Context — November 20, 2015, 2:44 pm

How the Islamic State Was Won

The Islamic State’s influence grows; James Harkin interviews its fighters, enemies, and potential recruits

Published in the November 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “How the Islamic State was Won,” examines the group’s rise through interviews with its fighters, enemies, and potential recruits. The story is free to read in full through November 23. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for instant access to our entire 165-year archive.

[Lede]

From a New York Times report, published November 18, 2015, on how the Islamic State’s influence in the Middle East grew after the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011.

Beaten back by the American troop surge and Sunni tribal fighters, it was considered such a diminished threat that the bounty the United States put on one of its leaders had dropped from $5 million to $100,000. The group’s new chief was just 38 years old, a nearsighted cleric, not even a fighter, with little of the muscle of his predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the godfather of Iraq’s insurgency, killed by the American military five years earlier after a relentless hunt.
     “Where is the Islamic State of Iraq you are talking about?” the Yemeni wife of one leader demanded, according to Iraqi police testimony. “We’re living in the desert!”
     Yet now, four years later, the Islamic State is on a very different trajectory. It has wiped clean a 100-year-old colonial border in the Middle East, controlling millions of people in Iraq and Syria.

In the summer of 2012, as the initial demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad gave way to armed conflict between government and rebel troops, the Syrian army began pounding parts of its biggest cities with missiles and barrel bombs. The aim was to wipe out the regime’s armed opponents, but the result was to destroy the country’s social fabric and displace whole communities — leaving millions of Syrians with little to lose. Groups like the Nusra Front took control of towns across the north, and foreign jihadis flooded into Syria to join the fight. I’d seen them myself when I went to Aleppo in the spring of 2013. On the way into the city we were surrounded by countless shiny SUVs with tinted windows and black Islamist flags hanging off the back. At one point, as we waited in a traffic jam, a North African jihadi on the back of a truck fixed me with a stare and waved at me to put my camera down.

Now Nusra’s biggest rival for power in the north is the Islamic State — even though, until February 2014, ISIL was, like Nusra, an affiliate of Al Qaeda. But the marriage had always been uncomfortable. ISIL sprang from Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was led by a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi had angered Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s leadership by slaughtering Shias in Iraq. After Zarqawi’s death in a U.S. air strike in 2006, the group went into decline until a man named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over, in 2010. Baghdadi started as a low-level street fighter during the American occupation of Iraq and is reported to have done some time in a U.S. Army prison. It was his decision to move the group into Syria’s stateless rebel areas in 2013 that changed its fortunes radically — and pushed its differences with Al Qaeda into the open. Al Qaeda’s aim had been to build a terror organization powerful enough to take the battle to its enemies in the West, but ISIL saw its mission as more religiously purist and more constructive — to improve the piety of Sunni Muslims and build a government around them. After ISIL began competing with the Nusra Front in Syria, Al Qaeda declared it was severing ties with the former.

In the first three months of this year ISIL fighters from Iraq and Chechnya fanned out over eastern Syria, annexing some of the country’s most lucrative oil fields as they went. They bought off local tribes and either massacred other rebels or demanded their loyalty. By the summer, the Islamic State was in control of 35 percent of Syria’s territory and was earning about $1 million a day in oil revenue. It used its newfound power to turn back to Iraq and take much of the northwest of the country.

Just as they’d done in Raqqa, the emissaries of the Islamic State in eastern Syria and in Iraq distributed services to citizens and charity to needy local families. Their protection, however, came with a social contract that brooked no dissent. An Islamic State edict in Raqqa reviving a medieval tax on non-Muslims came too late for the city’s Christians; most had already fled. Anyone ISIL deemed an apostate could be crucified or beheaded and left to rot in public thoroughfares as a warning to others. (In the Turkish city of Sanl?urfa I met a rebel militiaman who told me that his brother, a media activist, had been killed and his arms splayed in public crucifixion in Raqqa.)

By the time Al Qaeda cut its ties with ISIL, Baghdadi’s organization had already spectacularly renewed the franchise of militant Islamism around the world. From Tunisia to Gaza to Indonesia to Yemen, the wooden pronouncements of Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri were being passed over on new media for demonstrations of support for the Islamic State, and there were more and more sightings of its distinctive white-circle-on-black flag. Inspired by ISIL fighters’ black balaclavas and showy use of swords, some Syrians began to call them “the ninjas.”

Given the difficulty of reporting from Islamic State territory without being kidnapped — several Americans and Europeans are still being held hostage in Syria — journalists have had to rely on the group’s own media operation. The result was that a twenty-one-year-old student at Oxford University named Aymenn Tamimi became one of its most eloquent interpreters. Tamimi’s approach was to buddy up to ISIL fighters on Twitter and translate their statements; it made him enemies among other analysts, but it also paid dividends. Before I left for Turkey I went to Oxford to meet him. It was early June, and Tamimi was in the middle of taking his final exams; fidgety and wary of eye contact, in the gaps in our conversation he sneaked glances at his crib notes on Alexander the Great.

Tamimi’s assiduous translations of Islamic State propaganda were useful because they showed that these weren’t just monsters responsible for summary executions. They were also cutting down trees, organizing road repairs, securing electricity for their citizens, and protecting against theft. One rebel activist from Homs told me that all his friends in Raqqa loved the Islamic State, mainly because it took a firm line on price-gouging and criminality. “Even if the system is bad,” he said, “the fact that they have one is good.” In Raqqa, Tamimi said, the Islamic State has opened a consumer protection office dedicated to measuring the price and quality of anything sold in the city. One of its reports discusses the quality of service expected in local restaurants and the necessity of serving a decent kebab. Indoctrinating children into the Islamic State, Tamimi said, was central. “They’ve been doing it from day one. There is an understanding that not all the foreign fighters are going to stay in the long run, that the key is to have the next generation of Syrians.” In Raqqa the Islamic State inaugurated an office where orphans are registered and guaranteed material support. At its regular outreach meetings, children’s entertainment is a priority; one propaganda picture shows the Islamic State logo hovering atop a bouncy castle.

The sophistication of its output on Twitter and YouTube is surely one reason so many young foreigners have flocked to the Islamic State rather than to other jihadi brigades in Syria. Another, Tamimi said, lies in its ambitions to build a heaven here on earth. “A state gives you something to do, doesn’t it?” he said with a shrug.

Read the full story here.

Share
Single Page

More from James Harkin:

From the February 2016 issue

We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive

A gay soldier in Assad’s army

From the November 2014 issue

How the Islamic State Was Won

Interviews with fighters, enemies, and potential recruits

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2019

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Article
Power of Attorney·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

Article
Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Article
Carlitos in Charge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was in Midtown, sitting by a dry fountain, making a list of all the men I’d slept with since my last checkup—doctor’s orders. Afterward, I would head downtown and wait for Quimby at the bar, where there were only alcoholics and the graveyard shift this early. I’d just left the United Nations after a Friday morning session—likely my last. The agenda had included resolutions about a worldwide ban on plastic bags, condemnation of a Slobodan Miloševic statue, sanctions on Israel, and a truth and reconciliation commission in El Salvador. Except for the proclamation opposing the war criminal’s marble replica, everything was thwarted by the United States and a small contingent of its allies. None of this should have surprised me. Some version of these outcomes had been repeating weekly since World War II.

Article
Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today