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.
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.
The mainstream opinion leaders have portrayed ISIL as an embodiment of absolute evil, while leaving out of the equation the social, political, ethical and economic variables.
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 neutral rejecting 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?
Andrea Glioti is an Arabic-speaking freelance journalist and a research consultant covering the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.