I entered Najiyeh, a small town of no consequence, without their permission. The town claimed to be an ISIS principality. The claim seemed ridiculous but as we drove in to the town it seemed less so. They had fixed the prices, the markets were bustling, even the gold shops were open. It was a stark contrast to what I had heard about their ‘state’. I understood why the people accepted their rule; order is key in conflict especially in one as brutal as this. Even non-ISIS people in the surrounding countryside told me good things about them. “You could bring your case to their courts”, they would say, “and it would be resolved with out fear or favour”. Their entry reminded me of the Taliban being welcomed with loud cheering and flowers in Kabul but they left with the inhabitants shaving off their beards and smoking cigarettes even if they had never touched one before.
A few months later I met Abu ‘Ali in Tarsus, Turkey. The young commander from Ansar al-Sham looked like a young St. Paul, dark black beard with long hair that was slightly thinning on top. He was recovering from a leg injury that if miracles weren’t real, should mean him being minus one leg. The wound was horror personified. Abu ‘Ali informed me that the people alongside the local battalions had kicked ISIS out of Najiyeh.
“Why?” I asked.
“They were harsh people” he replied, I noticed disappointment in his face, it was as if they had betrayed the Syrians. The Revolution, if you will, had made these insignificant men into Mujahideen, warriors of God. Some of these men had been eking out their existence as smugglers, farmers or hiding from the authorities. The Revolution had made them. Now the likes of Abu ‘Ali who had emerged from the mosques calling for the removal of Assad, facing live bullets after Friday prayers were lectured to by Abu so-and-so al-Britani who, only six months ago, was checking out some winding girl’s batty rider in some funked up club. Here came Abu so-and-so to the land of Muslim scholarship and lectured the people on the intricacies of kufr, taghut, tawheed and the incompatibility of Islamic theology with democracy. Syrians didn’t need lessons in creed. They wanted to stop the barrel bombs from killing their children.
A few years later in Saraqeb, whilst filming with Jund al-Aqsa, I was told that the local leader of Ahrar al-Sham had shot the local ISIS emir in the back. The ISIS emir, a native of the city, considered it sacrilege to turn his gun against his co-religionists. However, the leader of Ahrar had no compulsion in dispatching him to eternity. The people had liked the ISIS emir but these same people had also defaced the testimony of faith in the Islamic State’s court house. They wrote sarcastic comments over it. ISIS would no doubt consider it apostasy, still none of the locals had renounced Islam but they too, like the Kabulis had shaved off their beards, increased their smoking even though they readily admitted that smoking was ‘forbidden’ in Islam. More recently, incredulously, I heard an Iraqi man preferring the Iranian backed Shi’te militia, the Popular Mobilisation Group in Mosul instead of ISIS. Moslawis had few issues in raising the Iraqi flag and lowering the ISIS flag, even though everyone knew that the former banner was born in the gentlemen’s clubs in London and the latter in Abbasid Baghdad. And yet without any sense of irony, Moslawis had preferred the latter. Why when everyone professed to be Muslims, did the ISIS come to this? Why did al-Baghdadi’s nascent project fail?
Arguably, ISIS did not lose because of a determined opponent, for they are not short of courage and military experts attest to their mastery of asymmetric warfare. ISIS lost because the local populace stopped believing in them. So much so that the people reviled them more than they reviled Assad. People hate Assad because he killed their children but they hate ISIS for stabbing them in the back whilst they were trying to overthrow former. Assad never claimed to be ‘Islamic’ and in a way, nothing was expected from him. He could do what he wanted, he was after all from a long tradition of Middle Eastern tyrants who crushed uprisings whether they be Muslim Brotherhood, Iraqi marsh Arabs or Shi’ites. Brutal cruelty was expected. Even though the deaths inflicted by ISIS remain minuscule compared to the former, when ISIS claimed to be ‘Islamic’ and acted with such wanton cruelty, it provoked disgust and revulsion from even the most dissolute of Muslims. Even that hard drinking, stripper ogling Muslim who puts his head down on the carpet once a year if that, knows that the bar has been raised. He knows that it is unbefitting for a ‘holy warrior’ to behave thus.
Whatever Graeme Wood argues about ISIS and its level of ‘Islamicness’, what Ahmed on the street recognises instinctively is that al-Baghdadi and his group are far from ‘Islamic’; no Fatwa needed. Muslims are inculcated with a conception of what a Mujahid or ‘holy warrior’ is meant to be. The stories of the Companions of the Prophet, Hamza the lion of God or Omar Mokhtar the lion of the desert, both usually in the guise of Anthony Quinn are found in their mothers’ milk. Sons are named Mujahid, Ghazi, Faris and Shaheed in the hope that they epitomise that exceptional person who perfects his moral and martial virtues in a situation where bestial brutality is permissible and yet he manages to retain his humanity. The nobility of man is truly tested in war.
It is here that al-Baghdadi and his men have failed so miserably. His heroes who populate the telegram channels make Muslims recoil. Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, his deputy, is certainly eloquent and no doubt courageous but ordinary in his brutality and harshness, no matter how many texts his eulogist claims he has studied. Jihadi John too is ordinary in his inhumanity. Go to the local halal butcher on Harrow Road, London and he will tell you that Islamic rites dictate that an animal should be given its final sip of water and slaughtered away from the gaze of another animal to lessen its distress and that of the other animals. Yet, here stands Jihadi John slaughtering innocent men in front of the whole world so brazenly. There is no sense of shame, even Cain felt ashamed after he killed Abel.
There seems to be something thoroughly modern about Jihadi John’s actions as he points that knife at you. Arguably, Jihadi John’s actions have roots in the London of the Nineties, when Jihadi snuff tapes were sold openly outside mosques. These videos showed in graphic detail the exploits of the Chechen mujahideen against Russian aggression in Chechnya. One of the Imam’s who used to teach in Lisson Green youth club, where Mohammed Emwazi used to attend, recalls that soon those tapes:
“…became dark there was a Russian beheaded by some Chechens, and whenever I saw the brothers, some of them would creep up from behind and greet you by cutting you in the neck.”
Perhaps the mood music for Mohammed Emwazi’s deeds had been set up then. The Imam continues:
“I remember, even at the time that this is not how you greet each other, and I always reminded the brothers that the point of Jihad is not to be blood thirsty and I used to quote the hadith of the Prophet: “Don’t look forward to meeting your enemy, but if you meet him remain steadfast.”
Jihadi John is unrecognisable as a mujahid by your average Muslim, but take Jihadi John to the cold harsh streets of West London and any road man who listens to Stormzy recognises his deed to be pure gangsta.
The mujahid of now is very different from the mujahid of then. Let us demonstrate this with a tangible example, let us use a paragon of a holy warrior of the 19th century, Abdel Kader al-Jaza’iri. He was also known as the Commander of the Faithful although, admittedly, under the suzerainty of the Sultan of Morocco. Abdel Kader, like al-Baghdadi, tried to build a state by uniting the various tribes in Algeria and was harsh to those who collaborated with the French. Like al-Baghdadi, he was a scholar, a jurist and descended from prophetic lineage. He fought the French invaders and was described by his foes and friends alike as a fearless military genius and as illusive as al-Baghdadi. William Thackeray wrote of him:
Nor less quick to slay in battle than in peace to spare and save,
Of brave men wisest councillor, of wise councillors most brave;
How the eye that flashed destruction could beam gentleness and love,
How lion in thee mated lamb, how eagle mated dove!
And yet the gulf between al-Jaza’iri and al-Baghdadi, as Thackeray’s poem shows is vast….