The Killing of Abu Muhammed Al-Adnani and the Future of ISIS

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Image from The New Yorker.

In her New Yorker story on the purported death of ISIS spokesman and strategist Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, Robin Wright gets an interesting quote from an ISIS expert.

Hassan Hassan, the author of the Times best-seller “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” described Adnani as one of a small handful of leaders left from among the organization’s founding fathers. “This means that the transition to the second and third tiers of the group is already well under way. And this could affect the direction of the organization and how it operates,” Hassan told me. “Those leaders who grew up within this organization are more attuned to the local dynamics, so the decapitation of such leaders could, in fact, inject a new life into the group. That said, the Islamic State is already shaped and well defined by those founding fathers, strategically and ideologically, so these new leaders have little wiggle room to make a change, but this is more possible than before.”

This is the central dilemma for ISIS, and the ISIS-inspired and affiliated groups, as it moves forward and struggles with AQ for the mantle of jihad. After all, they became so powerful because of their unrelenting dedication to violence, which is incredibly attractive to people, and always has been. It offers a sort of purity, and an elevation above petty morality, etc. It’s Fight Club with a glossy religious patina and a sort of medieval escape fantasy. But that’s not always successful, which is something that Adnani should have learned. As the Soufan group points out, he had an example in his mentor.

Al-Adnani was one of the few surviving members of the original group founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Long before the declaration of a caliphate, the Islamic State’s previous iterations—such as al-Qaeda in Iraq—were among the most violent and effective terror groups in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Al-Adnani was a trusted associate of Zarqawi, whose manipulation of media and spectacle of public savagery would be imitated by al-Adnani as the Islamic State exploded onto the global scene in 2014. Over the last 14 years, al-Adnani has been front and center as Iraq, and then Syria, became the stage of unrelenting and escalating terror. He had been imprisoned both by the U.S. in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria. As with other infamous terrorists, the arc of al-Adnani’s terror history was long, and bent towards massive suffering and destruction. His death will not bring about the end of the Islamic State. Nonetheless, it marks a significant loss for the group and removes a leading actor from the terror stage.

Zarqawi, of course, was brought down by the revolt against his methods. It’s the difference between him and the leaders of AQAP, which made sure to not alienate the locals, and tried to make grievances dovetail. ISIS is more powerful, with more foreign fighters, and were able to subjugate the territory under their control much more rapidly than AQI. That’s made a difference, but as they start to lose ground, it obviously won’t be permanent.

This is the crossroads for ISIS, as they move toward what Hassan calls “second and third-tier leaders”. If these leaders, especially ones around the world, move toward an “think global, act local” sort of jihad, they will be largely indistinguishable from AQ affiliates. If they continue to act as the caliphate, and ignore local concerns– the biggest one being “we’re concerned that you’re burning alive anyone who looks cross-eyed”– then they’ll never gain the local support they need.

That’s why I think the ISIS model is ultimately unsustainable. If it moderates, it loses adherents, the wild-eyed passion-filled radicals who seek a glorifying fire. But if it stays like this, it will never be able to gain actual local footholds other than through domination, which won’t last. That isn’t to say this isn’t a dangerous model; there will always be people emulating it in smaller and smaller cells, trying to pick up the mantle of “the real ISIS”. That is a global danger that could hit literally any community. I think that’s what is next for ISIS: a gradual splintering, and a new phase of terrorism.

AQAP vs. ISIS in Yemen: The Battle For the Soul of Jihad

Note: I’ll be out of town between the 4th and the 15th, in a wilderness repast, with little to absolutely zero connection to the internet or my phone. Posts during this time, written in advance, will be bigger-picture, or more idiosyncratic, rather than directly pegged to the news. If events happen that supersede or negate anything I say, think of these as a more innocent time capsule. Try not to let the country burn down while I’m gone, ok? 

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ISIS appears in Yemen in 2015. Image from al-Arabiya English.

A little more than 10 years ago, in early February of 2006, there was a massive jailbreak in from a Yemeni prison, in which 23 Islamic militant tunneled out of their cells and into the women’s bathroom of a nearby mosque, from which they disappeared into the San’a morning (for a detailed look at this, buy Greg Johnsen’s The Last Refuge).  Among the 23 were old militants, like Jamal al-Badawi, one of the masterminds of the USS Cole bombing. He was the big name. Others, like the al-Raymi brothers, weren’t as known.

That was soon to change. What we didn’t realize immediately was that the jailbreak wouldn’t be seen as part of the old battle against al-Qaeda in Yemen, but a new phase with a new group. Over the next few years, and through various names, the younger generation of jihadists took over the organization, before unveiling, the day of the Obama inauguration in 2009, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They had shown themselves to be a patient, smart, and to-the-vest group, and that paid off by becoming the dominant al-Qaeda branch in the heartland of Islam.

For years, people in the know were warning about how dangerous they were, because they were patient and smart, because they kept it close to the vest. They saw the carnage of al-Zarqawi in Iraq and realized you couldn’t build a coalition like that. Their whole goal was to build coalitions, attract foreign fighters through audacious but targeted strikes agaisnt the far enemy, defeat the near enemy (Salih, secular southerners), and eventually have enough land where they could expand unmolested.

That was then. Now they are the old guard, fighting off the ravening, cannibalistic tide of ISIS, which has brought their particular brand of violence to a land destroyed by war, ravaged by poverty, and stalked by hunger. What is happening between the groups is a battle for the very idea of the future of Islamic militancy. It is the horrible past versus the unimaginable future.

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Friday Jihad Reading

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A rebranding and personnel announcement by the CEO of a newly independent franchise. Image from al-Jazeera

1). Jabhat al-Nusra made an important move yesterday when they officially decoupled themselves from al-Qaeda, establishing an independent group. Charles Lister of Foreign Policy says that this shouldn’t make anyone think they are somehow more moderate or less dangerous.

Nobody should be confused by this maneuver: Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also known as the Nusra Front, remains as potentially dangerous, and as radical, as ever. In severing its ties to al Qaeda, the organization is more clearly than ever demonstrating its long-game approach to Syria, in which it seeks to embed within revolutionary dynamics and encourage Islamist unity to outsmart its enemies, both near and far. In this sense, the Nusra Front (and now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) differ markedly from the Islamic State, which has consistently acted alone and in outright competition with other Islamist armed factions. Instead of unity, the Islamic State explicitly seeks division.

Ultimately, while this may be a change in name and formal affiliation, Jolani’s group will remain largely the same. Therefore, this is by no means a loss to al Qaeda. In fact, it is merely the latest reflection of a new and far more potentially effective method of jihad focused on collective, gradualist, and flexible action. Its goal is to achieve recurring tactical gains that one day will amount to a substantial strategic victory: the establishment of an Islamic emirate with sufficient popular acceptance or support.

This is what we talked about when discussing them last week: that they are smart enough to work in small local gains as a way to expand. It’s why they can outlast ISIS (which isn’t going away anytime soon). It’s also a really good sign of what is happening: we’re not at the beginning of the end, or the midpoint, of the Islamic extremist phenomenon. It’s probably much closer to the beginning. It is shaking itself out, and adjusting to new political realities (many of which are themselves an adjustment to the phenomenon). It will continue to mutate and evolve and operate in a variety of competing and complementary ways for decades.

2). This is a long, detailed, and amazing demographic report about what we know on ISIS foreign fighters, by Nate Rosenblatt at the International Security project of New America. Called All Jihad Is Local, it goes into what makes someone leave to fight for a group like ISIS. It’s a combination of their message and, of course, of local conditions that drive the fighter to leave. There is a lot to absorb in this report, which came out last week, and I’ll be doing a deeper dive into it next week, with its lessons and what it means for the next wave. In the meantime, Bethan Mckernan at The Independent pulled out some charts and info from it to look at.

All in all, what we’re seeing is a time of transition and regrouping. And, blogtimes aside, it is a long process without a clear path. An unexpected military setback by Asad could butterfly-wing the dynamic of jihad in 10 countries. But I think we’re really seeing the clear delineation between two different models: current-period Qaeda and ISIS. There are a lot of in-group differences of course, and there is also a lot of crossover, but for now, that seems to be the helpful model, and something we’ll come back to here. The way these models compete (because it would be reductive to say the “groups” are competing, because both models have incredible amounts of locally-driven varietals), and the way they influence each other, will shape our world for a long time to come.

Anyway, happy Friday.

 

 

Tomorrow’s Jihad: How Foreign Fighters Can Reshape The World

 

Where you going next?

 

In the late 50s and early 60s, there was a TV show called Have Gun, Will Travel. I’ll be honest: I don’t know if I ever have seen a single episode. Maybe on Channel 50 when I was a kid, on a TV that still had a dial, but there are no clear memories. Still, the name always stuck out. In my imagination, it captured a desolate and sad American west, where if you were a violent man, or at least someone willing to do violence, you could travel the vast landscape and keep order. Or at least someone’s version of order. Whether lawman or outlaw, and the two sides could shift back and forth, if you had a gun, you were always needed somewhere.

That might seem a flippant way to talk about the next stage of jihadism, but that is the spirit. Because the next stage is going to be the vast spread of foreign fighters, stateless men who have been trained in war, that will come when ISIS crumbles or partially crumbles in Iraq and Syria. Yesterday, in a speech overshadowed by Trump and the convention, FBI director James Comey laid it out: we’re going to see “a terrorist diaspora out of Syria like we’ve never seen before.” But what does that mean? Who are they?

While for years, the massive impact of suicide attacks, whether in Beirut or Tel Aviv or New York, dominated the news. That was our idea of jihad. And to be sure, it was terrifying, terrorism in the true sense. But with some exceptions, it was also always the short game. Suicide bombers were, by definition, expendable, regardless of their courage or conviction. The real force of jihad was the battle-tested soldiers who might not have been afraid to die, but who were more useful alive. These were men who were comfortable with violence, and with gun, traveled.

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The Hazara Suicide Bombing And The Hint of Normal Life

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Image from al-Jazeera

The week after the horrors in Nice was another brutal one, a visceral slog through the depths of today’s insanity, focused mainly on Germany.  An axe attack in Germany. A suicide bombing by a Syrian refugee in Germany. Another German tragedy, an American-style mass shooting, was (seemingly) not directed or inspired by ISIS or al-Qaeda, or any militancy at all, save for the militancy of a disturbed criminal mind (which: same with Nice, and Munich, and Orlando. Same mindset; barely-different justifications).

There was also a massive suicide bombing in Afghanistan, in which 80 people were killed and another 230 were wounded. It’s a strange number, 80. On the day of the Nice attack, as the number kept spiraling upward, 80 seemed unimaginable. It feels different in Afghanistan, though. It feels almost normal. We’re inured to violence there, in a way that dehumanizes the victims of ISIS. Even when lip-service is paid, even (especially) when politicians say that “ISIS kills more Muslims than anyone else”, there’s a feeling that those lives don’t matter. They certainly don’t grab the headlines.

That’s partly a man-bites-dog thing, of course: Afghanistan has been in a state of near-constant war for nearly 40 years, and we’re fatigued. Same with Iraq and Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and anywhere else where people are seemingly constantly being killed. It seems like part of normal life, just the regular course of things. We have trouble extending empathy to imagine them feeling the same kind of pain we can envision in France or Germany.

The thing is though, one of the grossest tragedies of the Afghanistan suicide bombing is who the targets were, and why they were there. The targets were the Hazara, Persian-speaking Shi’ites, a minority based mainly in Afghanistan who are the frequent target of the Taliban, of ISIS, of al-Qaeda, of the Pashtun, and others. They are frequently kicked around, and struggle for protection. Iran is the one constant friend.

So, then, why were they all in a group, able to be targeted?

Guardian

The protesters were marching against government plans for a major power project to bypass Bamiyan, a predominantly Hazara province in the central highlands. Following similar protests in May, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, established a commission to look into the issue but government attempts to find a compromise failed. On 19 June, a contract was signed to build a smaller electricity line through Bamiyan, which did not placate Hazara activists.

Al-Jazeera

The 500-kilovolt TUTAP power line, which would connect the Central Asian nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with electricity-hungry Afghanistan and Pakistan, was originally set to pass through the central province.

But the government re-routed it through the mountainous Salang pass north of Kabul, saying the shorter route would speed up the project and save millions of dollars.

Electricity. Power. Zoning. The desire to be economically and literally connected. The decision to bypass them might have been to save money, or it might have been to further put the screws on the Hazara, or it may have been both. The former might have been an excuse for the latter, or maybe just a coverup for it. The reasons are part of Afghan history and politics, and I don’t feel comfortable speaking to them.

But the protest? That’s normal life. That’s a group of people who are tired of their situation, who feel oppressed, and who want something that is normal. Take away the historical oppression, and imagine it as anything else: a potentially lucrative and life-bettering development was going to happen (imagine it if you want a railroad or a dam or a base to build the newest military joint-strike hybrid disaster) and then it was taken way. The hydroelectric plant was supposed to go near this town but the TVA shifted it away. There are a million parallels around the world. Anyone would be mad, and anyone would protest.

That’s exactly the point: this is normal life, or at the very least, the desire for it, taken away in a energy-filled pulse, that pulverizes organs and rends limbs and makes the face of life unrecognizable. These are (and were) human beings, who despite living in a land of war, many of whom have known war and terror their whole lives, who are willing to stand outside and protest electrical lines. They petition for surveyors and government project planners to look over their notes again and maybe try something new. They are standing up in the city council meeting of a mid-sized Illinois town and asking for the baseball diamond on 4th to be maintained.

There’s no simple answer for terrorism, and the extension of empathy (which can’t just be willed, not even for someone who tries) won’t end it. The recognition that Muslim lives are real won’t stop ISIS, especially when they are the ones taking Muslim lives like a joyless Queen of Hearts. But the dehumanization of Muslim lives, whether that is in the headlines or in the speeches of politicians who treat refugees like a murderous and faceless horde, serves the recruitment purposes of our enemies. It can help a non-political, non-active, and not-even-particularly-religious immigrant decide that they are going to move from petty crimes and personal abuse to a mass killing, in the vague name of some group they barely know. It’s a cycle that will take a generation to break out of. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a duty to start.

Trump Did Not Defend The LGBTQ Community

 

Not the roots of a new coalition, ok?

 

In his excellent and lacerating takedown of the inherent un-Americanness of Trump’s acceptance speech, Franklin Foer strikes a strange note.

Aside from his quite striking defense of the LGBTQ community, there was nothing that hinted at expanding freedom to new quarters of the country.

I’ve seen that in a few places, described as “surprising” or “heartwarming” or some other such terms, that seemed to describe his outreach and inclusion to the one community. That was in response to this.

Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist. This time, the terrorist targeted our LGBT community. As your President, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBT citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.

(When delivered, Trump added “Q”)

It got applause, and Trump said how glad he was to hear a room full of Republicans applaud that. But come on. It is entirely about pitting that community against the Muslim hordes. To be sure, Islam, especially Wahabbi-influence, are terrible to the LGBTQ community. Murderously so. But this was not a defense of the LGBTQ community at all.

This wasn’t a pledge to overturn the overtly retrograde and dehumanizing GOP platform. He didn’t promise to work to overcome prejudice, hatred, and the staunch opposition to civil rights inherent in the party he took over. He didn’t say that he would fight to make sure that people in the LGBTQ community could lead lives unencumbered by the hatred they face, by the bullying and tormenting. He didn’t call the suicide rate among transgendered people a national tragedy. Remember, he alone can solve all our problems, but these problems are outside his concern.

The tell is obviously “hateful foreign ideology”. That’s all that matters. The yolwing jackals in Cleveland, with their gay conversion therapy fetishes and their emotional inability to recognize any “non-straight” for of love as real don’t have to adjust at all. It was all about recruiting new people in his war against everyone else.

Omar Mateen’s swirl of confused insanity, which surely had multiple sources, manifested itself in a hurricane of violence against a community. To Trump, that means that LGBTQ Americans only have one enemy. His exploitation of that is one of his most cnical and hateful maneuvers. I don’t think it is going to persuade anyone though. They are smart enough, and know the long history of oppression against them, to know that his phony compassion is insincere. I’m not worried about the media convincing them. But in looking for a reed to try to grasp onto, to find some sliver of sanity and decency in an outwardly apocolpytic speech, they inadvertnetly grabbed the thinnest one of all.

 

Out of the Maw: Slahi Cleared For Release

America is a carceral state. There’s no disputing the statistics; we house nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoner, have the largest prison population in the world, and the second-highest rate per capita (behind Seychelles, which has a total prison population of 735). It’s one of the hallmarks of American history: we have a fierce desire to lock people up and throw away the key, and it has often been bipartisan, and always steeped heavily in race. Black lives have been fodder for free labor in prisons across the country, and more recently, as a way to pad the profits of private enterprises. It’s how we’ve dealt with the end of slavery and the expansion of civil rights; we’ve undercut those gains through prison.

And that desire for incarceration, that deference toward rough justice, is reflected by the fact that exonerating the wrongfully convicted, through programs like the Medill Justice Project, are seen as squishy and self-interested and grandstanding, instead of the backbone of true justice. We’d rather 50 innocent were convicted than a guilty person going free. It’s part of our national character.

After 9/11, that character became global. Our system of mass imprisonment swallowed the world, reaching into every country for anyone who might have done wrong. The people who were sucked up were tortured in black sites, tortured by their own governments, and tortured by the United States. They disappeared into obscure bases, and were locked up in Guantanamo Bay, cut off from the world.

It was part and parcel of our normal way of handling justice: wrap up anyone who might be guilty, or who might look like they are guilty (often because a disputatious neighbor dropped a dime), and never look back. To be sure, many people who were captured were dangerous terrorists. But not all. And that was the problem. It tooks years for many of them to be released, and after Obama took office, the whole idea of releasing them began to be seen as some sort of liberal weak-on-terror-weak-on-crime synthesis, and the wheels of justice slowed down again. Nativism, and our native tendencies, created an atmosphere where the dominant feeling was “if they aren’t guilty then why are they in jail?”

But some good news, finally, if you can describe “end of terrible” as being good. Mohamedou Ould Slahi, whose memoirs described in great detail the suffering and torture he went through, was yesterday cleared for release after a 13-year nightmare. His release has long been a cause celebre, as he was a symbol of everything that went wrong, but it was also a real cause for the dedicated and heroic lawyers of the ACLU.

You should read his book, Guantanamo Diary, (and the legal fight to have it released and see the light of day was equaly heroic), but in brief: he fought for al-Qaeda against the Afghan Communists, which we were cool with, went to Germany where he “crossed paths” with one of the 9/11 planners, and then went home to Mauritania. No evidence he was active, none that he was a plotter. But after 9/11, everyone who might be a baddie, or who was loosely connected to one, was swept up by countries who wanted to be on the good side of the US. Slahi was arrested in 2001, sent to Jordan for torture, and would up in Gitmo after a stop at Bagram, a bloody map of the worst excesses of the “war on terror”. As Hina Shamsi of the ACLU writes, talking about what happened in Guantanamo:

Slahi was one of two so-called “Special Projects” whose brutal treatment then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally approved. The abuse included beatings, extreme isolation, sleep deprivation, sexual molestation, frigid rooms, shackling in stress positions, and threats against both Slahi and his mother. In Slahi’s habeas challenge, the federal judge determined Slahi’s detention was unlawful and ordered him released in 2010. The U.S. government successfully appealed that decision, and the habeas case is still pending.

He’s no less guilty of anything today than he was 15 years ago. But today he finally gets to see the light of day, or at least the hope for it.

There are still 76 people in Guantanamo, 31 of whom have been cleared pending security conditions in their home countries. This isn’t for their safety; but to guarantee they can be monitored. Think about that: we’re telling these people we have no reason to hold you any longer, but we’re going to until we can be sure that your life is nearly as circumscribed as it is now.

The problem is that they aren’t seen as people. They are by the ones closest to them, even those in charge of the system, who actually have to interact with them. But there is no public pressure; if anything, it is appealing to say “keep em locked up!” That means there is no political will. Not shutting down Guantanamo became a rallying cry of the right as soon as Obama was sworn in, even though many had believed in it before, since it was common sense. But the Obama era mutated that, and now the prisoners are back to who they were: faceless terrorists, guilty by dint of being not-American.

This isn’t surprising. We have no problem locking away innocent Americans, because, they’re probably thugs anyway, right? That’s why this delayed justice for Slahi, who lost so much of his life, is bittersweet. The injustice hasn’t stopped. It’s part of who we are, whether it is in Lousiana or the Cook County Jail or around the world. We lock people up, and then assume the shadows of the bars are a tatoo reading guilty.

Jabhat al-Nusra and Post-ISIS “Syria”

 

Meet the new boss- not quite the same as the old boss. 

 

Syria and The Success of Smarter Militants

Interesting WaPo article by David Ignatius about Jabhat al-Nusra, the Qaeda affiliate in Syria. They’ve bascially bided their time during the rise of ISIS, gaining reputations as good fighters and building alliance with relatively more-moderate groups, and they seem poised to emerge successful out of the wreckage when the more apocalyptic jihadist group enters its post-Caliphate stage (which could be loosely described as “A caliphate of the mind”).

Jabhat al-Nusra has played a clever waiting game over the past four years, embedding itself with more moderate opposition factions and championing Sunni resistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The group has mostly avoided foreign terrorist operations and has largely escaped targeting by U.S. forces. Meanwhile, it has developed close links with rebel organizations such as Ahrar al-Sham that are backed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

But the global jihadist ambitions of Osama bin Laden remain part of Jabhat al-Nusra’s DNA. U.S. officials report increasing evidence that the group is plotting external operations against Europe and the United States. Its operatives are said to have tried recently to infiltrate Syrian refugee communities in Europe.

A stark warning of the danger ahead comes from the Institute for the Study of War, which closely follows events in Syria. In a forthcoming forecast, the institute argues that by January 2017, “Jabhat al-Nusra will have created an Islamic emirate in northwestern Syria in all but name” and will merge with the supposedly more moderate Ahrar al-Sham.

And that’s the smart way to do it. It’s one of the reasons why AQAP in Yemen has been so successful for so long, even so far resisting an ISIS takeover (more on that coming soon). There are certain organizations which are “lessons learned” oriented, who can take the success and mistakes of the past and integrate them into the local situation from which they are emerging. They don’t try to jam a rigid system into a fluid situation. You can have short-term success doing that, but it is far more difficult to maintain, as ISIS is finding out.

(That said, of course, ISIS isn’t halfway out the door. I am as guilty as this as anyone: because the outline of the end, or at least the end of this phase, can be roughly seen, it shouldn’t be assumed that it will play out the way we imagine, and shouldn’t be so quick to act like we are already in the next phase. Analysts and bloggers are, I think, more guilty of that than actual military people, so I’m not too worried.)

This is part of the mutation of the jihadist threat, and why it needs to be treated as a generational problem, one that requires supple and strategic thinking, on all levels, and not be treated as a eopochal failure when it isn’t met with “unconditional victory” during, say, a Presidential term.

It’s almost inevitable that, if not al-Nusra, another AQ or ISIS-like group emerges in whatever comes out of Syria, whatever post-state shape it is in. That isn’t a clarion call to give up, but more that we have to be realistic about what can be accomplished, and to me, that means not trying to force Syria back together again.

I think the Kerry plan, which Ignatious describes as a “three-cushion shot”, is a good outline. “Kerry’s plan would include joint U.S.-Russian operations against the group, as well as the Islamic State. Kerry also hopes to reduce Assad’s attacks on moderate rebel forces so that they (rather than Jabhat al-Nusra) can gain ground in a post-Islamic State Syria.” That’s probably the best outcome that can be hoped for: increased moderation, though not perfection, in post-Syria areas. The more we try to maintain a 20th-century fiction, the more other fictions, like that of the glorious caliphate or the purity of fanaticism, will tell the story.