Xander Snyder: Welcome to the Geopolitical Futures podcast. My name is Xander Snyder and today I am going to be chatting with one of our senior analysts, Kamran Bokhari. How’s it going Kamran?
Kamran Bokhari: Hi Xander, thanks for having me.
XS: Absolutely. Looking forward to the discussion today. Today we’re going to be talking about something that Kamran is very familiar with. He actually wrote a book that we’ll talk about a little bit that was in part about this subject, which is going to be the differences between militant types of jihadis. And this matters because each group’s strategy differs and that changes how the U.S. and other global actors need to devise strategies to handle these groups.
So Kamran in your book “Political Islam in the Age of Democratization,” you set out a handful of terminology that I think is very useful for grouping different types of political Islamists based on both their strategies and objectives. Do you want to just like quickly cover what some of those categories are?
KB: So yes the three categories. They’re actually like two typologies but for this conversation I think we’ll talk about the first typology, which has to do with the approach different Islamist groups take to achieve their common goal of the Islamic state, achieving or establishing the Islamic state. And the reason I came up with this particular typology in terms of how they actually, you know their political methodology and what means do they use to achieve their end goal, is because I found it useful to classify or categorize or at least identify three different types of Islamist groups.
And so the first category is those that sort of accept the incumbent political system. And they accept both the state in its current form although they would like to see it changed but changed through electoral means, constitutional means as opposed to radical change. And they have an open and very public presence in society. And those groups are the accepter – I call them the accepter category of Islamists in the sense that they accept both the state and society. So that’s your category number one.
And then if you go to the opposite end of that spectrum, you have what I call the insurrectionists and the insurrectionists are those that reject both state and society. And these are your jihadist groups – the Talibans of this world, the al-Qaidas, the ISIS’s and Boko Haram and the list goes on. And not only do they reject the state, they also reject society and part of it has to do with the fact that their modus operandi of armed insurrection requires them to operate in a clandestine way and so they can’t operate publicly. So there is that rational reasoning but then they also look at it from a theological point of view where they say that the way to establish the Islamic state is through what they call jihad, what their interpretation of jihad is in the military sense. That you have to fight the incumbent in order to topple it and then establish new order which is what we saw ISIS do in Iraq and Syria over the course of 2013, 2014 and to then declare their caliphate.
In between these insurrectionists and the acceptors are what I call the propagandists. The difference between this middle category and the other two is that the propagandists reject the state and they want to replace the state but they operate in society. And they are trying to gather public opinion in their favor. They’re trying to canvas society, gain as much following as possible and then at some future point, foment a popular revolution and even get the backing of the military to come in and through a coup d’état remove the incumbent order and place the vanguard group in government.
So the difference between the jihadists and this middle category is that the middle category does not engage in violence as a group but it relies on the military, an external force, to do the violence when the time comes. So this is broadly speaking, between the acceptors, the propagandists and the insurrectionists, you have three different types of Islamists trying to achieve more or less the same goal.
XS: So the distinction then between this middle category of propagandists and insurrections which are the groups that we usually think about when we think about militant jihadist groups is the propagandists won’t themselves as an organization use violence even though they may encourage it at some point, whereas the militant groups do, that’s correct?
KB: Yes, that is correct.
XS: So then if we’re going to focus on the insurrectionist group then there are a couple different subcategories here too, right? Because you talk about jihad as a war being waged to overturn the incumbent power and in a way, the sub-distinctions here depend in part on how those groups determine who the incumbent is, right? So, what are the different groups here and how do their enemies differ in their eyes and their objectives?
KB: So, I mean broadly speaking, a useful way of trying to distinguish between the various forms of jihadists is what is the scope of change that they’re seeking? And what do I mean by that? I’ll explain that in form of example. So let’s just take a look at the Afghan Taliban. Now the Afghan Taliban are a well-known group that uses the jihadist methodology to achieve power. In other words, they’re insurrectionists from the point of view of our classification and they think that the way to establish their Islamic state is through armed insurrection or what in their view is jihad.
But their scope of what they want to achieve is confined within the boundaries of Afghanistan. And they have no ambitions beyond that, at least they’ve not demonstrated that. Yes, they have a collaborated and sheltered and protected al-Qaida, there’s a very close relationship there or at least it used to be back in the day before 9/11 and it has evolved ever since regime change and when their regime fell in late 2001.
But nonetheless, the Taliban even when they were in power from 1996 to 2001, they didn’t seek to expand into other neighboring countries. They just wanted to be in power in Afghanistan and so their Islamic state or what they call the emirate, Islamic emirate of Afghanistan, was something that was limited to the nation-state, the boundaries of the nation-state of Afghanistan. Now in sharp contrast, a group like al-Qaida, and more recently ISIS, they don’t recognize these nation-states in the Muslim world, in the Arab Muslim world.
They would like to do away with these national boundaries and recreate what in their mind is a caliphate, which is a state that is not divided along ethnic or national lines but it’s a state where in many ways it has no limits. It’s almost like a global Muslim state and they take their idea from a medieval conception of the caliphate. So those are the two different kinds of jihadist groups there. So on one hand, there are nationalists in terms of, you know, they confine themselves to a particular nation-state. And on the other hand, you have the transnational jihadist in the form of ISIS and al-Qaida.
XS: So how do the different objectives of these types of groups, the nationalist jihadists like the Taliban and the trans-nationalist jihadists like al-Qaida or like ISIS, how does the difference in their objective change the approach that they use in those objectives? And I thought the discussion in your book on how al-Qaida focused for example on trying to reject U.S. force from Saudi Arabia versus how the Taliban approach trying to come to power in Afghanistan was interesting and I wonder if you can get into the strategy differences a little bit too.
KB: Yes, and so in terms of the strategy, so al-Qaida emerged out of the experience of the 1980s war against the Soviets and the communist regime in Afghanistan and the use of Islamist proxies by three main players – the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – to force the Soviets to leave Afghanistan and of course topple the pro-Moscow communist government. And that was sort of a watershed experience, those decades of the 1980s, in the sense that for the first time you had Islamist militants come together from various backgrounds. Arabs from different Arab countries, Muslims from Southeast Asia, South Asia and for the first time they all came together in a singular battlespace.
And there this emerged, this notion of transnational or pan-Islamist unity or at least the shared experience of fighting against a common enemy. They didn’t come to Afghanistan in the beginning to establish an Islamic state or much less a caliphate. Initially, these volunteers from different parts of the Arab-Muslim world came together to support Afghan Islamists who were fighting Soviet forces in their country and the idea was that a Muslim nation had been invaded by godless communists and therefore we have to defend our brethren, you know, our fellow Muslims. That was sort of the starting point.
Along the way while the war was going on at some point this objective then evolved into the objective of, ok, so even when we do push the Soviets out and when we do topple the proxy communist government, what then? And then it became more clear that, well, from their point of view, they said, “Well, we will replace it with an Islamist government.” What does that Islamist government look like? How will it be established? You know, what’s its structure? What will be the various processes?
Those things were not in the minds of those fighting on the ground at the time but it was an objective. So in other words, the starting point was we’re going to go defend fellow Muslims, and then at some point that goal really got, if you will, caught up with the other goal of establishing an Islamic state. But it really allowed for the idea of transnational jihad or transnational jihadism to evolve.
And from that experience came al-Qaida. From that experience, those people who were veterans of the war in Afghanistan then would go on to fight in the Tajikistan civil war in the early ’90s and then from there many of them made their way to Bosnia where during the Balkan wars in the early ’90s and then Chechnya as well. So moving out of the ’80s into the ’90s you have the evolution of this sort of transnational jihadist ideology and al-Qaida positioning itself as the vanguard, and then really emerging by the mid-’90s as the main jihadist, transnational jihadist player.
XS: So I think that something that’s particularly useful about the typology that you present in your book is that it allows for a degree of discussion or a degree of specificity in discussion that doesn’t really seem like it was available in the early years of the U.S.’s war on terror period, when a lot of especially Western commentators just tended to conflate several different jihadist groups together and didn’t really understand what their distinct goal was. Now we’re to take this distinction between transnational jihadism and national jihadism and apply it to part of the world that I think is really particularly difficult for a lot of people to understand, just because of the quantity of actors and the variety of objectives that they are all fighting for in this arena which is Syria.
People are familiar with ISIS. They know that ISIS is broadly speaking a threat to U.S. interests and Russian interests as well. But there are a lot of other jihadist groups in Syria, some with different goals. How would you distinguish the different groups in Syria and what they are working on differently – what they actually want to achieve?
KB: So from a U.S. national security interest point of view and from the point of view of policy as to how do we manage, how does the United States manage this complex phenomenon called jihadism? Before I get into Syria, I’d like to sort of take a minute to sort of look at the behavior of the United States with regard to Afghanistan.
So at one point in the beginning, the fight was against both the Taliban and al-Qaida. There was no distinction being made, and rightfully so because they were so intermeshed with one another, the two organizations, that it was difficult to distinguish. And clearly, the Taliban were the rulers of Afghanistan and under their watch al-Qaida planned, plotted and executed the 9/11 attacks and then would not give up Bin Laden and so it made sense for the United States to say, “We can’t separate the two out. We have to go after both and if we topple this regime, we will deny al-Qaida sanctuary and we would disrupt al-Qaida in its headquarters. And therefore then we would be able to better manage this threat that is spread out over dozens of other countries.”
So at that point in time that was a policy. Along the way, it became obvious to the United States that there is a distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaida. Al-Qaida was a small organization that was using Afghanistan and the Taliban regime as a launchpad for its own agenda, which was this global caliphate fighting the United States. The Taliban didn’t really have an interest and the Taliban were a ground reality. They were not foreign fighters and so along the way during the latter years of the Bush administration, there was this idea of negotiating with the Taliban, accepting them as a legitimate national force so long as the Taliban separated themselves from al-Qaida. Then this process further matured under the Obama administration where the United States in effect really said, “Ok as long as you don’t have transnational ambitions and we can negotiate with you to bring an end to this war and we expect you Taliban to come into the political mainstream.”
Now that process has not really reached its intended conclusion. In fact, it’s become complicated. So there you see the United States government making – while conceptually in the minds of analysts and in the public discourse and in the media and the open sources, this distinction isn’t that clear between transnational and nationalist jihadists although many experts did write about this – but nonetheless, you have a practical application. Practically the United States is saying we can do business or negotiate with the Taliban so long as they meet certain conditions and they demonstrably give up support to al-Qaida and in fact help us fight al-Qaida. And then of course al-Qaida. That was back in the day.
Now, let’s fast forward to where we are today in Syria. The problem as you just mentioned Xander has magnified to a point where there are just so many actors that it’s not the Taliban versus al-Qaida in Afghanistan anymore. You have literally hundreds of militias, of different ideological leanings, and I would argue and something we’ve written here at Geopolitical Futures in many of our analyses is that the idea that the Syrian rebels are somehow – there are moderate Syrian rebels. This is really a fallacy in the Western mind if you will, the collective Western mind. We in the West when we think of moderates, we think of people who are more or less secular nationalists fighting for their national cause and that’s how we viewed most of those rebels who took up arms against Assad, who is a brutal dictator.
And so when you apply that on the ground, over time it became very apparent that those secular, nationalist Syrian rebels are in short supply. In fact, they are a scarce commodity. What you have – and we’re not talking al-Qaida in Syria and we’re not talking ISIS, we’re just talking about the rebels, the various rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and the various groups that we’ve heard of over the years and it’s very hard to keep up with their names – most of them are of one Salafist jihadist persuasion or another.
So Ahrar al-Sham does not want a caliphate; it wants to topple Assad and establish an Islamic state. The Muslim Brotherhood has a presence in the rebel landscape and they are not like Ahrar al-Sham but they too want an Islamic state. And so it gets even more complicated when Ahrar al-Sham, which used to be the single largest rebel group inside Syria, when it enters into an alliance with the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, which is a completely different animal and it is sort of caught between the transnational ideology of al-Qaida and the need to appear as a mainstream Syrian nationalist force.
So we have a very complicated situation in terms of – we don’t know who are partners are, who can be trusted and this is the problem, why ISIS is the kind of threat it is because there are no Sunni-Arab militias of a measure that can take on ISIS. And that is why we’re relying on groups like Kurds and we are looking the other way when the Assad regime is making gains. We’re not supporting the Assad regime but at the same time, it’s in the United States’ interest to not allow any jihadist force to put down roots beyond what ISIS has already done in Syria.
XS: And does that include the nationalist jihadist groups in Syria as well or just ISIS as the transnational group?
KB: That’s a very good question. So the United States agencies, for the example the C.I.A., there was a report recently that they have ended their support for the rebels under the Trump administration. But the Department of Defense is still working with certain groups who fall under this sort of nationalist jihadist. In other words, the United States doesn’t really have a choice in this matter. In order to defeat and make sure ISIS and al-Qaida are contained and eventually degraded and destroyed to use the words of President Obama, we are looking at potential partners.
Who is going to be our partner in this effort? And we don’t have much of a choice. So we have to go with groups who may be Islamist or have the jihadist view of an Islamic state but they don’t believe in the caliphate. They’re not seeking to overturn borders. They’re kind of like the Syrian version of the Afghan Taliban and we’ve not really identified these groups because the groups keep meta-morphing. I mean the rate at which the evolution of groups, you know, fragmentation of existing groups, the construction of new alliances and super alliances and the breakdown – this process is taking place at such speed that it’s hard to even keep up with the who’s who, much less have partners on the ground to fight ISIS.
XS: So we’ve kind of talked about the Syrian conflict at two different levels now which is on the individual group level and talking about sort of how each one fits into the conflict and at a slightly higher level, we’ve used your framework of nationalist versus transnationalist jihadists to attempt to group some of those groups together based on their objectives and strategies. I want to step back one level further. You’ve written and talked before about the idea that a lot of what’s going on in the Middle East right now especially Syria has to do with there really is no group that can act as a Sunni leader in the region, the same way that, for example, Iran can act as the Shia leader.
Looking at the conflict through this prism, what does that say about the state of the Syrian civil war and the prospects for it, and how does that framework let us make some forecast about what we think might happen in the region?
KB: You’ve nicely tied the dilemma that we have with jihadist groups which are the broader political reality of the region. And there’s an organic connection between the two, which is very obvious in the sense that those different groups that fall under the generic label of Syrian rebels and most of whom as I mentioned earlier are Salafist jihadists of one form or another. They have their respective patrons. So Turkey works with Ahrar al-Sham. Turkey works with a group called Nour al-Din al-Zenki brigades and there are other factions that use the moniker of the Free Syrian Army but they’re really of an Islamist jihadist persuasion. Likewise, Qatar has its own proxies and there is some evidence to suggest that Qatar has actually supported the Syrian branch of al-Qaida that’s gone through several iterations over the years.
Then you have Saudi Arabia backing its specific groups, its preferred groups. The most visible case is that of Jaysh al-Islam, which is a much smaller group than the others but it has hold over some territory near the capital of Damascus, which is why it becomes significant and it has been represented in the negotiations that have taken place in Istanbul and in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana more recently.
So you have these various different Sunni powers that are backing different factions. In other words, you have a very different fragmented landscape. Not only is the fragmentation organic and something that is a ground reality in the context of Syria. It’s the external support that they are receiving that further divides the category that we call Sunni Arabs who make up the bulk of fighters who are fighting the Assad regime or are part of ISIS or al-Qaida.
And so here you have a reality where because of these various outside players, there is no Sunni Arab center. There is no Sunni Arab center of gravity. Who speaks for Sunni Arabs? I mean, and if you talk at the level of state actors, there’s no one state that can say, you can’t identify, even Saudi Arabia does not enjoy that kind of influence in the region and particularly in Syria, that it can be called this is the go-to place if you want to deal with the problems of Sunni Arabs. And you rightfully pointed out that if you want to deal with Shiite Islamists, you want to deal with Hezbollah, you deal with Iran. Iran is the one-stop shop.
Because that sort of landscape, the Shiite landscape. The other side of the sectarian equation is far more coherent and it is so because Shiites are a minority and they see both threats and opportunities that bind them together and their own differences are put on the backburner for the time being to pursue sort of a common sectarian goal. That’s not the case with the Sunnis. The Sunnis are all over the place. Turkey does not want to accept Saudi Arabia as the leader of the region.
Conversely, the Saudis don’t want the Turks to dominate their region because the Turks are not Arabs. They are Turks even though they share the same sectarian faith, the Sunni Islam, at a basic level. And now more recently, the whole Qatar versus Saudi Arabia thing has even further laid bare the contradictions within the Arab world where two countries who are not just Arab state neighbors but also part of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the block that represents the energy-rich Arab states in the Persian Gulf Arabian Peninsula region. They’re not getting along and there’s talk of war between them and the hostilities are at an all-time high. Not that they are going to engage in open warfare but you get my point where even at the GCC level you don’t have unity much less the wider Arab level or the wider Sunni level.
XS: Yeah it really seems like the division amongst Sunni groups and Sunni-dominated states as well is just one reason why defeating ISIS, when that happens – and it seems like it’s inevitable at that point, it’s just a matter of time – is really not going to solve the conflict per se because instead of having one group that’s clearly defined and ready to assume that mantle of leadership, you’re going to continue to have competition and it’s just a matter of who or what groups will be at odds after ISIS is eliminated.
KB: Yeah and I mean that is also a good sort of thing to talk about is what do we mean when we say ISIS is eliminated and the reason I say that is at one point and for 10 long years, the focus was on al-Qaida. ISIS wasn’t even on the radar, ISIS was part of al-Qaida, the al-Qaida threat. But ISIS eclipsed al-Qaida and now at present time the big threat is ISIS.
Yes, it’s losing territory in Syria and Iraq, but the ground realities in both countries remain the same. The sectarian divisions, the disenfranchisement of the Sunni Arabs, the incoherence with the Sunni Arabs, the non-availability of viable, political economic systems or political economies that will mitigate or at least address the conditions that produce groups like ISIS.
So, I think that maybe ISIS won’t come back, maybe ISIS evolves into something else just as al-Qaida evolved into ISIS. The bottom line is that this jihadist phenomenon that we’re looking at not just in ideological terms but in physical geopolitical terms is not going away because of the conditions that we’ve been talking about.
XS: It’s a really fascinating subject and for our listeners out there, we talked a little bit about Afghanistan today and the history behind some of the transnational groups to explain this typology that Kamran came up with. But we really focused on the question of Syria. If you’re interested in learning about the contemporary jihadist landscape in Afghanistan, Kamran wrote a Reality Check that published today, Friday, Aug. 4, that really applies this framework to what’s going on in Afghanistan, how that impacts U.S. and Russian strategy and what to expect going from here.
So I suggest checking that out, so if you really want to do a deep dive, definitely pick up Kamran’s book “Political Islam in the Age of Democratization.” You know there’s those books that you go out and buy because you feel like you want to learn a little bit more about a subject – this is one of those books where you don’t realize how much there is to even know about the subject until you start reading it. It’s a fantastic dive into the history and political motivations and objectives of a number of different actors in a really important geopolitical region of the world right now, the Middle East.
So Kamran, this was a fascinating conversation. Thanks for chatting.
KB: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me.