Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.
BAGHDAD—We arrived here this month just as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State. We had come here as researchers from the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) to interview imprisoned ISIS cadres, but suddenly found our plans disrupted: Everyone took the day off as the prime minister declared Dec. 10 a national holiday.
Downtown Baghdad was busy with organized parades on the ground and fighter jets roaring overhead. The streets were alive with improvised celebrations. At one point we watched as a group of young Iraqi men stood atop a moving minivan, somehow keeping their balance while shouting joyfully and waving Iraqi flags.
Taking a brief foray to Baghdad’s 52nd Street to have a snack and dessert, we sat with Iraqis in a restaurant—living life as normal. It seemed as if a nightmare had ended.
At its peak between 2014 and 2016, ISIS held nearly one-third of Iraq’s territory. Its propaganda poisoned the minds of thousands, and Iraqis suffered greatly in ways that are still difficult for many of them to talk about—the horrors are too hard to bear.
An estimated 300,000 children and teens lived under ISIS rule. Their universities were destroyed. The curricula of elementary and high schools were replaced with ISIS ideology and training, including lessons on how to make IEDs, engage in combat, or wage suicide attacks.
Some young people were recruited, others were forced into camps, while still others attended ISIS-run schools to learn, among other things, how to behead a human being. Those whose parents managed to keep them at home were still exposed to ISIS brutality: Whenever they went out they could watch ISIS propaganda on television screens that were placed all over the ISIS-controlled cities, running nonstop. Worse still, they saw ISIS beheadings and other atrocities in front of their eyes.
Iraqi parliamentarian Maysoon al-Damluji bemoans the complete lack of treatment programs aimed at these children and asks that such programs be quickly and efficiently organized.
When it comes to disputing ISIS propaganda, which is one of the specialties of our organization, everyone agrees that ISIS was skilled in the way it used the media, particularly social media, while the national and international actors who opposed it needed to play catch up.
Saad Maan, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, says the Iraqi government learned to fight back using media to quickly confront the lies of ISIS, including showing the testimony of ISIS survivors who were arrested rather than “martyred” in Islamic State operations. His ministry also showed that some attacks that ISIS claimed as glorious events never happened in fact. On several occasions, the U.S. military used aerial video footage from its warplanes and drones to dispel the claims made about its own operations.
In Baghdad, we were told that there is hardly a family that has not lost a loved one to the fight against ISIS. Civilians and soldiers alike were killed.
To the north, the fight against ISIS led to the near-total destruction of the recently reclaimed city of Mosul, once a vibrant metropolis and the second largest city in Iraq. Now it looks like a moonscape.
At Prime Minister al-Abadi’s “Conference on Countering Daesh Propaganda and Ideology” (Daesh being an Arab acronym for ISIS), one of the Iraqi speakers addressed the question of foreign fighters from Europe and elsewhere who traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the “caliphate.”
His remarks about Scandinavians, Britons, and French citizens, among others, coming to his country to try to overthrow its government underscored how strange, unconventional, and uncommon it was to have upwards of 40,000 foreign fighters stream into one’s country (and nearby Syria) to join an organization hell-bent on destroying one’s own existing form of governance.
The fight against ISIS has been a hard one. It has been a team effort, with the U.S.-led coalition of over 30 countries offering technical support and air power while the Iraqi militias and military finally bravely defeated one of the world’s most horrific enemies.
Yet, as we see the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq, we also hear from all the Iraqi experts gathered here, as we have heard in months past, great concern over the huge flow of messages that came out of ISIS, which flooded social media, and which still exist.
Here at the conference, the commander of the the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, reported that ISIS’ media capability has been degraded by 85 percent.
Yet the Iraqi military, police, and government experts gathered here all worry that the ISIS ideology that seeped deeply into the minds of many, particularly the young people who lived under them, may still be potent. They fear its virulence and its continued resonance. If its ideology endures we could see a reemergence here of violent extremism, perhaps under a new name.
Indeed, we see the resonance of ISIS far beyond the borders of Iraq. It was echoed recently in New York City, where first an Uzbek and then a Bengali immigrant heeded the call to mount attacks in downtown Manhattan. We have seen the same in Europe. The group has lost its territory, but not its brand.
“How can we convince our youth that they can be part of the decision-making, that they can have economic opportunities and futures far from the extremist groups?” one of the Iraqi speakers asked participants at the conference. “Who among the activists and government can help come up with solutions?”
Later in the week, we interviewed an ISIS defector, the 66th defector, prisoner, or returnee we have talked to for our project. This time we were in a Baghdad prison as we listened to young Abu Jihad, as we called him to hide his true name. He wasn’t far from home—the 23-year-old was from the Dora neighborhood in Baghdad—but it will be a long time before he sees it again.
Abu Jihad was recruited as a minor into ISIS during a short stint in prison. Released from jail, he came out completely transformed: his mind poisoned by an ISIS recruiter. On his release, he immediately telephoned members of ISIS that his recruiter had told him to contact, and they lost no time training and equipping him for bomb attacks against police and so-called collaborators of the Iraqi state, usually placing explosives outside their doors and detonating them from a distance.
After his fifth attack, Abu Jihad learned he had killed not the policeman who was his target, but a baby boy.
“I can’t close my eyes without seeing that baby,” Abu Jihad told us. “I am haunted by what I did and beg Allah to forgive me.”
When we ask him to talk about whether or not joining ISIS worked out for him, he proclaims, “ISIS lies. They lied to me about making a Sunni state. I wanted to believe it because I wanted a Sunni state to gain my rights. But because I believed them I got prison, constant nightmares. I ruined my life.” And much or all of it will be spent behind bars.
Abu Jihad was only spared the death penalty because he was a minor when he joined the “caliphate’s” ranks.
After interviewing him, we walked past a seemingly endless display of headshots of other prisoners. All bore notes saying they had already been executed for their crimes on behalf of ISIS.
Killing the men may solve some of the problems created by the ISIS “caliphate.” But the final victory in this war won’t be achieved until their ideas have been dismantled and destroyed as well.
Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (12-19-2017) How do you deprogram a country after ISIS is defeated? Daily Beast
China-US and the Iran nuclear deal
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province. Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.
A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.
During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.
The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said:
‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’
The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.
During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.
The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC, Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.
In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.
Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.
The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.
Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?
“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!
The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force!
Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.
The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.
Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.
The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.
The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.
The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.
Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility
Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.
Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.
This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.
The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.
IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”
And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.
In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.
IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).
The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.
The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.
Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.
Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).
And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).
There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.
But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions.
Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.
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