PHOTO: Islamic State stages execution of 25 Syrian troops in Palmyra in May
Christopher Reuter of Der Spiegel, one of the best correspondents covering Syria’s conflict, speaks with Hanin Ghaddar of NOW about the challenges of reporting on the Islamic State — given its skill with propaganda and intimidation — inside the country.
Reuter’s book on the Islamic State, Die Schwarze Macht (The Black Power) was published in April:
NOW: In the past four years, you’ve been to Syria 19 times and you recently wrote an article about the original documents you found that show the origins of Daesh. Is the book an elaborate analysis of these findings?
Christoph: No, we singled out this part, which was in Der Spiegel. We had the perfect chain of evidence. We had authentic, hand-written charts, drafts and plans, and we had to check the implementation of the plans through the contacts that we had in the villages and the towns. Plus, we had reports from the Daesh headquarters in Aleppo. And you rarely get something from inside Daesh, except sometimes when people talk, and when you get papers it’s normally just the reporting, the bureaucracy part from municipality, etc. But to get something from the inner circle — to get something which is their thinking — is super rare. It’s like we got one slice of the brain; nobody has the whole brain, but at least we got one part, which helps us to understand where they come from and how they function.
NOW: Why do you put a lot of emphasis in the book on the gap between the propaganda of Daesh and the reality?
Christoph: Basically, we see Daesh, we see the Islamic State — especially in the West — we see it from the surface, which is the mix of their propaganda; their version of what they really do. You see the pictures of actual killings, slaughtering, beheadings, blowing up things, mixed with their propaganda, or mixed with the things which are not true. They are controlling whatever comes out of their area. For example, if you take the pictures and the images we have of the Islamic State, 99% are approved by their PR department. They give us pictures of all these lined-up Humvees, guys with guns, perfect afternoon light set in the desert. They have accepted the presence of a few photographers who are in the area, from AFP, Reuters, AP; the big agencies, no matter if they would be considered Zionists, masons, imperialists, infidel agencies — they are in their area and they had to swear allegiance and in most cases the office is directly controlling all the images before they are permitted to submit them or it’s made clear to them. They sort of tell them, ‘if you do something wrong which harms our reputation, you know what will happen to you. We know you; we will find you.’ So the images that are transferred through the agencies, all the big agencies, are images that have been approved by Daesh. And Daesh invites the photographers to their events.
NOW: This is Syria you’re talking about — you’re not talking about Iraq…
Christoph: Both. No, in Syria it’s slightly different because you had no established photographers, like in Hawija, Tikrit, Mosul, and Fallujah. There are photographers who’ve been working for the agencies for a long time. They could make a deal with Daesh that they could continue to work but according to the new rules. So, you could probably do normal street scenes, they wouldn’t mind, but if you do anything that they would not agree with, you’d be in trouble. They invite photographers to demonstrations and events. Well, they wouldn’t say it’s a beheading; you go there and then you have to take pictures of a beheading, of any kind of punishment.
NOW: And you can’t do anything about it? You would have to take the pictures?
Christoph: You could say that you don’t want to take the pictures, but anything can get you into trouble. So, you take the picture…
NOW: So basically, they’re like slave photographers.
Christoph: Yes. And Daesh is absolutely controlling what comes out of their area, and even when you would propose to the picture editor other pictures of Daesh, a few that came out of Raqqa, for example, taken with a mobile phone, shaky, and not very professional, because the photographer had to do it very quickly — the picture editors usually prefer the ones approved by Daesh, because they are better quality. Daesh has understood perfectly how the media functions and everybody who writes about how cruel and awful Daesh is would use the pictures from their PR department.
You remember one demonstration where they were marching through Tal Abyad, the one famous photograph used by many media? They use it again and again and it’s a propaganda picture. So, you see how things are happening inside of “Daeshistan”. No matter what we write about them, they create an image, they convey the image and on the subconscious level of the pictures, people believe them; people depend on them for information and no one would doubt them.
NOW: Why do you think no one doubts them?
Christoph: Because it’s against all our experience that people would lie about, or exaggerate, a cruelty. They might always downplay it, but if you say you have killed 1,700 infidels, nobody would say ‘how come you are exaggerating?’
NOW: Do you doubt it?
Christoph: Well, we try to double check. For example, in Tikrit, we ask around or we check in different cities in southern Iraq if they have big funerals. If it’s really 1,700 people, you would feel an echo, you would feel an impact. And it was very little, and then after they retook Tikrit, they found, until July, 594 bodies, which is horrible enough, but there is no confirmation whatsoever for 1,700.
Normally you would have a militia and you accuse them of killing a certain amount of people and they would say, “No, it was in the fighting, it was less than this.” But the other way around is something we’re not used to dealing with. Whoever has dealt with Al-Qaeda or other Islamist movements in the past, they don’t understand that this formation is operating on a completely different level. They are much cleverer; they even fake the identities of the suicide bombers. They claim “this German, or this Dane has blown himself up”. We have several cases where we knew that the person was still alive afterwards.
NOW: Why do they do that?
Christoph: Because a European makes better PR. You have a German who blows himself up, it’s big in the German media, in the European media, or international media in general.
NOW: Why do they want to scare people like that?
Christoph: Scaring is one thing, but they also wanted to gain followers. When they tell the potential German followers that they have Germans who have sacrificed their life for them, it is attracting. Suicide bombing is the kind of thing that gives you a holy touch, which people sacrificed their life for you, and it’s attracting people.
You suck them in and you create the impression that others have already sacrificed a lot, and within the jihadist circles you have a lot of pressure by people who tell them: ‘Your brothers are dying, and you sit here in Germany and have an easy life, so you should do something.’ Plus, of course, it helps create fear all over.
One interesting case was in January 2014, when they announced a suicide bombing of a German in a village they claimed was part of Homs and 50 Alawites were killed. The German authorities took it for granted because of a tweet — just a tweet. Then we started investigating — and this is the advantage of knowing people all over — so [we] ask people if there was a big suicide bombing in Homs at that time, and the answer by all was “No.” The bombing did happen, but in the village of Kafat on the east edges of Hama Province, not in Homs. It didn’t kill Alawites, and it wasn’t a suicide bomber. It was a parked car in the city center — where no cars are permitted to park — and to reach there you have to go through three checkpoints of Military Security and Air Force intelligence. So, there is reason to doubt that Daesh had anything to do with this explosion.
NOW: So they might have just claimed this bombing?
Christoph: They might have claimed something which they hadn’t done, and it was perfect for both; Daesh and the regime. The regime could say, ‘Well, the terrorists are here, you have to be on our side.’ And the German who they claimed had committed this bombing in a tweet in the name of the Islamic State, he appeared twice after that. First time, he appeared on a regime website, Syria Truth — in a picture of him alive in Syria, claimed to have been received from a jihadi. The second time this guy appeared in October, very alive, sitting in a car full of explosives, with a new Arab name, but the same face, driving into a suicide operation in Iraq. So he died twice, according to Daesh.
NOW: So, you’re saying that they are exaggerating their strength.
Christoph: They are not exaggerating their strengths, but they are exaggerating their defining image. You never see, for example, exhausted, injured, confused Daeshis in pictures. You always see the decisive, strong, determined Daeshis. And so, strength is something relative, like when you had the early phase in 2013, and they would always be masked. And whenever something happens, immediately around 200 guys would appear. Bam! All masked. So the local people would not know how many they are, or who they are.
During this period, for example, they were exaggerating their strength, but in general they tried to foment the image of the invincible warrior, because also with the mask you came like a ninja, you jump from the pick-up [truck], you threaten everybody, you shout. People who saw it in advance said it was like a movie. They roll in their pick-ups and start shooting at everyone.
NOW: Are they basically trained to do that kind of acting?
Christoph: Yes, yes! They have training camps.
NOW: You mean acting camps?
Christoph: Everything, yes. Daesh creates fear as a weapon. They create an image as a weapon where, for example, in Iraq they just needed to call ahead and say ‘we will arrive in half an hour,’ and the village would be empty. If it was an opposition village against Daesh, people would just run away, or if they roll into villages like they did around Kobane in October, the first thing they did in one village was just behead someone; it doesn’t matter who it is, it’s just to make clear to everyone that ‘we can and will do this,’ and the rest would just disappear.
NOW: Did they talk to you? As a foreign journalist?
Christoph: Some talked. Daesh would never talk to us today. Theinteresting thing is that even before April 2013, Daesh was not operating officially in Syria, but we would see these camps, which are perfectly set, but we never get access. There was one in Daret Azze, for example — impossible to get near. But they knew everything about the Syrian activists in Aleppo, even knew about their secret back-up office. There was an intelligence-gathering force in these areas and it wasn’t clear who it was.
Only after they were able to take over a specific area, they would then suddenly disclose their identity. So, it’s like an insect going through metamorphosis — nobody knows what will come out of this, and then suddenly the ugly butterfly is there.
So the overall idea of the book is about this surface of Daesh which we perceive, but when you see how they operate, when you see who is the inner core of leadership, and when you see what relations the old leadership of the Islamic State and Iraq had with Ali Mamluk and Assef Shawkat in Syria — extremely close relations — you see that Daesh becomes kind of three-dimensional. You see that it’s not just a jihadist outlet; it’s a combination of a very cold-blooded, engineered plan — the old Baathists, the old secret service guys, with real jihadists, with believers. But you have a clear hierarchy of who’s making the plans and decisions.
NOW: Who exactly is making the plans and decisions?
Christoph: The Baathists — the old professionals. They also flip alliances. They had some kind of tactical alliance with the rebels, and I mean on the level that they could always claim ‘we are against Assad.’ But they also have this tactical cooperation with Assad’s regime. It’s not true what the opposition always say that Daesh was created by Assad. We collected 15 cases from early 2014, and new ones from June 2015, where rebels and Daesh would fight. They had clashes in Maara, in Al-Bab, in Aleppo and in Raqqa, and then you would have the regime air force, either during the fighting or immediately after bombing only the rebels, never the Daesh side. Also, when Daesh was removed from Al-Bab by the rebels, the regime pounded Al-Bab 12 hours later and made it easier for Daesh to come back.
Daesh basically borrowed the regime’s air force, and this was the clearest evidence that they are potentially helping each other.
NOW: Do you think there is also communication or only tactical cooperation?
Christoph: Well, there must be communication, but we have no evidence of the communication.
So, you have these two very cynical archenemies, who both believe — rightly — that they can be, for the time being, useful to each other in certain areas. So you have the confirmation that this is not a jihadist outlet of believers. They have no problem to have deals with the KRG, with Barazani’s government, like: ‘we take Mosul and we don’t touch Kirkuk.’ So you had no clashes or conflict from June to August 2014, then suddenly they felt powerful enough and they took a lot of the Kurdish areas.
There’s a very non-religious, tactical and practical element of how they operate. It’s completely different from real believers. They could make deals with the devil if need be.
NOW: Does this really influence the fighters who are there only because they are believers and they want to do this for ideological reasons? When they know about these deals with the devils, doesn’t that raise doubt?
Christoph: You have different groups who come; you have the groups who join for religious or ideological reasons and you also have people who come for the power. You have people who come for sadistic reasons. These love to subjugate, to kill, to rape with impunity — they have people like this. I mean, there are around 15,000 to 20,000 who joined Daesh. Those who came for the belief and to help Muslims — many of them are disappointed. The sadists are just happy because they do not care.
NOW: You mean they are only there for power and the love of violence?
Christoph: Power, yes. There are people who love violence and some who are shocked when they see the real violence.
NOW: Are any of these disappointed jihadists leaving?
Christoph: No, they can’t. A lot of them would like to leave, and Daesh sometimes lets people leave, but we haven’t understood why. Some people may leave, but most are banned from leaving.
NOW: And they can’t run away?
Christoph: How? How can you run away if Daesh is controlling all the checkpoints? Plus, Daesh tries to monitor their Facebook pages, their phone calls; they check their phones, if they are permitted to have a phone at all, and if the phone is working. In the Internet cafes, they are trying to monitor who’s checking what. So we know of Daeshis who would go to the Internet café, open a new Facebook account, contact their friends, send a request, discuss with them and then close everything. Basically, they have their constant account and a sub-account only for one time, because they are so afraid of getting caught.
NOW: But can they fight if they don’t have the motivation anymore?
Christoph: Well, let’s say you are sent to Kobane, you’re thrown into battle, and if someone is shooting at you, you will shoot back. And a lot of them died in one day, or two days.
Yes, the determination is gone, but you can still die. I mean, why do Syrian Army soldiers die? Many of them don’t have the motivation. Daesh isvery clever in sending people to places where they either couldn’t run away or they would die in the battle.
Also, you are not disappointed if you don’t see the reality. They don’t necessarily know the reality. You know your emir, your personal emir; you don’t know the emir of the emir of the emir; you never know the whole structure. You are in your little cell and you are doing what you have to do, and they have this Hadith that there must always be an emir. If three people are traveling somewhere, one must be an Emir. So they are very much into this ‘we have to obey,’ but they are mostly kept in the dark.
NOW: Who qualifies to be an emir?
Christoph: Good question. Daesh decides who will be an emir.
NOW: How? And why?
Christoph: Because you are loyal, fierce, skillful, but mostly you’re loyal. And if you’re loyal but not skillful, you’d be replaced. They had a lot of replacements and swapping of emirs. They are obsessed with control. This is why at the beginning they wanted to have this hybrid army of foreigners to make sure they are ultimately loyal because locals might be more loyal to family or tribal connections. They want strangers. They want a fighting force that has nowhere to go and which is loyal to them. They trained them for a long time to turn them into a cohesive army.
NOW: How long does this training take?
Christoph: Two months, normally, but different trainers would come. It might take three days of RPG training, and then you have the sniper, then the master of bomb making.
NOW: What do they really want from Syria and/or Iraq?
Christoph: All Sunni parts. They have found out that attacking areas of different ethnicities or belief has proved to be difficult. Sunni areas, sooner or later, will break and most people stay. Kurds fight to the last man standing; Shiites would fight. So, with Sunnis they would be more careful. Sunni areas are easier. It seems they are trying to get as many Sunni areas as they can.
NOW: Including Lebanon?
Christoph: Lebanon is not very relevant. Saudi, Egypt, Libya are more relevant. These are big places. Saudi for oil, and if you see how vulnerable societies can be effected by Daesh’s ideology, the most vulnerable country on this slope is Saudi Arabia. They have a big software problem.
NOW: But why do you think the international coalition’s strikes against ISIS are only making ISIS stronger? What’s going on?
Christoph: Well, they hit them hard; they have lost Abu Ali al-Anbari, one of the highest-leading old Baathist guys, which is a big loss for them. They are losing a lot of men, they are losing a lot of infrastructure, the wells, and they are losing the reputation of being invincible. So they have lost. On the other hand, they gained the attractiveness of the victim. The world is against them, and since they control a big area, they have cleverly used the time to get people from the tribes in the last few months.
But after June last year, Daesh was an army, with everything they took from Mosul, so they rolled in and they wiped out villages. So, the coalition is bombing them but they are moving in normal cars. You obviously don’t know who they are, you don’t fight them easily, they still get new recruits from inside, a few from outside, and as long as you have this triangular relation in Syria and in Iraq that Daesh is an enemy — but at the same time a useful enemy — they will never be completely defeated.
You have to fight Daesh from inside Sunni communities.
NOW: Who can actually defeat ISIS? How?
Christoph: The Sunnis, who should stand up and say ‘it’s not us, we don’t like them, we don’t know them.’
NOW: But they’d be slaughtered like this [Shaitat] tribe…
Christoph: The Sunnis in Syria are at least more organized, and you have Al-Nusra.
NOW: But can they really fight ISIS? Daesh is becoming an army. How can they defeat them? Standing up against them is one thing, but actually defeating them on the ground is another thing.
Christoph: On a tactical level, yes, you’re right, it’s difficult. But don’t underestimate the guys of Jaysh al-Fatah, for example. They are people who have a lot of battle experience, and they have weapons.
NOW: Can they defeat ISIS?
Christoph: At least they can contain them. There is no fast victory in Syria. The core problem is as long as Assad is there you will have no united front against Daesh. Once Assad is gone, everyone will be brought together to fight Daesh.
NOW: So, basically — if you were in charge — you would get rid of Assad first?
Christoph: Take out the family first, which would help reunite the country, as well. In Iraq it’s much more complicated because you cannot change the mood of the Shiites.
NOW: And dividing Syria into Alawistan, Sunnistan, and Kurdistan — is that feasible?
Christoph: It’s going to happen anyhow, on an ethnic level, but an Alawistan would half consist Sunnis. What would you do with all the Sunnis in Latakia and Tartus?
For now, in the south, there is the Southern Front and a very benign Nusra in this area. There is also the Druze of Sweida. There is also Daeshistan, and Jaysh al-Fateh and Jaysh al-Islam with many others in the north. There is also the Alawistan in addition to three Kurdish cantons. Now the map looks like the map of Germany in 1620. Every 10 kilometers you have a new power center.
NOW: Will it work?
Christoph: Not for good, not for a long time, because there will be no stability. Plus, the smaller the entities, the more dependent they are on the donors, and you have all kinds of donors who have their own personal interests and agendas.
If Assad were taken out, at least you would have an end to barrel bombs; an end to the air force. Daesh would have a problem and the regime would have a problem. They would be down to ground forces, which inflict fewer casualties.
NOW: What do you think of Iran’s Plan B in Syria? Would it work?
Christoph: I think the Iranians are reconsidering the value of Assad. They’re thinking, ‘if we continue to burn down the country, we might come to a situation where our most precious Assad is worth much less than today, because he has lost more territory, and we will have to offer an exit for him.’
NOW: But wouldn’t that be more complicated for Iran? A Syria without Assad?
Christoph: Everybody has understood that they could continue fighting but there will be no victory. In the long term, they would want to go for a deal which preserves their interests in Syria. The question is to what extent can the Iranians stay if the Syrians, overtime, don’t want them? Hezbollah would love to repeat [what] they have done in Lebanon, but the problem is, in Syria they are not representing any major part of the population.
There are — as we’ve observed for a long time — these desperate attempts to Shiitize Syria. We see new Husseiniyas, or Syrian Shiite families buying property in Bab Toumah and all over Damascus. They try to get a foothold, but it’s not going to work. I think at the end of the day it will be up to the demographic proportions of Syria — they will decide and you will not have an Iranian corridor anymore. Hezbollah will try, Iran will try,but in 10-20 years’ time you do not generate stability, and if they’re losing now large numbers of fighters, while they are allied with this government, they will probably lose many more fighters if they are against the whole of Syria. Nationalism can become a very potent factor if you unite the Syrians to rebuild Syria.
NOW: But after the deal is signed and they get more money, won’t they be able to use this money in order to boost their military operations in Syria and win?
Christoph: No, because it’s not about money. It’s about fighting men. Now they are down to recruiting Hazaras from Iranianprisons, which they brought into prison before with raids in the construction sites, accusations of drug smugglings, so they’re filling the prisons, then empty the prisons, and make deals with prisoners. They are desperate to recruit more men.
The fact that you have so many foreigners already in the line is showing you that they are running out of men. Iraqis sub-contracting to Pakistanis, Iranians sub-contracting to the Afghans, Pakistanis will try to sub-contract Bangladeshis, etc. Basically, there are mercenaries in Syria hiring other mercenaries to replace them, and you end up with people who have little incentive to fight and who have no knowledge of the area.
The Iranians are considering sending regular Iranian forces, but if they do this, they will have to deal with the backlash inside Iran. Iranian people so far have ignored what is happening inside Syria.
NOW: Because they’re not losing men?
Christoph: No, because they are not officially losing people from the army. Those who are going to fight in Syria from the Iranian side are believers — the Quds Forces, the Special Forces, the Pasdaran, but not the army.
They would do everything to protect this corridor. And I think they would rather sacrifice Bashar than lose the corridor, but the problem is what happens afterwards. Iran has never had the experience of trying to change demographics.
So until a solution that comes closest to the conditions of the areas is reached, nothing will change. A local leadership must be found. Someone local with a sense of responsibility.
NOW: Who are these people?
Christoph: There is no one — this is the problem. The opposition has no national vision. The Kurds have it, Daesh has it — I mean have ideas for state building.
NOW: Back to Daesh and the book: what is your bottom line? What do you want us to understand?
Christoph: The bottom line of the book is to change the image we have, which has basically been created by Daesh; to see the gap between this image and the reality. Daesh is a joint venture of the engineering group, let’s say, and the believers, which may fall apart if a) they start to believe in their own propaganda, or b) jihadists are easily replaced. An emir is killed: ‘yalla, we have another one; we have enough people.’ But a lieutenant of military security with 30 years of experience? No, that you cannot replace. It would be very difficult.
NOW: So you have to target these people?
Christoph: You have to target these people. For example, the loss of Haji Bakr, the loss of Abu Ali al-Anbari,the loss of other people is vital. Plus, nobody knows what is happening in the inner-inner circle; if at some point they have been overwhelmed by their success. I mean, Osama bin Laden would get mad if he could see how much success they have had and how much global appeal they have. So maybe they are overwhelmed with success and they feel that they don’t need any planning anymore, and that God will be on their side. At that moment, they will start losing. Until now they have acted without believing in God‘s helping hand, but due to their planning and structure.
NOW: Because of the central command?
Christoph: Yes, because you have a very central command, which can shift troops from A to B to C. It can organize all forces.
NOW: What is their core difference from Al-Qaeda?
There is a chapter on their PR, Daesh vs. Al-Qaeda. If you see the statements and actions of Al-Qaeda, they were like the early left-wing terrorists in the 1970s in Europe. They always believed in the masses. ‘We do something and then the masses will rise,’ but the masses never rose. Not for Al-Qaeda, not for the leftists. Daesh does not believe in the masses rising; Daesh believes in control: ‘oppress the masses and they will obey.’
This is what they have done the last 40 years, and it will work again. In Syria they got it partly wrong because they did not expect that the masses then would unite against them for a while, but by andlarge they have the experience of oppressing the masses.
Baathism was just an instrument; a technical instrument for infiltration, power, submission. Saddam said this wonderful quote once: “Baath is like a tomato.You can cook everything with it.” You can cook Shiites, Sunnis, communism and nationalism. It is not about the party, it is about the technics they have perfectly learned to use.See how they dealt with the big Baathist people in Mosul, or people who were with the Saddam ousters. They were treated as brutally as others. Some Baathist generals were immediately arrested or shot or disappeared.
It’s not about the return of the Baathist system; it’s about the use of its power and the structure, and to have something which at the end of the day might be self-sustainable.
Daesh has a strategy, a stronger strategy than other countries or other governments in the region. They always know when they can get into a situation where, again, they are an enemy and a useful enemy at the same time. This is where they flourish.