Best of SACSIS: What Would It Take to Defeat ISIS?

26 Feb 2015

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Against the backdrop of a South African couple liquidating their assets to travel to Iraq to join the extremist Islamist organisation, the Islamic State, which has established a caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria that it governs by sharia law, SACSIS caught up with Middle East expert, Na'eem Jeenah and put the question to him: "What would it take to defeat ISIS?"

Jeenah contends that it will take more than a military response. What is needed to properly defeat ISIS is an ideological battle and Muslims themselves need to take the lead in challenging ISIS' theological arguments. Sadly, however, he argues that the world is going to be stuck with ISIS for quite some time.

Na'eem Jeenah is the Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) in Johannesburg. He is interviewed by SACSIS' Executive Director, Fazila Farouk.


FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service. I’m Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg. I’m at the offices of the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC), where I am to interview its director, Na’eem Jeenah.

Welcome to SACSIS Na’eem.

NA’EEM JEENAH: Thank you.

FAZILA FAROUK: Now, we’re here talking to Na’eem because he is an expert on the Arab World, and our topic for this morning is ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Now ISIS captured world attention last year when it invaded large swathes of land in Northern Iraq and Syria to establish a caliphate, which it now governs by sharia law.

ISIS has really captured world attention for the brutality, which it employs to govern this state, which it is ruling. I think the thing that has terrified people most is the “beheadings”, where they have beheaded people, filmed these beheadings and distributed these films on the Internet.

People seem to be united throughout the world in their horror with the methods employed by ISIS and there’s general consensus that the organisation should be stopped.

And we’re here specifically to talk to Na’eem about: “What will it take to bring an end…or to defeat ISIS?”

Na’eem that’s the question I put to you when I asked for this interview, but before we get into, you know…we know that this is really an extremist organisation that needs to be stopped, can you give us a little bit of background into ISIS.

How and why was it established, who are the people that have joined ISIS, and what do they want?

NA’EEM JEENAH: So, ISIS’ origin, in a sense, comes after the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. And it started of as Al Qaida in Mesopotamia. So it was an Iraqi organisation…an Iraqi kind of franchise of Al Qaida, if you like, and it maintained that name and that kind of allegiance to the Al Qaida leadership for a few years.

It started out (in) 2003 in that kind of form until around 2006. Then changed its name, strangely in some ways, to Islamic State in Iraq, right…Didn’t at the time control any territory; continued to be an affiliate of Al Qaida.

So (I’m) not sure entirely why it changed its name in that kind of way, rather than remaining Al Qaida, but it had pretensions at least of wanting to control Iraq.

Then it…a big kind of milestone was about 2,5 years ago…2,5 – 3 years ago, when it sent its people in - or a little before that - sent its people into Syria, as part of the uprising in Syria, and part of the armed uprising in Syria.

They formed a group called Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the Syrian opposition groups. But then after that, not long after that the Islamic State in Iraq group decided that Jabhat al-Nusra would be subsumed within its… So, Jabhat al-Nusra was an Al Qaida affiliate, but it wanted it to be subsumed in its structure. And so it created what it called Islamic State in Syria and al-Shām.  Shām is not just Syria, but kind of the broader Levant, if you like, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, etc.

That then resulted in a number of battles between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, as it was then called.

ISIS then broke away from Al Qaida and became its own organisation, and was in fact denounced and has been denounced many times, including last week, by Al Qaida leadership for being too extreme, for being too brutal, for their brutality being not consistent with Islam, etc.

In Syria, they, like many of the other rebel groups were able to take territory hold territory, lose territory. You know it was very fluid in terms of that. But in Syria, in many ways, they…their victims have been more civilians and other rebel groups than the regime.

And so the beginning of some of the conspiracy theories around ISIS comes from there. So I spoke to some of the Syrian rebel groups’ commanders, for example, who are convinced that ISIS is a creation of the Syrian regime and Iran because actually they kill more rebel commanders than they do Syrian officers – is their argument.

Now of course we have a whole range of other conspiracy theories. ISIS has been created by Mossad, has been created by CIA, etc., etc.

So they…

FAZILA FAROUK: Well that – those are the conspiracy theories, what do you believe the real story is?

NA’EEM JEENAH: Let me just finish the story and then we…


NA’EEM JEENAH: So they expanded somewhat in Syria and in some ways could be regarded as probably the most effective fighting force in Syria, forget about who they actually target – but the most effective fighting force in Syria.

And then we had over a year ago, a year-and-a-half ago, when they took over territory in Iraq, and that was in the sense the beginning of their territorial project. So they took over territory in the North/North-East part of Iraq, which meant that they held contiguous territory across that part of Iraq and parts of Southern Syria, and then declared themselves a state; changed their name from Islamic State of Iraq and Shām to just Islamic State, because they now believed that they now were a state. They held territory, defended their territory, etc.,

And then said that this was the Muslim caliphate. And (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), the head of it, who became the head of the organisation around 2006/2007 when the previous head died, Baghdadi was now the new caliph of the Muslims internationally, that would imply. And so we’ll talk about what that means.

FAZILA FAROUK: That’s a sort of self-appointed role.

NA’EEM JEENAH: He would say, “No,” because in terms of the theology that they follow, the caliph cannot be self-appointed. A legitimate caliph cannot be self-appointed, but has to be appointed by a kind of council of learned, respectable people.

So he has a little council around him. Now the question is, how learned and how respected are they because most of the people on the council are actually not known by anyone.

FAZILA FAROUK: But he is still not representative of Muslims; all over the world people have protested against this organisation.

NA’EEM JEENAH: No, no, no, he’s not, and that’ the thing that the council, even in terms of the theology that they follow…the council that appoints the caliph needs to be a council made of people that are well known, that are well respected, that are scholars, if you like, and that in a sense, have, not necessarily a formal, but have a kind of allegiance from the majority of Muslims. That’s how they conceive it. Now, his council has none of those things.

In terms of the conspiracy theories, I mean I’m very sceptical about all of these. I certainly don’t believe that ISIS was created by Iran and the Syrian regime, despite how they may be conducting themselves in Syria. I don’t believe that they were a creation of the CIA or Mossad.

Yes, it is true that many people in ISIS, including some in the leadership of ISIS, were trained at a U.S. training camp in Jordan, okay. But at that training camp in Jordan, a number of Syrian rebels were trained. What happened to them when they went back to Syria might be another matter. But they were chosen as part of what the U.S. regarded as moderate opposition. They were given military training and then some of them, later became part of what then became ISIS. That doesn’t mean that they are representing the U.S. or are a creation of the U.S., etc.

So I’m not convinced about any of these conspiracy theories. I think that ISIS arose out of a process that began with the American occupation of Iraq, and in some ways, its origin was something of a home-grown thing.

Baghdadi himself - not his real name of course – Baghdadi himself was an officer in Saddam Hussein’s army before the occupation. So the initial core of it was home-grown.

Now probably the bulk of ISIS is not Iraqi, but is foreign.

FAZILA FAROUK: I want to talk you about that because I understand that the group has got 15,000 militants made up of people from up to 80 countries around the world and what’s quite shocking is that 2,000 of those individuals come from Western Europe.

What is it about ISIS that appeals to such a wide range of people?

I mean we just heard this morning that there is a South African family that has lost their daughters to this organisation. What is it about them that appeals to people, and also in the countries of origin, what are the push factors, besides ISIS’ pull factors, that influence people to join them?

NA’EEM JEENAH: I’m going to try to answer the question. But let me just say that if were able to properly and correctly answer that question, I think it will go a long way in the battle against ISIS.

But I think that there are two sets of factors, in the main, both push and pull, that attract people to ISIS – those that are attracted – and the attraction in South Africa is actually minimal. So this couple that we heard of this morning was reported in some of the newspapers and then one of the online newspapers had a story yesterday about another, perhaps South African -- so three maybe.

If you’re looking at France, you’re looking at thousands in Western Europe, right. So it’s quite a big difference.

But so, I would say two sets of factors. One set of factors is frustration around various kinds of, let’s say, Muslim causes. More broadly put, frustration about the manner in which imperialism has been operating particularly in the Muslim world. So people who are upset about everything that’s happening from Palestine to what’s happening in Syria to the American occupation of Iraq, etc., and…have reached a point where they feel that, you know, there’s just this war against Muslims and no one’s doing anything about it, we have to stand up for ourselves, right.

Part of that also is that if you compare ISIS, for example to Al Qaida, the same people that are now saying they are attracted to ISIS were not attracted to Al Qaida necessarily a few years ago.

So what’s the difference?

Well, part of the difference from their mindset is that ISIS is showing you that they can have victories. They actually control territory. They’ve created a state. So things can be done. The American imperialism can be stopped. They’re confronting the Americans. They’re having victories against the Americans. These are the people we should be supporting.

So there’s that whole kind of set of things from everything that’s happening in the Muslim world and for those who are slightly more progressive, broader than the Muslim world, including the role of American/Western imperialism, etc.

The other set of factors is to do perhaps more with the Islamic discourse that ISIS is putting forward. So you know for many Muslims, not necessarily the majority or all or anything…

But for many Muslims, there’s this kind of dream of a caliphate. Let’s forget the fact that for a lot of Muslim history over the past 1400 years, those who were heading these so-called caliphates were corrupt and drunkards, promiscuous and whatever. Forget all that. But the notion of a caliphate which was destroyed, finally, by Western imperialism in the early 20th century, the Ottoman caliphate, after the First World War -- for many Muslims that still is a kind of dream.

For most Muslims that have that kind of dream, it’s let’s say an esoteric dream, an abstract dream. But suddenly here you have someone who claims that it’s real. That it can be real, okay.

Now for many people who are in that frame of mind who are now questioning, “Okay, is this real? Is this the caliphate?” He’s declared himself a caliph, he’s got council around him that says he is, maybe we should give it a chance.

So there’s that kind of discourse…that then also the Islamic arguments that they put forward – and again they are not necessarily Islamic arguments that all Muslims, most Muslims, large number of Muslims, even necessarily agree with – but it becomes attractive for a certain group of people.

In between these two sets of factors, there’s also a sense of, and I’m not saying it’s a third set, but in between these, there’s also an element that is attracted to ISIS that I think is an element of adventurism. There’s a possibility of doing something, it sounds exciting…hipsters, young people who want to take up a gun and confront the man, the system, whatever, who might in a year or two outgrow that and leave, right. But there is also that element.

There was an article recently by a Western journalist who was captured by ISIS and spent a good few months there with them, and I don’t think that what he says is representative of the whole organisation, but the place where he was being held, he said he didn’t see a single copy of the Quran. He never heard any Islamic discussions or discourse taking place, and these guys were young gung-ho men who were…thought that carrying a gun and doing something was great.

So there’s also that kind of factor in between. So there’s a number of these kind of factors that make ISIS attractive for a certain kind of person. I think if we understood that better, we’d be able to counter that…but we need to start.

FAZILA FAROUK: So let’s get to the question that I came to ask you in the first place, what exactly do you think it will take to defeat ISIS?

NA’EEM JEENAH: This is a big question. I think that…I think at two levels that this needs to be done.

One is that the IS campaign itself is very much a military one. Yes there’s political elements, they hold territory, they implement laws, etc., yes. But it’s very much a military campaign and it has to be addressed at a military level. So that’s the first thing.

I don’t believe that we should be having a U.S.-led coalition in this. I think that it should be a coalition that’s led by states and groups, non-state actors as well, in the region. And I’m making the point about non-state actors, because you know, the most decisive, most symbolic, decisive victory against ISIS was Kobani, the Kurdish town. And ISIS was defeated in Kobani, not by any state actors, but by Kurdish groups that are actually outlawed by the other countries.

So it needs to be driven by actors in the region whose countries ISIS is invading and taking control of, etc., and who need to take ownership of that.

I’m not very supportive of the notion of a U.S. led coalition, you know, flying the American agenda in and getting everyone to follow that. But it needs to be military. So that’s the one level, I think, that has to happen.

The other level is to stop ISIS growth at the level of its recruits and I think a very important part of this, and this hasn’t been recognised for a long time…I think that just in the past few weeks – we’ve been saying it as AMEC for the past year-and-a-half – but in the past two or three weeks, it’s become something in the American media, in particular. And that is that in order to stop or to stem the recruitment of ISIS, you need to deal with it at the ideological level -- at the level of the ideological battle. And that means engaging with the Islamic theological arguments.

Again, this is not a battle that should be led by the Americans or whoever from outside, in a sense. This is something that needs to be conducted within the Muslim community. This is a battle that needs to be conducted within the Muslim community. But it is having to counter all of those arguments that ISIS makes. The bigger picture that ISIS makes about caliphate etc., but also the smaller arguments about thing like as punishment or take sex slaves, etc.,

That battle I think is what needs to take place outside of the territory that’s controlled by ISIS. In South Africa, in Europe, in North America, in various parts of the Muslim world, Malaysia, etc., where they might be getting recruits from or they might be trying to recruit people from.

And I think that that kind of thing - in the long term - that is what is going to…successfully conducting that battle is what will strangle ISIS because if they don’t have any more recruits coming in, then that is going to cause them to whiter. But that’s a very crucial part of the battle. Without it, the military thing is not going to make much sense.

FAZILA FAROUK: In your view, how far away are we from, you know, from seeing any resolution to the current crisis?

NA’EEM JEENAH: The ISIS crisis? I think we’re not close.

I think that what we’ve seen over the past couple of months, or past few months, is that they are not succeeding in expanding in terms of territory. They’ve lost territory here or there. I don’t think that that’s substantial enough to say that they’re on the back foot. But they’re not expanding. They would like to expand in way that they are able to control at leas the whole of Iraq and the whole of Syria.

They’re not expanding in terms of the territory that they’re controlling, but I don’t think that they’re being substantially constrained either. So the amount of territory that they are controlling is not being decreased substantially, and the amount of recruits they’re getting in is not being decreased at a substantial level.

So I think that it’s going to last for quite a while. Even…

FAZILA FAROUK: A few years?

NA’EEM JEENAH: I think a few years, because even after major, let’s assume that there was a…by the end of this year, there’s a major defeat of ISIS… ISIS is very good at operating as a guerrilla organisation. And so both in Iraq and Syria, you will find that they will continue operating, even as small ragtag groups, if that’s what it takes – continue operating for a good few years, I think.

Even if they don’t get many more recruits, they not able to hold any territory, they could still continue operating, so I think that we’re stuck with this for a while. We haven’t turned the corner at a military level. They’re not on the back foot.  They’re not…the number of recruits is not decreasing substantially yet.

But once, we get there, it’s still going to take a couple of years – a few years.

FAZILA FAROUK: Na’eem, thank you very much for joining us at SASCSIS.

NA’EEM JEENAH: Thank you.

FAZILA FAROUK: And thank you to our viewers and listeners for joining us at the South African Civil Society Information Service. And remember if you want more social justice news and analysis, you can get that at

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