The secret world of ISIS training camps - ruled by sacred texts and the sword by Hassan Hassan
Hamid Ghannam’s first day at an Islamic State (Isis) training camp was intense. Very early on the morning of 13 August, he picked up his packed clothes and walked quickly to the main street in his village to meet three of his cousins. As with many of Isis’s young members, he did so without informing his parents.
The cousins drove in a white minibus to an Isis camp at the Omar oilfield in the desert of Mayadeen, Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria. The recruiter, a distant relative who had enlisted around eight others from his village since he was put in charge of its security, accompanied the three to their new lodging, where they would spend the next few weeks.
At the oilfield the recruiter spoke to an Isis member for a few minutes before he excused himself. “Keep our heads high,” he told his relatives as he drove away. Another Isis member welcomed the three recruits and asked them to prepare themselves for sharia lessons. “It is not easy, you have to be patient,” Ghannam said. “They test you first. They speak with you for a while. They check your knowledge of religion. They discuss with you everything. They talk to you about the Nusayri [pejorative reference to Alawites] regime and then about the Free Syrian Army and all the misguided groups. It is exhausting at first.”
Little is known about what goes on inside training camps run by Isis in areas under its control in Iraq and Syria – particularly its religious component. The Isis ideology is generally viewed as identical to al-Qaida’s or the Saudi version of Salafism – adherence to fundamental Islamic tenets – and so there does not seem to be a serious effort to study it more closely. There is also a tendency to play down the role of religious ideology as a recruitment tool, since the motives of many Isis members have little to do with religion.
Another problem that muddles understanding of Isis’s appeal is that politicians tend to deliberately misrepresent the role of ideology to undermine the group’s propaganda, while objective observers often have no access to Isis associates beyond social media. As a result, a flawed understanding of the ideological appeal of Isis is common, despite its central role in the fight against it. Both the commander of the American special operations forces in the Middle East, Major General Michael Nagata, and the general in charge of leading the international coalition against Isis, John Allen, have emphasised that the ideology of Isis is insufficiently understood and that ideological delegitimisation is crucial in the effort to defeat it.
So what specific ideas, stories and narratives do new members learn at these camps? What does Isis tell its new recruits to make them so zealously committed to its ideology? More important, does the Isis ideology serve to attract or merely retain new recruits?
As part of research involving in-depth interviews with Isis members for a book about the organisation, American analyst Michael Weiss and I have identified half a dozen categories of Isis members according to the factors that drew them to the group. In at least two of those categories, religion more than anything else has been the driving force. But these two demographic components – long-standing takfiris (radicals who adhere to teachings that declare fellow Muslims as infidels) and young zealots – are more central for Isis than other members because they formulate the group’s identity and ensure its resilience. In addition, the appeal of Isis outside its conflict zones tends to be primarily ideologically driven.
Sharia training varies from one member to another, depending on the group’s assessment of his value or loyalty. New recruits join training that ranges from two weeks, one month, 45 days, six months up to one year. Inside the camps, students receive a mix of military, political and sharia orientation, usually given by around five instructors. During training, recruits can be dispatched to checkpoints but not to the frontlines. After they graduate, they will remain under supervision and can be expelled or punished in case of noncompliance – including being lashed if they express reservations. In some cases, new members who struggle with the brutality of the group’s acts will be sent back to receive more training to “strengthen” their faith.
“You first get the basics about religion,” said Abu Moussa, an Isis-affiliated religious cleric in eastern Syria but originally from Aleppo. “They cleanse you from religious innovations and Ba’athist ideas. Issuing fatwas is restricted to clerics and nobody can kill without a fatwa unless in the battlefield. You also study Arabic and learn how to speak in standard Arabic if you don’t know.”
Clerics in charge of religious training at Isis, known as sharii, are mostly academically qualified and have longstanding experience within the organisation’s ranks. Isis also relies on young clerics who have recently joined its ranks to compensate for the shortage of imams to cover the approximately 20 mosques in every town that falls under its control. It often uses imams with limited religious training to speak at pulpits across eastern Syria and western Iraq, where mosques had typically been controlled by Sufis from the Naqshbandi order or its Khaznawi branch before Isis arrived. (Isis also uses local imams to pit local residents against each other as part of its divide and rule strategy.) These imams are generally asked to preach about three key concepts that are shared by all Salafi and jihadist groups, but Isis has its own take on their functionalities, namely tawhid (strict monotheism), bida’a (deviation in religious matters) and wala wal baraa (loyalty to Islam and disloyalty to anything un-Islamic).
“People say al-dawla excommunicates Muslims,” said Abu Moussa, using the term “al-dawla”, or State, in reference to Isis. “We don’t do that. Yes, we have no tolerance for anybody who opposes our message. Why do we fight the Free Syrian Army? We spread our message by proselytisation and sword. Ibn Taymiyyah said ‘the foundation of this religion is a book that guides and a sword that brings victory’. We guide and the sword brings victory. If someone opposes the message of the prophet, he faces nothing but the sword. As the prophet spread the message across the Earth, we are doing the same. When al-dawla first fought the Free Syrian Army, it was a problem for many. They did not believe the accusations. But later, one thing after another began to unfold and people started to accept them.”
Another member echoed Abu Moussa’s reasoning. “The prophet said: ‘I have been given victory by means of terror.’ As for slaughter, beheading and crucifixion, this is in the Qu’ran and Sunna [oral sayings attributed to prophet Muhammad]. In the videos we produce, you see the sentence ‘deal with them in a way that strikes fear in those behind them’, and that verse speaks for itself. One more thing: the prophet told the people of Quraish, ‘with slaughter I came to you’.”
In terms of indoctrination, Isis generally steers clear of exposing new members to teachings that are not derived from sharia texts. New members are almost exclusively exposed to religious books, while established members or commanders can study manuals such as Management of Savagery, a jihad book written by an Abu Bakr Naji, who said that you should distinguish between jihad and other religious tenets in that jihad is not about mercy but about extreme retaliatory violence to deter enemies. The restriction of religious training to religious texts is in line with the group’s rhetoric that it is an extension of authentic Islam rather than a new group with its own set of teachings.
Indeed, one of the fascinating insights we found is that Isis presents the “mainstream” Islam practised by Muslims today as one that was “invented” over the past few decades. To unravel this so-called invented Islam, Isis deliberately digs deep into Islamic sharia and history to find arcane teaching and then magnify it. It does so to shock its potential recruits and demonstrate it is preaching a pure and true Islam obscured by the mainstream. Take, for example, the group’s punishment for individuals accused of homosexuality. In a series of incidents in recent weeks, Isis has thrown individuals accused of being gay from the highest buildings. This method as a sharia punishment is unheard of, even in countries where sharia brute justice is openly practised, such as Saudi Arabia.
Unlike previous incidents of stoning adulterers and crucifixion, throwing people from high buildings did not even inspire criticism of sharia in the Middle East because many did not realise it was a sharia penalty in the first place. But it is the obscurity of the punishment that makes it particularly valuable for Isis. The purpose is not to increase the volume of violence but also to raise eyebrows and trigger questions about such practices, which Isis is more capable of answering than mainstream clerics, who prefer to conceal teachings that propound such punishments. Many Isis members were eager to emphasise they were impressed by such obscure teachings, and were drawn to the group by the way Isis presents Islam with absolute lucidity. Mothanna Abdulsattar, for example, spoke about the group’s “intellectualism and the way it spreads religion and fights injustice”.
The process of indoctrination does not always happen after members join. In many cases, people are drawn to Isis during conversations with members or sermons conducted by clerics weeks or even months before they start considering enrolment. By the time an individual is formally recruited, he will have at least bought into Isis ideology. Inside the camp, Isis benefits from relating these hidden, obscure stories to formulate its own narrative.
Isis depends heavily on what Muslim clerics consider isolated incidents described in sacred texts that it believes should not be followed as rules. The function of such incidents is not necessarily to argue a doctrinal idea. Isis sometimes uses them to help members who struggle with beheading, for example, to justify what they have done. When these stories are weaved into the overall ideology of Isis, new members find it easier to accept them.
The argument that these acts are not Islamic often ignores how such stories are told. For instance, Isis tells the story of Muhammad’s commander-in-chief, Khaled bin al-Walid, who killed hundreds of captives after the 7th-century battle of Ullais in Iraq, seemingly contrary to Islamic teachings, because he had made a pledge to God that he would make a river of blood from the Persian army if he overran it. When he could not find enough people to make a river out of their blood after he defeated them, he killed the captives and opened a dam into their bleeding bodies. Isis uses the story to say this is the man described by the prophet as the Unleashed Sword of God and who was praised for his victory in that battle by the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr. When Isis kills its captives, a Muslim cleric can dismiss the act as un-Islamic, but Isis can simply cite the example of al-Walid.
Because Isis bases its teachings on religious texts that mainstream Muslim clerics do not want to deal with head on, new recruits leave the camp feeling that they have stumbled on the true message of Islam. New recruits such as Ghannam and his cousins graduate armed with theological arguments, military training and a conviction that fellow Muslims are at least partly complicit in the suppression of true Islam.
Hassan Hassan is an analyst at the Delma Institute, a research centre in Abu Dhabi. He is the co-author, along with Michael Weiss, of Isis: Inside the Army of Terror, which will be published in February in New York by Regan Arts.
HOW ISIS WAS CREATED
1989 Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Jordanian founding father of Islamic State, arrives in Pakistan to join the mujahideen, just as the Soviet army quits Afghanistan.
1992 Zarqawi returns to Jordan and is placed immediately under surveillance.
1999 Zarqawi leaves Jordan for Pakistan to pick up where he left off several years before.
Zarqawi is in charge of a training camp in Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, on the border with Iran, a camp that carried a sign that read “al-tawhid wal-Jihad” (Monotheism and Jihad) which would later become the name of his group in Iraq.
7 August 2003 Operatives from tawhid wal-Jihad bomb the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad and assassinate Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The Zarqawists are still a minority in Iraq’s insurgency landscape.
January 2006 Zarqawi announces the creation of the Mujahideen Advisory Council of Iraq.
7 June 2006 Zarqawi is killed in a US air attack, and the advisory council appoints Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian national who used another nom de guerre, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.
Muhajir declares that his franchise is part of Iraq’s homegrown Islamic resistance movements, which he named the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), to be led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a native Iraqi.
April 2010 Both Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Muhajir are killed.
May 2010 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is appointed leader of Isis. In August 2011, during Ramadan, Baghdadi dispatches half a dozen of his lieutenants to establish a franchise in Syria, which was formed in December under Jabhat al-Nusra li ahl al-Sham (the Support Front for the People of Syria).
April 2013 Baghdadi unilaterally declares a merger between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISI and calls it the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Isis).
28 June 2014 On Ramadan’s first day, Baghdadi abrogates Isis and heralds the birth of Islamic State.
Hassan Hassan is an analyst at the Delma Institute, a research centre in Abu Dhabi, and a columnist for the National newspaper. Follow him on Twitter @hxhassan. His new book on ISIS, co-written with Michael Weiss, is out now.
This article first appeared in the Guardian