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Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad

By Sami Moubayed, I.B. Tauris, 256 pages, $18

Daesh, or the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is here to stay and the world has to accept the harsh reality that it is not going to disappear anytime soon. Sami Moubayed uses his fascinating new book “Under the Black Flag” to offer a chillingly detailed portrait of how Daesh and its leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi have come very far from their origins in Al Qaida which has never amounted to more than splintered cells across the world, whereas Daesh has effectively established a proto-state to serve as a beacon for Islamists across the world.

Moubayed describes how Daesh has all the trappings of statehood: a metropolitan capital, an army, a police force, an intelligence service, a school curriculum, a national anthem, as well as courts and substantial financial reserves built up from its own oil exports and energy sales, whose customers include the Syrian government despite their deadly enmity. He points out that Daesh has controlled its territory as large as Great Britain with a population of more than 6 million for more than a year, and has established a formal administration of its territory.

 

Daesh governance

Moubayed’s detailed descriptions of Daesh’s governance stand in stark contrast to Daesh’s ghastly acts as a ferocious terrorist organisation finding ever more terrible ways of killing its opponents. He describes how Al Baghdadi manages his territory with a three-man war cabinet, of himself and two deputies.

Abu Muslim Al Turkmani handles Iraqis affairs, while Abu Ali Al Anbari runs Syrian affairs and also handles intelligence. He is an ex-general in the Iraqi Army originally from Mosul. The two deputies work through 12 governors hand-picked by Al Baghdadi and local councils on finance, welfare, media and military affairs.

The councils also monitor how the foreign fighters are preforming, both on the battlefield and at running the state and mixing with the local inhabitants. An independent Shura Council manages Daesh’s legal system and their courts handle everything, including cases dating back to before the arrival of Daesh.

But lest anyone think this efficiency means that Daesh is a normal state, Moubayed gives the example of the 12 Saudi judges who run the courts in Al Raqqa, who have ruled that Christians living under Daesh have three options: to convert to Islam, or to pay a 20 per cent religious tax, or to be put to the sword although they are given 48 hours to flee.

 

History

“Under the Black Flag” gives a quick but valuable history of radical Islam, going back to the puritan theologian Ibn Taymiya in the 1200s who was so shocked at the decadence of medieval Islam that he advocated complete rebirth and a return to the practices of the Salaf. Moubayed traces how these ideas were picked up by the Wahhabis and continued under the Ottoman rule, before they were adopted by the early branches of the anti-colonial Muslim Brotherhood in the 1930s and 1940s in Syria, Egypt and Iraq, before moving on to form the mindset of modern jihadists.

Moubayed is particularly good at tracing the complex development of these viciously competing groups in Iraq and Syria as they work with or split from Al Qaida before emerging as today’s Daesh and Jabhat Al Nusra, with their own internal legitimacies and legends of their own prowess.

The book moves through the profoundly radicalising effect of the Hama massacre in 1982, and the invasion of Iraq in 2002, followed by opportunities created by the collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi states, and ends by focusing on today’s deadly rivals Mohammed Al Golani, the founder and commander of Jabhat Al Nusra; and Ibrahim Al Badri (better known by his adopted name of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi) who took Daesh out of the shadows and achieved territorial power.

Moubayed uses meticulous research to describe their deep rivalry, as pointing for example that troubling as Al Baghdadi’s success with Daesh is for the world at large, it is even more troubling to Al Qaida’s Ayman Al Zawahiri because Daesh is eclipsing the old Al Qaida.

This is why Al Baghdadi, hungry for power and authority, could not put up with Al Golani’s betrayal when he took Jabhat Al Nusra independent, and explains the ferocity of the infighting that broke out between the two groups. Al Golani admitted on “Al Jazeera” that Jabhat Al Nusra had lost 700 men in the fight against Daesh.

Daesh and Al Qaida differ fundamentally on who they see as the main enemy. Daesh does not follow Al Qaida’s “far enemy” strategy, preferring the “near enemy” albeit at a regional level. This means the primary target of Daesh has not been the United States but the Shiite regime in Baghdad and the Baathist Alawite regime in Damascus.

 

Deadly rivals

Looking ahead, Mubayed looks at some possibilities at this highly unpredictable relationship, ruling out any immediate alliance between Jabhat Al Nusra and Al Qaida. However, he comments that it can never really be ruled out that Daesh incorporates Jabhat Al Nusra by force, or the machinations of the fighting leads an alliance of Syrian rebels (Islamist, secular or both) to seek to eliminate Jabhat Al Nusra, it may chose to join forces with Daesh, and if the US campaign against Al Nusra gains real force it might push the group closer to Daesh.

Mubayed was writing before Russia entered the Syrian civil war and started attacking Jabhat Al Nusra and its allies with real ferocity. Mubayed is clear that if such a reunification happens, it will be impossible for Al Baghdadi to meet Al Golani half way, but circumstances might force Al Golani to go back under Al Baghdadi’s complete authority.

 

Anecdotes

While also looking at the big picture, the book is full of bizarre anecdotes which bring life under Daesh to life. Apparently Al Baghdadi is absolutely fascinated that Daesh’s capital of Al Raqqa in Syria on the banks of the River Euphrates was also briefly the capital of the Abbasid caliphate under Caliph Haroun Al Rashid from the years 796 to 809. This tenuous link to the Islamic Golden Age led Al Baghdadi to research the history of Al Raqqa, including finding a book by an Arab scholar that was out of print but was found in Beirut and photocopied. When the researchers asked for Al Baghdadi’s address, they were told to simply write “Caliph Ibrahim. Al Raqqa’. Be sure it will arrive safely”.

 

Final word

Perhaps the most startling idea in this valuable book come in its conclusion, where Moubayed takes several pages to describe how durable the Daesh state has made itself, and points out that the major problem with it getting wider credence is Al Baghdadi and his radical terror. If the caliph was a capable and sane leader, many would not be complaining about him, comments Moubayed.

He then departs from the careful analysis that has been the heart of “Under the Black Flag” as he imagines a future coup that might rip through Daesh, toppling Al Baghdadi to be replaced by any of the former Iraqi generals that surround him.

“If the coup leaders execute Al Baghdadi on the basis that he has deviated from the core principles of Islam, if Baghdadi was replaced by a caliph who pledges non-intervention, wears a modern suit, trims his beard and stops decapitating prisoners and destroying statures, would more people be willing to express support for Daesh, and how long would it be before this new state received official recognition, and enjoy demarcated borders and embassies with its neighbours?”

A remarkable end to a very informed and interesting book.