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Mosul has fallen, but Islamic State is far from defeated

IS tells its members they are divinely obligated to fight for its cause, but that results come from God.

On 29 June, Iraqi troops recaptured the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in western Mosul – a small victory in military terms, but one of great symbolism in the fight against Islamic State (IS). It was in this mosque that, three years ago, the IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, staged what was perhaps the most significant moment in the history of political Islam since the collapse of the Ottoman empire in the early 1920s.

In July 2014, shortly before the first Friday prayer in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, senior IS members descended on the mosque. The regular imam was informed that an important guest would deliver the sermon instead. Then he arrived. In his only public appearance to date, Baghdadi declared the establishment of the caliphate of Islamic State. “Your brothers, the mujahedin, were blessed with victory by Allah,” he announced, speaking in a classical Arabic dialect known as fusha. “After long years of jihad, patience and fighting the enemies of Allah, he guided them and strengthened them to achieve this goal.”

Today, the mosque, like the so-called caliphate, is all but destroyed. As the jihadists retreated from their last redoubts in Mosul, they blew it up – destroying, in the process, its well-known leaning minaret. The destruction of the mosque has become emblematic of the collapse of IS, which has lost more than 60 per cent of the territory that it held straddling the Iraqi- Syrian border.

Yet the battleground defeats by the Iraqi army and the US-led Western coalition (which includes the UK, Germany and France), as well as Kurdish forces, have done little to dent the triumphalism of the jihadists. If you examine the terror group’s pronouncements and online messages, you will find that the optimism of its “glory days” in 2014 remains intact.

One of the ways that IS maintains morale is by stressing the Islamic concept of divine will. Muslims believe that God’s first creations were the tablet and the pen, and that the entire history of mankind is listed on the tablet (known as al-lawh al-mahfooz). The implications of this are profound when used to rally fighters who have otherwise been beaten, because it pares down their understanding of duties and obligations.

IS tells its members that they are divinely obligated to fight for its cause, but that the results come from God. They will be judged not on the outcome but on what they are willing to do for their cause – which, by extension, shapes their perception of what constitutes success.

This became apparent in a speech delivered last year by the official IS spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, shortly before he was killed in a US drone strike in Syria. “Do you, O, America, consider defeat to be the loss of a city or the loss of land?” he asked. “Would we be defeated and [would] you be victorious if you were to take Mosul, or Sirte, or Raqqa, or even take all these cities, and we were to return to our initial condition? Certainly not!”

For IS, success is defined through the exertion of effort alone. A temporal victory, when it comes, represents just that. For individual fighters, the aspiration is to keep exerting such effort until they receive a “martyr’s death”, the ultimate honour for jihadists. This also explains why the terror group’s fighters are unfazed by the several thousand casualties that they have sustained. Those who have died are not looked on with pity but are envied as martyrs who have secured redemption.

Even so, as IS has retreated and sustained heavy loses, many fighters have defected or absconded. “When Raqqa had everything to offer of the dunya [world], brothers from all over Sham [Syria] were coming to visit,” wrote Abu Sa’eed al-Britani, a Briton raised in Buckinghamshire whose real name is Omar Hussain. He decried the way in which Raqqa had become a magnet for radicalised Syrians and foreign fighters. “Now that it needs real men, no one is coming. Munafiqeen [hypocrites],” continued Hussain, who joined IS in 2013.

His messages have appeared on Telegram, a semi-encrypted service that is popular with jihadists. Hussain was reprimanded by the terror group for his use of the platform and was absent from it for more than a year. In recent weeks, however, he has returned, offering bitter insights from Raqqa on the plummeting morale inside IS.

"Terror groups are not rational – they are indifferent to suffering or even death"

Hussain has revealed that some fighters are abandoning their posts, or have asked to be transferred from Raqqa to “easier” fronts, such as Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria. For Hussain, this is a welcome development: he has suggested that IS’s difficulties are separating its most zealous members from recruits who were attracted by its early success.

“Those who come during the tough times are better than those who come during the easy times,” he has written. “Back then, Dawlah [the state] was on its high peak. It was on the offensive and winning all battles. As for now, those who come know it’s small and has less 2 offer than before.”

This, he believes, has allowed the group to “self-purify”, ensuring that only the most hardened fighters remain within its ranks. Those who have chosen to do so are now offering Baghdadi pledges of death, vowing to fight street by street in Mosul until the last of them is killed.

The military defeat of IS in Mosul and its encirclement in Raqqa are welcome developments. More than four million civilians have been liberated from its oppressive rule in Iraq and Syria, according to the Global Coalition Against Da’esh (the Arabic acronym for IS). Yet it is important not to become complacent about the crumbling of the caliphate, because terror groups such as IS are not rational. Motivated by a sense of destiny, they are indifferent to suffering or death. Hussain offered an insight into this world-view in one of his Telegram posts: “The primary purpose of jihad is to implement the sharia [Islamic law]. So even if one million Syrian men, women and children die in the process, we have succeeded.”

This rationale is what makes IS so resilient – and we have seen its kind before. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Qaeda waged a gruesome campaign against the Western coalition, as well as Iraqi Shias in the south. After the so-called Anbar awakening, in which Sunni tribes and US troops worked together to fight al-Qaeda, it seemed as though the terror group had been defeated in Iraq by 2009.

However, while the militants had been pushed back from the cities and into the desert regions, they were not defeated. First, in 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq spawned Islamic State of Iraq. Then its operatives waited for their opportunity, with the kind of patience and abstract certainty that could only drive a millenarian movement – because, as the late spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani argued, his soldiers believe: “Allah does not go back on his promise.”

Something would eventually happen. When the uprising against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, started in 2011, the terror group seized its opportunity, moving at devastating speed across the border from its camps in Iraq into Syria and capturing territory. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Isis – was born.

Something similar is happening today. As IS fragments and retreats from Iraq, it is preparing for another spell in the wilderness. Even as it plans for the final defence of Raqqa, IS is establishing safe havens in the deserts of Deir ez-Zor. This will, in time, present new challenges as IS retreats from urban centres back into more remote terrain, where insurgencies are more difficult to manage and contain.

The group’s senior leadership, including Baghdadi, are already in hiding. It is impossible to know exactly where they are, but the jihadists’ experience in Iraq after 2009 shows how adept they are at shielding key figures. Further afield, IS affiliates in Libya, Egypt and the Philippines – where they have made strong gains in recent weeks – are trying to assert themselves with increasing aggression. Yet the core of IS’s mission and prestige is invested in the Levant.

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq are far from resolved. Beyond the fighting, these are deeply wounded societies, riddled with sectarian, ethnic and political divisions. All of this gives IS and its supporters hope. They know that they are far from beaten. 

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 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon