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Pathfinders: The Dark Rebellion

10 years ago this month the British worker Ken Bigley was murdered in a video beheading by the leader of an Iraqi insurgency group, one Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, despite appeals and interventions from, among others, Yasser Arafat, King Abdullah of Jordan, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and even Libyan dictator Colonel Gadaffi.

Zarqawi’s group affiliated to Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network at this same time, and became known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The following year, 2005, Zarqawi received a letter from Bin Laden’s military commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri, outlining al-Qaeda’s four-stage strategic plan for expanding the Iraq war. The stages were, first, expel the Americans and their allies, then establish an Islamic caliphate, widen the conflict to engulf neighbouring states, and finally declare war on Israel.

Zarqawi continued to run AQI, specialising in extortion, kidnappings, hotel bombings and hostage beheadings, until a US Air Force F-16 dropped 460kg of high explosive on his safe-house in 2006. AQI lived on, however, and the same year merged with several other groups to form the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

AQI thereafter became increasingly unpopular because of its targeting of Iraqi civilians, and open war developed between AQI and other Sunni groups. Bin Laden himself was said to regard the brutality of AQI’s video beheadings as counter-productive, and his commander, Zawahiri, had also criticised Zarqawi for recklessly squandering civilian sympathy and support. The US in 2007 began arming rival Sunni militias who agreed to fight AQI instead of the Americans (Guardian, 12 June 2007). This resulted in the ‘Anbar Awakening’ of Sunni counter-attacks, and by 2008 the ISI described itself as being in a state of ‘extraordinary crisis’.

With the withdrawal of US troops in 2009, AQI’s fortunes started to pick up again. They began blowing up government offices in a bid to destroy the Iraqi administration and sabotage the 2010 elections. But they hit problems again as communications with al-Qaeda in Pakistan were cut and, it was estimated, around 80 percent of their leadership were captured or blown up.

But like the mythical Hydra, AQI could grow heads as well as cut them off. The new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, began recruiting Saddam Hussein’s former military staff, and thereafter pursued an energetic campaign of highly successful prison breaks to free veteran insurgents held at, among other places, the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

And then, the Arab Spring fell upon Baghdadi like manna from heaven. Suddenly the regional strongmen who were able to contain and maintain regional stability fell or were in trouble. Baghdadi seized the moment and began planting ISI seeds in Syria which sprouted into the al-Nusra Front. This Syrian group, unlike ISI, was not interested in establishing caliphates but only in ousting Assad, and recruited its foreign fighters solely on this basis. In April 2013 Baghdadi announced, without consulting either al-Nusra or al-Qaeda, that al-Nusra and ISI were merging as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Isis or Isil). It was the equivalent of a hostile business merger, and the al-Nusra Front leader protested vociferously. Al-Qaeda promptly ruled against Baghdadi and ordered Isis to be disbanded. After months of argument, al-Qaeda got nowhere and severed all connections with Isis. After more months of internecine conflict, al-Qaeda resignedly told al-Nusra to stop fighting Isis. Elements of al-Nusra subsequently saw no option but to go over to Isis, as did parts of the Free Syrian Army, JMA and other anti-Assad groups. In June this year Isis declared itself a caliphate with Baghdadi as its caliph.

The brutality of what followed has been of biblical proportions. The Islamic State rolled over Mosul and cleared out its bank vaults, while crucifying opponents and non-Sunni Muslims, eviscerating women and reputedly executing children and putting their heads on spikes on Mosul Park. The West has looked on aghast at the scale of the atrocities.

Despite its chilling barbarity the Islamic State seems to know what it’s doing. With an estimated fund of US$2m it is building all the infrastructure of a new state with efficiently-functioning public services and administrative and military control systems amid continued revenues from robbing banks, ransoming hostages and allegedly, selling captured Syrian energy supplies back to the Syrian government. It is noted for its unusually professional management of social media and even its harrowing beheading videos, clearly a key part of its conception of asymmetric warfare, are described as looking increasingly slick and well-produced. It employs if not ‘awe’ then certainly ‘shock’ in its campaign to subdue opposition and deter western and regional powers from intervening.

Some commentators speculate that the brutality is so excessive that the world’s Muslim communities will recoil from it, if they haven’t already done so, forcing IS towards moderating its behaviour in the future. But this is the legacy of the killer of Ken Bigley ten years ago, and they didn’t get where they are today by being moderate.

A recent edition of New Scientist (13 September) carried two articles that bear on the subject. In the first, Lifting the black mask, academics have been demanding access to US intelligence data as part of studies to establish the factors which go towards radicalising western-based jihadists. Some conclusions are already in, however, in particular that the idea of jihadists being ‘brainwashed’ by recruiters or radical imams is wrong. These young people who go to fight for Isis have simply absorbed and applied the views of their own circle of friends and family. Socialists say that capitalism, in oppressing workers everywhere, spontaneously assists the spread of socialist ideas. What we also have to acknowledge is that capitalism is also fostering a ‘dark rebellion’ which is, in many ways, the antithesis of everything that socialism stands for. Capitalism plays the same hateful pop song on an endless loop, while socialists aim to press Fast Forward, but there are also those who are keen to press Fast Rewind, all the way back to the Middle Ages.

The second article concerns a reappraisal of two notorious and now considered unethical psychology studies, which now suggests that acts of deliberate cruelty are not perpetrated as a matter of routine by ordinary people who are ‘just following orders’, an argument known as the Nuremberg Defence, but only by individuals who can be characterised as ‘committed’ believers.

In the 1960s series of ‘shock’ obedience studies conducted at Yale by Stanley Milgram, it turns out that participants were regularly badgered to administer electric shocks, and that up to 50 percent refused, while in the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, participant ‘guards’ were heavily coached to mistreat ‘prisoners’ by having forms of mistreatment suggested to them. In both studies participants were repeatedly told to conform and obey ‘in the interests of science’. The reappraisal suggests that those who bought into this formulation of the ‘science ethic’ tended to conform, while ‘non-believers’ did not.

Capitalist ideology loves to demonise ‘human nature’, and media reports of torture and murder barely seen outside the Old Testament seem almost to justify that demonisation. But we don’t just do what we’re told, like mindless zombies. It matters what we believe. Whatever excesses the world’s unhinged fanatics manage to drive themselves to, the capacity for evil does not, after all, lie dormant in the banal heart of humanity.