On the Zarqawi/Anbari Issue: Source Criticism and Subtext in the Analysis of Jihadism

In November, the analyst Hassan Hassan published a provocative piece at The Atlantic. He argued that an Iraqi figure, Abu Ali al-Anbari (1959-2016), was crucial in shaping the ideological trajectory of the Islamic State and its antecedents – and that al-Anbari was more important to that process than even the much more infamous Palestinian-Jordanian jihadist Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (1966-2006).

Several analysts responded – Cole Bunzel, Sam Heller, and Aymenn al-Tamimi – with convincing rebuttals. In different ways, these analysts suggest that Hassan’s main primary source (a recently published biography of al-Anbari by al-Anbari’s own son, translated at the link to al-Tamimi’s site above) does not support Hassan’s argument. Bunzel goes on to say that when one considers a wider array of major Islamic State voices, it becomes clear that the movement itself considers al-Zarqawi the central figure in terms of its own early history.

Al-Tamimi also alludes to one issue lurking in the background here, namely whether or not Saddam Hussein’s “Faith Campaign” played a role in the genesis of the Islamic State:

The biography also provides an important corrective to the narrative that the Faith Campaign of Ba’athist Iraq in the 1990s was responsible for the religious trends that gave rise to the Islamic State. In the case of the latter sort of assertions, a certain climate-change denying fraud has an ideological agenda to downplay the role the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq had in galvanizing jihadism, both within Iraq and on a wider scale.

Returning to the debate between Hassan and these other analysts, I am not qualified to address the ins and outs of the Anbari/Zarqawi controversy. But I do want to highlight a methodological issue here, one that has to do with sources and source criticism.

The currency of what I call “terrorology” is jihadist primary sources (leaked documents, propaganda videos and statements, eulogies, memoirs, etc.); in fact, I think that a certain kind of approach to such sources is constitutive of terrorology itself. Terrorology imbues jihadist primary sources with an aura of mystery and power, so that the terrorologist can position himself (it is nearly always him) as your guide to these documents and the world they allegedly reveal. Terrorologists seize on new sources, or newly discovered sources, as keys to explaining and re-explaining groups and events. Journalistic and even academic outlets are often only too happy to go along with sensationalized narratives centered on individual source documents. All of this emphasis on jihadist documents, meanwhile, often implicitly de-prioritizes other sources: what ordinary people say, what journalists say, what the counter-sources say, etc. When you look at the amazing work done by someone like Mara Revkin, who combines diverse sources including but not limited to jihadist documents, it becomes clear how flat and problematic terrorology really is.

Terrorology further relies, I would argue, on avoiding any serious source criticism. Here I am not talking about questioning the authenticity of sources (I think nearly all of these primary sources are genuine, in that they were written by who they say they were written by). Rather, I am talking about posing some of the following basic questions about jihadist documents, questions that historians tend to pose about any documents they work with:

  • How does the author’s positionally affect the writing?
  • What are the author’s interests and biases?
  • Does the author ever lie, or have reason to lie?
  • On what issues does the author exaggerate?
  • On what issues is the author strategically silent? Does the author avoid any obvious questions, or fail to give convincing answers to questions that are posed?
  • If one compares source A to other sources, are there irresolvable contradictions? If so, what is one’s method for making sense of the resulting picture?
  • Is there any plagiarism?

Here it is worth recalling that the main source for Hassan’s article is a biography of al-Anbari written by al-Anbari’s own son. The potential for bias, exaggeration, strategic silence, and contradiction should be immediately obvious. But Hassan does not acknowledge this. Instead, a kind of breathless tone takes over:

A month ago, I obtained a 93-page document that chronicles Anbari’s life, as well as the extremist landscape around him in 1990s Iraq. Anbari’s son, Abdullah, wrote the biography for the internal use of the Islamic State, which published parts of it in its weekly Arabic magazine, Al-Naba, in 2016, shortly after Anbari’s killing. Dissidents within ISIS recently spread the full document on social media, which is how I came across it. Abdullah has stated that the biography was based on 16 years of working closely with his father, a diary that Anbari kept, and firsthand accounts of Anbari from fellow ISIS members.

This source is supposed to be a secret, internal document for ISIS, which adds to the sensationalist tone of the Atlantic piece. But there is not necessarily a correlation between how restricted a source’s intended audience is and how important it is.

It is true that Hassan triangulates between the biography and other sources – but somehow it is always the biography that proves more reliable, more accurate, in Hassan’s telling. There is a fetishization of the source, an assumption that the source should get the last word.

When we turn to Bunzel’s rebuttal, we see what happens when an analyst turns even a slightly more critical lens on this source, the biography of al-Anbari. Here is Bunzel:

This biography is an important source for the history of the Islamic State, and Hassan is right to draw our attention to it. It details the hugely important role played by Anbari as a jihadi actor since the early 2000s, and particularly following his release from prison in 2012 when he became one of the Islamic State’s senior leaders. Yet the document says little about Zarqawi, and nothing about Anbari’s influence on him.

In February 2004, when Zarqawi wrote his famous missive to Osama bin Laden outlining a strategy for attacking the Shi‘a in Iraq, it would appear from the document that he had met Anbari once, in Baghdad in 2002. Hassan writes that Zarqawi’s “idea for targeting the Shiites probably came from native Iraqis like Anbari,” which could be true. But the biography does not tell us this; nor does it suggest that one of these Iraqis was “possibly even Anbari himself.” It does not impute ideological influence to Anbari over Zarqawi at all.

Bunzel, in other words, rebuts Hassan’s arguments simply by pointing out that we should not project speculative meanings onto a primary source. One can imagine an even deeper reading of the source that would approach the narrator, al-Anbari’s son, not as a mere vehicle for information but as an actor with political interests that shape his narrative.

Here I would note, then, that even the type of rebuttals provided by Bunzel and al-Tamimi do not go far enough – they still tend to convey the idea that the jihadist sources should get the final word, and that the main question is what the sources say and how we should understand the combined import of the sources. The rebuttals still attach an aura of power and mystery to the jihadist sources. Al-Tamimi, for example, refers to the biography telling us about “the real Anbari” and notes a few grammatical mistakes, but mostly – again, eschewing anything like source criticism – seems disappointed that the biography does not have more details. Absent is any sense that these sources could be problematic, flawed, etc.

I would like to see an approach that cuts these sources down to size. I have tried to do some of this in my own work – pointing out, for example, where I think Muhammad Yusuf plagiarized from Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and trying to think through authors’ unstated motivations when I analyze their texts. Or to take another example, in some work in progress I argue that Ayman al-Zawihiri’s much-vaunted “General Guidelines for Jihadist Action” was more a reflection of choices al-Qaida and its affiliates had already made, rather than a pathbreaking guide to a new strategy.

The inflation of jihadist written/visual/audio sources, I think, is intimately linked with the inflation and distortion of the groups themselves – rather than seeing these groups as being made up of human beings shaped by complex circumstances, the terrorologists tell us that we need to follow obscure and highly ideological “treasure maps” to arrive at the true, inner understanding of jihadism and the ten-foot-tall warrior-masterminds who direct it.

I can understand the excitement generated by something like the al-Anbari biography. But in a deeper sense, it’s sad and disturbing that with the sixteenth anniversary of the Iraq War on the way, and with millions of testimonies and documents out there from millions of Iraqis, anyone could present a single biography as the key to understanding the Islamic State.

On the Freeing of 21 Chibok Girls and the Question of Negotiating with Jihadists

On October 13, the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram released twenty-one of the 276 schoolgirls who were originally kidnapped in April 2014 in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok. There are an estimated 197 girls still in captivity or otherwise missing.

The release was an extraordinary event for Nigeria and, in several senses, for the world. For Nigeria, the release occasioned widespread celebration and has become one of the brightest spots in the presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, who faces broad and mounting criticism at home, especially over economic issues.

For the world, the release is a reminder that negotiation, at least in limited areas, is possible with jihadist groups. That reminder comes at an important time, amid the looming recapture of Mosul, Iraq, and the dogged effort to complete the reconquest of Sirte, Libya. Both efforts, and the effort to defeat the Islamic State in general, are haunted by the question of what comes after reconquest, especially in terms of political settlements, humanitarian concerns, and economic reinvigoration. That question also haunts the effort against Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbors, where the sect has been pushed back but not completely defeated.

The details of the negotiations with Boko Haram for the Chibok girls are not known, but it is reported that the Swiss government and the ICRC acted as intermediaries between the sect and the government. Despite the Nigerian government’s denials, it is likely that the incentives offered to Boko Haram involved a ransom payment, prisoner releases, or both.

Of course, it is well known that negotiating with jihadists over hostages is possible, including in West Africa. European governments have paid millions of dollars in ransoms to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Malian government of Amadou Toumani Toure (served 2002-2012) allowed exchanges of imprisoned jihadists for hostages. Reactions to these decisions, whether from the United States, from Western journalists, or from Mali’s neighbors, has been overwhelmingly negative.

There are also precedents for negotiating with Boko Haram over hostages. This is not even the first time that Boko Haram has (likely) received a ransom: it appeared likely in 2013 and 2014 that the Cameroonian government (and in the first instance, the French government as well) had paid Boko Haram to release prisoners. The release of the Chibok girls, then, followed a familiar script; it just had a higher profile than the previous instances.

If it’s well known that one can sometimes negotiate with jihadists, then why isn’t the possibility discussed more in policy circles? The most obvious answer is that many people oppose such negotiations. For example, in response to the Chibok girls’ release, Joshua Meservey of the Heritage Foundation reiterated his argument from 2014 that negotiations are inadvisable. At the time, Meservey wrote, “A payment or prisoner release will perpetuate the cycle by encouraging further kidnappings and enabling more of Boko Haram’s rampages when the government’s first priority should be to protect its citizens.” Meservey’s view aligns with current U.S. policy, which is not to pay ransoms when citizens are kidnapped. Many people, moreover, oppose negotiations on moral grounds, believing that to negotiate with jihadists implies some tacit legitimation of their demands.

Regarding the consequences of ransom payments and prisoner exchanges, I think that context matters a lot. The kind of cycle that Meservey describes is most likely to play out when jihadists do not face major military pressure. A good example of this might be the policies of the Malian government under Toure, when Malian prisoner exchanges with AQIM elicited disgust (and the withdrawal of ambassadors) from Mali’s neighbors Mauritania and Algeria. In addition, many experts believe that there was some collusion between Toure’s government and various bad actors in northern Mali.

Under those circumstances, the payment of ransoms (by European governments) and the exchange of prisoners (by Mali’s government) were bad policies. But they were bad policies because of the lack of military and political pressure on AQIM within Mali. With Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbors, the cycle Meservey describes was indeed playing out in 2013-2014. But now, with Boko Haram under tremendous military pressure, exchanges and payments will not necessarily empower the group over the long term. If a government pays ransoms in order to save lives, then that government should follow up the ransom payment will an increase in pressure on the kidnappers.

But there is more at stake than just whether to pay ransoms or not. The possibility of negotiating with jihadists is also seldom floated, I think, because it goes counter to many people’s assumption that the only serious way to fight jihadism is through war. There are, of course, “Countering Violent Extremism” programs that attempt to de-radicalize prisoners or to prevent people from becoming jihadists in the first place, but CVE programs are not political solutions per se. Most CVE programs do not primarily target active combatants, partly because those combatants are beyond the physical reach of program implementers. The combatants, then, are often treated as a purely military problem. Even when policymakers say that they do not intend to kill all of the combatants, their actions often suggest otherwise, whether in Iraq, Syria, or Nigeria. Pragmatically, I think such strategies are short-sighted and are likely to generate future conflicts.

I have long favored negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, both because I believe limited negotiations can save lives (a stance that I think is vindicated in the case of the recent release) and because I believe it would be wrong, morally and pragmatically, to try to kill all the members of Boko Haram. And if the Nigerian government and its neighbors are not going to kill all of them, then perhaps there is much to talk about. Some leaders and members of the group might never surrender or abandon their goals. But if the door to negotiations is left open, perhaps there are possibilities even beyond prisoner exchanges – the possibility, for example, of offering an option where members could turn themselves in, stand trial, and serve finite prison terms, but where they would not be executed. For fighters starving in the countryside, such an option might eventually prove attractive. The more fighters who accepted it, the more lives might be saved. As I have said in the past, I believe that the Nigerian government should keep reaching out to Boko Haram, no matter how many times it is rebuffed or how many times attempted dialogue ends in failure.

This position – the idea that it is worth trying to open some channel of communication with jihadists – puts me in a minority among analysts, but I am not completely alone. Reuters (h/t Eleanor Beevor) recently reported that the ICRC is attempting to contact the Islamic State in Mosul in order to discuss “the basic rules of war.” Here is the ICRC’s Robert Mardini:

We need to keep hope, and maybe the situation in Mosul is a point in time when also all parties to the conflict, including the Islamic State group, will see the benefits of having the basic rules of war and the basic rules of dignity prevailing in the battle because it gives guarantees for humane treatment of all.

Do I think that the Islamic State will be keen to answer the ICRC’s phone calls? No. But I do think that the effort of reaching out is worthwhile. Let me offer a last reason: you never know who is watching, and how such outreach might overturn their assumptions about the West, about the inevitability and desirability of violence, and about the prospects for peace.