Tag Archives: ISIS

Terrorism: The Memetics of Guerilla Warfare

Since beginning this blog together, Stan and I have continued a running discussion on what distinguishes terrorism from other forms of military siege or action. To isolate a single specific cogent meaning that fits every popular usage would likely be impossible. Stan at one point suspected the major difference in usage stemmed from the weapon used. We went through a pile of different definitions and I at least don’t feel any closer to a single word I could graft over the entirety of usages or even a three or four entry definition that could cover most usages.

The coordinated attacks on Paris last week add another wrinkle to this and give me the sense that the defining element of the phenomena hinted toward in the increased cultural fixation on the word in the last 15-20 years has been defined more frequently by the narrative implied by the target than the manner or strategy of attack. What’s called “peacekeeping” or “intervention” tends toward the striking of strategic targets, while what’s labeled “terrorism” tends toward symbolic targets. There is little traditional military strategic value in the Bataclan Theater, and it seems difficult to think the attackers, whoever they were, wanted to or thought they could take over Paris or France as a whole through a couple coordinated strikes. Formal seizure of territory is no longer a common goal of military actions. Satellite power and puppet governments make more sense than taking over the actual governance and ownership of a territory. Why buy the cow etc.

The idea of France being under fundamentalist religious law for any sustained period of time seems similarly ridiculous, at least with the current population, even if the military power of ISIS were expanded to the point of being comparable to the major UN powers. The cultural differences are too great and especially now as ISIS doesn’t have military power anywhere even remotely comparable to the UN powers. The significant aftershock of a large attack like the one in France or even smaller ones therefore would be pitched in two directions, mirror images of the same morale problem.

What is the tactical effect the terrorist desires from the terrorist act? It’s not seizure of territory clearly. It can’t be the actual installation of religious fundamentalism in the territory struck. There are only two actual end gains I can think of from the perspective of the terrorist organization.

The first is the more obvious. Every press release or statement by a terrorist organization “claiming” an attack has two broad points which are stated each time. The first statement is “This is in retaliation for (insert western military intervention),” the (relatively) logical strategic impetus toward attack then the second “…and because of Western  decadence (many roughly equivalent phrasings exist.)” This first reason stated, the one that anything could be done about, is categorically ignored by the attacked state  and the corresponding government, at least in the US. reliably since the beginning of the W. regime. The first reason isn’t stated as a communication to  peoples attacked but as a recruitment megaphone; by aligning themselves with the counter-cultural capital inherent in broad civilian misgiving in the middle east (or in immigrant populations elsewhere), ISIS or similar organizations legitimize themselves with domestic populations. The elements in propaganda intended to be broadcast to the people inside an organization/country are usually quite different from the ones intended to be focused on from without. In an internationally broadcast message, the elements meant to draw the eyes of the foreign and domestic populations need to be pitched in ways where the likeliness of hearing one decreases the likeliness of hearing the other.

The second reason, “western decadence” is pitched at the attacked population. It’s intentionally far more vague, as vagaries make for more dynamic political capital after the fact. The western decadence is pitched in the most broad terms possible to incense the widest range of people. Paranoias of vagueness run on the fuel of victims’ collective energies to imagine the worst; paranoias of the specific have no such engine to propagate themselves. Specifics isolate, vagueness spreads. A wide net.

The aesthetic progression of terrorism from the 1970s to the present has centered around the creation of a symbolic malignant other in the form of the terrorist, a branding campaign supported equally by the terrorist and the governments of the terrorized territory. The terroristic/international memetic guerrilla militia meanwhile attempts to move toward a less coherent display of violence to weaken the sense of control in the attacked population. The shared antagonism between the two groups needs to be legitimated by continued violent flare-ups in order to sustain its strategic benefits as a means of molding public opinion. If you have a territory with multiple non-state actors vying for power that aren’t larger enough to control the entirety of the state, foreign invasion by a power like the US can be advantageous to a specific faction in their organization against the others even if the supposed endgame of taking on the US isn’t intended seriously. The mutual antagonisms so convenient for both sides in propping up national identities during the Cold War are extended into a changed paradigm. In the manner of a reality contest show, different antagonists within a limited spectrum are rolled out before the public to be judged as a sufficiently stirring dramatic foil.

By mobilizing as a relatively amorphous idea, waging “memetic warfare” as Howard Bloom might call it, the terrorist movement gains the decided advantage of being able to harness the publics’ incredible capacity for self-centered misreading in both directions. Terrorism works on the principle that if a thing manages to not effectively or coherently be about anything, the outside observers will consider it to be directly bearing them in some correlative measure. The insults against “western living” are meant, of course, as taunts. To try to isolate specific tangible targets we could call strongholds of “western living” would yield about as much stuff of use as looking at a person’s actual mother to understand a “your mom” joke. In asymmetrical warfare that isn’t centered on a traditional linear notion of victory, engagement inherently favors the smaller entity.

The US invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the wake of 9/11 were not, as they were initially pitched to the public and discussed in mainstream venues at the time of the initial strikes and for a while afterward, wars of ideas or based around the adoption by one side or the other of a national or religious identity. The wars themselves were a way of creating oppositional identity to cover for a lack of shared identity that likely sits at the center of the US and in the disaffect that drives people to join ISIS. In a time of widespread discontent the most valuable branding a thing can have is an image of not being the other thing.

The US In Syria and the Rationalization that Ate the Sober Web

There’s been much debate over how to understand a 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency document describing efforts by the US coalition and conditions on the ground in Syria. The document showed startling prescience about the emergence of ISIS in Syria out of AQI support and its intention to claim historic territory in Iraq. Indeed, the events in the Syrian War have unfolded almost exactly as the document analyzes.

(For a full transcription of the document courtesy of US Middle East intelligence analyst Juan Cole, scroll to the bottom of the page. A link to the document.)

The document, from 2012, stated “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia, China and Iran support the regime” and described the likely “development of the current events into a proxy war” in Syria.

Headlines today read Obama says he won’t be drawn into ‘proxy war’ with Russia over Syria, implicating Russia as the aggressor.

When the document was published, several news outlets ran stories about the US coalition’s support for opposition fighters in Syria, implying that the coalition in fact had been supporting the elements that became ISIS.

DailyBeast ran a story called “America’s Allies are Funding ISIS“. Details came to light concerning the covert funding and arming of Syrian extremists including al-Fatah and al-Nusra by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and the training, funding and transport of arms to ISIS from Turkey in pursuit of strategic objectives, and the support of ISIS by Saudi Arabia, with anonymous Washington officials indicating support from independent Qatari and Saudi donors.

Now the truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq, wrote The Guardian as Michael Flynn, former head of the DIA, indicated on al-Jazeera that policies for the support of Salafist factions to isolate the Assad regime came down from Mr. President Obama himself out of the White House. Moreover, the illegal international running of arms out of Benghazi was dropped as it’s own scandal and officials and journalists began to link the Benghazi arms running operation to US support of weapons ISIS and AQI in Syria. The Medium reported The US Government’s Not-So-Secret Support for al-Qaeda and ISIS. Jeffrey Kuhner at the Washington Times deserves credit for pre-empting this coverage by reporting in 2013 How Obama arms al Qaeda.

DailyBeast quickly ran a counterstory: The ISIS Conspiracy that Ate the Web. In the story, former intelligence analyst turned writer for domestic media Jacob Seigel provided a counter-narrative interpretation of the document. Seigel quotes the important parts of the document indicating coalition support for terrorism. Siegel even links to Joe Biden’s account, where Biden expressed regret that coalition allies supported extremist elements in Syria – also indicating that no anti-Assad moderate forces ever really existed.

Yet Seigel cast aspersion on the idea that the Obama administration itself supported ISIS, AQI, or Salafism in Syria. Seigel makes the following counterarguments to the US-support-of-extremism analysis:

  1. The report isn’t a policy decision – just an analysis of facts on the ground. Despite it’s indication that the coalition found the prospect of supporting terrorists in Syria strategically valuable – it did not indicate that this was a policy decision enshrined by the White House.
  2. The report has no indication of being special or otherwise a turnkey piece of analysis. He quotes an official who suggests the document is routine and unremarkable. He notes that the document itself is half redacted.
  3. Seigel notes that the document does not list the United States as a backer of the opposition – only that Turkey and the Gulf States and “The West” are. He motions with an appeal to absurdity that the US wouldn’t support terrorism – that this is reason to believe that “The West” doesn’t intend include the US. Seigel then suggests that, if you take that point, you can understand the document as describing unruly partners in the Middle East and a conspiratorial Europe bucking the the nobler intentions of the United States.
  4. The report references ‘the opposition’ and ‘salafists’ but does not go on to specify which opposition and which salafists.
  5. He notes that the document predicts ISIS fighters would claim territory in Iraq in addition to Syria. And that the US wouldn’t have wanted this to happen and so would never have endorsed such a policy.

Let’s go through those one by one. Seigel very rightly points out that the document is not a policy directive – that it merely describes the situation on the ground. Unfortunately he overstates his case. He closes his essay with a variation of this argument: “The Obama administration, whatever the faults of its policies towards Syria and ISIS, wasn’t weighing any decisions based on a single seven-page document. Or six pages, if you count the cover sheet.”

Seigel’s argument marginalizes the material and information inside the document about the strategic value of bolstering terrorism to take down Assad – in favor of downplaying the size of the document and noting that only one document was received by the lawsuit, compared to the thousand other intelligence community documents that would have assuredly been informative to policy.

Seigel’s first argument is inconsistent with his second. He magnifies the voice of John Schindler who he quotes as saying about the document “nothing special here, not one bit.” Indeed, it’s highly unlikely that this document was the only one with information about the actors on the ground, about the opportunity to support those actors, and the implications of doing so. This is precisely what the intelligence community is in charge of providing for policy makers. Of the dozen or so documents that would have been produced by the DIA on Syria at this time, it’s very likely that most of the reports rhymed with the contents of this one.

To understand what policy was in effect, and whether the analysis made available by this document and others played into policy decisions, we need not speculate as Seigel tries to do. The former director of the Department of Defense’s intelligence agency agreed to an interview with Mehdi Hasan of al-Jazeera where he stated that not only did he remember this specific document, but that policy decisions to pursue the support of terrorist cells in Syria were not his but belonged to those at the top of the executive branch. Of course, the article also fails to address the journalism enumerating the coalition’s support for terrorism in Syria – it merely argues that the DIA document alone doesn’t establish it. Drawing from from the DIA report, statements made by the head of DoD intelligence, the journalism enumerating coalition funding, arming and training inform us of the policy decisions without needing to theorize and speculate the way Seigel encourages us to do.

Those familiar with the United States’ history of support of terrorism, recently in related events in Libya, Yemen and Somalia, but also through its entire imperial history in the Middle East, Central Asia and South America will find no surprise that this document is unremarkable intelligence. The intelligence report is a (redacted) sample of the everyday workings of what the document itself describes as a developing proxy war.

The third argument is difficult to take seriously. Its premise is that the US isn’t enumerated when the document specifies that the proxy war is divided by “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia. China, and Iran support the regime.” Very clearly the United States supports the opposition to the Syrian regime and is allied against Iran and Russia and has been voting almost exclusively in the UN Security Council against China. The US allegiance to Turkey, the EU, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates is clear: these are precisely the major allies of the coalition. Could the document have meant that Europe, but not the US, wanted to isolate Assad by magnifying terrorist activity in its shores?

Let’s pretend that we can grant Seigel this one. That the support of terrorism, in fact ISIS, was a policy pursued by everyone in the coalition with the exception of America. Wouldn’t that mean that the coalition betrayed the US – given how its stated mission is to “degrade and defeat ISIS”? And shouldn’t that mean that the US needs to sanction the West, Turkey and the Gulf Countries – as it is required to do by international law (and indeed by Federal law)? The argument that the United States was blissfully unaware of or helpless to stop its allies export terrorism and then failed to uphold the law is a nice sentiment if you believe that the world’s most powerful country could somehow be victim to such a thing, but otherwise the word parsing required to exclude the US from “the West” is pure fear, uncertainty and doubt.

The argument is also concerned with how to understand the term ‘Salafist’ and ‘opposition’. It’s author rightly points out that there are many Salafist factions that could have been intended by the document. Put aside for now the fact that no real moderate opposition has ever existed in Syria in any significant number with various initiatives to build or sustain them fail as a rule of thumb; put aside for now that there is even an inside joke at the Pentagon that goes “Q: Where are the moderate forces? A: In another country“. We can infer quite easy from the content of the document, based on its details and its timeline, who the opposition and the Salafists being discussed are.

The document clearly states:

AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) SUPPORTED THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION FROM THE BEGINNING

THE REGIME DECREASED ITS CONCENTRATION IN AREAS ADJACENT TO THE IRAQI BORDERS (AL HASAKA AND DER ZOR).

OPPOSITION FORCES ARE TRYING TO CONTROL THE EASTERN AREAS (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), ADJACENT TO THE WESTERN IRAQI PROVINCES (MOSUL AND ANBAR), IN ADDITION TO NEIGHBORING TURKISH BORDERS. WESTERN COUNTRIES, THE GULF STATES AND TURKEY ARE SUPPORTING THESE EFFORTS

The one sentence that indicated a specific group (Syrian Free Army) made explicit motions to do so.

Those following the Syrian war know that the battle of Hasaka was between Syrian Regime forces, which had indeed decreased its concentration there, with ISIS trying to take and control the territory. The result of the battle was a defeat of Syrian Regime forces and a successive oust of ISIS by the Kurdish YPG.

Clashes continued for the third consecutive day between pro-Assad army forces –backed by militias of the National Defense– and militants of the radical group of Islamic State (ISIS) in the eastern countryside of Hasakah, northeastern Syria, local sources reported on Saturday.

Speaking to ARA News in Hasakah, media activist Muwaffaq Aziz reported that ISIS militants have been striving for days to break into the regime-held military base of Mount Kawkab, in eastern Hasakah.

Kawkab is the largest military camp held by pro-Assad forces in Hasakah province.

– Ahmed Shiwesh of Aranews reports

But what of the opposition fighters in Der Zor? They too were, and are, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In April of 2014, ISIS invaded al-Bukamal, fighting with al-Nusra (AQI-affiliated) rebels to establish territory. In May, ISIS captured Western Der Zor and in June not only East Der Zor, but also absorbed the Western backed al-Qaeda affiliated rebels and Syria’s largest oil field.

In December 2014 ISIS attempted to take the military airfields in Der Zor, but were repelled by Syrian government forces – but not after causing a large number of casualties. ISIS’s reign of Der Zor has been weakening, and in March of this year US special forces assassinated a local military leader and detained his wife for torture and interrogation.

Why is it that ISIS’s movements to control the Eastern areas of Hasaka and Der Zor, along adjacent to the Western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar)? Why is it that ISIS has established control of these cities and neighboring Turkish borders?

Here’s a map of Free Syrian Army territory drawn by the same Juan Cole who provided a transcription of the document PDF.

Seigel suggests the document may refer to Ahrar al-Sham. Let’s pretend for a minute that they were present in the territories previously mentioned, Hasaka and Der Zor and Mosul and Anbar and the border regions in Iraq, as is actually the case for the Islamic State. Ahrar al-Sham is sister organization of al-Qaeda and has been involved in chemical weapons and who aims to install Sharia law. Yes Ahrar al-Sham has recieved military support from Turkey and the Gulf countries. Seigel’s offering that it could have been Suqoor al-Sham meet similar ends quickly.

Even if we were to invoke the necessary suspension of disbelief necessary to buy that some other factional force was being referred to by the report, the immediate implication seems to be that the document isn’t talking about the coalition supporting ISIS, but instead al-Qaeda.

But if we take Salafists to mean ISIS, the report describes more or less what happened with the Islamic State establishing itself in eastern Syria before expanding over the border from eastern Syria into Iraq. It provides, as right-wingers incensed by the government’s failure to heed it have noted, an accurate if limited prediction of what was in store for the region as ISIS began consolidating its power in 2012. But it’s the second part—“this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want— that’s been grist for conspiracy theorists who think they’ve finally found proof that ISIS is essentially a U.S. plot.

– Seigel

The author himself acknowledges that the report is not only consistent with ISIS, but eerily predictive. This is where he suggests that “the West” probably didn’t mean the US.

And so we come to the final argument: since US led coalition support for Sunni terrorism would have exacerbated the Sunni situation in Iraq, the US would never have signed off to destabilize Syria and Iran, even if eliminating an Russian Alawite Shia client state would strengthen Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, weaken Iran and Russia, eliminate Russian access to the Mediterranean, allow the blocked Saudi-Turkey oil pipeline to provide Europe with energy security, and open Europe and the West up to a globalizing Eurasia, while eliminating seeds of Arab Nationalism that has sought independence from superpower poles.

The American strategy, described as a success by the Obama administration, has involved operations against ISIS almost exclusively in Iraq until very recently, keeping the Islamic State from moving Eastward outside of tribal Sunni areas where they are able to recruit in Syria but not post an immediate direct thread to Baghdad. The recent, and relatively small, airstrikes in Syria have overall been ineffective at defeating – indeed degrading – ISIL. Iraq’s US-installed government has not been able to fend off ISIS on its own (it recently had its military and defense regime obliterated) and has needed to become a US protectorate, under which Iraq agrees to conditions imposed by the US including sphere of influence ultimatums reminiscent of the Cold War.

That hasn’t left Obama without critics. Foreign policy analysts, military officials, and members of both sides of the aisle in Washington have questioned both whether Obama’s Syria strategy would be effective or whether there exists a strategy at all. The administration had thought that it could recreate Libya – fund and arm terrorism or accidentally hand military gear to rebel hands along with revolution to get the regime to impose some form of martial law – use the resulting human rights violations to justify a military intervention – find local factions to ‘hand’ victories won with special forces – and engineer with this new ‘freedom fighter government’ a positive security and political relationship.

But Syria isn’t Libya. In Libya, most factional forces were united. There was a greater international consensus, and the US arranged a deal with Russia to vote for regime change. In Syria, infighting among the groups, while it may allow the US to oust Assad through a diplomatic track, has left it without a group to fill the vacuum. The groups remaining are the Kurds and Islamists – the former of which won’t fly with Turkey and the latter can’t meet the definition of moderate the way Washington uses extremist as a synonym for nationalist.

Seigel’s attempted refutations, while honorable in duty and faith in the US as the rightful leader of the world and champion of all things good and beautiful, just don’t hold water. Some of them, like the suggestion the West doesn’t include the US, could even be called silly. The United States support of rebel fighters to overthrow governments for strategic purposes is well known. To other countries and powers our rebels who seek their overthrow from power, who in the amoral fervor and abyss of war behead and dismember and cannibalize bodies of enemies, are terrorists. We don’t even have to boo it, if the officials are afraid of what the reputation would mean for soft power. Think of how quickly the American people have forgotten about the illegal war in Iraq, the CIA torture program, global mass surveillance and the global financial crisis.


The full document:

DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE – CLASSIFICATION: SECRET.
INFORMATION REPORT, NOT FINALLY EVALUATED INTELLIGENCE.
COUNTRY: (U) IRAQ (IRQ). DOI: (U) 20120730.
1. {REDACTED}
2. {REDACTED}
THE GENERAL SITUATION:

A. INTERNALLY, EVENTS ARE TAKING A CLEAR SECTARIAN DIRECTION.

B. THE SALAFIST,- THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, AND AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] ARE THE MAJOR FORCES DRIVING THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA.

C. THE WEST, GULF COUNTRIES, AND TURKEY SUPPORT THE OPPOSITION; WHILE RUSSIA. CHINA, AND IRAN SUPPORT THE REGIME.

D. {REDACTED}

E. THE REGIME’S PRIORITY IS TO CONCENTRATE ITS PRESENCE IN AREAS ALONG THE COAST (TARTUS, AND LATAKIA); HOWEVER, IT HAS NOT ABANDONED HOMS BECAUSE IT CONTROLS THE MAJOR TRANSPORTATION ROUTES IN SYRIA. THE REGIME DECREASED ITS CONCENTRATION IN AREAS ADJACENT TO THE IRAQI BORDERS (AL HASAKA AND DER ZOR).
3. AL QAEDA – IRAQ (AQI):

A. AQI IS FAMILIAR WITH SYRIA. AQI TRAINED IN SYRIA AND THEN INFILTRATED INTO IRAQ.

B. AQI SUPPORTED THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION FROM THE BEGINNING, BOTH IDEOLOGICALLY AND THROUGH THE MEDIA. AQI DECLARED ITS OPPOSITION OF ASSAD’S GOVERNMENT BECAUSE IT CONSIDERED IT A SECTARIAN REGIME TARGETING SUNNIS.

C. AQI CONDUCTED A NUMBER OF OPERATIONS IN SEVERAL SYRIAN CITIES UNDER THE NAME OF JAISH AL NUSRA (VICTORIOUS ARMY), ONE OF ITS AFFILIATES.

D. AQI, THROUGH THE SPOKESMAN OF THE ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ (ISI), ABU MUHAMMAD AL ADNANI, DECLARED THE SYRIAN REGIME AS THE SPEARHEAD OF WHAT HE IS NAMING JIBHA AL RUWAFDH (FOREFRONT OF THE SHIITES) BECAUSE OF ITS {THE SYRIAN REGIME) DECLARATION OF WAR ON THE SUNNIS.

ADDITIONALLY. HE IS CALLING ON THE SUNNIS IN IRAQ, ESPECIALLY THE TRIBES IN THE BORDER REGIONS (BETWEEN IRAQ AND SYRIA), TO WAGE WAR AGAINST THE SYRIAN REGIME, REGARDING SYRIA AS AN INFIDEL REGIME FOR ITS SUPPORT TO THE INFIDEL PARTY HEZBOLLAH, AND OTHER REGIMES HE CONSIDERS DISSENTERS LIKE IRAN AND IRAQ.

E. AQI CONSIDERS THE SUNNI ISSUE IN IRAQ TO BE FATEFULLY CONNECTED TO THE SUNNI ARABS AND MUSLIMS.

4. THE BORDERS:

A. THE BORDERS BETWEEN SYRIA AND IRAQ STRETCH APPROXIMATELY 600KM WITH COMPLEX TERRAIN CONSISTING OF A VAST DESERT, MOUNTAIN RANGES (SINJAR MOUNTAINS). JOINT RIVERS (FLOWING ON BOTH SIDES), AND AGRICULTURAL LANDS.

B. IRAQ DIRECTLY NEIGHBORS THE SYRIAN PROVINCES OF HASAKA AND DER ZOR, AS WELL AS (SYRIAN) CITIES ADJACENT TO THE IRAQI BORDER.

C. THE LAND ON BOTH SIDES BETWEEN IRAQ AND SYRIA IS A VAST DESERT PUNCTUATED BY VALLEYS, AND IT LACKS TRANSPORTATION ROUTES, WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE INTERNATIONAL HIGHWAY AND SOME MAJOR CITIES.

5. THE POPULATION LIVING ON THE BORDER:

A. THE POPULATION LIVING ON THE BORDER HAS A SOCIAL-TRIBAL STYLE, WHICH IS BOUND BY STRONG TRIBAL AND FAMILIAL MARITAL TIES.

B. THEIR SECTARIAN AFFILIATION UNITES THE TWO SIDES WHEN EVENTS HAPPEN IN THE REGION.

C. AQI HAD MAJOR POCKETS AND BASES ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BORDER TO FACILITATE THE FLOW OF MATERIAL AND RECRUITS.

D. THERE WAS A REGRESSION OF AQI JN THE WESTERN PROVINCES OF IRAQ DURING TI-IE YEARS OF 2009 AND 2010; HOWEVER, AFTER THE RISE OF THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA, THE RELIGIOUS AND TRIBAL POWERS IN THE REGIONS BEGAN TO SYMPATHIZE WITH THE SECTARIAN UPRISING. THIS (SYMPATHY) APPEARED IN FRIDAY PRAYER SERMONS, WHICH CALLED FOR VOLUNTEERS TO SUPPORT THE SUNNI’S IN SYRIA.

6. THE SITUATION ON THE IRAQI AND SYRIAN BORDER:

A. THREE BORDER BDES ARE SUFFICIENT TO CONTROL THE BORDERS DURING PEACE TIME FOR OBSERVATION DUTIES AND TO PREVENT SMUGGLING AND INFILTRATION.

B. {REDACTED}

C. IN PREVIOUS YEARS A MAJORITY OF AQI FIGHTERS ENTERED IRAQ PRIMARILY VIA THE SYRIAN BORDER.

7. THE FUTURE ASSUMPTIONS OF THE CRISIS:

A. THE REGIME WILL SURVIVE AND HAVE CONTROL OVER SYRIAN TERRITORY.

B. DEVELOPMENT OF THE CURRENT EVENTS INTO PROXY WAR: WITH SUPPORT FROM RUSSIA, CHINA, AND IRAN, THE REGIME IS CONTROLLING THE AREAS OF INFLUENCE ALONG COASTAL TERRITORIES (TARTUS AND LATAKIA), AND IS FIERCELY DEFENDING HOMS, WHICH IS CONSIDERED THE PRIMARY TRANSPORTATION ROUTE IN SYRIA. ON THE OTHER HAND, OPPOSITION FORCES ARE TRYING TO CONTROL THE EASTERN AREAS (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), ADJACENT TO THE WESTERN IRAQI PROVINCES (MOSUL AND ANBAR), IN ADDITION TO NEIGHBORING TURKISH BORDERS. WESTERN COUNTRIES, THE GULF STATES AND TURKEY ARE SUPPORTING THESE EFFORTS. THIS HYPOTHESIS IS MOST LIKELY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE DATA FROM RECENT EVENTS, WHICH WILL HELP PREPARE SAFE HAVENS UNDER INTERNATIONAL SHELTERING, SIMILAR TO WHAT TRANSPIRED IN LIBYA WHEN BENGHAZI WAS CHOSEN AS THE COMMAND CENTER OF THE TEMPORARY GOVERNMENT.

8. THE EFFECTS ON IRAQ:

A. {REDACTED} SYRIAN REGIME BORDER FORCES RETREATED FROM THE BORDER AND THE OPPOSITION FORCES (SYRIAN FREE ARMY) TOOK OVER THE POSTS AND RAISED THEIR FLAG. THE IRAQI BORDER GUARD FORCES ARE FACING A BORDER WITH SYRIA THAT IS NOT GUARDED BY OFFICIAL ELEMENTS WHICH PRESENTS A DANGEROUS AND SERIOUS THREAT.

B. THE OPPOSITION FORCES WILL TRY TO USE THE IRAQI TERRITORY AS A SAFE HAVEN FOR ITS FORCES TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE SYMPATHY OF THE IRAQI BORDER POPULATION, MEANWHILE TRYING TO RECRUIT FIGHTERS AND TRAIN THEM ON THE IRAQI SIDE, IN ADDITION TO HARBORING REFUGEES (SYRIA).

C. IF THE SITUATION UNRAVELS THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME, WHICH IS CONSIDERED THE STRATEGIC DEPTH OF THE SHiA EXPANSION (IRAQ AND IRAN).

D. THE DETERIORATION OF THE SITUATION HAS DIRE CONSEQUENCES ON THE IRAQI SITUATION AND ARE AS FOLLOWS:

1. THIS CREATES THE IDEAL ATMOSPHERE FOR AQI TO RETURN TO ITS OLD POCKETS IN MOSUL AND RAMADI, AND WILL PROVIDE A RENEWED MOMENTUM UNDER THE PRESUMPTION OF UNIFYING THE JIHAD AMONG SUNNI IRAQ AND SYRIA, AND THE REST OF THE SUNNIS IN THE ARAB WORLD AGAINST WHAT IT CONSIDERS ONE ENEMY, THE DISSENTERS. ISI COULD ALSO DECLARE AN ISLAMIC STATE THROUGH ITS UNION WITH OTHER TERRORIST ORGANIZATIONS IN IRAQ AND SYRIA, WHICH WILL CREATE GRAVE DANGER IN REGARDS TO UNIFYING IRAQ AND THE PROTECTION OF ITS TERRITORY.

2. {REDACTED}

3. THE RENEWING FACILITATION OF TERRORIST ELEMENTS FROM ALL OVER THE ARAB WORLD ENTERING INTO THE IRAQ AREA.

The Political Economy of Snuff Films

The Baffler published an article on the relationship between various US news channels and Islamic State. Particularly interesting was their discussion of the decision by Fox to publish a beheading video in full to their website. An excerpt:

Fox plays ISIS propaganda with the same intention that ISIS brings to its production: to make Americans feel frightened of and threatened by an organization that actually poses no threat to American freedom or security. Exaggerating the power and reach of ISIS is in the immediate best interests of both the savage terrorist organization and the cynical, right-wing media outlet. The fiction that ISIS—a band of fanatics currently engaged in protracted battles and occupations half a world away from the United States—poses an existential threat to the best-armed nation in the history of the world both burnishes the group’s credentials with would-be jihadis and gives weight to Fox’s critique of a Democratic president as soft on terror. (In an earlier era, with a Republican in the White House, Fox’s on-air news personalities routinely blasted the Arab-language cable outlet Al Jazeera for playing Al Qaeda propaganda videos.)

The important thing here is the recognition of a political economy in snuff films, a term that is almost never used to describe these death videos. The concept of the snuff film has been traditionally tied to the never substantiated claims, largely pushed by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, that films of the rape and murder of women were being produced as pornography for commercial purposes. But if we defactionalize the concept of the snuff film, we find claims in books like The Hateful and the Obscene that snuff films don’t exist rather ludicrous; to find one from before MacKinnon/Dworkin or L.W. Sumner’s text responding to them, one simply has to go back to the day “America lost its innocence”-the Kennedy assassination and the corresponding snuff film, the first one produced and distributed in the climate of centralized mass media reproduction-the Zapruder Film. The sexualizing of the death video in the concept of “the snuff film” then merely constitutes another distorted manifestation of the US’s puritanical mores-the mortal sin, the real horror involved is that someone might be jerking off to them.

The Zapruder film does have a sexual component. As Bill Hicks joked about watching it: “I didn’t notice. I was too busy staring at Jackie’s ass.” The Zapruder film has been commercialized and replicated to a ubiquity that no porn film ever dreamed of.

A CANON OF COMMERCIALLY REPRODUCED AND REDISTRIBUTED SNUFF FILMS

I tried to compile a full canon of videos of people actually dying that were reproduced frequently for commercial purposes. Because television news in the US is a privatized industry, this is a very long list. I’m sure it’s nowhere near complete. I’m not providing links to any of these videos, but for the morbidly curious, well, I trust you all know how to use the google by now.

In rough chronological order:

  • 1937 Hindenburg Disaster Footage
  • 1963 Zapruder Film of the Kennedy Assassination
  • 1963 Thich Quang Duc Self-Immolation Protest Film
  • 1968 Vietnam “Bullet in the Head” Execution Film
  • 1985 News Footage of the MOVE Headquarters Bombing
  • 1986 R. Budd Dwyer Suicide Footage
  • 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake News Footage
  • 1999 Columbine Massacre Cafeteria Surveillance Camera Footage (interestingly largely distributed as a bootleg)
  • 2001 WTC Attack Video
  • 2002 Daniel Pearl Death Video
  • 2006 Saddam Hussein Execution Video
  • 2007 Wikileaks Collateral Murder Video
  • 2011-present Eric Garner and related Police murder videos
  • 2013-present, ISIS Beheading videos

As we get past 2006 the production of death videos becomes so voluminous as to make this list a long exercise in redundancy if we’re analyzing them from the lens they exist as contextually produced pieces of political propaganda launched from various directions. It should also be pointed out that with the mass production of consumer grade cameras in phones etc. and increasingly easy access to distribution points for videos the landscape of political propaganda has shifted dramatically.

This shift has been from the accidental production then appropriation of these videos toward the purposeful production of them with the intent of distribution. They no longer represent the shock of mortal discontinuity; they present themselves as distinct subcanons; their continued production and volume is meant to establish the normality of their content. They no longer mythologize their dead bodies but attempt to frame them as the hyperreal everyperson give or take some broad gerrymandering.

THE REPRODUCTIVE INERTIA OF THE IMAGE, DEATH FROM ABOVE, DEATH FROM BELOW

Don Delillo, in his novel White Noise, famously gives us the unremarkable barn that people visit to photograph because so many people have already visited it and photographed it. Neil Postman in Technopoly lays out the thought experiment of a series of technological advances in highway design, each of which lowers fatality rates but only after a temporary one year spike in them. Of course, the rate at which the advances come accelerates to where they occur more than once a year and they end up with just a permanent spike in traffic fatalities.

It’s important to recognize these are both descriptions of the same phenomena viewed from different vantage points.

To this conversation I add the recent national conversation over putting body cameras on police officers. This is, ostensibly, a solution to the problem of the lack of police accountability.

But is it? This “solution”, despite the fact that ubiquitous video of police brutality in every imaginable context does not seem to be especially effective in court or in reining in the behavior of offending officers. The obvious question stemming from this, a question I refuse to endorse or reject for the moment, is: Are these proposed body cameras on some level the hollow shared cultural clamor for more death videos? A chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs. And so on.

What is the appeal of the death video of the present? We can problematically but functionally enough define two ways that death videos reach the consumer-by their own volition, or from a top-down externality.

The former would be presented in the seeking out of death videos both in the consciously political sense of bearing witness a la the many police murder videos, but also in the long tradition of underground bootleg films like Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death, etc. The Columbine surveillance tape is especially interesting because it crosses over between the two impulses-I remember when I was younger and seeking out bootleg copies of unavailable films seeing it come up frequently in tape traders’ lists.

The latter is of course the Baffler article’s example at the top-Fox News purposely releasing ISIS videos to pursue their shared aims.

THE MEMORY OF THE DEAD AS NARRATIVE REAL ESTATE

The spectral video image of the dead body is especially desirable as a memetic repetition because the dead body and its image are traumatic to behold. They create mental resistance and abstract themselves. The dead person’s image to the person who knew them is the reminder of their absence and an invitation to ponder what may have been. The memory of the dead person elevated to a folkloric archetype is a rorschach blot, a thing to be fought over as a chunk of real estate in the larger cultural battle over “narrative”. I can’t say with certainty what view is most prevalent as a reading of the Eric Garner and related videos. What I can say is that I’ve encountered equally vigorous reactions from both the people reading it as an archetypical document of the authoritarian racism of the state and as a sign of the “entitlement” of the disadvantaged and as affirmation of the unquestionable rightness of the police.

Insofar as the creation and sharing of these videos is a tactic towards an end, their eventual surface interpretations can’t be taken for granted as pointing people in either direction cleanly. This is as true for the one sought from the bottom or beamed down from the top. They exist in an inter-lapping set of discourses and can, as Stan pointed out in his most recent post on distributed fascism, lead to unexpected results.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Buy his first book on OWS here.