A Syrian camp for displaced people. Photo: MORUKC UMNABER/DPA
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Islamic State is not beaten and will return

Its message remains as defiant as ever.

Raqqa has crumbled far more quickly than anyone imagined. In just over four months, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with Western air support, have liberated most of the city from Islamic State (IS). The de facto capital of the so-called caliphate, Raqqa was tightly controlled by its rulers, but it was a bustling hub of activity and urban life. For the hordes of foreign fighters who joined IS, it was almost enough to make them forget the virtues of the afterlife.

The fall of the city to SDF forces is a particularly bitter blow to IS, coming so soon after it lost control of its other main base, Mosul, across the border in Iraq. Yet the Islamic State message remains as defiant as ever. The terror group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, released a 46-minute audio message in September lauding the efforts of his fighters in Mosul. Yes, they lost the city but, Baghdadi insisted, this was only after sacrificing their flesh and blood. “Thus, they were excused,” Baghdadi said.

He also pointed to the group’s ability to strike Western capitals with terrorist attacks. “The Americans, the Russians and the Europeans are living in terror in their countries,” said Baghdadi, “fearing the strikes of the mujahedin.” Direct addresses from Baghdadi have been rare. This latest speech signalled his need to rally supporters after a series of defeats.

It had the effect he wanted. Extremists on Telegram – a semi-encrypted social media platform on which IS material is rife – responded jubilantly to the message, seeming emboldened. This shows how IS has adapted to the new environment. With the actual caliphate collapsing, it is in the so-called virtual caliphate where the IS narrative will continue to have greatest resonance.

Consider two important events. The first was the recent capture of two Russian soldiers in Deir ez-Zor province, to the east of Raqqa. This small propaganda victory – the soldiers were paraded on social media – has been trumpeted on Telegram as evidence of IS’s continuing military prowess.

Perhaps more significant was the claim from IS that Stephen Paddock, the 64-year-old American who murdered at least 58 people at a music concert in Las Vegas on 1 October, had carried out the attack on its behalf. Within hours of the incident, IS issued three statements claiming that Paddock had been a “soldier” of the caliphate, while celebrating the loss of life he caused. In a series of subsequent statements, IS said that Paddock had converted to Islam six months prior to the attack, which was the deadliest mass shooting in US history.

Though Paddock’s motives remain unknown, IS’s claims are not being treated as credible in the US. Yet, in a sense, their veracity is irrelevant. Supporters of the terror group already distrust mainstream media and Western officials: they have therefore accepted IS’s version of events. Almost nothing will convince them otherwise. Indeed, those who have expressed scepticism about Paddock’s links to IS in sympathetic Telegram groups have been told to hold their tongues and “trust the Muslims”.

Those who inhabit the “virtual caliphate” also respond in angry and impassioned ways to events taking place inside IS territory in Iraq and Syria. Often they have a chance to hear from fighters, of whom the most zealous and hardened remain in Raqqa, having vowed to fight until the end. The rest have relocated to Deir ez-Zor province, which is largely a desert and much harder to encircle than the major urban centres of Raqqa and Mosul.

Among the IS diehards is Yasser Iqbal, a lawyer from Birmingham. He recently published a series of audio messages from inside Raqqa under the nom de guerre Abu Adam al-Britani. He painted a picture of a crumbling caliphate, with IS unable to stop the relentless advance of SDF fighters.

The Western-led aerial bombing campaign is so intense that, Iqbal said, stray cats and dogs are growing overweight from feasting on “dead human flesh”, because fighters in Raqqa are unable to bury the dead. His message was unmistakably aimed at Muslims in the West and is intended to serve as a rallying cry.

As IS tries to use its online presence to encourage more attacks abroad, it has also taken the unprecedented step of calling for the mobilisation of women. In a new edition of its Arabic language newspaper, the terror group informed its female supporters that participation in jihad was an obligation and duty. The article justified the change of stance – IS had previously banned women from the battlefield – by describing the heroic deeds of female martyrs from Islamic history. The intention is to expand IS’s pool of potential recruits by encouraging women to engage in attacks.

Despite all the military pressure it faces and its renewed focus on the internet, IS remains a potent force on the ground. As it retreats from Raqqa – as it did in Mosul – it is leaving behind a legacy of devastation, as Quentin Sommerville reports. There will be no Marshall Plan for Syria and Iraq to rebuild their civil infrastructure or stimulate their stagnating economies. And the many deep-rooted problems, founded on simmering sectarian and ethnic tensions, communal distrust, privation and generalised insecurity, will remain. These contributed to the rise of IS in the first place – and have been exacerbated as a result of conflict.

As with other millenarian movements, IS has time on its side. The terror group is content to ride the ebb and flow of global currents, just as it did after 2007 when its predecessor was beaten back in Iraq. Then, as now, it contented itself with retreating and waiting for the opportunity to re-emerge.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is well aware of this and is preparing the groundwork for the return of Islamic State. In his audio message in September, besides calling for more attacks in the West, he turned his attention to those closer to home.

“Turkey and the sahawat [literally: awakening; a reference to groups working with the West] will give you nothing,” Baghdadi said. “If it was not for us, you would be worse off.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist