Raqqa, the ISIS ‘capital’ — a city under ‘a foreign occupation’

The Wall Street Journal reports: In Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, a Syrian city on the banks of the Euphrates, few Syrians hold positions of power these days. Running the show, residents say, are the thousands of foreigners who have converged there to establish an Islamic utopia they believe will soon conquer the planet.

“What we have is a foreign occupation,” said Sarmad al-Jilane, a former electronics student from Raqqa who now runs a website from neighboring Turkey documenting Islamic State abuses in his hometown called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. “Those who are paid by them, like them, of course. But most others hate them because of all these killings and beheadings.”

Around 20,000 foreign fighters have joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq over the past two years, Western intelligence officials estimate. While many nationalities are represented, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Russia and France have produced some of the largest contingents.

As this unprecedented influx continues, mostly through Syria’s long and porous border with Turkey, the rise of the foreign fighters is changing the very nature of the Syrian war.

In the early days of the conflict, many of these combatants came to Syria because of their desire to defend fellow Sunni Muslims against President Bashar al-Assad ’s regime.

Now, their main motivation often appears to be participating in the experiment of creating a new Islamic society — an experiment in which the fate of Syria and Syrians is secondary at best.

“People go now because they envisage a future there, not just because they want to fight on behalf of the Syrian people,” said Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on Islamic State and director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. “Many think it is a historical project that they can be part of, and that they will be remembered for being among the first — almost like the companions of the prophet.” [Continue reading…]

Cults commonly entice their recruits with the promise that they can have a unique place in history. For individuals burdened by their own lack of sense of purpose, this can be an irresistible promise.

Cults also maximize the division between insiders and outsiders — outsiders are defined, in part, by their incapacity to recognize the supposedly historic nature of the movement.

The plight of the trailblazers — so the conceit goes — is to be unrecognized and maligned by a world that lacks their vision.

This is why ISIS cannot be defeated by the construction of a persuasive counter-narrative. The proponents of such a narrative will be seen by those inside ISIS as essentially blind, which is to say, incapable of offering an alternative to something they have failed to appreciate.

The vilification of ISIS by the U.S. government, for instance, is thus unlikely to sow seeds of doubt and much more likely to prompt derisory laughter from the group’s followers.

For ISIS to break down ideologically, it seems like the fractures will have to develop from within the group.

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2 thoughts on “Raqqa, the ISIS ‘capital’ — a city under ‘a foreign occupation’

  1. Paul Woodward

    Interesting question, Laurie. I guess the differences don’t seem obvious to you. Indeed, it sounds very much like a rhetorical question — an indirect way of saying: Israel is just as bad as ISIS.

    I’ll assume you sincerely believe that, and I think I can also reasonably assume that you are not indifferent to the injustices that have been perpetrated in the name of the Jewish state. So why wouldn’t you be equally troubled by ISIS? Why insinuate there is some kind of equivalence between Israel and ISIS and then let ISIS off the hook?

    I pose these questions in an attempt to explore your thinking.

    But you might want to consider another question: How many Palestinians would prefer to live in Raqqa rather than Ramallah?

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