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<nettime> Hidden Hands
Brian Holmes on Tue, 17 Nov 2015 20:27:27 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Hidden Hands

What's a barbarian? What's a fanatic? Is it the essence of Islam to 
generate bloodthirsty insurgency? Do we know even what the Islamic State 
is? And if not, how to combat a clear and present threat to anything 
approaching human coexistence on earth?

Most people today see the authors of the Paris attacks as being 
motivated by what Graeme Wood, a writer in the March 2015 issue of the 
Atlantic Monthly, calls "a sincere, carefully considered commitment to 
returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and 
ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse." Maniacal medievalism, in 
short. Michel Houellebecq or the late Oriana Fallaci would give you the 
exact same impression. And there's something to it. Bearded dudes 
driving truckfuls of mutilated bodies to mass graves looks pretty damn 
medieval to me. But that sort of judgment is an unbearably vague basis 
for policy or even for what used to be called democratic debate.

Last April a fascinating article was published in the Washington Post: 
"The hidden hand behind the Islamic State militants? Saddam Hussein's." 
It was republished a couple days ago, that's when I read it. The  piece 
draws on a wide range of sources to recall something that used to be 
common knowledge, namely that the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and its 
later incarnation, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), were the 
creation of former Baath Party military officers who had been thrown out 
on the streets by the American administrator L. Paul Bremer in the heady 
days just after the invasion. When the US moved in, one anonymous Iraqi 
informant said, "they didn't de-Baathify people's minds, they just took 
away their jobs." From his perspective, the whole point of the 
tremendous land-grabbing campaign that unfolded across Iraq last year 
was simply to get those jobs back. In other words Daesh is modern not 
medieval. The Islamic State that we know today, the article suggests, is 
not an apotheosis of religious fervor, but rather the deliberate 
creation of disciplined military operatives who learned their chops from 
Saddam in the 1990s, after the first Gulf War, when the regime began to 
adopt a religious veneer to cover the ramped-up brutality of its secret 
services. The oil-smuggling expertise of these Baathist officers, honed 
over the decade of sanctions between the two Iraq Wars, now forms the 
economic basis for the operation of the Islamic State. "A lot of these 
Baathists are not interested in ISIS running Iraq. They want to run 
Iraq," says research Ahmed Hashimi in the article. "A lot of them view 
the jihadists with this Leninist mind-set that they're useful idiots who 
we can use to rise to power."

A couple weeks after the Post article, Der Spiegel came out with 
something even more compelling. It's a long text entitled "Secret Files 
Reveal the Structure of Islamic State." Read it and you will learn the 
story of Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, aka Haji Bakr, a former colonel 
in the intelligence department of the Iraqi air force. In late 2012 Haji 
Bakr set up operations in the town of Tal Rifaat, on the northwestern 
border of Syria. There he sketched out an intricate process for 
analyzing the social makeup of surrounding cities, towns and villages, 
in order to identify who could become allies, who could be blackmailed 
or suborned, and who should be secretly murdered before IS seizes 
control. Foreign fighters, recruited from abroad using jihadi rhetoric, 
would form the disciplined and socially isolated instrument of a Syrian 
power-base for the subsequent take-over of vast swathes of Iraqi 
territory, which of course is exactly what has been done since then. If 
we can trust the Spiegel - or maybe, if you can read Arabic and check 
out the document samples they furnish - these operations were detailed 
in hundreds of meticulously hand-written flow charts establishing the 
control structure of an "Islamic Intelligence State" where everyone 
spies on everyone else and reports higher up through non-intersecting 
hierarchical chains that are the only way to guarantee loyalty in the 
absence of any law, ethical code or transcendent ideal. As author 
Christoph Reuter explains: "There is a simple reason why there is no 
mention in Bakr's writings of prophecies relating to the establishment 
of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God: He believed that 
fanatical religious convictions alone were not enough to achieve 
victory. But he did believe that the faith of others could be exploited."

Here's more:

"Sharia, the courts, prescribed piety -- all of this served a single 
goal: surveillance and control. Even the word that Bakr used for the 
conversion of true Muslims, takwin, is not a religious but a technical 
term that translates as 'implementation,' a prosaic word otherwise used 
in geology or construction. Still, 1,200 years ago, the word followed a 
unique path to a brief moment of notoriety. Shiite alchemists used it to 
describe the creation of artificial life. In his ninth century 'Book of 
Stones,' the Persian Jabir Ibn Hayyan wrote -- using a secret script and 
codes -- about the creation of a homunculus. 'The goal is to deceive 
all, but those who love God.' That may also have been to the liking of 
Islamic State strategists, although the group views Shiites as apostates 
who shun true Islam. But for Haji Bakr, God and the 1,400-year-old faith 
in him was but one of many modules at his disposal to arrange as he 
liked for a higher purpose."

If all this is true, as it seems indeed to be, then why does the general 
public have such a poor understanding of the underlying statecraft that 
powers the most successful territorial insurgency since the Viet-Cong? 
If we are going to live in a world where intensely hostile forces have 
global terrorist capacities, then why not talk about how it really 
works? Is it because the US and its allies are too embarrassed to admit 
that the Islamic State is the direct consequence of a bungled invasion 
based on the absurd pretense that neoliberal entrepreneurialism and the 
"magic of the marketplace" would be enough to transform an entire 
society? Or is it just that producers want to sell shows, editors want 
to sell magazines, and politicians want to buy elections? How could any 
educated adult ever have used the word "de-Baathification" without 
recalling the vast, long-term, socially, institutionally and psychically 
invasive program of total make-over known as "de-Nazification," which 
laid the basis for the postwar world order? For sure that's a very 
unpleasant memory - but can we even talk about the difficult realities 
around us? Or do we just get medieval and enjoy the beheading videos? 
Are the true believers in jihadi martydom the only useful idiots in the 
world today?

Excuse the excess questions, but from what I can see, the "hidden hands" 
of the so-called Western societies are severed. This ship has no 
capitan. And when any of the passengers manage to get on deck and see 
the sunlight, they immediately build a darkening cupola and start 
projecting their fantasies instead of looking at anything around them.

Still hope springs eternal. So let's share our readings and our insights 
and see whether artists, software engineers and other random 
intellectuals can still perceive what's actually happening on a planet 
at war.

--Brian Holmes





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