Reflections on Methods
by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi • Jul 22, 2014 at 3:41 pm
Over the course of the past year or so, I have intensely tracked the jihadist group the Islamic State (formerly ISIS). I did this on both Twitter and in my analytical articles, such that I attracted the attention of primary sources in my role of what the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization would term a 'disseminator'. To gain the confidence of these circles, I feigned sympathy for their views and adopted a 'jihadi persona' in communications with them. While this indeed garnered some valuable information (eg it helped me first identify Moroccan ex-Gitmo detainee Muhammad Mizouz and his presence in Syria), it was also unethical, pure and simple. Not only that, but the jihadi persona and a desire to seem humourous on Twitter led to other unethical actions, such as a silly tweet in December 2013 calling for JM Berger's account to be reported, even as I quickly deleted it.
Though I did not think much of it at the time and believed I had resolved the issue, it was nonetheless wrong and the tweet would not have necessarily appeared as an immature joke to those who saw it, which is why I deleted it, but it should be admitted. Accordingly, I apologize unequivocally for these mistakes. They can only come across as weird to those who do not know me, and I regret not listening earlier to those who counselled me against these approaches and the adoption of multiple personas in which I got caught up.
I would like to stress nonetheless that this did not affect the quality of the final product of my work. I only analyse this subject out of personal concern for my family's country's future (Iraq). A full analysis of the insurgent dynamics- and thus have I aimed for a full analysis of all insurgent groups in Iraq for thoroughness- is essential in that regard. I stress that my personal views are solely reflected on this site in 'ارائي الخصوصية' and anything I have written not put up on this site is disowned, as made clear in 'Reflections on my writings'.
In light of the Business Insider article, I should like to respond as follows:
Much of the article is focused on the allegation that my actual analysis has been tainted and compromised by being 'played' by IS fighters. On this, I would note the following:
- It is interesting to note that the authors don't cite something from the body of my articles to show this.
- Contact with IS fighters and their supporters was not an integral part of my work. I made occasional reference to such contact but their testimony did not largely inform my overall anlaysis of the group: in fact my primary interest in contact with IS fighters was to illustrate their ultimately global ambitions (one may criticise me for accepting too readily the idea of a fight against the UK as a distant dream, of course) I could not have cared less what they like for breakfast or how they enjoy their spare time, unlike some who have been too eager to put a spin on IS fighters as simply ordinary guys like others- an image I have never accepted or endorsed.
In any case, here I disputed their narrative of a pre-planned 'Sahwa' against them in Syria, pointing largely to IS' own expansionism, dictated by its own self-perception as a state, as the cause of this infighting, such that it largely overrode the reconciliatory tendencies of e.g. Ahrar ash-Sham.
It is certainly true that I underestimated the timescale of wider infighting, but that was not because of testimony IS fighters or supporters relayed to me, but rather conservatism in my analysis (cf. in 2012 I certainly underestimated the timescale, if at all, of an unravelling in the security situation in Iraq), with heavy focus on localization, a dynamic I saw as distinguishing Syria from Iraq in terms of grand 'Sahwa' narratives. Even so, I stand by my assertion from 2013 that an international troop presence in the long-run is needed to roll back IS and bring some kind of stability, and draw attention to the Libyan experience if anyone thinks militias will simply go away and form a new strong state post-regime overthrow.
A key error of mine was my presumption in autumn 2013 that Jabhat al-Nusra and IS would steer clear of wider infighting, primarily because I accepted the idea of IS and Nusra as part of al-Qaeda and therefore 'brothers' in ideology and organization who would not come to blows. As it happens, that presumption was wrong precisely because IS was de facto independent by this point, something that was not in fact widely recognized at the time. I shifted my view on that matter in January 2014, citing testimony on both sides while also accepting that one had to be careful of IS spin of "always independent" since the founding of ISI in 2006.
Further, despite IS spin on jizya as a benign institution, I made it abundantly clear that it should be seen as no such thing here (i.e. it is the equivalent of a Mafia extortion racket), and that it was a sign of Baghdadi's projection of himself as a caliph, which turned out to be correct. I also stress that when IS' announcement of the caliphate came out, I emphasized that this phenomenon should be seen in terms of the wider idealization of past Caliphates but such idealization is ultimately as detached from reality as glorifying the Roman Empire and its conquests, something I affirmed on Twitter.
- I again stress that contact with IS circles and the wider jihadi community also offered insights: for example it is in fact the case that Suqur al-Izz, as I noted, is an al-Qa'ida front project, despite its official claims to be independent, as illustrated by its recent joining of Jabhat al-Nusra as part of the new emirate project. Similarly I was the first to identify Moroccan ex-Gitmo detainee Muhammad al-'Alami as having fought and died in Syria. This was so before the video release from Harakat Sham al-Islam.
- The article completely omits the extensive body of my work going beyond IS: that contacts with other factions turned up far more extensively in my work on Iraq and Syria than IS. Here for example on Druze militias; here on the Alawite Muqawama Suriya; here and here on Christian militias; here on the factions of Albukamal (at the time none of them including IS). In none of these cases did I let contacts 'play' me, with the possible exception of being too willing to accept brotherology claims with IS: for instance despite Qamishli Sootoro's official claim to be neutral, it is apparent they are aligned with the regime. It is of course true that I accept the pro-Assad Druze activists' claims that the community is generally aligned with the regime, but there is little ground to dispute that. I have also analyzed the non-IS insurgent groups in Iraq and have not been 'played' by any of them.
- Taking articles from 2010-11 as indicative of a 'confused' outlook is misleading, especially as I disowned my 2010 writings as part of 'Reflection on my writings' in 2013.
In light of controversies over my background, I affirm the following:
As to now, I do not disclose a personal religious stance (whatever experiments I made with other identities), but my real background is as follows: my father's side of the family was Shi'a and my mother's side Sunni (given the latter is ultimately from Mosul, not really surprising). I do not deny my struggles with identity here (going back to my mid teens) and people are right to draw this to attention as transparency is needed at the personal level. I emphasize that none of this affected the final product of my analytical work (i.e. I did not use any claimed identities to give a certain point more credibility or to fabricate a point). Regardless, I should not have claimed different identities, which is wrong and disturbing in any circumstance.
In this context, I should also stress that my family's history has played almost no role in the actual analysis, but at this stage, it is important to affirm one aspect of it that motivated me to want to look into what is now IS. The Islamic State of Iraq- ISI, a predecessor of IS- took one of my uncles hostage in Baghdad in 2007 for 3 weeks, eventually being released for a ransom of $40,000. Unless I am suffering from a curious case of Stockholm syndrome, then the logical conclusion is that I am an opponent of IS and aimed to gather intel on the group. I oppose IS, simple as that.
So, once again, I apologize to everyone for my mistake of trying to extract info under my real name from IS sources by feigning sympathy for their views, and all other issues regarding multiple personae.
Further Update (II)
Business Insider has also put out some past tweets attempting to show I uncriticially echo IS positions. Those tweets were actually mocking IS spirations to global domination, which as I wrote previously are indeed delusional. The third tweet meanwhile is taken out of context from the thread. However, I readily admit that these were irresponsible tweets to an audience of more than 9000 followers, not all of whom will have understood what I was trying to get at.