Islamic State(craft): Little Explored Details of ISIS Rule

This is a talk I gave at my home institution, the University of Washington, in November of 2016, organized by the Middle East Center of the Jackson School of International Studies (JSIS). In this talk, I focus on banal details of ISIS rule that are often ignored. As I say in the intro, I am not trying to legitimize their rule, but rather I want to analyze it. I do so to try to push our collective knowledge about the ISIS terrorist organization. I’d be happy to try to answer questions or comments in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Did Assad Really Help Build ISIS? An Examination of the Evidence

OVERVIEW

This article uses publicly available evidence from 2003-2010 and to explore the accusation that Bashar al Assad and the Syrian government deliberately supported Al-Qaeda jihadis in Syria so they could carry out attacks in Iraq. As these years were the formative ones for ISIS, then known by a series of different names, the evidence strongly, but not conclusively, points to Syria having helped ISIS form. There is no evidence that Syria intended for the jihadi group to grow into what it has become, but rather that Syria seems to have supported it for short-term, strategic ends.

Late last fall, a series was released by the Daily Beast about Bashar Al-Assad and his government’s supposed role in the formation of ISIS. Part One explored how the regime facilitated jihadis in Syria from 2000-2010 by letting them base themselves in Syria. Part Two details how a series of bombings in Damascus in late 2011 and early 2012 when the uprisings in Syria were really gaining steam were actually carried out by the Assad regime and blamed on Al-Qaeda. The defectors interviewed claim this was done to sectarianize the uprising and provide support for Assad’s discourse that he was fighting terror and needed Western support doing this. Part Three explores all the instances on the battlefield in Syria where the regime supposedly avoided clashing with ISIS.  The claims in the series, especially those in part one, have been present in pubic discourse for some time and were expressed in a more detailed form with citations by Charles Lister in his “The Syrian Jihad“. Can the claims that come from defectors and anti-regime rebels be corroborated in these other sources? What kinds of sources do these other works use and can they help us triangulate the issues?

I won’t go into the backgrounds of each author- Lister and Gutman- readers can do that for themselves and decide for themselves if they think the background/employer is relevant here. From my point of view,  news organizations certainly develop or lose credibility over time but a serious critique of the piece can’t stop at reputation, it has to look at the sources.  I will go through Lister’s sources and other publicly available sources, to see if they correspond here with what defectors claim, and if this story holds water. Let’s look at the news sources in particular- as I am going through Lister’s sources and following where the trail leads, this will only be roughly chronological, while primarily following the sources.

DIGGING INTO THE SOURCES (2003-2004)

The first source, Ghaith Abdel Ahad in the Washington Post (6/5/04) interviews a Syrian man, Abu Ibrahim, about his work helping fighters move out of Syria into Iraq to fight against US forces. The story here, cited by Lister, a full seven years before the beginning of uprisings in Syria, is almost identical to what the Daily Beast recounts. His own story of radicalization, interestingly, comes from 7 years in Saudi Arabia, exposure to Wahhabism, and finding a welcome community around Abu Qaqaa back in Aleppo upon his return. Qaqaa, in both the Daily Beast and Lister accounts, was the central figure in Aleppo quietly sponsored by the Syrian government. The rest of the piece is very good, but too long to recount here, read it for yourselves.

Another source Lister cites is “Syria’s Proxy Forces in Iraq” by Ziad K. Abdelnour (April 2003). Mr. Abdelnour has citations of his own, and they aren’t identical to those above. His account of the problems again mirrors the Daily beast and Lister, and like the latter, he connects the mobilization of jihadis to Ain al-Hilweh, the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon. He compares Assad’s role in this mobilization to Hafez Al-Assad’s “war by proxy” against US and European peacekeepers in Lebanon in the early 1980s. These are the citations at the bottom of his piece, most of which cannot be easily followed as they lack the title or author and the links only go back up in the document (what’s up with that, MEI?):
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That means most of Adbdelnour’s claims should not be accepted unless they can be corroborated by other sources. To follow the one branch I could from Abdelnour’s citations, I found no.10, “Arab Neighbors Queue for ticket to Martyrdom” (4/1/03),  the author of which remained anonymous. It discusses how not only Syrians crossed into Iraq to fight from Syria, but that many other Arabs of various nationalities would first travel to Syria and then cross into Iraq on busses. Egypt attempted to stop its citizens from traveling to Iraq, but “[D]espite the restrictions, bus-loads of people are leaving each night from outside the Iraqi embassy in Damascus bound for Baghdad.” This piece never connects these events to Bashar al-Assad, but neutrally reports their existence independent of any accusations against Assad. After reading it one gets the impression the Syrian government was doing almost nothing to stop the phenomenon.

A bit of digging through my university’s catalogs found access to this LATimes article, “Probe Links Syria, Terror Network; Italian investigation finds the country was a hub for shuttling money and recruits to Iraq” (16 April 2003, A1) by Sebastian Rotella. I was not able to find it through a simple google search as I did with the others above. The details here give a new, robust base to the claims: Italian courts investigated the issues and found a man named Mullah Fuad, a Kurdish leader, was responsible for shuttling fighters from Syria to Iraq. This came to the attention of Italian authorities because of ongoing contact Fuad had with suspects in Italy he was trying to get to come fight. As I can’t link to the text, I took a screenshot of the abstract and header here with the url visible so any doubts about where I got it from can be addressed:
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Between these first four sources, we see a broad base of different publications, each sketching out their own version of events that highly overlap with different sources. The trademarks of coordination, especially direct repetition of talking points, are not here. Readers can ultimately judge for themselves. A fifth, which I found in my own digging that isn’t cited by either Lister or Gutman is this cable from Wikileaks (3/20/03). It details how Syria closed its border with Iraq once the war started and set up camps to help refugees. It shows clearly that Syria was conscious of the border issue and at least attempted to close it. If Syria knew about this earlier and the issues continued, it supports the accusations but doesn’t prove them.

DIGGING INTO THE SOURCES (2007-2010)

The claims that Al-Qaeda was operating out of Syria to carry out attacks in Iraq are present again years later, in completely different publications. News of an Al-Qaeda in Iraq operative killed in a raid on the Syrian side of the border  raised eyebrows and was detailed in “Al Qaeda in Iraq operative killed near Syrian Border Sheds light on foreign influence.” (10/03/07). “Muthanna” as he was known was apparently Al-Qaeda’s Emir of the Syria/Iraq border area. As Bill Rogio, the author, writes:

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The idea that an Al-Qaeda operative would have to enroll in a security course in Syria  raises the question- if this was happening in Syria, how could Assad’s government not know about it? Almost a year after Muthanna’s death, another raid carried out by US Special Forces in Syria apparently killed an Iraqi Al-Qaeda operative named Abu Ghadiya. Detalied in “Officials Say U.S. Killed an Iraqi in Raid in Syria,” (10/27/08) the raid happened in Sukkariyah. The NYT piece, as that paper is wont to do, cites unnamed intelligence officials in its account, so those claims should be considered dubitable for our purposes here.

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Sukkariyah, Syria

Around the same time as the two aforementioned events by the Syria/Iraq border, a series of records were discovered in Sinjar, Iraq. A Christian Science Monitor report (1/08) looked at these records and cited a CTC study about them. The CTC study neatly summarized its main findings from the Sinjar Records, and was cited in the Daily Beast piece. Gutman quotes the piece, pointing out how “it is almost inconceivable that Syrian intelligence has not tried to penetrate these networks.” What Gutman didn’t quote, however, seems even stronger to this reader’s mind- that evidence in the Sinjar documents shows that Al-Qaeda fighters commonly had multiple coordinators in Syria (p. 25). The fighters were also asked to rate the trustworthiness these coordinators, which seems to imply that the Iraqis don’t trust those they are working with in Syria (p.25). The question, then, is if this lack of trust comes from them being smugglers that AQ thinks are ultimately putting profits first, or if it is potentially because they were from Syrian intelligence (or someone else?) If it wasn’t the Syrian government behind this in some form, then again, the question hangs in the air: how could the Syrian government not know and/or do nothing to stop it?

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Sinjar, Iraq

There is yet more evidence from this period about not only the flow of jihadis from Syria to Iraq but also Syria’s involvement. “Iraq’s Ho Chi Minh Trail” by James Denselow (5/15/08), does not point the finger at Assad but does engage with the issue of the Syria-Iraq border as the primary transit point for foreign fighters entering Iraq. A Reuters report (9/30/09) shows a different angle supporting the claims that Syria was involved. In “Iraq al Qaeda militant says Syria trained him“, a videotape of a man who identifies himself as Mohammad Hassan al-Shemari was at the center of a diplomatic row between Iraq and Syria. A bombing in Baghdad was blamed on Syria by the Iraqi government, and the video of al-Shemari was offered as evidence. Al-Shemari, a Saudi national, claims he was trained by Syria in camps known to Syrian intelligence. The Reuters story points out it was not possible to independently verify al-Shemari’s account, but readers can already see here how it lines up with other accounts.

Iraq continued to suffer from bombings that made the country’s leadership clash with Syria in August 2009. In early December of that same year, more bombings took place (four in one day) that killed more than 100 and injured several hundred more. This was detailed in “Baghdad Car Bombs Blamed on Syria and Islamists by Iraqi Government.” What is especially intriguing is that Maliki’s government, by this time falling out with Washington over its increasingly sectarian and authoritarian rule,  leveled these accusations. The popular narrative goes that Iran supports both Assad and Maliki, but this fissure shows we can’t reduce geopolitics to clear outcomes on the ground.  As mentioned earlier, the Iraqi government released the video of the Al-Qaeda militant and his testimony, but new evidence below supports the allegations.

The Iraqi government presented a dossier to the Syrians to support their allegations, and Martin Chulov the Guardian correspondent claimed to have seen it as well. The Iraqis claimed to have spied on a recent meeting where the attacks were planned, and that Syrian government figures as well as representatives from two Islamist militias were there. The blunt, startling accusation level by the Iraqis was:

“…that an unlikely co-operative of secular Ba’athists and militants who eschewed any form of government in favour of a return to Islamic law conspired from 30 July to pool their resources and wreak havoc during the pre-election period.” The Guardian, 12/8/09

If true, it resonates strongly with the form that ISIS takes years later. It also raises questions about the extent to which  this was a continuation of the earlier practice of sponsoring jihadis like Abu Qaqaa or if this resembles that earlier phenomenon in form but is actually something else? So adding to the pile of evidence, Nouri al-Maliki’s government publicly accused Syria of abetting jihadis.

The US Government likewise published information that points to Syria. The US Department of the Treasury constantly takes part in anti-terror measures by tracing illicit flows of money. For our purposes,this report “Treasury Designates Members of Abu Ghadiyah’s Network Facilitates flow of terrorists, weapons, and money from Syria to al Qaida in Iraq” (2/28/08) details four Syrian men publicly identified as being involved in smuggling across the Syria/Iraq border. This report quotes Stuart Levy, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence as saying :

“Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Syria has become a transit station for al Qaida foreign terrorists on their way to Iraq. Abu Ghadiyah and his network go to great lengths to facilitate the flow through Syria of money, weapons, and terrorists intent on killing U.S. and Coalition forces and innocent Iraqis.”  (cited above)

This report doesn’t blame the Syrian government exactly, but again it points to events and names individuals involved. I can imagine that some will be hesitant to trust public reports from the US government, but these details are broadly corroborated in a wikileaks document cited by both Lister and the Daily Beast. Let’s look at it next.

The document is dated 2/24/10. It details a surprise appearance by Syrian General Intelligence Director Ali Mamluk at a meeting between Syrian Vice Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad and an American delegation led by S/CT Daniel Benjamin. Mamluk agrees that Syria is willing to potentially work with the US on several issues of importance, especially the Syria/Iraq border, if the US is willing to change several policies of interest to the Syrians. Later in the document, Mamluk describes Syria’s approach to terrorist groups, which is to infiltrate them rather than immediately clash with them, something Mamluk insisted had been successful. It is not only quite remarkable that Mamluk would admit this to the American delegation, but he also was willing to negotiate over the Syria/Iraq border, showing that Syria knew it could do more in this regard, and held it out to the US as a diplomatic carrot.

As readers should know, the controversy around Wikileaks focuses on what the organization decides to publish, not the veracity of the documents they publish. There is no reason to suspect that either of the documents from Wikileaks I cited in this post are not real, or that any of the documents Wikileaks has put online are not real.

Finally, the last wikileaks document (2/24/10) seems to corroborate what the Gutman piece about the Syrian government claimed, that the Syrians penetrated ISIS and have constant tabs on the organization from the inside. This is exactly how Mamluk described Syria’s policy toward jihadis.

CONCLUSION
By digging into a small sample of the publicly available evidence, a number of points become clear. First, Syria features in accounts from different years and completely different media outlets in different parts of the world as the primary country that jihadis travel to before traveling on to Iraq. This is corroborated in multiple accounts spelled out above, as well as in the Sinjar records and the raids that killed Abu Ghadiya and Muthanna. This helps establish the phenomenon as real, whether or not the Syrian state was involved. As Turkey is to the Syrian War today, Syria was to the Iraq War then.

Stepping forward from this base, numerous pieces of evidence outlined above support the central claim in both The Syrian Jihad by Charles Lister and in the Daily Beast series that Bashar al-Assad’s government sponsored and facilitated this flow of jihadis. Given the timing, location, and affiliations of these jihadis, it is possible to see this as having a significant impact on salafi-jihadi groups in Iraq right when the first iterations of ISIS were forming. The evidence thus strongly supports the conclusion that Assad had a strong hand in helping the organization grow at a key time in its timeline, rather than fighting them. I agree with Lister’s conclusion that Assad seemingly wanted to control this jihadi threat and direct it away from his regime, rather than stifling it. This also broadly lines up with part of the argument in Jean Pierre Filiu’s “From Deep State to Islamic State” that authoritarian regimes tolerated or facilitated jihadis for a variety of reasons, pointing to Syria and Yemen most primarily. I realize that the evidence here is not conclusive, I don’t claim anything else. I do, however, see it as ruling out most possibilities of doubt. It comes from too many different sources, stretched across a broad swath of time, all of which significantly predates the uprisings in Syria in early 2011.

Book Review: Hunting Season by James Harkin

“By the time it was rolled out, ISIS wasn’t so much a meeting of jihadi minds- one buttressed by networks of recruits that had already been established in Europe.” (p.94)

Such are the kinds of insights that pepper Harkin’s work on the wave of kidnappings of foreigners in Syria in the first two years of the war in Syria. By tracing a series of kidnappings of journalists and the mystery that followed, Harkin is able to follow an important, if largely ignored thread of the story about Daesh. Yet it is just that: a thread. Readers looking for a work that explores the history and development of Daesh in the manner of works by Gerges or Weiss and Hassan have come to the wrong place.  Harkin’s work succeeds inside its circumscribed limits:

“{B}ased on his reporting for Vanity Fair, James Harkin’s groundbreaking book investigates the abduction, captivity, and execution of American journalist James Foley and the fate of 23 other ISIS hostages.”

Through interviews with some of the released hostages, Harkin is able to provide descriptions about the treatment of hostages by the ISIS captors, details about how they were moved multiple times, and details about the coping strategies the different hostages used. With the lens focused on the captives, Harkin brings in details from the broader war that help illuminate the context surrounding their captivity. He also mentions something I have repeatedly pointed to in this blog, prison radicalization for  jihadis:

“When he taught Arabic in a prison near Antwerp, Pieter Van Ostaeyen saw petty criminals morph over the space of a few months into zealous Islamists under the influence of powerful Salafi preachers. The way he sees it, puritanical Islamism has become just another prison gang culture, just like the Aryan Nation in the United States.” (p.101, emphasis mine)

Harkin’s work, while definitely journalistic and not academic, nonetheless is able to tie in useful details about changes in ISIS as an organization. He barely touches upon it, but read alongside a recent work about ISIS “Emni” branch, a very clear picture comes together.

This lens  Harkin uses also becomes a very interesting one in relation to international dynamics and intervention in the conflict in Syria. All of the journalists kidnapped by ISIS had varying chances of ever being released, largely if not completely determined by the government’s willingness to pay ransoms in kidnapping cases. Italy, France, Spain and others all were willing to pay ransoms albeit as secretly as possible. The United States and the UK, however, refuse to pay ransoms as policy, which they claim takes away the financial motive to kidnap their citizens. It’s highly controversial, and families of the kidnapped understandably don’t like it.

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Harkin and others ran headlong into these issues at the beginning of the wave of kidnappings. The only clue to the abnormal nature of the kidnappings was the absence- of clues, of demands, of any info. Indeed, for some time, many were convinced that the Shabiha (regime thugs- literally “ghosts”) had kidnapped them as no traces of them were found among rebel groups. Only later, some time after many had already disappeared for some time, did it become clear that all the kidnappings were by the same people.

Harkin argues there was “an effective conspiracy of silence” even among governments who do pay ransoms as it was thought that higher profile cases would command higher ransoms. ISIS, unlike others, didn’t even announce it had the hostages or make any demands publicly, so Harkin argues the silence about their kidnappings- by the families, governments, and ISIS didn’t help the situation (p.78). Harkin argues it failed to notify other journalists about the situation and those who went in later were in greater danger.

This kidnapping industry, or K&R (kidnapping and ransom) that emerged in Syria from 2012 on also supported a whole range of shady actors. Given the instability of the war, it was not possible for families to easily reach Syria to investigate and a small industry of individuals popped up who attempted to fill this need. Many, as Harkin demonstrates, had no real leads or info and were out to scam the families looking desperately for traces of their loved ones.

recent report by FT corroborates Harkin’s account that as the war has shifted, so has the K&R industry in Syria. Whereas Harkin shows how ISIS began kidnapping foreigners before it gained larger notoriety, FT’s report shows that ISIS defectors have become common kidnap victims by other rebel militias in Syria. FT interviewed a rebel commander named Abu Yazan, who insisted that every rebel faction trades in ISIS fighters. Once these men and women flee ISIS, they’re on their own, and the K&R industry actually ransoms some of them back to their nation of origin.

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FT 1/9/17

In equally clear yet depressing fashion, Harkin’s work details John Cantlie’s time in captivity, his bond and quarrels with James Foley, all leading up to him being the very last remaining captive. Since 2014, Cantlie has been known to the outside world as the man who appears in ISIS propaganda from time to time, describing how things in Mosul were not as western media portrayed them, among other things. It sparked questions, did he have Stockholm Syndrome, was he pretending for his own survival, or something else? For this reader, Harkin’s book gave a backstory to Cantlie’s survival, how he avoided being beheaded alongside Foley and others, yet remains trapped.

Finally, Harkin’s work is an easy read given his journalistic approach and good editing overall. As I said in the beginning, it’s not academically rigorous and there are better works to learn a comprehensive picture of ISIS, but it doesn’t need to be. Read alongside those, this book is an interesting and easy to read supplement. On those terms, I recommend it.

Daesh forced out of Dabiq, where they expected apocalyptic confrontation

Sunday, 16 October 2016 is proving to be a watershed day in the developing history of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Today, Syrian rebel forces (the FSA) clashed with and drove ISIS out of Dabiq in northern Syria. The Turkish military played a role, carrying out airstrikes on Daesh and helping the fighters on the ground to take the villages of Ghaitun and Irshaf.

The video above shows fighters announcing the liberation of Dabiq and that hopefully soon they will take Raqqa as well. The village, in its location to the north of Aleppo, rests just between the Turkish border and the town that has become the center of the Syrian War. For Daesh, its location was an important part of taking advantage of the porous border between Syria and Turkey to smuggle fighters, goods, and weapons into Syria. Similarly, Daesh fighters leaving to go carry out attacks in Turkey and Europe potentially moved through here.Daesh had situated some 1,200 fighters there. In practical terms, today’s military victory by Syrian rebels will help shut off this flow of goods and fighters, but the victory has a large symbolic importance as well.

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The Symbolic Importance of Dabiq

In addition to its brutal violence, seizing of territory, and taking sexual slaves from populations of minority groups like Yezidis, Daesh leaders have emphasized the importance of the town of Dabiq, where they believed an apocalyptic confrontation would take place. The prophecy comes from a Hadith of Abu Hurayrah, which describes a battle between Muslim forces and a large group of non-Muslims.  This hadith was reproduced on the back page of ISIS propaganda as written about by another blogger I am otherwise unfamiliar with, Zen Pundit. As the prophecy was well known to Daesh fighters and supporters, the organization scrambled to address the fact that its prophecy seemed to have fallen flat:

 

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This screenshot was shared by a social media user, I am looking for a legit link for this and will upload it if I find it. It may be satire, which would be quite fitting.

As one might expect, there was a lot of celebration among US leaders, represented here by Brett McGurk:

Others had more sarcastic takes on the defeat:

I expect Daesh to make attempts to reconquer this space, so I will update this as necessary.

 

A Failed Coup in Mosul against ISIS

Reuters reports today that a planned coup was nipped in the bud before it could be carried out. An aide close to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was apparently among those who planned the action, in which weapons had been hidden in numerous locations around Mosul. Once outside forces invaded, these plotters apparently would have joined them. Daesh reportedly executed 58 people suspected of being part of this and buried them in a mass grave outside the city.

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What struck me is that this sounds strikingly like the way that ISIS would target cities in Syria for being taken over. They would send someone, months in advance, who would rent apartments and covertly fill them with weapons and supplies. Once the attack on the city started, ISIS fighters knew exactly where to find stores of weapons to bolster their fight. (see “How ISI Came to Syria” in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror  by Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss, p 149-150 and “Secret Files Reveal the Structure of the Islamic State” by Christoph Reuter, Der Spiegel 4/18/2015)

Whether that is the model being used here or not, it comes not that long after news came out that an underground opposition movement existed in Mosul. Named Kitaeb Mosul, the group would spraypaint an “M” for muqawwama, meaning “resistance” on walls in the city.

The IB Times covered the story here as did الزمان in Arabic. I will update this as more info becomes available.

The curious case of Harry Sarfo, former ISIS militant

There has been a stream of foreigners making their way through Turkey to Syria to join Daesh for some time. As the organization faced losses of territories and mounting death tolls of dead fighters, the number leaving the same way they came in has picked up as well. As we know, some of these fighters had not disavowed their ties to ISIS, but wanted to carry out attacks and were acting with explicit support from Daesh. Others had to sneak out, since leaving without the group’s permission has been equated with apostasy from Islam, and thus death.

One of these men has proven particularly talkative. Harry Sarfo, a German of Ghanian origin fought with Daesh before apparently having a change of heart. He fled back through Turkey and flew back to Germany, where he was arrested on arrival. He was tried and convicted of terrorist activities and sentenced to 3 years in jail, but questions remained about his activities while a member of Daesh. Sarfo denied taking part in any crimes and insisted he had been against Daesh violence before he finally quit and fled. The ensuing controversy around his story has grown and is outlined below.

His case might not have drawn much attention had he not been so willing to talk. He has been quoted in media around the world, from Russia to the USA, UK, Germany, and Ghana, where he was apparently born. The picture he paints fits with what many other defectors have described, and apparently prison officials as well German intelligence officials tasked with interrogating him found him credible. Others cast doubt on his credibility.

Sarfo’s multiple statements

Much of what Sarfo has to say portrays the organization as not merely brutal, but as going against Islam. In the NYT interview video linked below, Sarfo says he was drawn by the appeal of living in a place where Shari’a law was implemented, but that it took him barely one week to realize just how big of a mistake he had made by joining the group. He describes not only shocking things like children participating in war, but also the brutal punishments he saw meted out by Daesh. “The Islamic State is not just un-Islamic,” Sarfo stated, “it is inhuman. A blood-related brother killed his own brother on suspicion of being a spy. They gave him the order to kill him. It is friends killing friends.” These are the kinds of statements that are likely effective at dissuading potential recruits.

Sarfo claims to have been recruited for a specific branch of Daesh meant to carry out attacks abroad called “emni” or “أمني” in Arabic. A recent NYTimes article based on interviews with Sarfo describes the recruiting process in detail. Its soldiers have apparently been dispatched to Austria, Germany, Lebanon, Spain, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Tunisia and Malaysia, according to the NYTimes. He is the first I’ve seen to speak of “clean men” who are recently converted Muslims living in various parts of Europe helping Daesh terrorists on the ground. Sarfo described his interview and vetting process that Daesh put him through when he arrived in Syria, and he also describes how many would-be terrorists in England had backed out of their assignments, a constant problem for Daesh in its attempts to remotely plan attacks. Overall, his story and claims seem to corroborate other accounts from defectors.

Sarfo’s Radicalization

Sarfo’s past and path to joining Daesh, it must be mentioned, are actually quite common. An interview he gave to The Independent in the UK talked extensively about his past. Sarfo was not Muslim from birth, he converted around age 20. He was involved with crime and drugs as a youth, and met a jihadist recruiter in prison. Upon release, he joined a “radical” mosque in Bremen, and sought to travel to Syria to work with an aid organization, but was arrested multiple times and found himself back in Germany. This part seems questionable, as Sarfo had already shown signs of radicalization but was merely traveling to Syria to work in aid? It’s possible, but questionable. In her interview with him, Rukimini Callamachi of the NYT asked him these questions, and he responded that some elements of the mosque in Bremen turned him off, especially having to stop associating with non-Muslims. Upon his return, Sarfo  had to report to police while under watch for potential radicalization. His home was repeatedly raided by police and his passport was taken. He claims that this mistreatment at the hands of German police pushed him to join ISIS in April 2015.

Sadly, these patterns of radicalization are already documented and not unique to him. Sarfo’s path to becoming a jihadist after conversion in adulthood, as well as a life of crime, and time in prison are common themes for jihadists. I have written about this previously here. In summary, a fairly common example of radicalization supposedly culminated in Harry Sarfo feeling overwhelmed in Syria with ISIS, and he fled to escape with his life. Yet if that were all that happened, or indeed what happened at all, Sarfo’s story wouldn’t be so curious.

A Seemingly Incriminating Video
This week, Sarfo’s public story took an unexpected turn when the Washington Post published a video it claims was leaked to them from inside Daesh territory. The video is a series of clips of Harry Sarfo while he was a member, and it seems to contradict his testimony that he never participated in Daeshi violence. I say it seems because the video shows Sarfo pull out a handgun, point it at a group of regime soldiers who were already being fired upon, and shoot at them. Given how much they had already been shot at, there’s a good chance they were already dead. We can’t see this for certain, though, because another person moves in front of the camera right at the moment Sarfo seems to fire his weapon. The video cast clouds over the claims of Sarfo, as well as his loquacious appearances in media talking about what he claims to know. Sarfo’s attorney refused to comment other than saying “I can’t say anything about this…this is a surprise to me.”

Even more interesting, however, is the video itself. Given the proximity of the filming in the very beginning, it seems safe to assume that the filmer was a fellow Daesh member, but this is not so clear later in the video. How could someone who wasn’t a fighter or with Daesh get that shot? I think that largely rules out the idea that a civilian inside who isn’t part of Daesh filmed this and released it. Moreover, Daesh releases propaganda constantly. If they wanted to embarrass Mr. Sarfo and cast doubt on his stories, why not just put it in their own propaganda? To this author, it really seems that something just isn’t right. Why would someone on the inside of Daesh leak this video to the Washington Post? The murky nature of the motivations behind the release, and its exceptional nature lead me to explore some potential explanations.

A) One scenario would be that Daesh knows realistically that much of its propaganda is censored and taken offline before it is widely disseminated. Taking this into account, they decide to leak the footage to a source that wouldn’t be censored, the Washington Post. Strangely, there are no logos or watermarks added to the footage, despite the fact that Daesh regularly adds these. Moreover, the footage isn’t that incriminating to this author’s mind, so I wonder what they would have expected this to achieve? update: I realized I can’t think of a single time Daesh supposedly leaked anything to the press, so this would be unprecedented if that’s what really happened.

B) Another scenario is that the person on the inside who leaked it to the Washington Post is some kind of foreign informant/agent. There is a high probability that foreign intelligence agencies have sent agents  to join Daesh disguised as recruits. Think about it for a second- if it is sadly so easy for Daesh fighters to sneak into Europe, and Daesh is accepting hundreds of new fighters a week, how easy would it be for a foreign intelligence organization to get a spy inside, disguised as a recruit? It would be dangerous to say the least, but very possible. If someone on the inside wanted to get this information out to impact Sarfo’s trial, how would they do it? It seems that if the video was given straight to the German government, its provenance would come under question, and it would become clear the German government had some kind of spy on the inside, likely initiating a search for the person. Instead, it is given by the agent/s to journalists, who may or may not know who this person is, and they may genuinely think s/he is a Daesh member.

C) It is always possible that personal feuds not publicly known could be the reason that someone on the inside wants Sarfo, now escaped, to face more jail time.

D) Finally, it would also be possible that Daesh is very angry about what Sarfo has revealed and wants to try to call his credibility into question by releasing this footage that seemingly undermines his own story. Rather than trying to ensure he gets more prison time, they might want to cast doubt on his statements about life on the inside as well as the way the “emni” branch operates. For me, this still loops back to the doubts I expressed above.

Whatever the truth is, all of this has turned into a spat between the reporters at the Washington Post and Rukmini Callamachi at the NYTimes.

I think this tension between the reporters is unfortunate, because I don’t think reporter complicity with Daesh is what is going on. My hypothesis, outlined above, would explain this in a manner that didn’t involve any complicity by the Washington Post, and I also wonder whether active Daesh members would actually be willing to work with them. In the ensuing back and forth, a number of people accused Rukmini Callamachi of being too easy on Sarfo and basically accepting his lies.

There isn’t enough evidence to say definitively, so I have made clear that my points above are merely conjecture. I will update the story if new information becomes available. Point B in particular raises the points that the Washington Post focused on when they released the video, namely that German authorities were in a difficult position to deal with Daesh defectors like Sarfo when they can’t establish what the person did or didn’t do while in Syria or Iraq. That points to long-term issues with transitional justice that will likely lean on the lenient side as Mr. Sarfo’s 3 year sentence seems to indicate. But, also in relation to point B, what if German intelligence has information it gathered in secret that would affect a trial of a Daesh defector? Or another foreign intelligence agency?  How, if at all, would that info enter into the trial? There are sadly more questions than answers for now.