European Eye on Radicalization
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) in the War Studies Department at King’s College London held a joint event with the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies on 27-28 January, “Non-State Actors and the Changing Nature of Conflict”. The range of officials and experts present provided important perspectives on radicalization trends, the Middle Eastern politics that interact with this challenge, and other related matters.
THE VIEW FROM SAUDI ARABIA
The opening speaker at the conference was Prince Turki bin Faysal al-Saud, the long-time intelligence chief of Saudi Arabia who helped organise the Afghan resistance with the West to defeat the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Since leaving that post in 2001, Prince Turki was briefly ambassador to the United States.
Prince Turki began by noting that over the last ten years, non-state groups have exploited the “gray zones in the international system”, notably in Syria, where shifts in internal dynamics eroded state power. The rise of extremists was facilitated by Bashar al-Assad’s government itself as a counter-insurgency method, and—once the international community failed to act to staunch the crisis—outside powers looked to use non-state actors inside the country to fill the vacuums left as the state retreated.
Iran, the U.S., Turkey, and to a lesser degree the Gulf states supported non-state actors. As matters stand now, said Turki:
- The U.S. supports the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), the political smokescreen for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK);
- Turkey supports a proxy army of Arab former rebels known as the “Syrian National Army” (SNA);
- Qatar supports Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former Al-Qaeda branch in Syria; and
- Iran supports its foreign legion of Shi’a jihadists through the Quds Force of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The international community finally did mobilise in Syria—against the Islamic State (ISIS). But even after ISIS was destroyed in territorial form, there was no serious effort to fill the void of authority. The use of the demographically alien SDF to clear and occupy Arab-majority areas held by ISIS is deeply destabilizing.
Turki’s proposed solution is to fortify the nation-states as an absolute priority in the Arab world, giving governments sovereignty in a real sense that eliminates ungoverned areas. This requires that states do not alienate sections of the population and leave them vulnerable to the siren call of the extremists. In a similar way, the far-Right’s rise in Europe must be resisted: politicizing religion and race under the banner of promoting national unity, while trying to marginalize parts of countries, can only lead to greater instability and misery.
In the question-and-answer (Q&A) session, asked whether Saudi Arabia was prepared for peace with Iran, Turki said that Riyadh is open to dialogue at any time on all matters—but this was complicated by Tehran’s behavior. Soon after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept to power in Iran in 1979, he called for the overthrow of all monarchies in the region. This was alarming to regional governments, but realpolitik soon kicked in and Saudi Arabia worked out a deal over pilgrims to Mecca. Then Iran staged a provocation, trying to take over the Masjid Mosque, which killed hundreds of people in 1987. Around five years later, relations apparently warmed after Khomeini had died and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became Iran’s president. Under Rafsanjani’s successor, the apparent reformist Muhammad Khatami, relations seemed to be getting even warmer. At one point, just after he left office, Rafsanjani asked for permission to travel around the Saudi Kingdom, and he was granted a permit to do so. Saudi Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdulaziz and then-Iranian National Security Director (now president) Hassan Rowhani signed a security pact. Then came the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996 in Saudi Arabia. The problem, Turki explained, is that Iran’s clerical regime remains committed to exporting its revolution through extremist indoctrination and terrorism, so even at times when relations look good, the Iranians continue their aggression against the Kingdom and its allies.
An example of Iran’s intransigence is Yemen. Saudi Arabia helped guide a National Dialogue process in Yemen, as Turki explained, having removed long-time dictator Ali Saleh. The end result of this transition process would have been a federated and more representative system in Yemen. Iran’s allies, the Houthis (formally, “Ansarallah”), interrupted this process with a violent coup, in collusion with Saleh, in September 2014. The Saudis tried for six months to negotiate for a restoration of the legitimate government of Yemen, and when that did not work they intervened militarily with a large multilateral coalition in March 2015—explicitly to return Yemen to the transition process. A month later, the U.N. Security Council passed resolution 2216, which blessed the Saudi-led operation in Yemen and its war-aim of restoring the government and transition process. “The Kingdom has never rejected the Houthis as a partner to bring peace to the Yemeni people”, Turki explained. Riyadh has never had a problem with the idea of the Houthis as a political party, but the Saudi government rejected the Houthis’ scheme to create an armed force, directed by Iran, which acts outside the political system, as with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and this is the crux of the matter. Where possible, the Saudis have avoided combat, notably in the port of Hodeida. By contrast, Houthi propaganda has constantly stressed its anti-Saudi designs since the organisation is committed to the Khomeinist ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Asked about the then-forthcoming “deal of the century”—the peace plan for Israel-Palestine released by U.S. President Donald Trump on 28 January, which was mostly constructed by his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner—Turki said he is no longer in government, so was unaware of the details, but Kushner had clearly spoken to the Saudi King and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman about it. That both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his challenger Benny Gantz were optimistic about the deal “gives me pause”, said Turki, noting that there had already been lots of American concessions to Israel. And the precedents were not favourable. Referencing the Bahrain conference in June 2019, which tried to deal with the economy of Palestine, Turki said it was like forming a perfectly-working human body without the head—a non-starter, since it was missing the crucial political fact of a Palestinian state.
IDEOLOGY, GRIEVANCE, AND COUNTER-TERRORISM: THE FLOURISHING OF NON-STATE ACTORS SINCE THE “ARAB SPRING”
The first panel led off with Michael Crawford, a former official at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). He noted that the Arab uprisings of 2011 had begun with demands against the corruption and cruelty of the regional governments, and with demands for some kind of accountable, representative system. But as turmoil spread, states and substate actors relied on identity politics to hold their ground in various communities. This was noticeably the case with Hezbollah and Hamas.
Picking up where Crawford left off, Aniseh Tabrizi of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) noted that the reason non-state groups with noxious ideologies frequently have popular support is because they fill a gap left by states. People join non-state actors when governance fails, when states cannot provide basics to people. Tabrizi was rather too dismissive of the role of ideology in bringing communities along with groups like Hamas, but she was surely correct that the internet is a vastly overrated recruitment tool—in these areas, the populations barely have water, let alone wi-fi. The recruitment is based on social networks and other Very Offline methods. Tabrizi also made the important point that politics generally supersedes economics: Iran rescued Assad by the mass-movement of “non-state” militias into Syria, even while under comprehensive sanctions in 2012-13.
Jasmine el-Gamal of the Atlantic Council pivoted to north-east Syria, where there is a vulnerability that ISIS will resurge. Such chances have been increased by Turkey’s recent incursion, the so-called “Peace Spring” operation, but the situation was deteriorating long before that because a PKK-dominated force had been given custodianship of Arab areas, and behaved in a deeply authoritarian manner, leading to vast local grievances. Northeast Syria was marginalised long before 2011, but now it is cut-off from central state resources and under an alien and abusive occupation. This is just one of the ways in which the underlying dynamics that led to the “Arab spring” have remained in place and been added to with new problems. The education system is another; many Syrians are simply missing out altogether, crippling the country for another generation, and those who are in schools are subjected to indoctrination from the PKK. The creation of the PKK statelet as a side-effect of the anti-ISIS war—despite repeated, public protests from Turkey—inevitably led to another new war on Syrian territory. Indeed, as El-Gamal noted in the Q&A, Western governments’ tendency to prioritise their hyper-immediate concerns, like terrorism, means they fail to see that even in those narrow terms kinetic options are insufficient; without political engagement to create a stable environment, the terrorist groups will continue to find recruits.
THREE CASE STUDIES OF NON-STATE ACTORS: SYRIA, YEMEN’S HOUTHIS, AND THE TURKISTAN ISLAMIC PARTY
From the Institut de Recherches et d’Etudes sur les Mondes Arabes et Musulmans (IREMAM), Dr. Thomas Pierret described Iran as having been highly successful in its use of “non-state” instruments in Syria, while Saudi Arabia had failed entirely. The Saudis massively invested in the Syrian insurgency in 2011-12, and had lost almost everything by 2015 — even interest.
Iran had two main advantages because it is a revolutionary state: it provides an ideological framework that minimises differences between patron and client — enabling foreign commanders to give orders to local forces that will be obeyed even when the benefit is not immediately apparent — and it allows a replicable model across environments. The conservative states on the Gulf were not only hamstrung in supporting insurgents in Syria by not having an ideology or model for the insurgents to work towards, making it difficult to motive them to effective violence, but the Gulf states opposed the revolutionary agenda of the Syrians, even Qatar, which was at best “revolutionary by proxy”, supporting Islamist-inclined revolutionary forces across the region, while ensuring there would be no revolution at home. In this ideological gap between patron and client, entrepreneurs sprang up — democracy activists, jihadists, and others — that led to the destruction of the proxies, as men followed their ideas rather than the Gulf states’ money.
Dr. Pierret argues that Turkey came halfway, since the country does provide a model for some mainstream Islamists — it is notable that of Turkey’s remaining proxies in Syria, an important one is Faylaq al-Sham, which is closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood — and there are Turkomen groups that look to Turkey as ethno-historical kin. An interesting thing about the Turkomen proxies Turkey has is that they are the only Syrian rebels-turned-mercenaries that Ankara is dispatching to Libya who will try to defend this mission. For all Arab Syrians, there is no effort made to defend their deployment in Libya — even though a (tortuous) case could be made that defending the recognised government in Libya is in the Syrian revolution’s interest. They regard it as shameful and try as far as possible to keep it out of the spotlight. Some Syrian Turkomen, however, marginal as they are, have turned up on Turkish television and elsewhere talking about the Ottoman caliphate and jihad, and identifying the Libya operation with this history of Turkish service to Islam.
But Turkey does not have a Quds Force, the very existence of which is a demonstration of the Iranian state’s intent to spread its revolution, with human resources and knowhow all dedicated to this matter. No other state has this. So other states have to depend on the organisational capacity of their clients. The YPG/PKK has good internal discipline as a strongly ideological force; most rebels did not.
The other positive aspect of having a Quds Force is it means that there is a built in state incentive for the survival of its proxies — in bureaucratic terms, if nothing else, for budgets, prestige, and so on. Again, no other state has this.
Baraa Shaiban, a former member of the Yemeni National Dialogue, said that while external observers often argue that because the Houthi insurgents in Yemen being Zaydis (or Fivers) rather than Twelver Shi’is, this means that they cannot have the same relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran that its organic proxies in Lebanon (Hezbollah) or Iraq (the IRGC militias are now gathered into al-Hashd al-Shabi) do. But this misses the point, says Shaiban: the Houthis connect with Tehran on a political doctrine. Khomeinism, after all, was a rebellion against traditional Shi’ism, asserting a political role for the clergy that has been rejected for most of history.
The Houthis effectively began with Youth Union, co-founded in 1982 by Badredeen al-Houthi, the father of Husayn al-Houthi — the founder of the Houthis or Ansarallah as its exists at the present — and Abdulmalik al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthis since 2004 when his brother Husayn was killed.
The Youth Union was jointly led by Badredeen and Majdadeen al-Muaydi, and though it focused on teaching mostly Zaydi tradition, it included classes on Islamic revolution, and from 1986 it opened up as a fully Khomeinist entity. By that time, Badredeen had been to Iran: he visited in 1985 and was so overcome with loyalty to the Khomeini regime that he considered joining IRGC to fight against Saddam Husayn in the Iran-Iraq War. And his increasing devotion to Khomeini’s absolute wilayat al-faqih doctrine had caused a split with Al-Muaydi, who left the Youth Union and took a chunk of its members with him.
After Yemen’s unification, the Zaydis felt threatened with the spread of Salafi/Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood mosques. Husayn al-Houthi gave up his seat in parliament and created the Believing Youth (Shabab al-Mu’mineen) organisation. By this stage in the early 1990s, the Houthi family as not hiding its admiration for Ayatollah Khomeini, particularly agreeing with him on the twofold ideological notion that a Western cultural invasion was destroying the faith, and this was abetted by puppet governments like Saudi Arabia. In 1994, as Yemen briefly fell into civil war, Muhammad Azam, a student of one of Badredeen’s other sons, kicks Husayn al-Huthi out of the Believing Youth group and takes it over. Badredeen, Husayn, and Abdulmalik flee the country for several years, taking refuge in Iran.
Around 1998, Husayn takes control of Believing Youth, says Shaiban, and in the new century the group openly preaches absolute wilayat al-faqih, while posters of Hezbollah are displayed everywhere in Saada, the Houthi stronghold. This militancy quickly led to a confrontation with the state, and from 2004 to 2010 there were six wars in Yemen between Ali Saleh’s regime and the Houthis, with Iran becoming ever-more involved militarily on the Houthi side through the Quds Force. The Houthis then sought to take advantage of the Arab spring, first by securing dominion over their own areas and later trying to seize the entire state — which the Saudi-led coalition is pledged to reverse.
The Turkistan Islamic Party (Hizb al-Islami al-Turkestani) or TIP is not a very well-known organisation, and Shahad Turkistani of the King Faisal Centre sought to elucidate the motives of this organization. The group is composed mostly of Uyghur Muslims from western China. It was established in 1997, after Hasan Mahsum had met Abdulqader Yapcan in prison in 1992. Yapcan left Afghanistan to Turkey after becoming disillusioned with the direction the “Arab Afghans” were taking after the Soviets left — and that was the end of his connection with Al-Qaeda. Abd al-Haq al-Turkistani, the current leader of TIP overall, is displeased with the direction the Syrian branch has taken, believing it has diverged from the true path.
Many Uyghurs flee China so they can practice their religion — even to places as dangerous as Syria, where at least the danger is random, rather than a concerted attack on their religious freedom. In Syria, they have a de facto territory, they get weapons training so they can defend themselves, and living costs are relatively cheap. TIP probably has 1,000 to 1,500 members in Syria; there is a distinction between the fighters and settlers, the latter of whom arrive with their families and just want to practice their religion freely.
Uyghurs have to travel through six states to get to Syria, the last of them being Turkey, thus it likely they are receiving some kind of state help along the way.
It is very unlikely, says Ms. Turkistani, that the Uyghurs from TIP will want to go back to China after the Syrian war is over: they fear arrest or worse from the state as the ethnocidal campaign in Xinjiang progresses, and they have literally nothing to go back to — most of them sold their homes before they departed.
MOBILIZATION OF FOREIGN FIGHTERS
Dr. Abdallah al-Saud from the King Faisal Centre spoke about the foreign fighter flows to various jihadi theatres. It appears that Saudi foreign fighters have more religious education, which is not that surprising since Saudis get such education from a very young age. The Saudis who joined ISIS — when compared with other foreigners and when compared with previous foreign jihadist flows — were among the most educated. That said, this does not necessarily mean job opportunities. Only 5% of the Saudis had worked in the religious field, while in previous jihads it was about a fifth. This seems to be because Al-Qaeda made a more sophisticated religious pitch than ISIS. The Sinjar records from Iraq in 2007 showed that about half of the foreign fighters became suicide bombers, and this time around in Syria from 2011 it was about 15% — if both the intihari (suicide bombers) and inghimasiyeen (those who plunge behind enemy lines and fight until they run out of ammunition) are combined. The difference seems to be that in 2007, the Islamic State movement was facing a stronger enemy (the U.S.) and by the time these men in 2013-14 were joining ISIS, the group held large swaths of territory. Dr. Abdallah underlined the earlier point that, as much as the online space is beginning to matter, social relations in the offline world still count for more. There does seem to be more interconnectedness, however: war and instability provide the context for foreign fighter flows, of course, but the movement was much quicker in Syria that it had been in Iraq in the 2000s or Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Turning from the Islamist and Middle East-centric nature of the other panels, this one looked at the challenge of the far-Right in Europe.
Holger Marcks of the Institut für Friedensforschung und Sicherheitspolitik began by pointing out that the Western far-Right is a very significantly online phenomenon — which is not surprising given the extent of internet penetration in the industrialized world. Marcks led off by noting that it is difficult to tell whether the actions of this movement are collective or individual, and that in some ways this is Louis Beam’s “leaderless resistance” concept from the early 1990s made real. One of Marcks’ research goals is examine how the far-Right spreads its messages online in order to see if there is an intervention point for states.
At its simplest, the far-Right’s technique for spreading is message is through dramatic stories. The stories themselves can be identified: the “great replacement” of native populations by mass-immigration, “white genocide”, and the lawlessness of immigrant populations. Marcks is particularly alarmed at the way these fears are amplified. For example, a few-dozen news stories of mass sex attacks by migrants in Germany will be spread through these far-Right eco-systems and these “local stories” will then be used as evidence that there is a problem with the scale or kind of migration Germany allowed in 2015. This is a broader problem with the “glocalization of events”: by reporting on the elevated rates of violent crime among immigrant populations in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Britain, and elsewhere, these local events are irresponsibly weaved into a global narrative that posits a crime problem among migrants.
This “gaslighting” technique is then compounded by the far-Right spreading distrust in the media, as happened in the aftermath of the mass-rapes in Cologne and elsewhere on New Years’ Eve 2015-16, where the mainstream media judged these stories unworthy of much coverage and the far-Right was able to exploit this to suggest that the press was engaged in a cover-up. Such conspiracy theories and fake news are the common coin of the far-Right, and the weakening of the media gatekeepers is allowing this “diffusion of post-truth”.
To make things even worse, Marcks explains, the far-Right will game the social media systems with bots and other things to distort the proportions of events. By utilizing these manipulation methods, the far-Right can make it seem like certain issues — mass sex attacks on the public by migrants, for example — are a large concern for the population.
This distortion of proportion then feeds back into the gaslighting and amplifies fears. Despite this “post-organizational” structure, however, there is a de facto hierarchy that guides the system.
Turning to solutions, Marcks points out that states are now beginning to crack down on this unwieldy internet environment, where people are able to say what they like unregulated. The German Network Enforcement Act is a case in point. Such political regulation is needed because the big tech companies do not have an incentive to correct themselves and even have some incentive to inflame the situation, says Marcks. It is also notable that the tech companies are “already governing [their platforms] but not in a progressive way”, and this intolerable situation cries out for resolution. Marcks’ solution is to bind them to press laws, so that we can “centre the responsibility” by holding tech companies accountable for what other people say on their platforms, and take away the metrics (such as “likes”) so that the interactive nature of social media is limited and more easily controlled by authorities.
William Allchorn, who works at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and also with the Centre of Excellence in Abu Dhabi, noted that there has been a 320% increase in far-Right terrorism recently, but these groups still remain far behind the Islamists in terms of harnessing technology to spread their narratives. Telegram remains a favourite haunt of the far-Right, though 8chan is now gone (albeit reincarnated). Allchorn points to the “gamification element” that has recently overcome the far-Right, where its terrorists have acted almost as an extension of online trolling.
In terms of the narratives of the “new far-Right”, Allchorn points to five components:
- A “cultural threat conspiracy theory”, wherein national and cultural integrity is under threat, particularly from Muslim immigration, and the elites of Western countries are complicit with this;
- An “ethnic threat conspiracy theory”: essentially a racialized version of (1), where the threat is that white native populations are being displaced by coloured foreigners. This is sometimes called “white genocide” by its proponents.
- An anti-establishment narrative: believing the European Union and multinational institutions like the United Nations have too much power over “the people”.
- Misogynist narrative: believing society is under threat because masculinity is so heavily denigrated in the modern world and the sexes are prevented from acting “according to their nature”, while the spread of feminism and the increasing visibility and ostentation of the LGBT+ population is adding to this disorder. The proposed solution is a return to the “heteronormative past”.
- Victimhood narrative: believing the government favours ethno-religious minorities, while persecuting the majority-white population for remarks that are not politically “correct” (PC) and generally restricting free expression and other freedoms in service of altering the balance in favour of minorities.
Allchorn look at how these narratives map on to three Anglosphere democracies: the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.
In the UK, the far-Right scene is by far the most gentle and marginal, with even its most organised moments, such as the “Free Tommy Robinson” campaign, taking on a legalistic format.
There have been less flashpoints around which the far-Right can gather in Australia, but there is more of it as a movement, says Allchorn, and the tone is more forthrightly “civilisationalist” and traditional. One variance in Australia is that alongside the Islamic issue, the far-Right has been “targeting Chinese immigrants”, playing on the fears around the massive scale of the Chinese dictatorship’s espionage penetration of the Australian state and society.
In New Zealand, the scale is smaller than in Australia, with the far-Right mostly organised around white supremacist gangs and in prisons. In New Zealand, the Maori play some of the role that Muslims do, and the New Zealand far-Right has more connection with environmentalism, arguing that foreigners deplete the homeland, and so forth. One of the worst far-Right terrorist attacks in recent decades, the Christchurch attacks in March 2019, was carried out by a man who identified as an “eco-fascist”.
Allchorn does point to a distinction with all of these far-Right movements — which he says are local manifestations of a transnational movement — and that is how they distinguish from the violent far-Right. Where the far-Right outlined above is constitutional and even uses liberal language around women’s rights and so on in its criticism of Islam, the violent far-Right is outright anti-female, abhors democracy, and believes in hard ethno-nationalism — whether directly neo-Nazi and Hitler worshipping, or pagan.
In concluding, Allchorn also alights on the theme of “transnational conspiracy theories [being used] to frame and interpret local news stories”. Pinning down the narratives is getting more difficult because they are mixing as populism and traditionalism combine and move into the mainstream. The key intellectual challenge of the moment, says Allchorn, is finding the “tipping point” when ideas turn into violence. He notes that being online has lowered moral barriers
Providing a brief closing presentation, Mackenzie Hart of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) noted that she studies the “relationship between hate and extremist groups”, particularly how the far-Right groups use hate speech to further their goals. In terms of strategic messaging, Ms. Hart gave a very detailed overview of how the “great replacement” thesis made its way from the fringe, via accounts that were not actually within the far-Right, to the mainstream. The far-Right have alighted on using wedge issues within polities, immigration only the most obvious of them. One success the far-Right had in narrative terms was to get into the public conversation the idea that Muslims were anti-democratic and acted illegally, carrying out voter fraud in local districts and pursuing “entryism” to make the Labour Party the Islamic party. This kind of disinformation about the democratic system itself threatens the legitimacy of democracy, Hart pointed out.
CONTEMPORARY AND HISTORIC CASE STUDIES
Underlining a point from Dr. Pierret earlier, Lina Khatib of Chatham House pointed out that the Syrian mercenaries Turkey is using in Libya are paid and loyal only to that extent, which is very different from “hybrid” actors like Hezbollah that are branches of a state and have some legitimacy from others, in Hezbollah’s case the Lebanese state. This Islamist model of Iran’s is replicated in Iraq with the militias of al-Hashd al-Shabi. So there is no movement to the Westphalian or Weberian model, says Khatib, and the West needs to start thinking of Middle Eastern states differently to account for the fact that “non-state” actors have so much of the authority Westerners associate with states.
Turning to Libya, consultant and former journalist Mary Fitzgerald relayed the remark of a diplomat that Libya was at present “a state in a non-state state”. Colonel Moammar el-Qaddafi hollowed out the army to avoid a coup—it was his son who commanded the units that remained loyal—and this has left Libya without functional institutions, where “one man’s army is another man’s militia”.
Khalifa Haftar, the renegade Field Marshal leading an insurgency against the recognized government, is often said in English-language media to lead a militia called the “Libyan National Army” (LNA), but in fact he calls his forces in Arabic the “Libyan Arab Armed Forces”, which explains why the ethnic minorities in Libya like the Tuaregs and Berbers will not join the “LNA”. This is one of the limitations that has meant, despite putting together a coalition, Haftar has lacked ground forces. It is his most significant drawback and not even filling the gap with Sudanese and Chadian non-state employees—mercenaries—has done the job. These hired men hold the eastern oil ports, but the offensive against Tripoli that Haftar launched in April 2019 has been conducted primarily by (foreign) airstrikes.
The African mercenaries came with questions about whether they would ever return to Sudan and Chad, Fitzgerald explains. The Russian “mercenaries” supporting Haftar, who are not truly “non-state” actors since they are extensions of the special services, do not provoke the same questions in Libyans; it is plain they will leave when the war is over — whenever that may be. The same applies to the Syrian mercenaries that Turkey has shipped into Libya to support Haftar’s enemies in the Government of National Accord (GNA).
The Turkish government’s use of the Syrian mercenaries has proven a political disaster, however. It has played into Haftar’s propaganda that called GNA-loyal areas like Misrata “the Turks” because of their Ottoman roots — and some of these populations are now embracing the label — and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has managed to speak about the deployment in the most grossly offensive and inflammatory way that no Libyan could accept it. In more concrete terms, the Syrian mercenaries have legitimized Haftar’s oil blockade — which has cut output from 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) to 250,000 bpd — as necessary to “prevent the GNA paying jihadists”. In turn, this has created a need for Haftar to take out massive loans from the Central Bank because the Central Bank pays all state employees from before 2014 but will not add new names to the rolls — a compromise solution to the civil war situation and its attempt to remain neutral. And the result of this is to in effect bankrupt the country.
Perhaps the most interesting non-state formation in Libya is the Madkhali Salafists, named for a Saudi cleric, Rabae al-Madkhali. Haftar started recruiting the Madkhalis in late 2014, and they have secured him some important victories, Fitzgerald outlines. When Haftar took over Sirte at the beginning of January 2020, he was able to do so virtually without a fight when the Madkhali-dominated 604 Brigade defected and opened the gates to the city for the LNA. (Haftar was also able to rely on the Qaddafi regime remnants in Sirte.) There are Madkhalis on the other side: in Tripoli, the Special Deterrence (RADA) Force that is powerful around the airport is mostly comprised of Madkhalis. But in the east, in the Haftar areas, the Madkhalis have been given control the religious sphere and are shaping it according to the anti-democratic literalism of their doctrine — an ironic fact in a war Haftar is waging under the banner of countering Islamic extremism.
The King Faisal Centre’s Bruno Schmidt-Feuerheerd looked at the various strands of militant Islam in Egypt as a guide to non-state actors in that country. He noted that all three of them — al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (The Muslim Brotherhood), al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Group), and Tanzim al-Jihad (The Jihad Organization, later Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ)) — defined themselves primarily by their relationship to the Egyptian state. The Brotherhood proceeded by proselytization (dawa) under the theory that once there were enough converts, the Islamic state would come into being naturally. Al-Jama’a mixed dawa and violence (jihad) to try to reshape the society on what they believed was an expedited timetable, using both inducement and intimidation to win people to their cause, believing like the Brotherhood that once there was a “properly” Muslim people, an Islamic state was essentially an automatic consequence. EIJ proceeded with jihad, focused much less on winning over the society and instead wishing to grab the state as quickly as possible. The EIJ idea was that from the top-down they could Islamize the society far more effectively than waiting for the population to emerge from their ignorance (jahiliyya) via a bottom-up process of recruitment. For this reason, EIJ focused particularly on recruiting military officers, seeing them as the most rapid road to a coup d’état that would put the state in their hands. This recruitment strategy had one very serious consequence for modern Egypt: it enabled a joint Al-Jama’a/EIJ operation in October 1981 to assassinate Egypt’s president, Anwar al-Sadat.
NON-STATE ACTORS IN THE FUTURE: REMAINING AND EXPANDING
A very terse presentation from Anthony Elghossain of the Middle East Institute said that non-state actors are not going anywhere. These groups are not just armed militias; they are embedded in state institutions, they run multinational corporations (either that they have created or infiltrated), they harvest resources from vast criminal syndicates across multiple countries, they have holdings in new environments like bitcoin, and above all they have legitimacy and social staying power through familial, tribal, social, and religious identifications and networks. Concluding, Elghossain noted that the U.S. policies of late have reinforced some of the worst trends empowering some of the worst non-state actors, but this began with Barack Obama. Trump’s worst mistakes have been continuing Obama’s policies, specifically the de facto coordination with Iran’s instruments in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
Rasha al-Aqeedi from Irfaa Sawtak focused on Iraq, where she noted that the Hashd cannot properly be termed a “non-state actor” any more, since they have been incorporated officially into the state and are paid by it. Nonetheless, the Hashd continues to behave as a non-state actor because it is not under effective state control — or, to the extent it is under state control, it is a foreign state (Iran). At the present moment, however, the Hashd is acting in alignment with the state to maintain the status quo against the protesters, and it is the Hashd militias who are responsible for some of the worst atrocities that have killed 700 protesters so far. Al-Aqeedi noted that the Hashd had been enabled to embed themselves in the way they have in significant measure because of Westerners projecting narratives onto them as nationalist fighters against ISIS, while their program was otherwise. It even led to senior U.S. officials recommending Hadi al-Ameri, one of the most notorious commanders of Iran’s sectarian militias, as a future prime minister. The media and political mood in the U.S. and the West is so against Trump that Iran has no need of public-relations work; it can rely on Western elites to disseminate its messages. People who did not know Qassem Soleimani in December greeted news of his death as if he was the new “Che” Guevara.
Switching gears, Damon Lee Perry of ICSR looked at the Muslim Brotherhood in Britain, noting that it is best thought of as a “collection of non-state actors” — charities, civil society institutions such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), street protesters, media stations like the Islam Channel, and so on. It is best thought of as an “Islamic movement”, rather than a group or faction, says Perry, and the scale of the movement was not properly acknowledged in the 2015 review.
The government review said the Brethren were not planning for an Islamic state in Britain, but as mentioned above the Brotherhood believes in winning the state one convert at a time: once there is a majority that believes in (their version of) Islam, then they will get an Islamic state as a reward. And in the meantime Islamist dawa, including infiltrating the education system, and encouraging cultural isolation and illegal immigration have social costs of their own.
One recent example: the stern objections of parents at an Islamist-influenced school in Birmingham in April 2019 to teaching about homosexuality to primary schoolers became a national confrontation between an “equality and diversity”-committed state and a politico-religious segment of the population that simply rejected the whole premise.
On a similar theme, the Brethren’s approach to the most draconian (to our modern senses) parts of the shari’a is what Perry calls “contextualization, not repudiation”. In practice, what this means is that when confronted with the fact that their doctrine calls for homosexuals to be killed, the Brothers will explain that this is merely a small part of the Holy Law and in any case nobody needs to worry since there isn’t an Islamic state — yet.
Perhaps the most serious challenge the Brotherhood casts to the British state is on matters of counter-extremism, where the Brethren and their fronts are among the most vivacious actors in the “preventing Prevent” lobby, accusing the government’s counter-extremist Prevent program of being “Islamophobic” and trying to redefine Islam. This spreading of distrust and victimhood narratives in vulnerable communities has extremely negative consequences that make the work of extremists easier.