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Between twin barbarisms

After six years of war, Syria’s moderate rebels are broken and marginalised. And now, as Bashar al-Assad has wished for so long, al-Qaeda extremists are leading the insurgency.

On 9 February, a grey-bearded and balding Syrian rebel commander wearing military dress appeared in an internet video calling for greater unity among the forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad. This was unremarkable. Syria’s rebel groups frequently issue unity statements, merge units and create umbrella groups – many of which, like the fruit of the medlar tree, turn rotten before they turn ripe.

Yet the message from Hashem al-Sheikh – a native of Aleppo imprisoned by Assad in 2005 for his jihadi beliefs and then released along with other Islamist prisoners in 2011 in an attempt to poison the nascent uprising against the regime – was hugely important in the context of the Syrian Civil War: it signalled the potential subsuming of the entire Syrian opposition to radical and reactionary forces, and to al-Qaeda in particular.

In the video, Hashem al-Sheikh announ­ced the creation of a powerful, extremist-dominated entity known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the “Committee for the Liberation of the Levant”.

One of the main groups that joined the new committee is Nur al-Din al-Zenki, a corrupt and brutal Islamist movement that was once backed by the CIA as a “vetted organisation”, though this designation was later revoked. In July last year, five months before Aleppo fell to Assad’s forces, the group’s members were filmed beheading Abdullah Tayseer in the eastern part of the city. Tayseer was a 13-year-old boy whom they accused of fighting for the regime.

Far more significant was the folding into HTS of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), which until July was known as Jabhat al-Nusrah – and which represented al-Qaeda on the ground in Syria. JFS, comprised mainly of local fighters, had earned a degree of popular support among civilians because of its fighters’ valour and lack of corruption. The rebranding was an attempt by its leaders to recast it as a broader part of the overall uprising, and to capitalise on ordinary Syrians’ hatred of Islamic State (IS), which is widely seen as having usurped the revolution and diverted its aims.

Consequently, al-Qaeda has pursued an audacious line of messaging that seeks to portray the group in Syria as a responsible actor that follows a “middle path” between acquiescence and extremism. The corollary is clear: that it is both authentic and organic. “JFS is not a fringe group that exists on another planet,” wrote a spokesman, Mos­tafa Mahamed, shortly after it rebranded in 2016. “It is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people.”

The creation of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is a further coup for al-Qaeda in its quest for legitimacy within the Syrian opposition. Because Hashem al-Sheikh, the HTS leader, has never been part of JFS, the group can more credibly intertwine itself within the much wider movement. Indeed, Sheikh declared that HTS is not an umbrella organisation, and neither does it represent the continuation of any particular fighting force. It is a merger that dissolves the individual identities of its constituents, bringing them together in a wholly new entity.

Even so, its messages bear all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda. Sheikh’s first speech as leader was deeply sectarian; he declared Shias “the enemy”, cursed Alawites (the heterodox sect to which Assad belongs) and called for hostilities against the “forces of Zoroastrianism” (used in this context as a pejorative reference to Iran).

The elevation of Hashem al-Sheikh also throws a spotlight on the tensions within Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most powerful and well-armed of all the anti-Assad forces. Despite holding various extremist beliefs, the Islamist group has been influential and prominent within the Syrian uprising. Sheikh was one of the founding members of Ahrar al-Sham and, until his defection last month, one of its leaders.

Ahrar al-Sham is now split into two factions – those who favour greater pragmatism (and, along with this, compromise and moderation) and those who are doggedly doctrinaire. It faces other challenges, too, because HTS has adopted an aggressive posture towards rival anti-Assad forces. In recent weeks its fighters, targeting the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham and other units, have sought to consolidate control over the entire province of Idlib in north-western Syria, near the border with Turkey. This is the most significant rebel redoubt in the country after the fall of Aleppo.

“Al-Qaeda is eating us,” an official with the US-backed moderate rebel group Fastaqim told the Washington Post last month, explaining why his fighters had joined an alliance with Ahrar al-Sham despite its more hardline views.

The consolidation among the rebel groups, and the drift towards greater extremism, stem directly from what happened in Aleppo late last year before it was finally reclaimed by Assad’s army. When regime fighters, aided by Iranian-backed militias and Russian troops, managed to encircle and besiege eastern Aleppo, Assad enacted an already tried and tested policy: submit or starve. For months, hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped inside the city survived on dwindling supplies while Syrian and Russian warplanes dropped barrel bombs and bunker busters capable of ­destroying underground medical facilities.

So great was the suffering that, when the regime made its final push on Aleppo just before Christmas, rebel pockets crumbled much faster than anyone had predicted. After an evacuation deal was agreed, tens of thousands of civilians moved into the rebel-held Idlib, to the west. A minority went to regime-controlled parts of Aleppo.

The shifting dynamics of the war present a significant challenge for Syria’s beleaguered and dwindling revolutionaries, who find themselves caught between the twin barbarisms of Assad and the jihadist groups. Although there remains an alphabet soup of groups operating in Syria, few have any significance. In Idlib, the only groups realistically capable of commanding authority or administering rebel-held territory were JFS and Ahrar al-Sham. With the latter in free fall, it seems that the spoils will go exclusively to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

This marks a dangerous pivot in the Syrian Revolution. The pragmatic aspects of the opposition are being overtaken by a bullish and avowedly jihadist movement that is not only dogmatic in its approach to scripture, but also not prepared to abide minorities. The ascendency of HTS heralds an end for the opposition’s backers in both the West and the Gulf, who will shy away from supporting an alliance that so brazenly incorporates a former al-Qaeda affiliate. Already, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have suspended support to moderate rebel groups, fearing that supplies will fall into the hands of extremists.

“There is now a strong likelihood that [this] will be remembered as the moment when Western and Arab states turned away from the Syrian opposition, sealing its  fate,” Aron Lund, a fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews University, noted recently.

 

***

 

The extremist hijacking of the rebellion is precisely what Assad wanted. For years he tried to portray everyone opposed to his regime as a terrorist, arguing that they were inspired first by the Muslim Brotherhood and then by al-Qaeda and IS.

It was a deft move. When the protests began in 2011 as a principally secular and student-led movement, Syria’s Ba’athists faced an existential threat. As had occurred elsewhere in the Arab world, the international community was on the side of the revolutionaries. The Assad regime had to find a way to make the opposition unacceptable to the West. Over a long period and after much suffering, it has succeeded in achieving precisely that, by peeling progressives away from the opposition and fomenting the jihadist threat within.

Radical groups are now consuming those that have otherwise evaded the regime, a number that grows smaller by the day.

A report published last month by Amnesty International describes the methodical extermination campaign waged by Assad against peaceful activists detained in his most disreputable prison – Sednaya, where Sheikh was once held. The report documents how up to 13,000 people were hanged in the prison between 2011 and 2015, usually after severe beatings and torture.

“The victims are overwhelmingly civilians who are thought to oppose the government,” the Amnesty report states. “Since 2011, thousands of people have been executed in mass hangings, carried out at night and in the utmost secrecy.”

The executions are believed to happen in groups of 50 at a time. It is thought that a further ten prisoners die every day under torture, or from the squalid conditions ­inside Sednaya, including malnutrition, overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of medical care.

Assad’s destruction of the civilian component from the opposition has, perversely, helped his standing in the international community. He is now able to cast himself as the last guarantor of Syria’s delicate and secular social palimpsest, a particular contrast to the millenarian mania of Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

The full extent of his rehabilitation became apparent last month when the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, signalled a potential change in UK government policy while giving evidence to the House of Lords select committee on international relations.

“It is our view that Bashar al-Assad should go. It’s been our long-standing position. But we are open-minded about how that happens and the timescale on which that happens,” Johnson said. This included an acceptance that Assad should be allowed to run for the presidency again. The statement marked a dramatic shift in British policy towards the conflict since it first began. “I have to be realistic about how the landscape has changed,” Johnson said.

Donald Trump has spoken repeatedly of his fears about the terrorist threat emanating from Syria: he wants to confront extremists operating in the ravaged country. Against this backdrop, it is easy for Assad to present himself as a beleaguered, secular president fighting a jihadist insurgency.

Since winning back control of Aleppo in December, Assad has seemed more emboldened than at any other point in this long conflict. The regime is concentrating its efforts nearer to Damascus. A five-week bombardment allowed the regime to retake Wadi Barada, a highly strategic area about ten miles north-east of Damascus that is one of the capital’s sources of water, in late January. Assad is now focusing on Ghouta, another district near the capital, where the regime’s forces are alleged to be using chlorine bombs as chemical weapons against the besieged population.

Given the recent military gains, can ­Assad achieve his stated aim of restoring government control over the whole of Syria? That remains an altogether more challenging and ambitious task, not least in the east, where IS remains strong.

Though it is tempting to believe reports that IS is in terminal decline, this belies the facts. The group is under pressure in Iraq and is losing territory in Mosul, its main stronghold in the neighbouring country. It is likely that Iraqi forces will eventually recover all their territory, driving IS back into its Syrian redoubts.

But the social and political dynamics in Iraq are different from those in Syria, where IS is not only more entrenched but is facing a weaker, less cohesive adversary. Assad is already stretched and fighting on multiple fronts. He cannot afford to divert significant forces to fighting Islamic State, nor is he inclined to do so. Indeed, he is now almost entirely dependent on external support. Not only did he require Russian assistance in Aleppo, but there was much broader support from Shia militias such as Hezbollah, as well as elite Iranian forces. Whereas Russia’s involvement has diminished since Aleppo was recaptured, the Iranians are now far more heavily invested – emotionally and religiously – in the conflict. Within days of Aleppo falling, one of Iran’s most senior army commanders, General Qasem Soleimani, was pictured in the city.

By contrast, Assad is yet to visit. His chief priority remains the capture and control of what has been termed “useful Syria”, the spine of economically important cities and towns running along the western frontier from Deraa, near the border with Jordan, all the way up to Aleppo.

While Kurdish troops have made gains against Islamic State in Syria, they lack the firepower and resources needed to overcome the group decisively. Given the Turkish government’s immutable opposition to empowering Kurdish forces, this is unlikely to change. And IS has demonstrated its resilience and capacity to adapt.

It is sometimes easiest to think of the various moving parts of the Syrian conflict as the air inside a balloon: squeeze one part, and you merely move the air elsewhere. Although Russian and Syrian forces were successful in retaking the historic city of Palmyra last year, once they turned their attention towards Aleppo IS returned. Its destruction of Palmyra’s cultural heritage was more intense during the second occupation than when it previously controlled the city. (Syrian soldiers and their allies recaptured Palmyra a second time early this month.) Yet IS has also made smaller gains in other areas, such as the eastern province of Deir az-Zour, where its fighters pushed through regime lines and encircled a military airbase.

These are ominous lessons for military planners in Damascus, suggesting that the residual influence of groups such as Islamic State and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham will continue to resonate for years to come.

The fall of Aleppo may well have marked a turning point in the Syrian conflict – but only towards a more draconian and jihadi-led armed opposition.

Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer, a member of the department of war studies at King’s College London and the author of “Salafi-Jihadism: the History of an Idea” (C Hurst & Co)

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 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other women in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

King's 1999 mugshot

 

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

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

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda