Firstly, it is important to refer to it as Daesh, with the Arabic acronym (al-dawla al-islâmiyya fi l-’Irâq wa l-shâm, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), and to clarify that it is not a state but a machine of terror. As to the question of who is supporting it financially, this betrays a basic lack of understanding. There is always an attempt to grasp the logic of the phenomenon by tracing its origins to the financial aspect, with the deluded belief that blocking the source can deplete the phenomenon. This is not entirely wrong, but it should be remembered that the financial struggle against terrorism has not been very effective, even in the past, in the time of al-Qaeda, when this type of approach ended up financing the bureaucrats working on the monetary aid to terrorism. For this reason, I do not think it can have a great effect on Daesh. This idea has also prevented the right questions from being asked and Daesh has been mistakenly identified with the Gulf. Daesh is not the Gulf; it is the world and a global phenomenon. Daesh is now the richest terrorist organisation: local oil revenues enable it to finance itself, with a budget of between one and two billion dollars. Rather than needing finance, Daesh is in a position to finance. If you want to identify the flows of money, these can mostly be traced to individuals.
Is Daesh a new phenomenon or does it follow in the wake of other terrorist movements?
I have been studying jihadist movements for over twenty-five years now and I have never felt so much fear. My fear is rational, reasonable and well-argued. Just to give an idea: Daesh has an army of about thirty thousand armed partisans, not to mention political support, whereas in 2001, al-Qaeda had less than a thousand; moreover, they have a budget between five hundred and a thousand times larger than that available to the September 11 attackers. The organisation is based in a strategic crossroads that resonates symbolically to all Muslims, as opposed to al-Qaeda, which was on the periphery, in Afghanistan. What most makes me uneasy is that people often try to analyse Daesh as if it were al-Qaeda, but this newcomer is undoubtedly more dangerous. There is, however, a clear affiliation between the two terrorist groups in two particular aspects. The first is in the links between land and jihad: jihad is not conducted to liberate or conquer a particular territory, but for the sake of the jihad itself. This is not a question of Islam; we are dealing with something distinct, a religion of jihad. It is a sect of jihad. This was true for al-Qaeda and it is also true for Daesh. The second aspect is that a solid base is needed to plan the jihad. The “base”, which is in fact the meaning of al-Qaeda, is now the Caliphate for Daesh, and the jihad it is planning, in my opinion, is aimed at Europe.
What draws so many fighters to join Daesh? Many of them come from Europe and often do not have a common religious or ethnic background.
What is happening in Iraq has nothing to do with Islam; as I said, this is another religion. People join the ranks of Daesh as if they were converting to a religion. This is because they either did not have one of their own before, or, coming from Muslim families, they abandon the Islam of their parents, families and cultures to turn towards a presumed “true Islam”, which is actually a new religion. Therefore, I do not think that we can understand the phenomenon only from a Muslim perspective. Daesh speaks to disenchanted young rebels throughout the entire world, not just in Europe and the Arab countries, but also in Australia, Singapore, Canada and elsewhere. Olivier Roy has made a very valid comparison, in my view, between what is happening in Iraq and the movements of the extreme left in the 1960s and ’70s. Daesh attracts a fringe that is already radical. They are not radicalised by Daesh; they are already so to start with. Islam is Islam. Daesh is another thing.
The acronym Daesh contains a reference to Greater Syria, Sham, which includes Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. How is Daesh viewed in these countries?
They are as concerned as we are. The meaning of Sham is found in apocalyptic prophecies. I have already described the roadmap of Daesh in my book The Apocalypse in Islam (2011). In some accounts of the end times, the land of Sham is the specific location of the “great battle” of the last days. We perceive what is happening as the simple expansion of a caliphate, but for them we are on the threshold of the end of time, which is why so many people are joining, because they are convinced that the end is near. If they do not take part in the great battle, they will lose. However, if they participate in the ranks of the righteous, they will gain everything and be the best Muslims for eternity. The territory of Sham should therefore be seen as the place where the end of the world will occur. According to this tradition, the great battle will be in Dabq, to the north of Aleppo, where the ranks of the Byzantines (Rûm), or Westerners, shall face the Islamic state from Medina, or Mosul, where, in fact, the caliphate has its headquarters. A third of the fighters will die, one third will surrender and the last third will attain victory and be considered righteous in faith. The statement that Daesh intends to reach Rome is actually a mistranslation: they say Constantinople, the new Rome, the city of the Rûm. We have translated it as Rome, but the city of the Rûm could be Rome or could equally be Paris, Madrid or New York. According to the tradition, the city of the Rûm must be conquered. It is therefore not a matter of conquering this or that country, but of advancing, because by advancing the prophecies are fulfilled. Therefore, they must be stopped.
Do you believe that the Western response can effectively combat the fundamentalism of Daesh? Is it not likely to generate support for the caliphate from other jihadist groups?
The response by Europe and the United States has been wrong for two reasons. First of all, they thought the problem could be solved by understanding the reasons that motivate volunteers to leave for Syria. It is certainly it is important to reflect on this, in schools, prisons and the courts, but thinking that to understand Daesh we have to look at Europe and its institutions is already to play into the hands of Daesh. The answer is over there, but we in the West have still not managed to grasp this, because we have not fully understood the Syrian revolution. It was not a war between tribes or communities, but the creation of a new order. From past history, we know that when a revolution is successful, it is not always perfect, but when it is stifled, what results is even worse. The failure of the revolution favoured Daesh and Assad against the revolution. In Syria, the point is that Assad has used and is using Daesh against the revolution itself. Today it is believed, by the Americans primarily, that we can fight Daesh without fighting against Assad, and the result is that Daesh has never been so strong. We have been mistaken, and the key is in Syria: a genuine policy must be applied to the Syrian revolution and not just to Daesh. This also requires genuine collaboration with Turkey, which knows better than anyone else how to combat this threat.
How do you interpret the ideal of building an “Islamic state” in the general panorama of Islamist movements?
Daesh does not build anything; it is a rabble that produces nothing. Even its constitution, drafted between 2006 and 2007, is nothing but a series of prohibitions. It is an organisation that has spread over a territory and thus has had to deal with millions of people, unlike al-Qaeda. The latter was subjected to the Taliban and the administration was in the hands of the Taliban. The people who negotiated about the Buddhas in Afghanistan spent weeks without knowing where the centre of power was, because, in fact, it was an organisation and not a state. When I was in Aleppo, people spoke of a dawla (state), they did not say “Daesh”, just as they say nizâm (regime) when speaking about Assad. Everyone knows that the nizâm of Assad is nothing but repression. For Daesh, the introduction of the idea of a state does not indicate any kind of ideological evolution; it only means that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wants to be the undisturbed lord of the areas he controls. The only homogeneous areas in Syria are the nizâm of Assad and Daesh: the totalitarian element counts for more than the state itself.
Some media observers and intellectuals say that it is a conspiracy. What do you think?
Speaking as a historian, it is interesting to note that people think while revolutions are taking place, but when they are over, they no longer think but just imagine conspiracies and plots. The revolution was rational; during the revolution there was never any talk of the end of time, but it is spoken of continually during the counter-revolution. Of course, there are unanswered questions regarding Daesh, particularly why Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was imprisoned by the Americans, according to the Pentagon in 2004, and according to the prison commander from 2005-2009; we do not know why there was no trial or investigation. However, those who believe in conspiracies fail to understand something that historians know well: the enormous stupidity of human beings. Many things can be explained better by stupidity, incompetence and lack of coordination that by an intention to manipulate. The Americans no longer control anything. I’m not saying that is good news or bad, I’m just saying there are many people in the Middle East and elsewhere who continue to think that the Americans control everything, and they interpret the facts on the basis of this assumption. Conspiracy theories are widespread in the Arab world and this particular one is given most credence in Egypt. There you can even hear explanations that the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Daesh, is a creation of the Americans. It’s high time, however, that these assumptions were discarded.
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