Keep the black flag flying: a show of strength in northern Raqqa province, Iraq, to celebrate the declaration of the caliphate, June 2014. Photo: Reuters
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From Bin Laden to Isis: Why the roots of jihadi ideology run deep in Britain

From Riyadh via London to Damascus, Baghdad and Isis – the jihadist surge.

Had Osama Bin Laden lived to see the present state of the Middle East he would have been rather pleased. The realisation of his ultimate ambition is gripping the Levant with the announcement of a caliphate straddling parts of Syria and Iraq. Controlling a piece of land roughly the size of Jordan and bigger than either Israel or Lebanon, Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is demanding international attention unlike any of his predecessors.

Islamic State is perhaps the most aggressive invading force in the Levant since the Mongols. Moreover, it is being given a free hand to recast the contours of power in what remains one of the world’s most sensitive (and volatile) geostrategic locations. This is no accident. The implosion of both Syria and Iraq, coupled with western reluctance to intervene in what is seen as yet another Arabian calamity, has fuelled the sudden rise of Baghdadi’s millenarian militia.

This is precisely what Bin Laden always envisioned. His main thesis on the failure of the Islamist project was that western interference in the Middle East prevented the rise of Islamic governments. Weaken the west’s sphere of influence, he argued, and a caliphate would emerge.

Events helped crystallise this view. Shortly after the Afghan mujahedin’s unlikely victory over the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and King Fahd turned to the United States to defend Saudi Arabia against his Ba’athist neighbour. Bin Laden was left embittered by the experience after the House of Saud scuppered his hopes of using the mujahedin to repel Saddam from Kuwait.

The humiliation for returning jihadists did not end there. Many from North Africa and the Gulf found themselves imprisoned and persecuted on their return. It was soon clear that going home was not an option and many of the Afghan alumni subsequently began to congregate in Sudan under the patronage of the chairman of the ruling party, Hassan al-Turabi, who had formed a Sunni Islamist movement at the time.

For the Arab fighters it was a comedown from their intoxicating victories in the mountains of the Hindu Kush against one of the great superpowers.

In Sudan, these fighters largely continued pursuing Islamo-nationalist aims. The Egyptians focused on Egypt, the Algerians on Algeria, and the Libyans on Libya. However, Saudi Arabia captured everyone’s attention. The arrival of US troops in the Arabian Peninsula – home to Islam’s most holy sites and regarded as sacred soil by Islamists – assaulted the imagination. This is when the gear shift occurred, redirecting the focus of jihadist anger from the metropolis to the periphery.

In an interview with the London-based Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi in 1996, Bin Laden explained: “. . . we believe that the US government committed the biggest mistake when it entered a peninsula which no non-Muslim nation has ever entered for 14 centuries . . . [America’s] entry was arbitrary and a reckless action. They have entered into a confrontation with a nation whose population is one billion Muslims.”

Having settled in Sudan, Bin Laden campaigned for Islamic revival in Saudi Arabia by establishing the Committee for Advice and Reform. This organisation had registered offices in Holborn, London, and was led by another veteran of the Afghan campaign, Khaled al-Fawwaz, who acted as Bin Laden’s representative in London.

Between 1994 and 1995 Bin Laden used his London address to send a total of 14 letters to the Saudi government. All of these urged the Saudi state to end co-operation with the United States. What he wanted instead was a more isolationist and self-assured form of Islam – a purer interpretation of sharia law, an end to western economic influence and a more Muslim-centred foreign policy.

Another letter by Bin Laden to King Fahd explained: “It is not reasonable to keep silent about the transformation of our nation into an American protectorate which is defiled by the soldiers of the Cross with their impure feet in order to protect your crumbling throne and preserve oilfields in the kingdom.” He continued:

Is it not right for the [Islamic] nation to wonder about who is behind instability and turbulence in the country? Is it the system that delivered the country into a state of chronic military debilitation in order to justify bringing the Jewish and Christian forces to defile the holy lands? Or is it the people who call for the preparation of the nation, arming it to be strong enough to take matters into its hands, protecting its honour and religion, defending its holy sites, its land and dignity?

Fawwaz sent all of these letters on Bin Laden’s behalf until he was indicted by the US for his alleged involvement in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden himself was implicated in the attacks.

Although a rationale of revenge was the primary argument Bin Laden put forward to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks, he also argued that confronting the US directly would undermine and weaken Arab regimes back home. Indeed, this is how al-Qaeda has sought to credit itself with the Arab-world uprisings of 2011, otherwise referred to as the “Arab spring”.

“The abandonment of America’s allies one by one is the fallout of its diminishing pride and arrogance after receiving the blows in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania,” argued Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s second-in-command, shortly after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in February 2011. The 9/11 attacks had “directly caused America to lose influence over the [Arab] people because its grasp over the [Arab] regimes was weakened”.

Fantastical though such a view may be, it explains al-Qaeda’s grand strategy for effecting change.


Nowhere was the policy of direct confrontation with the US more apparent than in Iraq. Led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda in Iraq launched a deliberately brutalising campaign aimed at shocking the west. From Iraq, Zarqawi sought to traumatise western societies into ever more reticence about intervention. His campaign struck directly at those who had supported “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, claiming 4,486 American lives in the process and a further 318 from allied forces. The civilian death toll was immeasurably higher.

Traumatising as these casualties were, it is the broader cultural ramifications of the conflict that have left an indelible scar on both our society and politicians. Large sections of the Arab world – not just those already consumed with a deep suspicion of the west – erupted in a fit of anti-Americanism after the Iraq war. Every death of a western solider was cheered, every suicide bombing applauded; a Nelsonian eye was turned to the excesses of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

This perversion enveloped the entire region, from the trendy guests at Lebanese beach parties to the chattering classes of Dubai’s bevelled hotel lobbies. It is this cultural disengagement by ordinary Arabs, otherwise wholly unaligned to jihadist groups, that has proved so shocking.

While the west recorded uneven results in Iraq, the campaign was broadly a success for the global jihad movement. Zarqawi not only achieved a small foothold for his fighters in Iraq but also successfully redefined the balance of power within al-Qaeda. By 2005, his brutal campaign across Iraq had begun to alienate much of the regional support al-Qaeda previously enjoyed. This worried the central leadership. Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote to Zarqawi, chastising him for two things in particular: executing hostages and pursuing a bloody, sectarian conflict with the Shias. “Many of your Muslim admirers among the common folk are wondering about your attacks,” he wrote. “Don’t lose sight of the target.”

The overtures had no impact. Zarqawi rebuked Zawahiri by insisting that he was on the ground and therefore best placed to decide what strategy the group should pursue. This prompted a lasting shift in the internal dynamics of the jihad movement – proximity now confers legitimacy. Those on the periphery could never be better placed than Zarqawi to dictate the prevailing strategy.

That precedent directly fuelled the rise of Islamic State today. Since Zarqawi’s death in 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq has drifted into greater autonomy, renaming itself as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) that year. Although still nominally tied to al-Qaeda, the ISI was a largely independent group.

Relations finally unravelled with the onset of the Syrian civil war. Syrian fighters from ISI led by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani moved back into the country and established Jabhat al-Nusrah. They were supposed to serve as al-Qaeda’s official representatives on the ground, though ISI could not resist direct involvement. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi eventually ordered his own men into Syria, rebranding his group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) and ordering Jabhat al-Nusrah to disband.

Zawahiri was furious. He insisted that Baghdadi limit his ambitions to Iraq and leave the Syrian campaign to Jawlani. It was not only the Qaeda leader who suggested this. Notable jihadist ideologues from around the world echoed these sentiments, including Abu Qatada, the radical Muslim preacher who was deported from London back to Jordan last year.

The disagreement opened up a chasm in the global jihad movement. Both al-Qaeda and theoreticians associated with the group had urged Baghdadi to fall into line, only to be rebuffed. Invoking the primacy of proximity, as Zarqawi had done, spokesmen for Isis strongly rejected suggestions that the group was acting ultra vires. “The wars in Syria and Iraq are the same,” explained Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, a leading spokesman for Isis. In both cases, the group insists, it is protecting Sunni Islam against Shia forces.

What is significant is how Isis has sought to justify itself to the broader community of jihadi supporters. It is al-Qaeda and its ideologues – not Isis – that has betrayed the true spirit of what Osama Bin Laden always envisioned. And Isis is the rightful heir to his legacy, exploiting the power vacuum in the Levant to create an Islamic state.

The Isis leaders’ frustration is understandable. They regard the current US inaction in the region as stemming directly from the Americans’ confrontation with them during the Iraq war from 2003. The spectre of that engagement continues to cast a long and enveloping shadow over western societies. It is precisely what Bin Laden had predicted would happen, which makes Zawahiri’s reluctance to capitalise on it all the more inexplicable.

Withdrawing to Iraq would signal an acknowledgement of the boundaries set in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, a false aberration imposed on Muslims by “crusaders”. Moreover, Adnani accuses Zawahiri of prioritising politics over jihad. Only this could explain why al-Qaeda did not exploit the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The corollary is clear: al-Qaeda has lost its way under Zawahiri.

In many senses, Islamic State has now surpassed al-Qaeda altogether. Whereas al-Qaeda is a terrorist organisation committed to confronting the west violently, Islamic State has grander ambitions. Once a terrorist group, it morphed into a sophisticated insurgency, and now operates its own state.

The organisation is also investing heavily in winning public support. It operates a broad range of social services, ensuring that people under its authority have access to basic necessities such as health care, education and fuel, as well as other public services. In July, during the Muslim festival of Eid, it hosted recreational events, including pie-eating contests for children and a tug of war for adults.


When Khaled al-Fawwaz came to London as Osama Bin Laden’s representative in the late 1980s he was just one of many Islamists pouring into the country. Others such as Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammed followed and, in the process, they established a sophisticated Islamist network across the UK.

In 1994 a major international conference promoting the caliphate was held in London, gathering radical clerics from around the world. Some early adherents of Islamism even went on to fight in Bosnia and Chechnya. Others pursued more esoteric aims in states such as Yemen.

It is telling to chart the evolution of British Islamist discourse through the 1990s. When the 1994 caliphate conference was convened, a large part of proceedings was dedicated to discussing what the caliphate is and whether it is obligated in Islam. By the end of the decade, the idea of the caliphate was entrenched and the debate moved on. What Muslims discussed then was precisely how – not whether – the caliphate should be revived. Seen in this way, it is clear that the roots of Islamist ideology run deep in some parts of British Muslim life.

The caliphate is a broad concept bound up with another set of ideas, too. At its core lies an alternative identity, the umma – a fraternity of the faithful, in which loyalty and allegiance are defined through confessional affiliation over civic ideals. It is the belief in the umma that has inspired as many as 500 British men (and a handful of women) to pack their bags and migrate to Syria.

British jihadists are not in Syria to melt into the background. They are full and fervent participants in the conflict. In the past 12 months British fighters have volunteered to be suicide bombers, executed prisoners of war, and tortured detainees in their care.

Fighters from groups as diverse as Jabhat al-Nusrah, Ahrar al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army have all told me of their concerns over the extremism of British jihadists. They are regarded as some of the most vicious and vociferous. The issue emerged in sharp relief this past week with the murder of the American journalist James Foley, seemingly by a British executioner with a London accent.

Pressure is mounting on the Prime Minister to address the flow of British fighters into groups such as Islamic State. The challenges are many, not least because there is a perception in some parts that the battle against Islamism has been won.

The main institutions promoting an Islamist agenda in this country – the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain and the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe, among others – have been beaten back. So, too, have the most prominent preachers of radical ideology. At the same time, hardline organisations such as al-Muhajiroun and Hizb ut-Tahrir have fallen into obscurity.

To an extent, it can be said that there has been a decline in Islamist agitation in the public sphere. Yet this success does not represent the whole picture. Because Islamist ideas have flourished in parts of the UK for more than two decades they remain a potent and pervasive force. That explains how a generation of men not even born during the 1994 caliphate conference has come to embrace the Syrian jihad so eagerly.

In 2011 David Cameron issued one of the clearest statements by any politician of the need to inflect British values in the public sphere. In what popularly became known as the “Munich speech”, the Prime Minister spoke of the need to build a strong civic identity to which all members of our society could subscribe. A few months later, Lord Carlile published his review into the Prevent counterterrorism strategy, adumbrating a new vision for the initiative.

Both the Prime Minister and Lord Carlile identified the role of Islamist ideology as a primary driver of radicalisation. It was a marked departure from the cosseted approach adopted by their Labour predecessors in government, though much work remains to be done in this regard.

Dissuading young men not to join jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq is proving to be an arduous task. Where it was once thought that the domestic terrorism threat was being managed down, the revival of jihadist fortunes in Syria has extended its lifespan by another generation or two.


The Islamic State surge is not the first time a jihadist organisation has succeeded in taking swaths of land. It has happened before. Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces held significant parts of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. In Somalia, al-Shabab has established itself in certain parts; Ansar Dine asserted itself over a significant area of northern Mali most recently.

What distinguishes Islamic State from its predecessors is that in every one of those cases there was international momentum to unseat the jihadists. Western coalition forces worked with Pakistan to uproot militants from the tribal areas, while the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), backed by the UN, pushed back al-Shabab. In Mali, the French committed ground troops to overcome Ansar Dine and its affiliates.

There is no comparable momentum arrayed against Islamic State. Neither the Iraqi nor the Syrian army is capable of overcoming it. Regional actors led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are unwilling to act and favour arming other rebel groups instead, a policy that has failed to deliver any meaningful results so far.

The western world looks on and sees only a conflict within Islam – Sunni pitted against Shia – and asks why we should intervene. The post-9/11 campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq appear not to have been worthwhile. This cognitive dissonance has allowed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to revive a caliphate in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world.

But public opinion is beginning to take notice of Islamic State. With the execution of James Foley and the prominence of European (especially British) fighters in the conflict, it cannot be ignored. And yet, the belated approach of western policymakers has made Islamic State an entrenched entity. It is a state in every sense of the word. It maintains a treasury of billions of dollars, provides social services and has an army of skilled fighters with combat experience.

All this points to one conclusion, however depressing: Islamic State will not be overcome without some form of western military intervention. 

Shiraz Maher is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London and at Johns Hopkins University

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.


Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.


HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”


Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”


Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.


There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.


A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.


A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate