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The Center of the Jihadist Universe

Ken Watkin
Monday, July 11, 2016, 7:30 AM

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A review of Charles Lister's The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Oxford, 2015).


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PDF version

A review of Charles Lister's The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Oxford, 2015).


The contemporary security dialogue is focused on the Islamic State (IS), its territorial losses, and the ability of that organized armed group to carry out, or inspire international terrorist attacks in such diverse locations as Paris, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Orlando. With many security commentators and government officials seemingly absorbed with the IS capacity to harm the West, it is all the more important to consider Charles Lister’s account of the growth and complexity of the Syrian jihad. As he notes in the Introduction to his impressive account of the role played by transnational Sunni jihadists and their Syrian Salafist allies, “Syria currently represents the centre of the world for jihadist militancy.”

The West has often concentrated on the fact that by September 2015 at least 30,000 non-Syrians, and as many as 6,000 Europeans had joined the jihad. However, it is his reference to there being approximately 150,000 insurgents operating there in early 2015 “within as many as 1,500 operationally distinct armed groups” that points to the dangers of viewing the threat through the ill-defined lens of “terrorism”. It is the scope and complexity of the Syrian conflict that presents the greatest challenge to those seeking to defeat its Salafi jihadists. From a legal perspective Lister’s book provides a rich outline of facts upon which to consider issues such as when the armed conflict actually commenced; the identification of lawful targets associated with groups that also carry out governance functions; and ultimately the degree to which this war can be won through military means, or conversely by finding a solution rooted in good governance including privileging the application of human rights principles associated with law enforcement.

Lister’s background as the former head of the Middle East and North Africa section at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London makes him an imminently qualified observer of the Syrian jihad. His knowledge is not limited to long distance research, but also incorporates information gained from personal contacts with militants from al-Qaeda, IS and other jihadist groups. As he notes, previous work has resulted in his being placed on several official and unofficial IS lists. Demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of the Salafi jihadist involvement in the Syrian conflict his presentation of this complex story is enhanced by a clear writing style; an adoption of, but not a slavish adherence to, a chronological accounting of the Syrian Salafi movement; and the inclusion of brief summaries at the beginning of a number of chapters. One noteworthy exception to this chronological account is his exploration in Chapter 11 of the growth of IS in Iraq. Dealing with that background so late in the book keeps the preceding analysis focused on Syria, the emergence of IS in Syria from its Al-Qaeda (AQ) linked Jabhat al-Nusra roots, and the resulting conflict between the two groups. It also serves to highlight the degree to which IS entered the fray after significant conflict had already occurred in Syria. His subtle adoption of “IS” during the historical analysis demonstrates a willingness to move beyond an “information warfare” adherence to terms such as ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh demonstrated by many States.

The book is primarily about Jabhat al-Nusra and IS. However, the analysis of numerous other insurgent groups and organizations such as Ahar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, the Syrian Islamic Front, and the Revolutionary Command Council highlight the complexity and ideological differences within the insurgency itself, and their ever shifting alliances. Some of these groups are uniquely Syrian focused; however, as the author notes more than twenty transnationally minded jihadist factions have established themselves in Syria since 2011. Added to this diverse group are a myriad of other actors in the conflict including the Syrian armed forces, its paramilitary National Defence Force (in April 2013 reportedly numbering 50,000 fighters), Hezbollah, Iran, Kurdish groups, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the US and other Coalition States. Reference is also made to Syria having become a major zone of Shia jihadism, perhaps surpassing their Sunni counterparts. This reinforces the enormity of security challenge facing the international community.

One of the most important aspects of the author’s treatment of the Syrian situation is the contrast of approaches taken by the two main representatives of the Sunni jihadist movement. As he notes “IS is a counter-state movement that explicitly aims to destroy nation-state boundaries and to expand, and thus legitimise, its self-proclaimed caliphate and Islamic state project. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, appears to have learned lessons from the past and developed a strategy that allows it to protect itself against traditional counter-terrorist strategies.” While the world appears obsessed with IS, it is Jahbat al-Nusra that is likely to pose the most significant long-term threat. This assessment of the al-Qaeda group is consistent with that of the Institute for the Study of War and other analysis. As Lister notes Jahbat al-Nusra is playing the “long game”, implementing the doctrine of AQ theorist Abu Musab al-Suri, establishing localized alliances with nationalists and “ensuring that the jihad was gradually introduced and integrated into local society.” Apparently, this acceptance continued even as Jahbat al-Nusra began to battle other Western backed insurgent factions in 2014 because “it continued to play a valuable role in fighting the regime.”

As Lister sagely notes, the Western focus on countering terrorism in Syria is both understandable and ill-conceived. In this regard, “IS has become a convenient obsession”. This is not the first time the international community has allowed itself to become focused on one aspect of the jihadist threat. The obsession with drone strikes against AQ in Pakistan, and the accompanying narrative of defeating “AQ Central,” resulted in strategic shock as IS rose from the ashes of AQI to seize significant amounts of Syrian and Iraqi territory. As the Pakistani journalist, Syed Saleem Shahzad, suggested in his book, Inside Al-Qaeda and The Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 (p. 224-25), in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda has been a master at remaining in the background with a goal of keeping the West “running from pillar to post” until they are exhausted and Al-Qaeda can announce victory. The facts presented by Lister support a Syrian example of that same strategy. As he notes, it is the repressive Assad government that sets the conditions of “conflict, resentment and extremism that jihadists exploit.” While airpower will remain a crucial part of military success, it is not strikes on oil production facilities, money depots, or even jihadist military positions that will guarantee victory. The conflict will be won through an effective counter-insurgency program based on good governance and effective policing conducted by a reformed Syrian state, or a coalition of states seeking to establish a responsible state. This is the most significant challenge facing the international community, not the least because Jahbat al-Nusra is already engaged in the type of “bottom up” approach that is crucial to counter-insurgency success.

The Syrian situation represents a significant challenge for international lawyers. Lister notes that the failure of the international community to stand by its values in protecting civilians (i.e. Responsibility to Protect) and enforce international law regarding war crimes and the use of prohibited weapons lends “legitimacy to the world-view espoused by Sunni jihadist militants.” While not addressed in this book, the legal community seems at times to have been overly focused on drone use outside of “hot battlefields”, and whether the conflict can be restricted by international borders. While many international lawyers do not want to see Salafi jihadists as a global, or even a regional threat, that is what Al-Qaeda, IS and many other organized armed groups represent. The international community appears to run afoul of Sun Tzu’s principle of “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.” Lister notes, by September 2015, IS alone had grown to 19 Walayat (provinces) in Syria and Iraq, with 15 elsewhere in the world. Added to that is AQ’s network of affiliated groups and its demonstrated capacity to strike internationally. While the prevailing recent narrative is one of IS striking back internationally because of territorial losses in Syria and Iraq, it seems unlikely that such regression in territory will remove the broader threat posed by that group. It certainly does not limit the global reach of Al-Qaeda. The revolutionary warfare doctrine that these Salafi jihadists have adopted acknowledges periodic shifts between terrorism, guerrilla warfare and the effective control of territory.

Unfortunately, international lawyers appear to be struggling with the shifting nature of conflict in the 21st century. We continue to use arcane Latin phrases to categorize applicable bodies of law (i.e. jus ad bellum, jus in bello), struggle to reach consensus on what law applies in the war against non-State actors, seem overly enamored with drones, and often fight over whether it is human rights law or humanitarian law that should be transcendent. This appears out of step with the scope and complexity of the security challenge presented in Lister’s book. The Syrian Jihad should be required reading for all lawyers who aspire to deal with the challenge presented by IS and Al-Qaeda. What is needed is a more holistic application of all the bodies of law applicable to contemporary conflict, including acknowledgment that both humanitarian law and human rights law must often be applied contemporaneously.

Consistent with the need for an effective counterinsurgency strategy this does not just mean attaining military success through lawful targeting practices, but also addressing what happens the day after the kinetic victory against the more conventional aspects of the IS military structure. Greater concentration must be placed on the role to be played by the government that will ultimately control the Syrian territory, the establishment of effective legal governance mechanisms, and the privileging of a human rights based law enforcement approach. Lister provides a sobering analysis of Sunni jihadism, and the challenge facing an international legal system based on the Westphalian state system. Perhaps most sobering is this impressive work does not deal with Shia jihadism, and is primarily limited to just one state. This is a struggle that will not be won by concentrating on distant “hot battlefields”, or by assisting its displaced persons and refugees, as important as that assistance is on humanitarian grounds. This is ultimately a conflict about good governance and values. It is hard for Western states to accept the existential nature of such value-based threats unless they physically manifest themselves in attacks on their own soil. However, it is only by proactively addressing the complexity of the threat facing states and intervening intelligently to remove the threat at its source that Syrian civilians, those of surrounding countries, and the broader international community will find security.

Ken Watkin is a former Judge Advocate General for the Canadian Forces, and Charles H. Stockton Professor of Law at the U.S. Naval War College (2011-12). He writes on humanitarian, human rights and national security law issues. Ken is the author of Fighting at the Legal Boundaries: Controlling the Use of Force in Contemporary Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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