from the interviewees’ perspective, seek to implement their cultural views and activities in Tripoli, somehow trying to prevent the local and refugee youth from joining the armed groups in Syria. Mohammed argued that

“International NGOs lack direct access to local communities and end up addressing families that would never send their kids to fight in Syria, or that have not been oppressed from a political viewpoint. How can they imagine having tangible results? Children develop the same culture as their parents.”

He then highlighted how international NGOs are not even able to identify the causes of violence and, therefore, implement projects that do not seem to reflect the needs on the ground.

“It’s not about lack of schooling or employment. They don’t want to see that it’s oppression and religious identity threats that induce people to fight… the Assads used the Alawites52 as weapons, and no NGO deals with this!”.


Concluding Remarks

While Jihadist insurgencies have always been approached and discussed by scholars in the sociological framework of “deviance”, in light of these interview accounts, it is necessary to adopt the analytical instruments of “normalcy” and ordinariness to understand the environment in which ideology and life choices are made and developed. The above mentioned accounts foreground how the imaginary linear structure of analysis for the engagement and disengagement of a fighter or ideological supporter fails to reflect a reality that rather resembles a cyclic spiral: the interlocutors’ thinking and subsequent acts seem to be still connected to their original choices, generating a cyclic process significantly guided by contingency. Jihadism cannot be used as a holistic explanatory concept. This small research study on the interface between Tripoli and the Syrian battles proves how some rehabilitation programmes and scholarly analyses may be flawed in conceiving Jihadist fighters and supporters as affected by an “illness to be treated”, disconnecting Jihadist tendencies from political causes and historical legacies.

Humiliation and frustration are recognised by scholars as the first causes to push people towards extremism. However, non-conflict motives like seeing the suffering of others, manhood, and heroism, have also been taken into account by the scholarship. If Speckhard calls for a return to the origin of the individuals’ trajectory in order to stop the phenomenon of violent extremism,53 then the latter in Tripoli is not addressable by rehabilitation programmes. The latter would not “sort out” the local forms of political violence even if they did not ignore the political past of the city – issue which is instead very typical of these programmes. There can be no rehabilitation of what is not politically addressed and recognised. The historical de facto de-institutionalisation of Tripoli’s society and of its multiple ways of expressing political dissent rules out any chance for ad hoc restorative practices. In light of this quick study, even the current desire of turning psychological failures into success stories turns out to be illusive and fictive.

For the Syrian and Lebanese interviewees, it is the time spent in conflict-ridden Syria and oppressed Lebanon, infiltrated by Syrian intelligence and chronically subjected to the Assad regime’s political decisions, that “radicalises” people and sensitises them to their conception of social justice. At the same time, the lack of military intervention from the international community to end Assad’s mandate made these individuals suspicious and dutiful towards their own cause and the need for fighting.

The interviewees expressed that their intention and actual will to fight are mere efforts made to liberate their countries, liberating Lebanon from past and current humiliation and Syrians from the Assad regime-caused predicament: causes that are mostly presented as one.  Indeed, the interviewees underlined that they did not fight or support the fighters in any other foreign conflict. Unlike the “Islamic State,” enlarged by the presence of foreigners and viewed by the interviewees as an external phenomenon tout court, my research interlocutors stressed that they fought – or support the fighting – for the sake of the armed Syrian opposition, imbued with a politically motivated Jihad.

The interviewees’ responses seem to suggest that researchers should rather focus on the actions and choices of the “international community” – yet illusively conceived as a potential deus ex machina – rather than focusing on the allegedly abnormal circumstances in which Jihad develops.54 It is significant to note that American scholar Lisa Stampnitzky named the proliferation of literature on terrorism55  and the politicised way of carrying out these types of studies – basically aimed at honing US security strategies – “politics of anti-knowledge” which foregrounds arbitrary and essentialist conceptions of political violence.

This interview-based study has been able to unearth the political dimension of the claim to the “right to Jihad” and emphasise the injustice of the “international community” in rejecting such a right to fight. Despite this, the limitations of this study particularly reside in its inability to unravel the choices of the five interviewees who decided to join the armed groups in Syria with respect to whom did not take up the weapons. In fact, the study struggles to identify what factors and circumstances prevented the other five from combating in war, considering that all interviewees shared equivalent  political views in regards to the Syrian regime and its necessary departure. A larger ethnographic study would certainly provide a deeper analytical understanding of such queries. Nevertheless, in light of the accounts collected from Jihadist ex fighters and supporters, this study can still confirm that the acquisition of “extreme” views has a weak relationship to the turn to political violence. In this case, the Assads’ oppression is not only marking local political history. And violence is not simplistically used in retaliation. Yet it is employed here as a flagship narrative which is still able to identify ongoing predicament and generalised disaffection.

Ultimately, this primary study has sought to demonstrate how there is no linear and unilateral progression from “extremist beliefs” to violence. Hence, the concept of “failure,” as formulated and thought by rehabilitation programmes whenever their beneficiary does not become “de-radicalised” despite their efforts, is flawed both in its logic and in its practice. Yet, the mainstream way in which current rehabilitation programmes – and NGOs partaking in similar disengagement practices – seem to address the issue along similar flawed lines. What should be “radical” is rather a rethinking of the deployment and applicability of such rehabilitation programmes, as well as the rationale behind their implementation which is largely at the mercy of the security agendas of domestic and international power holders.

In the range of assorted reasons for engagement in armed groups – from repression to social isolation, from frustration to group apprenticeship – the constant transformation of life purposes and individual narratives still has a long way ahead to be properly unpacked and be dealt with as inseparable from the proliferating studies on terrorism and extremism.

Meanwhile, the cyclic appearance of institutional and deinstitutionalised political violence keeps casting new questions of how to understand power, survival, and knowledge. While the analysed accounts seem to voice violence as an instrument for their ultimate form of survival, NGOs and scholars that tackle disengagement and rehabilitation of ex fighters should question to what agendas and political premises they owe their foundation as well as their own survival.



Omar Ashour, “Post-Jihadism: Libya and the Global Transformations of Armed Islamist Movements”, in Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 23, No. 3, Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Kate Barrelle, “Pro-Integration: Disengagement from and Life after Extremism”, in Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2014, pp. 129-142.

Andrew Beatty, “Emotions in the Field: what are we talking about?”, in Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 11, 2005, pp. 17-37.

John Chalcraft, The Invisible Cage. Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2009.

Donatella della Porta, Social Movements, Political Violence and the State. Cambridge (UK), Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Franco Ferracuti, “A Socio-psychiatric Interpretation of Terrorism”, in The Annals of the American Academy, No.463, 1982, pp. 129-140.

Tine Gade, “Tripoli (Lebanon) as a Microcosm of the Crisis of Sunnism in the Levant”, paper presented at the annual meeting of the British Middle East Studies Society (BRISMES), London School of Economics (LSE), 26-28 March 2012.

John Horgan, The Psychology of Terrorism, NYC, Routledge, 2005.

John Horgan, “Deradicalization or Disengagement: a Process in Need of Clarity and a Counter-Terrorism Initiative in Need of Evaluation”, in Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 2, No. 4, 2008.

Lene Kuhle and Lasse Lindekilde Radicalisation among Young Muslims in Aarhus, Aarhus, Denmark, Centre for Studies in Islamism and Radicalisation, January 2010.

Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, Friction: how Radicalization happens to Them and Us, New York, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Marc Sageman, “The Stagnation in Terrorism Research”, in Terrorism and Political Violence, Taylor & Francis, pp. 1-16, March 28, 2014.

Hamed el-Said, Deradicalising Islamists: Programmes and Their Impact in Muslim Majority States, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) Report, January 2012.

David H. Schanzer, “No Easy Day: Government Roadblocks and the Unsolvable Problem of Political Violence: a response to Marc Sageman’s ‘The Stagnation in Terrorism Research’”, inTerrorism and Political Violence, Taylor & Francis, March 28, 2014, pp. 1-5.

Mark Sedgwick, “The Concept of Radicalisation as a Source of Confusion”, in Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 22, 2010, pp. 479-494.

Mark Sedgwick, “Jihadistsm, Narrow and Wide: The Dangers of Loose Use of an Important Term”, in Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 9, No. 2, April 2015, pp. 34-41.

Michel Seurat, Syrie, l’état de Barbarie, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, coll. Proché-Orient, 2012.

Isabelle Sommier, “Engagement Radical, Désengagement et Radicalisation. Continuum et Lignes de Fracture”, in Lien Social et Politique, no. 68, 2012, pp. 15-35.

Ann Speckhard, Talking to Terrorists, Advanced Press, 2012.

Lisa Stampnitzky, Disciplining Terror: how Experts and Others invented Terrorism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution. Reading, UK: Mass., Addison Wesley,1978.

Graeme Wood, “What ISIS really wants”, in The Atlantic, March 2015.

  • 1.In drafting this paper I am indebted to Amaryllis Georges, who consistently provided me with thought-provoking literature on political violence and extremism. I am also indebted to my three gatekeepers in Abu Samra, Bab at-Tabbaneh, and Zahriye, who made this small study possible.
  • 2.It is imperative to stress that, in the specific case of this study, Lebanon has not undertaken rehabilitation programmes. Moreover, only Jabhat an-Nusra’s ex fighters among the interviewees would probably be suitable for these programmes, in that what is left of the multi-faced Free Syrian Army, despite its still present variegated “Islamic character,” has generally not been considered a product of violent extremism in official western diplomacy. The purpose of this paper is therefore to explore the likely contradictions of rehabilitation programmes by aligning with a segment of the scholarly literature not directly meaning to “heal” the social context at hand. Yet, the research findings can inform us on the very practically flawed and politically biased nature of such programmes’ rationale.
  • 3.Isabelle Sommier, “Engagement Radical, Désengagement et Radicalisation. Continuum et Lignes de Fracture”, in Lien Social et Politique, no. 68, 2012, p. 17.
  • 4.Hamed el-Said, Deradicalising Islamists: Programmes and Their Impact in Muslim Majority States, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) Report, January 2012, p. 1-2.
  • 5.John Horgan, “Deradicalization or Disengagement: a Process in Need of Clarity and a Counter-Terrorism Initiative in Need of Evaluation”, in Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 2, No. 4, 2008.
  • 6.Seurat speaks of 47.6% of people coming from outside Tripoli. Michel Seurat, Syrie, l’état de Barbarie, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, coll. Proché-Orient, 2012, p. 246.
  • 7.Michel Seurat, Syrie, l’état de Barbarie, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, coll. Proché-Orient, 2012, p. 240.
  • 8.Italian scholar Donatella Della Porta interestingly breaks down such pull factors by forwarding the two categories of “facilitating factors”, first inducing the individual to join armed groups, and “precipitating factors”, which constitute the last straw in leading the individual to engage with political violence. Donatella della Porta, Social Movements, Political Violence and the State, Cambridge (UK), Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • 9.Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, Friction: how Radicalization happens to Them and Us, New York, Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • 10.David, H. Schanzer, “No Easy Day: Government Roadblocks and the Unsolvable Problem of Political Violence: a Response to Marc Sageman’s ‘The Stagnation in Terrorism Research’”, in Terrorism and Political Violence, Taylor & Francis, March 28, 2014, p. 3.
  • 11.For more details on Jabhat an-Nusra, read: [last accessed on 01 December 2015]
  • 12.Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
  • 13.Mark Sedgwick, “The Concept of Radicalisation as a Source of Confusion”, in Terrorism and Political Violence, No. 22, 2010, p. 483.
  • 14.For more details on the Islamic State (IS), read: [last accessed on 01 December 2015].
  • 15.John Chalcraft, The Invisible Cage. Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2009
  • 16.This is the reason why Lebanon has been seen as a puppet country after the 1989 Ta’if Agreement, officially ending the civil war.
  • 17.Tine Gade, “Tripoli (Lebanon) as a Microcosm of the Crisis of Sunnism in the Levant”, paper presented at the annual meeting of the British Middle East Studies Society (BRISMES), London School of Economics (LSE),
  • 18.Idem., p. 16.
  • 19.Idem., p. 31.
  • 20.Idem., p. 42.
  • 21.Idem., p. 44.
  • 22.The local Sunni community has also founded a Committee aimed at pressuring the government and local officials to re-open the airport (named René Mou‘awad Airport). The goals and principles of this Committee are easily findable on several social media. The fact that the airport’s opening to civilians has not been sanctioned yet is locally interpreted as a plot against the Sunnis of Lebanon. The main argument used by those who oppose the reopening is the further sectarisation of infrastructures and resources, implicitly referring to the fact that Hezbollah practically controls the Beirut airport. Furthermore, some opinion-makers and local communities, especially in South Lebanon, denounce such a request by stating that the airport would be used as a US airbase. The reopening would sanctify American imperialism in the country.
  • 23.Michel Seurat, Syrie, l’état de Barbarie. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, coll. Proché-Orient, 2012.
  • 24.Mainly Hezbollah, owning several NGOs in Lebanon and boasting to have woven a strong network of welfare providers
  • 25.It is worth highlighting that, whilst the research participants have not been sampled on the grounds of their past family or individual experiences with the Syrian regime, they have rather been selected on the basis of their physical or moral participation in one of the armed groups presently fighting in Syria.
  • 26.John Chalcraft, The Invisible Cage. Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2009.
  • 27.Andrew Beatty, “Emotions in the Field: what are we talking about?”, in Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) No. 11, 2005, pp. 17-37.
  • 28.Mark Sedgwick, “Jihadistsm, Narrow and Wide: The Dangers of Loose Use of an Important Term”, in Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 9, No. 2, April 2015, p. 35.Mark Sedgwick, “Jihadistsm, Narrow and Wide: The Dangers of Loose Use of an Important Term”, in Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 9, No. 2, April 2015, p. 35.
  • 29.Idem., p. 39.
  • 30.Omar Ashour, “Post-Jihadism: Libya and the Global Transformations of Armed Islamist Movements”, in Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 23, No. 3, Taylor & Francis., 2011, p. 379.
  • 31.Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004; John Horgan, The Psychology of Terrorism, NYC, Routledge, 2005.
  • 32.The clashes between Jabhat an-Nusra and the FSA in the town of ‘Arsal do not seem to have been reported in the international media to the same extent as those in Daraa or Rastan. Apparently this small-scale conflict happened over 2014, as reported by the interlocutor.
  • 33.Ann Speckhard, Talking to Terrorists, Advanced Press, 2012.
  • 34.This is quite a common and attractive pull factor to disengage individuals from violent extremism. Kate Barrelle, “Pro-Integration: Disengagement from and Life after Extremism”, in Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2014, p. 132.
  • 35.John Horgan, The Psychology of Terrorism, NYC, Routledge, 2005.
  • 36.Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution, Reading, Mass., Addison Wesley,1978.
  • 37.Marc Sedgwick, “The Concept of Radicalisation as a Source of Confusion”, in Terrorism and Political Violence, 22, 2010, p. 481.
  • 38.Lene Kuhle and Lasse Lindekilde, Radicalisation among Young Muslims in Aarhus, Aarhus, Denmark, Centre for Studies in Islamism and Radicalisation January 2010.
  • 39.John Horgan, The Psychology of Terrorism, NYC, Routledge, 2005.
  • 40.This confession to me, a female researcher, actually surprised me in that it rhetorically affects his “maleness”, whilst his choice of combating could have been interpreted as an attempt to claim back his machismo.
  • 41.It is personal opinion of the author that the interviewees paradoxically seem to have lost the sense of how the battles are deployed on the ground. The number of times that the Syrian opposition brigades fight each other rather than the Assad forces can no longer be counted. Many are the cases in which the current battles seem to be a power struggle over specific territories rather than the liberation of the whole country – which, by now, would certainly not be well-bounded.
  • 42.John Horgan, The Psychology of Terrorism, NYC, Routledge, 2005, p. 137.
  • 43.Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
  • 44.The researcher did not have the chance to empirically ascertain this datum.
  • 45.Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
  • 46.It is however interesting to see how the Syrian refugees in Lebanon who do not support the Jihadi ideology and the extreme forms of violence adopted by the variegated armed opposition in Syria, rather tend to interpret the “Jihadist phenomenon” as a “money issue”, since most of the fighters are murtaziqun, “mercenaries” (Informal conversation with A., N., and R. in Beirut, May 2015).
  • 47.Michel Seurat, Syrie, l’état de Barbarie, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, coll. Proché-Orient, 2012.
  • 48.This term is used in full awareness of the scholarly scepticism around it: if radicalisation is not an absolute phenomenon with standardised traits, it also presents limitations in its relative aspects. Indeed, if radicalisation indicates a “movement along a continuum of organised opinion, where does the moderate section of the continuum lie”? (Mark Sedgwick, “The Concept of Radicalisation as a Source of Confusion”, in Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 22, 2010, pp. 481).
  • 49.David H. Schanzer, “No Easy Day: Government Roadblocks and the Unsolvable Problem of Political Violence: a response to Marc Sageman’s ‘The Stagnation in Terrorism Research’”, in Terrorism and Political Violence, Taylor & Francis, March 28, 2014, p. 3.
  • 50.Marc Sageman, “The Stagnation in Terrorism Research”, in Terrorism and Political Violence, Taylor & Francis, March 28, 2014, p. 3.
  • 51.In this regard, there is a sizeable difference from the Islamic State’s thinking, for which killing in battle or outside of it is indifferent, as the ideals you are killing your enemy for remain the same. Thus, there is no clear-cut difference between in bello and outside of war; being a mujahid entails an existential status. This view is further fed by what is seen as a ‘’war on Islam’’ with the 2003 American occupation of Iraq, and the present intervention in Syria only conducted against the Islamic State and yet not against the Assad regime. In the Islamic State’s logic, there is the conviction that war never ends, since such a struggle is part of one’s own religion and life. Graeme Wood, “What ISIS really wants”, in The Atlantic, March 2015.
  • 52.Alawites is the confessional sect of the Assads in Syria, and, as such, for complex historical and political reasons, majorly tend to support the Syrian regime or, however, see the latter as the only anchor of safety and certainty. 4.7% of Northern Lebanese population are Alawite, living in 12 villages in Akkar. The Alawite community is also living in the Tripoli neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen, in chronic conflict with the Sunni district of Bab at-Tabbaneh, ironically divided by Syria Street. This microcosmic conflict received great media and scholarly attention due to its connection to regional politics (Syrian Army versus Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat, driven out of Lebanon in 1983; and Panarabism versus a French-created Lebanon of privileged elites).
  • 53.Ann Speckhard, Talking to Terrorists, Advanced Press, 2012.
  • 54.Franco Ferracuti, “A Socio-psychiatric Interpretation of Terrorism”, in The Annals of the American Academy, No. 463, 1982, pp. 129-140. And John Horgan, The Psychology of Terrorism, NYC, Routledge, 2005.
  • 55.Between September 2001 and 2008, 2,281 books with terrorism in the title have been published.
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In the Mind – or in the Life – of a Jihadist? (by Estella Carpi, February 2015)

In the mind – or in the life – of a jihadist?

In the mind – or in the life – of a jihadist?

February 25, 2015 7:45 am

The recent tragic events in Paris refreshed the importance of the historical roots of “fundamentalism”, which is misleadingly considered as only Islamic, or, even worse, inherently Islamic. The term “fundamentalism” itself, along with its notions, arose in the early 20th century in the United States. Between 1910 and 1915, a series of booklets entitled The Fundamentals restated the inerrancy of the Holy Bible and the traditional Christian doctrines in an antithetic function to modernism[1]. Whatever the religion, interpretations of jihadism are constantly forwarded in terms of dutiful analyses to prevent threats, and the mass media – not simply reflecting, but also creating our everyday life – play a large role in this through what I would name cyber-alarmism.

Apart from the non-Muslim origin of the concept of fundamentalism, we should better remember that the primary targets of Muslim zealots are mostly being other Muslims rather than non-Muslims. Their main goal has in fact been seen as rendering public their hermeneutics of what Islam should be. In other words, doing proselytism by force, in order to impose their own version of Islam onto other Muslims, has recently been theorized by Remy Low in the form of “public pedagogy”, a concept advanced by Henry Giroux[2]. It is worth quoting Low at full in this regard:

“The primacy of culture and power should thus be understood, in this reckoning, as a process whereby the political is also pedagogical, in particular insofar as private issues are articulated to larger social conditions and collective forces”.[3]

The people who reject such public pedagogy in its most extremist form will be duly punished. In a similar vein, Ami Hussain lately noticed how Ebola is a serious threat to West Africans, not to North Americans; and ISIS is a serious threat in Iraq and Syria, not there in North America, where he resides. “Similarly, ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s extremist views targeted Muslims, not non-Muslims”[4], referring to the most conservative form of societal Islam called Wahhabism, born and flourished in the central Saudi region of Najd, in which it is presently concentrated and representing 22.9% of the local population[5].

The increasingly frequent public declarations of Muslims about their remaining aloof from such violent interpretations of Islam deeply sadden me. For instance, in the wake of the January Paris massacre, many believers felt the need for “apologizing” for what had happened, and reaffirmed a moderate – yet essentialist – interpretation of what Islam can be. The point is rather: why should they constantly negotiate with the Otherness the meaning itself and the empirical forms of Islam, unlike other religions? Why should this faith be automatically correlated to outbursts of violence rather than focusing the public’s attention to hardly ever explored social circumstances?

The problem primarily lies in our persistence in essentializing Islam, as we unabashedly do with any other religious and cultural form of (un)humanness: giving an unchangeable substance to it and thinking of it in terms of strict coherence. Again, this too often occurs in dealing with Islam unlike all other faiths.

In this framework, the socialization of jihadism is still lacking. So to speak, what keep lacking are the will to identify – and the consequent identification of – social facts and trends underlying the phenomenon. Indeed, what misses is seeing jihadism, narrowly labeled as “terrorism”, as a social phenomenon rather than as either a psychological deviation, affecting the jihadist’s mind, or a “radicalization” of the individual and his/her views, as though the latter were produced independently from material life.

Religion-driven extremism has largely been believed a clinically explicable issue, or the product of the efficacious action of evil persuaders. The mere psychologization of human phenomena is by now the shortcut of mass media and quick commentators. However, it is dutiful to recall how overcoming “exigho-phobia”[6] – meaning in Ancient Greek fear of (social) explanations – is the first move to do in order to explain jihadism, fundamentalism, their simplified label of terrorism, and their connections with multiple forms of extremism. Such a public fear is rooted in the belief that explaining is synonym with justifying.

In light of this, with regards to the Paris massacres, the European nationality of the Muslim murderers has been silenced on one hand, not to point to France and its social management of religion and foreign policy[7]. On the other, their Europeanness should not certainly justify and explain holistically their criminal acts, which still claim to have a religious and – although grotesque – pedagogic basis.

As anthropologist Hage was highlighting (2003) in regards to Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel, there is a specific ideology behind labeling terrorism and extremism, and not merely behind the act of doing terrorism. What is totally overlooked in the media is the fact that the diverse forms of justice, power, and social ethics, are all potentially proper to different ideological fundamentalisms, which develop further in presence of particular social factors (i.e. marginalization and criminalization of migrant or refugee groups in allegedly developed countries; political oppression and absence of stronger weapons in the case of Palestinian suicide bombers breaking up the “quietness” of Israeli everyday lives; or, in the present case of Syria and Iraq, prolonged state neglect and the smaller – and corrupted – allocation of resources to the more “moderate” political opposition groups, therefore contributing to creating room for ISIS).

As Cas Mudde[8] has recently advanced, “civility is a slippery concept, meaning different things to different people. And it is a notion which is almost always used selectively and opportunistically”.

Even when social explanations to episodes of (in)human violence seem to be given, identity politics is unfortunately the card that is played in order define once for all an entire group, and therefore arbitrarily blaming it for the guilt of few of its members, many, or just one.

In fact, as Juan Cole[9] has importantly asserted, “extremism thrives from other people’s extremism”, which populated the tweets last January. In this specific case, we witness a polarized imaginary between the Western spectators, scared and promptly ready to epitomize a universal identity made of unconditioned freedoms and decency, and, on the other side, the extremist evils, arbitrarily homologated and here embodied, as discussed, by ISIS, Palestinian suicide bombers, or other various forms of violence that claim Islamic principles as theirs to different extents.

Thus, on a purely interpretative level, there are actually two totalitarianisms clashing with each other. Our duty as knowledge producers is indeed deconstructing them.

[1] Douglas Weaver, C. (2008). In Search of the New Testament Church: the Baptist Story. (p.132). Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

[2] Giroux, H. A. (2004). “Cultural Studies, Public Pedagogy, and the Responsibility of Intellectuals”. In Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 1(1), p. 59-70.

[3] Low, R. Y. S. (2015), Making up the Ummah: the Rhetoric of ISIS as Public Pedagogy. (p. 4). Available online at:

[4] Hussain, A., December 2014, UC-Observer. Available online at:

[5] Izady, M. (2013). Demography of Religion in the Gulf. Available online at:

[6] The term is used by anthropologist Ghassan al-Hage to refer to the fear of explaining the social structure in which Palestinian suicide bombers decide to undertake that sort of political violence. For details: Hage, G. (2003). “’Comes a Time we are all Enthusiasm’: Understanding Palestinian Suicide Bombers in Times of Exighophobia”. In Public Culture 15 (1), pp. 65-89.

[7] In this regard, Della Ratta, D., January 2015, on Il Manifesto. Available online at:

[8] Mudde, C., January 2015, on OpenDemocracy. Available online at:

[9] Cole, J., January 2015, on “Informed Comment”. Available online at:

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