Questions of Jihad and Citizenship in Al-Hol Camp: Who Will Take Them?

The large scale detainment camp in Al-Hol, Syria, holds tens of thousands of women and children allegedly affiliated with ISIS. The camp is ground zero for a problem afflicting dozens of nation-states, as it holds their radicalized citizens. This corner of northeastern Syria was under ISIS control for some time, on a key route between Raqqa and Mosul across the border in Iraq. The Al-Hol camp sits near Baghouz, the last bastion of ISIS territory in Syria and is under SDF control. The camp has received more than 12,000 new arrivals since hostilities began in Baghouz, bringing its total to close to 65,000, according to the IRC. A Time article puts the count at 73,000 (!). The vast majority of these detainees are Syrian or Iraqi, with some 9,000 foreigners of various nationalities currently detained.

Several disturbances and hostilities continue to shake the Al-Hol camp. Shiraz Maher, an academic known for his work on salafi-jihadism, called Al-Hol “Camp Bucca 2.0” in reference to the camp inside Iraq where U.S. troops held thousands of insurgents during the Iraq War, now known to have been a hotbed for jihadi networking and activity.  Maher’s tweet also highlights the recurring nature of problems in Al-Hol. Erin Cunningham’s recent report from the camp laid clear how many of the women held there are recalcitrant in their allegiance to Daesh. Groups inside the camp are reportedly trying to enforce the strict dress codes Daesh was known for by harassing women who do not conform to the standards of dress. Cunningham reports that some continue to brandish weapons, burn down other’s tents, and target those who express regret for having joined Daesh. Most ominously, some detainees swear they will resurrect the “caliphate” if they are released. The question of what to do with such hardened Daesh members has no easy answers.

In the same camp, one finds many others who claim to have repented and now regret having joined Daesh. Now that the war is grinding to an end, many of these jihadis and their family members want to return to the countries they left earlier to join Daesh.  Their citizenship should have been sufficient (in theory) but legal citizenship has proven less durable in practice than theory says it should be. For governments, accepting such radicalized individuals back presents clear few benefits and many potential pitfalls. The ideal situation is that someone returns and manages to become a spokesperson qualified to talk potential jihadis out of their worldview. That assumes s/he has come to see the error of their ways, a big assumption. The most common picture of success is someone who reintegrates and never causes problems again, an outcome it is hard to take political credit for. The biggest potential pitfall is clearly that they would return and carry out an attack, any government’s nightmare scenario. Thus governments see significant risks and few, if any, potential benefits to taking back these former fighters. Shamima Begum was one such high-profile case.

Begum was a British citizen who wanted to return but had her citizenship stripped from her by Sajad Javid, the British Home Secretary. Her case raised complex questions. She was 15 when she left to join Daesh, thus not a legal adult, and she has had several children while in ISIS territory, who legally are British citizens. Stripping someone of citizenship would not legally negate the citizenship of her children, who were born before her citizenship was taken. This does not yet address the issue of whether Britain can legally strip her citizenship away. That question came into sharper focus because one of her children apparently died in the last week; should not Britain have done something for this child, a British citizen?

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt defended the decision to strip Begum of her citizenship when challenged about its morality and legality:

“Shamima knew, when she made the decision to join Daesh, she was going into a country where there was no embassy. There was no consular assistance. And I’m afraid those decisions, awful though it is, do have consequences.” Interestingly, Hunt frames Begum’s crime as her decision to leave the state’s reach. Yet Britain is not alone in trying to rebuff the return of these jihadis and their families.

The Sweden Democrats, a far-right political party, have echoed Hunt’s position and have similarly called for stripping returning fighters of citizenship. Sweden reportedly has dozens of returned ISIS fighters it is trying to rehabilitate rather than prosecute, a decision that is sparking controversy. Just to the south, a man born in Denmark was sentenced to five years imprisonment and had his passport seized by authorities who prosecuted him for having fought with ISIS. Referring to the accused, Danish prosecutor Natalja Fryd Lindberg argued that “(H)e is badly integrated and has no time for democracy…” none of which addressed his citizenship by birth. What other actions, exactly, would get one labeled “badly integrated”…? Danish lawmakers are trying to pass a bill that would not grant citizenship to the children born abroad of Danish jihadis. UNICEF Denmark responded with criticism that the law punished children for their parents’ sins, and might not be in accordance with the International Convention of the Rights of the Child. Danish authorities have broader issues with immigration and have taken a series of highly questionable approaches to immigration and deportation, not merely in regards to having fought for Daesh. Whether Daesh intended to or not, it seems to have precipitated a crisis in the concept of citizenship for western nations.

Hoda Muthana is in a similar situation with her home country of the U.S.A. Mike Pompeo, in his role as Secretary of State, has denied Muthana the ability to re-enter the USA, despite being born in Alabama and being issued a US passport as recently as 2014. Pompeo apparently is trying to use an exception in the law, namely that Muthana’s father was a Yemeni diplomat, and that diplomats are not subject to the law of the country they live in but rather their home country’s law. If so, this never prevented the US from giving Muthana a passport before. The technicality is important though, as Pompeo seeks to get out of the legal requirements of what the US owes a citizen, in Muthana’s case because of having traveled to Syria to join ISIS.

Belgium exemplifies the complex family law dynamics at play in debating how to deal with two Belgian women who want to return from Syria. The two women want to return but the state is refusing to allow them to re-enter, and their six children hang in the balance. The children’s grandmother has been acting from Belgium, putting pressure on the authorities to let the children come back to Belgium, as the conditions for them in Syria are horrible. The logistics of getting them back, without their mothers, remain unclear. Their mothers, who are sisters in law, insist that they want their children to return to Belgium at any cost, even if it means their mothers cannot return. Such may be the fate for other “children of the Islamic State” if different nation-states refuse to accept adults back from having joined Daesh but have a duty to address the needs of their children, innocent literally and legally, and possessing citizenship. France has similar issues, and has so far seemed to take an approach that children can only be repatriated if their mothers agreed to be separated from the children.

One Australian woman spoke to reporters in Al-Hol camp, conveying her strong desire to return home to her native Australia. While refusing to identify herself, she laid out her argument to be allowed to return home. “I understand the anger that they have towards a lot of us here, but the kids don’t need to suffer,” she argued. “My kids have a right at least to be treated like normal kids…”

Bosnia is an example of a country willing to take back its nationals who have left to join international jihad. The country will take back two of its nationals recently detained during the fighting in Baghouz. Bosnia has already prosecuted some 46 individuals in its state courts for terrorism offences, yet even 46 shows the scale of the challenge: “According to Bosnian intelligence, 241 adults and 80 children left Bosnia or the Bosnian diaspora in 2012-2016 for Syria and Iraq, where 150 more children were born” a Reuters article on the topic explained. “About 100 adults, including 49 women, remained there while at least 88 have been killed or died.” Between their volume and their complexity, such cases will prove problematic in the courts of western nations for years to come.

Germany, moving towards a policy like Bosnia’s, has said it will potentially accept returning fighters and try them in German courts. The catch, no small hurdle, is that they need consular access. One German woman recently was allowed to return with her three kids, and was arrested upon arrival. She had taken her children to Syria without their father’s approval, so the children will presumably be under the care of their father. Another case was Harry Sarfo, who returned from Syria under curious circumstances. Sarfo’s case highlights the difficult nature of trying to prosecute returning jihadis. Indeed, Sarfo claimed he had not engaged in any violence but mysterious video appeared, of unclear provenance, seeming to show Sarfo taking part in a death by firing squad. This was exceptional for a number of reasons, but primarily because there is rarely clear evidence of crimes committed. Like Sarfo, many who flee claim they were working in an office or did not take part in fighting. Whether difficult to carry out or not, citizenship should guarantee one a fair trial in the courts of his or her nation, as one woman insists here.

The decision to reject their return arguably parallels one of the pitfalls of nationalist thinking. By prioritizing territory and territorial belonging in law, nation-states can shirk responsibility for anything that happens outside their fixed borders. Yet humans move, we always have. Nation-states have arguably found it easier to just refuse these individuals the ability to return home, passing the responsibility for their trials to the very countries where they went to fight. Such a flimsy attachment to citizens will prove far more damaging to nation-states in the long run than it is “helpful” in the short term.

Book Review: Jihad and Death-The Global Appeal of the Islamic State by Olivier Roy

I first read this book in the summer of 2017. I was quite impressed with it then but I was busy with other things at the time and I never got around to writing up a review. Almost two years later, Olivier Roy‘s work holds up and I’d like to draw people’s attention to it.

At a slim 100 pages, Roy’s English work is very readable and is not too heavy on theory. Its slim profile should not be taken to mean it does not contain some good analysis and new ideas, for it most certainly does. Rather than covering the group in its worldwide dimensions, Roy’s work is a sociology of Francophone jihadis, based on some 100 individuals known to have carried out terrorism or to have traveled to engage in international jihad. Roy limits his dataset to jihadis from France and Belgium, and it is here in his wheelhouse that his work is at is best. When Roy strays from this base, the work goes down in quality.

If one thesis sums up Roy’s sociological argument, it is his exploration of “the Islamization of radicalism” instead of the “radicalization of Islam” (p.6). Put another way, as Roy does on p.8, violent radicalization is not the product of religious radicalization.  Inverting the description here fundamentally changes the place of Islam in his analysis. We’re not talking about or trying to understand a shift in religious belief, at least for these Francophone jihadis. Roy finds they have lived lives full of sin, drinking, gambling, and engaging in petty crime. Their embrace of Islam happens most often after a stint in prison or right before they act on their desire to be involved in jihad. Roy calls most of these jihadis “born-agains.”  Similarly, there is a relatively high percentage of converts, more so in France than in Belgium (p.20).

Roy finds “generational revolt” and “youth culture” to be keys in understanding why these young jihadis radicalize.  He finds that a core social group, either brothers or friends from school, or maybe from prison most often forms the center of those who radicalize together. There is, at least according to Roy, an over-representation of sets of siblings (brothers) among these jihadis, something not characteristic of other “radicalisms” alongside which Roy places these Francophone jihadis. When their age is taken into account, Roy ties this to his broader argument about “youth culture” being a key part of understanding this phenomenon of radicalization.

In the first two chapters, Roy is really running on all cylinders. His description of the European environments should be wrestled with by policymakers and fellow scholars alike. Among his notable claims and observations:

  • Terrorism is not a result of unsuccessful integration into society (p.34)
  • Radicalization precedes recruitment (p.38)
  • Britain and Denmark stand out from the others as there is a network of extremist mosques in those countries seemingly acting as hotbeds of radicalization (p.31)
  • Throughout Europe, “Maghrebans” (Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans) are over-represented in jihadi ranks while Turks are underrepresented (p.21)
  • The first and third generations in the diaspora are underrepresented, while the second generation is over-represented (p.20).
  • Working class suburbs are over-represented because of the concentrations of second generation youth (p.33)
  • Almost no jihadis return to their parents’ countries of origin to wage jihad, a point Roy uses to argue their present is far more important to their radicalization than anger/ resentment over colonialism (p.46).
  • There are no documented cases where jihadis were politically active in Palestine solidarity or anti-Islamophobia campaigns before joining Daesh. (p.67) Indeed, Roy argues they are not protesting against Islamophobia because they also believe that Islam and the West are incompatible.

Readers can see where Roy’s argument is going, questioning much of our received wisdom about why jihadis do what they do. There is a political argument of sorts that Roy is at pains to rebut. It roughly goes that young men in the diaspora radicalize in response to repression, failed integration, and the crimes of colonialism committed against their countries of origin. Politically, one can agree that all those phenomena are horrible and need to be addressed with reparations and still accept Roy’s argument that Francophone jihadis are not pushed by these issues to radicalize. By this logic, as Roy points out, the parts of the world that have experienced some of the worst such violence (Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan) would be at least proportionally if not over-represented among the ranks of European jihadis joining Daesh. This is not the case. Roy hammers this point home on p.67:

“Those who view radicalization, whether religious or political, as a consequence of colonialism or racism do not realize that the divide does not lie between “those of Muslim origin” and “ethnic French.” The  divergence is about opinions and not origins.”

Roy instead places the lion’s share of the blame with French laicite (secularism coming from the French revolution), as that which best explains the over-representation of Francophone jihadis in Daesh. Laicite “decultures” the religious sphere the most, without filling the void. An over-simplified jihadi fundamentalism can find space in this void, appealing to youth in search of a cause.  Roy skates on increasingly thin ice when he discusses the transition of Leftist figures to Islamism, strangely arguing that “the Islamo-Leftist synthesis produced Hezbollah” without developing the argument. The party’s origin is certainly an interesting  topic but it can hardly be captured in such an argument. Certainly, any attempt to address this question would have to address Hezbollah as a Shi’i party, as Shi’ism is arguably farm more compatible with Leftist ideas than Sunni Islam is. Yet Roy does not address the fact that he’s been writing exclusively about Sunni jihadis and throws in a point about a Shi’i political party.

In Chapter Four, Roy covers ISIS in the Levant and Iraq and appears farthest from his strengths to this reviewer. The section comes off quite average, largely echoing other writers as Roy has few if any insights to add here. At the end of the chapter, he returns to what he does much better, and his discussion of the place of imams in French society and French Muslim communities is once again nuanced and interesting.

To this reviewer, one noticeable missing piece is a development of the overwhelming masculinity of the jihadis in question. Roy covers it briefly, all too briefly, and then moves on (p.51). It should really be the third central piece alongside youth culture and generational revolt; instead, he subsumes it under a fascination with violence. Moreover, much of Roy’s work finds parallels with other “radicalisms” but he barely touches the question of parallels to the far right. Instead, most of his other examples of radicalism are leftists, which is interesting in its novelty but under-developed (to be generous). Instead, I argue there are very strong parallels between jihadis and neo-nazis, evidenced in prison radicalization and toxic masculinity being central facets of both. Roy mentions prison radicalization but says that another author has already covered it extensively. This is unfortunate, for it seems a strong facet of what he’s describing. Arguably Chapter Four should have fallen under this category of “things someone else has written about extensively that I won’t touch.”

The volume as a whole is easily engaged with by non-experts, a testament to Roy’s solid writing. Anyone convinced that Islam is the problem or even at the center of the problem should read Jihad and Death to imbibe Roy’s insights and important argument. With the rising wave of right populism and nationalist extremism targeting European Muslims in their communities, rebutting the oversimplified ideas that these people won’t integrate and they are fundamentally radical is of the utmost importance. If Roy is correct, the Islamization of radicalism stems from generational revolt and youth culture and is thus not “religious radicalization,” pointing to a political/social solution to address that which has placed them in such different milieux than their parents. As I argued above, toxic masculinity and prison radicalization are both part of this picture as well, and must be addressed in any CVE policy. In this vein, we need comparable studies of the different countries producing large jihadi populations to systematically think about how their reasons for radicalization do or do not parallel Francophone jihadis and what that means for Daesh’s overall composition.

If it were up to me, I would rename the book to better represent what the strengths of the work. Jihad and Death can stay, but it should be followed by A Sociology of Francophone Jihadis instead of The Global Appeal of the Islamic State as Roy does not cover Russia, Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, etc etc. Even with the other issues critiqued here, the work is well-worth reading, especially for non-experts who want to know more than what the news is telling them.

The Collateral Damage of Fighting ISIS: Families, Children, and the Future

At the center of terrorism, on the level of ideas, is a classification. The terrorist is the person beyond humanity, beyond the law, and beyond reason. S/he has crossed the threshold. In the US War on Terror, for example, those charged with terrorism offenses are kept out of civilian courts, and thus the standard justice system, and instead tried in military courts, with less rights and protections. In Iraq, such trials are swift and haphazard, surrounded by uncertainty. Children are also supposed to be excluded from the adult justice system, but for their own protection, not because they’re exceptional. At the crux of these issues, the actions to weed out ISIS from Iraqi society are catching families and children in a broad net with damaging long-term consequences. Collective punishment and rushing children through the adult justice system will not achieve transitional justice.

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screenshot from this VICE news report

The family members of accused ISIS fighters face a tumultuous road ahead with no clear end. Iraq has set up camps to detain returning family members of ISIS suspects, but the numbers of people being transferred and held in the camps are not clear, nor are the criteria for detention. Their long term fate is even murkier. In addition to the crime of collective punishment (i.e punishing someone because their family member was in a terrorist group) there seems to be no distinction made between children and adults. State seizure of the children from their parents is fraught with pitfalls and does not present a working alternative to detention of the entire family.   How might such detention impact children? It certainly is not good for the children’s welfare, and may well traumatize them further. While easier said than done, an alternative method must be found to deal with the families of ISIS fighters.

A recent Jerusalem Post story detailed the escape of an Iraqi minor whose family died when ISIS raided their hometown several years ago. His life from age 11 until age 16 was lived under ISIS rule. In the best case scenario, he can be reunited with extended family members in Iraq, but he will need years of help to deal with the trauma he experienced. So far, he seems to have avoided accusations of having fought for ISIS, but many other children deal with these accusations today.

Indeed, Iraqi and KRG authorities are detaining and in some cases torturing children whom they allege to have been ISIS fighters. Even once released from custody, these youth  have said they fear returning to their homes because of the possibility of further scapegoating as being tied to ISIS, or potentially being re-arrested.  Some of the children are foreigners, but many are Iraqis; HRW estimates that around 1,500 children remain in detention for alleged connections to ISIS. A comprehensive system needs to be put in place to handle youth caught up in the war or with ISIS. If they fought as child soldiers, their age makes them victims under international law and they should not be prosecuted as terrorists. A haphazard approach to the fight to stabilize Iraq and vanquish ISIS risks planting the seeds of yet more problems in the future. The UN writes in detail here about what’s at stake with regard to the reintegration of child soldiers into society:

“Providing reintegration opportunities for children affected by conflict is not only a moral and legal obligation to protect children and put their best interests first, but it is also an important pillar to create sustainable peace. Failing to follow this trauma with healing and helping services will result in negative long-term effects for these children and their communities, and will have broader impacts on economic development and social cohesion. Stigmatization of the returning children may also lead to further exclusion and violence when programmes are not well adapted to the communities, the context and to the children’s needs.”

Understandably, some Iraqis have no patience for concerns about how suspected ISIS fighters or their families are treated given the atrocities Iraq suffered through. A strong desire for vengeance against ISIS animates haste and fuels retribution in some cases, but Iraqi authorities must keep their eyes on a key long term question, namely how to reintegrate these family members and children.  In the process of putting this blog together, I found photos labeled to be the children of ISIS fighters in which their faces were recognizable; I chose not to use these photos because I cannot authenticate them nor should the children’s faces be visible even if they are genuinely children of ISIS fighters.  How might such photos impact their future? The children of ISIS fighters must not be punished for their parents’ deeds, assuming their parents are actually guilty of being ISIS members. Those who fought as child soldiers need help to see the error of their ways and help with reintegration into Iraqi society. They cannot be expelled (who will take them?) or locked up forever.

Photo from National Geographic Kids.

The children pictured above are Iraqi children playing at school, nothing more and nothing less.



The left’s Warriors on Terror

This is my first non-dissertation writing in some time:) I am happy to collaborate with Al-Jumhuriya to publish this piece, looking at the broader debates where some “anti-imperialists” erroneously claim ISIS was created by the US and Israel. I pick this claim apart, showing the danger of “War on Terror” rhetoric no matter who uses it.

Daesh in US Courts… Under What Circumstances? The Forgotten Lessons from the War on Terror

In the twilight of the failing and ongoing War on Terror, legal questions surrounding Daesh militants and those accused of aiding the group remain fraught. I previously wrote about informal tribunals in Iraq being used to deal with accused Daesh fighters, highlighting the deeply questionable practices being employed. I wrote a second piece at exploring different instances of the same troubling phenomena.  More recently, Human Rights Watch (HRW) raised questions about cases where Iraqi forces were accused of human rights violations in dealing with accused Daesh fighters. HRW angered people with its defense of what many perceived to be the indefensible, prompting some to call the organization “Daesh Rights Watch.” The case I will detail below raises questions about the nature of “enemy combatant” status, the relationship between US courts and US citizens, and finally about negotiated leniency in sentencing for jihadis to facilitate both defection from jihadi groups and the fight against radicalization.

A recent story about the ACLU suing the DOJ on behalf of a Daesh member caught my eye. However, that is the tail end of the story. The story began when a US citizen was seized and handed over to US forces in Syria by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The name of the US citizen in question has not been released, and he was being held without access to a lawyer as an “enemy combatant.” He apparently holds a second citizenship, which has not been specified. Several months ago, when the Washington Post reported on this case, they reported that USDOJ officials did not believe they had enough evidence to charge him and that he was being held in a “short-term facility” in Iraq. Why had he been given the “enemy combatant” distinction? The vague details of the case leave too many such questions open. This is when the ACLU sued the US government on this man’s behalf and a judge agreed, saying that the detainee could not be denied access to a lawyer. Hanging over all of this was the fact that the unnamed detainee was the first such capture since Donald Trump entered office as the POTUS.

Daesh in US courts... Under What Circumstances? The Forgotten Lessons from the War on Terror

screenshot of Mohamad Khweis from


A different case that made headlines can help illuminate a different angle of issues surrounding Daesh and “enemy combatant” distinctions. Mohamad Khweis was tried for having joined ISIS before fleeing of his own accord. Khweis turned himself over to Kurdish forces and was brought back to the United States to face trial. Khweis claims to have not participated in any violence but prosecutors found this dubious. The judge ultimately believed him, stating that he (the judge) “…believe(d) you left because you became disillusioned…you didn’t kill anyone… you left of your own volition.” Khweis was sentenced to twenty years in prison, a sentence around which there was no agreement. His defense attorneys asked for five years, while prosecutors pushed for thirty-five years, saying that Khweis had lied repeatedly and that he did not show true remorse for his actions.

Khweis’ case displays the governmental and judicial transparency that should accompany any case, while the aforementioned case of the unnamed “enemy combatant” begs the question: what was the nature of the evidence for classifying this man as an enemy combatant? The secrecy clouds the distinction and makes one wonder, is it all happening again? Could an innocent man have been railroaded by a justice system rigged against him if the ACLU hadn’t intervened?

One person who helped answer this question was Seamus Hughes, a fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism (GWPoE) who follows US court cases involving Daesh closely. He explained that some accused jihadis have been declared “enemy combatants” after capture before having that distinction removed so a civilian trial could proceed. To his knowledge, this is the first case he has seen where the state did not drop the “enemy combatant” distinction.

Spencer Ackerman raised a related question: shouldn’t governments be trying to encourage Daesh members to defect, and does this “enemy combatant” distinction for someone with apparently little evidence against him undercut that? Defectors are perceived to be weapons in the fight against radicalization domestically but if these defectors are thrown in jail with no remorse, what incentive do they have to cooperate? Such choices would force defectors underground, a situation that does not help them or governments in their fight against Daesh.

There are few easy answers to the fight against Daesh which tests legal systems where ever it is fought. The desire to label jihadis as exceptional, sub-human, lacking basic rights tests human nature and our belief in the power of human rights. Even those whom we despise and are guilty of awful crimes must be protected by basic human rights for the concept to be of value. Onur Bakiner emphasized this to me through an historical example. Onur is a political scientist at Seattle University who studies courts and their politics in Latin America as well as Turkey. He discussed how the spirit of the Nuremberg Trials at the end of WWII showed the value of due process guarantees for war criminals. Allied forces could have executed the captured war criminals, but chose instead to put them on trial.

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Nuremberg Trials- Nov 22, 1945. photo from National Archives and Records (NARA) College Park, Md.

This lesson of the Nuremberg Trials is one that key people in the US government forgot or deemed outdated. The US showed over the last two decades in its “War on Terror” that it would detain and torture anyone the system deemed a combatant. The US scooped under hundreds of innocent people, and more than 700 of those who were detained at Guantanamo were eventually released. While most cases for American Daesh fighters are apparently being resolved in civilian courts, the case detailed here of the unnamed combatant represents a serious step backward for the USDOJ which seems to coincide with Donald Trump’s presidency and Jeff Sessions’ time running the USDOJ. Mohamad Khweis’ case, detailed above, shows us that trials for Daesh members in civilian courts are not only possible, but the best path. If the US continues to declare fighters to be “enemy combatants” while denying them basic due process in a court of law, this will not help defeat Daesh, but it will ensnare innocent people.

Where Media Meets Statecraft: Daesh Promotion of Governmental Competence through its Media

I am pleased that a piece I have been working on in conjunction with JINCS (JIhadi Networks of Culture & CommunicationS) through the Annenberg CARCG at the University of Pennsylvania is online. It was published through Global-E and can be found here. A big thanks to Marwan Kraidy and Marina Krikorian as well as all the other participants and contributors for their feedback on my initial presentation that helped shaped this piece! Another big thank you to Victor Faessel at Global-E!

Zakat graphic al naba 31

Here I have included one of the Daesh infographics I studied- you can read about my analysis of it by following the link above.

Repenser la radicalisation en Occident: Négligeons-nous l’influence du genre ?

Daesh flag imageCet article est la traduction française d’un article initialement publié sur

En mars dernier, Londres a été touchée par un attentat terroriste qui a fait quatre morts et des douzaines de blessés. C’est l’un des attentats les plus meurtriers qui aient secoué la capitale britannique depuis 2005, où des explosions dans le métro ont causé plus de 50 morts et des centaines de blessés. Dès juin 2017, Londres était de nouveau la cible d’un attentat entraînant huit morts, après qu’une attaque avait tué 23 personnes à Manchester au mois de mai.

Khalid Masood, le terroriste qui a perpétré l’attentat de mars, a été tué par la police. Des informations sur l’homme et son passé ont été diffusées dans les jours suivant l’attaque. Khalid Masood avait 52 ans, on le sait culturiste, marié et père de trois enfants. Né Adrian Russell Elms (sa mère avait changé leur nom de famille pour Ajao lors de son remariage), il a changé de nom après sa conversion à l’islam alors qu’il était en prison. Il a été emprisonné de nombreuses fois, suite à plusieurs condamnations, dont aucune n’était liée au terrorisme. On retrouve chez Khalid Masood plusieurs tendances qui ont été identifiées chez les djihadistes: il a mené une vie de criminalité et s’est radicalisé en prison, mais il n’était en aucun cas pauvre.

En particulier, et je voudrais me concentrer sur ce point, il a des antécédents de violence domestique. C’est un sujet qui commence seulement à susciter l’attention dans les questions de radicalisation. Les antécédents de violence domestique de Khalid Masood indiquent que sa conception de la masculinité est un facteur important de sa radicalisation, un aspect qui est trop souvent négligé. Ce n’est pas la pauvreté qui explique la trajectoire de Khalid Masood, et c’est relativement tard qu’il a adopté son idéologie extrémiste. Nous ne disons pas que ces deux éléments ne jouent aucun rôle dans la radicalisation de certains individus, mais il est évident qu’ils n’expliquent pas comment Khalid Masood en est venu à se radicaliser et perpétrer cette attaque odieuse.

Pour penser la radicalisation en Occident et l’étudier, nous nous devons d’adopter une approche multidimensionnelle en nous concentrant sur les diverses formes de masculinité, et pas seulement sur l’idéologie ou les conditions de vie. Bien que certaines personnes semblent en effet se radicaliser sur internet via la propagande qui y sévit, ce n’est certainement pas vrai pour toutes. Nous devons incontestablement étudier l’usage du numérique par les auteurs d’attentats, mais nous devons aussi éviter d’accorder trop de poids à cette explication, ce qui reviendrait à une forme de déterminisme technologique.

Notez bien que je limite ma réflexion à la radicalisation en Occident car les trajectoires de Musulmans ayant grandi dans un pays musulman avant de rejoindre un groupe comme Daech ou de perpétrer un attentat suicide diffèrent beaucoup de celles de Musulmans occidentaux.

Ma proposition s’inspire de travaux sociologiques sur les hommes dans des groupes extrémistes néo-nazis. Le chercheur Michael Kimmel a beaucoup publié sur le sujet. Parlant de l’humiliation, il écrit notamment:

« L’un des observateurs de la violence les plus éclairés que j’aie lus, James Gilligan, a écrit un livre intitulé Violence. Il soutient que la honte et l’humiliation sont à la base de toute violence: “Puisque je me sens petit, je vais te faire te sentir encore plus petit”. Dans mes interviews avec des extrémistes, qu’ils soient actifs ou anciens, j’ai trouvé à maintes reprises qu’il avaient éprouvé ce sentiment d’humiliation et de honte ».

Toute discussion sur l’humiliation se doit d’être positionnée culturellement. On peut la différencier de l’embarras (gêne) en ce que l’humiliation comporte une dimension liée au pouvoir: l’un des protagonistes a subi un pouvoir qui l’a poussé hors de son rôle, ou encore les actions pour lesquelles il est jugé ont tellement affecté sa position sociale qu’il ressent une perte de statut importante, et durable. De même que les origines de l’humiliation varient en fonction de la culture, elles changent en fonction du genre. Se concentrer sur le genre, ici la masculinité, nous permet d’aller au-delà du débat facile et binaire selon lequel soit les djihadistes suivent une idéologie extrémiste, comme le Wahhabisme, soit ils se sentent marginalisés d’un point de vue économique.

Une fausse dichotomie

Les données empiriques nous forcent à regarder au-delà de la pauvreté et des conditions matérielles lorsque l’on étudie la radicalisation. Il y a un peu plus d’un an, Thomas Piketty, un économiste réputé, a expliqué la radicalisation au Moyen Orient par les inégalités de revenus extrêmes inhérentes aux pétromonarchies. La description que fait Piketty des réalités économiques dans les pays du Golfe est certainement correcte, cependant la façon dont elles impactent les autres pays de la région n’a pas été clairement développée. De plus, de nombreux djihadistes provenant de différents pays sont issus des classes moyennes ou moyennes supérieures, comme Masood. S’ils souffrent de marginalisation, celle-ci n’est pas d’origine économique.

Imaginer que l’idéologie extrémiste est le seul facteur poussant des individus à se radicaliser, et pour certains, à rejoindre Daech, laisse de nombreuses questions sans réponse. Ainsi, pourquoi une écrasante majorité de musulmans ne rejoint-elle pas Daech ou ne se radicalise-t-elle pas? Aucune religion n’est homogène dans l’interprétation qu’en font ses membres. L’islam n’est pas exceptionnel à cet égard. Il y a clairement d’autres facteurs en jeu, et une explication purement économique, pas plus qu’une explication idéologique, ne saurait expliquer la radicalisation.

Dans un article récemment publié dans The Guardian, l’éminent chercheur Olivier Roy soutient l’idée selon laquelle les facteurs économiques n’expliquent pas la radicalisation. À partir de données collectées sur les djihadistes français, Olivier Roy montre que ce n’est pas la piété religieuse qui mène ces personnes à perpétrer des attentats. Au contraire, la plupart d’entre elles ont des antécédents de violence et ne se sont converties à l’Islam qu’à l’âge adulte. Résumant son propos, il soutient que “le terrorisme ne provient pas de la radicalisation de l’Islam, mais de l’islamisation du radicalisme”. Il souligne des aspects intéressants et peu explorés de la manière dont les cellules se forment, souvent parmi les frères et les connaissances nouées notamment à l’école ou en prison. Il note également que ces hommes sont intégrés linguistiquement, parlant la langue du pays dans lequel ils vivent, indiquant qu’ils sont souvent de seconde génération. Malgré l’utilisation systématique du pronom « he » dans l’article pour désigner des djihadistes et la mention fréquente de “brothers”, l’analyse d’Olivier Roy ne porte pas explicitement sur les questions liées au genre. Tout ceci me conduit à une série de questionnements sur la masculinité toxique et sa relation à la radicalisation.

La masculinité toxique

La masculinité toxique peut être un élément clé dans la radicalisation de ceux qui décident de mener des attaques terroristes au nom de l’Islam.

La “masculinité toxique” désigne une certaine idée de ce que c’est qu’être un homme, incluant la domination, et l’idée que les hommes sont supérieurs aux femmes et doivent s’imposer en tant que tels. Ces hommes pensent que se montrer vulnérable, passif, ou accepter que des femmes soient aux commandes sont des signes de faiblesse. Cette conception de la masculinité se manifeste souvent, mais pas exclusivement, par des efforts intenses pour augmenter sa force, se battre avec d’autres hommes, et parfois par de la violence domestique.

Dans un article du Guardian, Hardley Freedman a adopté un angle d’étude plus restreint que le mien : il se concentre sur les terroristes “isolés”, n’ayant pas été recrutés par Daech. Le lien, cependant, demeure évident. Hadley Freeman démontre qu’un grand nombre de ces agresseurs sont des hommes ayant des antécédents de violence domestique à l’encontre de leur conjoint ou conjointe, tandis que d’autres ont violé et harcelé des femmes. Hadley Freeman souligne également qu’en Irak et en Syrie, Daech réduit au rôle d’esclaves sexuelles des femmes, notamment yézidies : une pratique qui n’a aucun fondement dans l’Islam. Ceci nous pousse à considérer que l’Islam pourrait n’être qu’une justification offerte après coup par les Djihadistes eux-mêmes, alors que la raison sous-jacente est liée à leur masculinité toxique et leurs conceptions patriarcales des relations, qu’ils sont systématiquement prêts à défendre par la violence.

Un article du New York Times de juin 2016 rapporte que 16% des tueurs de masse avaient des antécédents de violence conjugale, et que leurs conjoints étaient parmi les victimes dans 57% des cas. Omar Mateen, qui a attaqué la boîte de nuit Pulse à Orlando, et Cedric Anderson, qui a perpétré la fusillade dans une école à San Bernardino en Californie, correspondent tous deux à ce profil d’auteur de violence domestique à répétition. Il ne faut certes pas extrapoler l’idée que se livrer à de la violence domestique mène à se radicaliser et à accomplir des actes extrémistes violents. Néanmoins, on peut voir un lien entre masculinité extrême et djihadisme dans l’usage que fait Daech du viol dans la guerre ainsi que comme moyen de recrutement. Nous savons que le viol est malheureusement une arme de guerre. La différence est qu’ici, il est utilisé pour attirer des combattants de Daech, au lieu d’être nié et caché. Daech double ainsi la mise en termes de masculinité toxique.

Les Musulmans en Occident subissent de nombreuses humiliations : la discrimination par la police, les préjugés de la part d’autres citoyens, ou encore le chômage. Cela revient à une forme de racialisation. Les Musulmans, bien que n’étant pas un groupe ethnique, sont néanmoins perçus comme inférieurs, barbares, violents, nécessitant d’être contrôlés et incapables d’accorder à la femme des droits égaux à ceux des hommes. Les guerres et conflits persistants, tels que l’invasion de l’Irak par les États-Unis ou l’occupation de la Palestine par Israël, ont suscité la colère des communautés musulmanes en Occident. Chaque nouvelle attaque dans laquelle des vies musulmanes sont perdues, dans l’impunité, ravive la colère, à juste titre. Ce sentiment est exacerbé par la perception selon laquelle les médias et les politiciens occidentaux manifestent peu d’égard, si ce n’est aucun, pour les pertes de vies humaines.

Olivier Roy souligne que cet argument est l’un des plus utilisés par les djihadistes pour justifier leurs actions. Ainsi, on ne peut pas généraliser l’idée selon laquelle l’Islam est patriarcal et les hommes qui se radicalisent partagent cette vision patriarcale du monde, ce qui placerait par conséquent l’islam à la base de la radicalisation. Ce modèle ne permet pas d’expliquer pourquoi tant d’hommes musulmans ne se radicalisent pas.

Le genre, encore une fois, nous permet de porter un regard critique sur les facteurs économiques et leur rôle dans la radicalisation. Un grand nombre d’études montre une discrimination à l’embauche envers les musulmans, quel que soit leur genre. Des statistiques provenant de différents pays d’où sont originaires de nombreux djihadistes combattant en Syrie (dont la France, la Belgique, la Suède et l’Allemagne) montrent des niveaux élevés de discrimination sociale et à l’embauche contre les personnes perçues comme étant musulmanes ou originaires d’Afrique du Nord. Les femmes musulmanes sont sans aucun doute les victimes de discrimination en Europe de l’Ouest et aux États-Unis, et pourtant elles sont très peu à réagir par un extrémisme violent, une fraction infime du nombre d’hommes.

Néanmoins, nous devons veiller à ne pas parler de masculinité comme s’il n’en existait qu’une forme. Il faut y penser dans un contexte multidimensionnel, en combinaison avec de multiples autres facteurs. Dans la mesure où il n’y a pas une “masculinité’ ou un ensemble de normes expliquant comment être un homme auquel tous les hommes musulmans adhèrent, quel que soit leur âge ou nationalité, il y a nécessairement une pluralité de masculinités. Je n’essaierai pas ici de les classer, ou d’étiqueter certaines “dociles” et d’autres “violentes”. Un tel classement serait au mieux hautement spéculatif.

Le genre nous permet de repenser ce que nous savons sur la radicalisation en prison, un phénomène dont les liens avec Daech sont cruellement sous-estimés. J’ai insisté sur ce point dans une interview que j’ai donnée récemment, car je vois dans la radicalisation en prison un contre-argument à l’idée simpliste selon laquelle l’islam et les tendances violentes aboutissent au djihadisme. Un grand nombre de djihadistes sont de nouveaux musulmans, convertis en prison, ce qui montre que des enjeux non-idéologiques ne sont pas pris en compte, ou considérés à tort comme étant fondamentalement idéologiques. Le genre nous permet d’étudier la question plus en profondeur, en se penchant sur la dynamique des échanges en prison, où les hommes peuvent devenir violemment compétitifs et former des gangs. Cela nous ramène également aux similarités avec la citation de Michael Kimmel, mentionnée plus haut, sur les groupes suprématistes blancs, une autre idéologie qui est souvent le résultat d’une radicalisation en prison.

La distribution des genres est fortement asymétrique en ce qui concerne la violence djihadiste, et cela ne peut être ignoré. De plus, il existe des similarités remarquables entre des groupes extrémistes ayant des profils idéologiques très différents, ce qui suggère que d’autres facteurs motivent leur radicalisation et leur violence. Je prends suffisamment au sérieux la variabilité entre les cultures pour soutenir qu’on ne trouvera jamais une explication scientifique viable de la radicalisation qui serait toujours vraie dans un contexte culturel, sans parler d’une explication commune à plusieurs cultures. Nous devons nous éloigner d’un débat confiné aux facteurs matériels et idéologiques de la radicalisation. Une approche multidimensionnelle qui se concentre sur la masculinité nous permet de repenser plus spécifiquement à la fois les facteurs idéologiques et économiques de la radicalisation, sans purement les rejeter.


Je voudrais remercier Bozena Welborne, Sean Widlake et Mediha Sorma pour leurs commentaires et critiques des brouillons de cet article. Je voudrais également remercier Lucie Colineau, Auréanne Colineau, et Hélène Keller Colineau pour la traduction en français.

Daesh attacks Tehran: Why Iran, Why Now?

Early on the morning of 7 June 2017, Tehran was rocked by news of an attack at the Iranian Parliament building. Soon, separate reports came in of an attack carried out at Khomeini’s shrine some distance away, as well as in a metro station in another district of Tehran. It became all too clear that these terrorist attacks were coordinated, but it remained unclear who was responsible. As often happens- the last report turned out to be false, the attacks were concentrated in the first two sites, with six total attackers, one woman and five men.

I logged off twitter, as it was late at night in Seattle, only recently having seen the first strange reports of Daesh claiming responsibility. They were strange because they didn’t take the normal form we’ve come to associate with Daesh media, but by the time I woke up the next morning in Seattle no doubt remained. Daesh claimed the attacks clearly through their official media channels, and the Iranian government confirmed the attackers were indeed from Iran. With those facts laid out, the gravity of the attack was confirmed: Daesh had carried out its first large coordinated terrorist attack in predominantly Shi’ite Iran.

While largely surprising, those following Daesh and their media closely had seen indications for some time that the organization has been attempting to reach Sunni Muslims inside Iran. A good report about the Persian language Daesh video can be found here. Another good report that details Daesh’s growing propaganda in the weeks leading up to to today’s attacks can be found here; it appeared before the attack. Not content to let media outlets report on the Tehran attack, Daesh uploaded video to their Telegram channel as it was happening, apparently the first time they’ve done this since an attack in Bangladesh (h/t Rukmini Callimachi).

When the attack was finally over, at least 12 people were dead and 46 more were injured. The IRGC, or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, were quick to blame Saudi Arabia for the attack but have not provided any proof for this allegation. While the identities of the attackers remain unknown, it fits with a “truth” many have already accepted, that Daesh is at least funded, if not actively supported by the Saudi state.  I would urge extreme caution in making these kinds of claims, not because I want to defend the Saudis, and certainly not because I have an agenda. I take very seriously claims of fact and use of evidence;  I haven’t seen conclusive proof these allegations are true.

Significantly to the west, another event passed largely unnoticed in international media. A Daesh attack in a Shiite neighborhood in Beirut was foiled by Lebanese security services. Thankfully they weren’t successful, but it wasn’t the first time- Daesh bombed Dahiyeh in late 2015. When I saw this, a day before the Tehran attacks, I thought to myself, ‘they’re really trying to start a larger sectarian war.’ Lebanon has so far avoided slipping into an abyss of sectarian violence, now 27 years after the end of its own civil war, but Daesh clearly wants to rip that open.

The Overarching Questions: Why Iran, Why now?

It’s not Saudi Arabia; It’s not the Qatar Crisis; It’s not Trump’s recent visit. Instead, the answer here begins with major territorial losses for Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Mosul is almost completely liberated from ISIS after months of painful and bloody siege. Not only does Daesh have to deal with the materials losses- death, lost territory,  less seized resources- but it loses momentum, arguably the most important part of the group’s success. As we have seen since the group’s shocking seizure of Mosul in the summer of 2014, victories not only win spoils like weapons, new oil fields, bases, etc but they also serve to attract more recruits. Daesh needs war to legitimate itself (in the eyes of its followers), to achieve its genocidal aims, and to keep its flows of recruits coming.

Thus the context Daesh finds itself in is more than sufficient to explain their choice to attack Iran now. As Daesh is really on the ropes, what I see is that Daesh wants to start a much larger regional conflagration. When I saw the news about the Tehran attacks, I immediately thought back to the story about the foiled attack I’d seen barely 24 hours earlier about Beirut. This strategy of attacking Beirut and Iran and trying to draw all Shiites into war with Daesh is like the one pursued by Zarqawi (arguably the founder of Daesh), targeting the Golden Mosque in Samarra. Igniting a larger war would potentially benefit Daesh in multiple ways:

  • Relieve pressure on Raqqa and Mosul by drawing new actors into the war, if it spread to Lebanon/ parts of Iran and or drew Hizbullah deeper into confrontation with Daesh
  • This would create “momentum” for the group, news of successful attacks is sadly red meat for their base.
  • Momentum would translate into increased numbers of recruits as it did earlier, especially if Daesh can convince more that Shiites need to be targeted and killed

In conclusion, parts of the Middle East that are currently not engaged in the war engulfing Syria and Iraq are sadly ripe for sectarian provocation. They haven’t always been this way- barely 50 years ago the region’s political spheres were still dominated by political ideologies like Arab Nationalism and Communism. Those ideologies are largely if not completely gone and sectarianism has been a daily reality since 2003, with longer roots stretching back before that. Daesh’s attempts to throw gasoline on a fire that is relatively shrinking if still not extinguished must not be allowed to ignite the larger regional conflagration the group wants. Unfortunately, as many have pointed out, the GCC’s blockade of Qatar is basically a casus belli, and today news came that Turkey is sending troops to Qatar. May this all pass and cooler heads prevail, otherwise Daesh will likely be the “winner” and get what it wants: more bloodshed.