Journalist Gunnar Hrafn Jónsson is a reporter for the national broadcasting service, RÚV, where he specializes in international news. Gunnar has a particular interest in the Middle East, and also happens to be the only journalist in Iceland who has actively communicated with actual members of Daesh (a name we’ll be using for them in this article, for reasons you can read below), also known as the Islamic State. As prominent Icelandic politicians, including the nation’s president, increasingly resort to referencing Daesh in their rhetoric, we thought we should learn more about the group and its possible plans for Iceland. Rather than relying on speculation from armchair generals, we went to the one known person in Iceland who’s actually spoken to Daesh.
When did you start following the activities and communications of Daesh?
I was working full-time when they emerged, and I was immediately fascinated, because they were active in my region, and I was very interested in political Islam. The news made it look like Daesh was an unstoppable army, marching across the desert. But then I started looking at the territory and reading about them, and what kind of territory they took. The territory they took was actually flat land. They didn’t have to expend much energy at all, they just rolled across the desert in jeeps with machine guns, mostly into areas where Shias has been oppressing Sunnis—Shias who had taken over after Saddam Hussein fell—where the Sunni population was really ripe for rebellion. The Sunnis were really pissed off at the Americans and their oppressors. They basically welcomed Daesh at first, both in terms of establishing social order, and as a military force. This was in Iraq.
All the original leaders of Daesh met in Camp Bucca, which is an American-run military camp in Iraq and there, they created what was then known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, which later morphed into Daesh. It was led by this crazy Jordanian called Zarqawi, who was pretty much just a thug. He started alienating a lot of people by blowing up Shia mosques, and wasn’t taking orders from higher-ups. Then he died, and the American surge actually worked in this respect, in that they managed to crush this group, scattering the survivors.
The game-changer happened during the uprising in Syria, however. Then these Daesh-types from Iraq fled to Syria, because it was an open battlefield, with a lot of areas not under state control, and they started to get a lot of recruits. The official arm of Al Qaeda in Syria told them to back off and get out of there, but they refused, and got kicked out of Al Qaeda. Which takes a lot.
I imagine it would. Because when Daesh first got my attention, it was because of reports of Al Qaeda saying these guys were “too extreme” for them.
That was because Daesh was becoming more powerful than Al Qaeda there. They had a different structure. They had recruited a lot of ex-army men and Baathists, who were in power under Saddam.
How do the structures of Al Qaeda and Daesh differ?
Well, Al Qaeda’s more of an international terrorist organisation. Someone once described them as following “the James Bond formula of terrorism”, where they make these awe-inspiring things happen, like bringing down towers, bombing buses, and all these huge events. But Daesh is almost completely focused on taking territory and establishing a caliphate. Their motto can be loosely translated as “remaining and expanding”. Al Qaeda is really a spent force. The Americans cracked their code, followed bin Laden’s courier and found him. But Daesh has a lot of contingencies. They’ve lost a few leaders already, but they have a clear line of succession. And a lot of these guys who are spokespeople are religious representatives who don’t take part in the fighting. The guys who are doing the fighting, a lot of them were some of the top guys in Saddam’s regime who, after spending time in American prisons, became radicalised. I’ve often wondered how Islamic they really are, because obviously the Saddam regime was quite anti-Islamic, and tried to push down radical Islam. But now they’ve joined forces. And that’s what makes them dangerous.
From what little I’ve seen of their material, it seems Daesh has some pretty high-end media work going on.
I read all of their material. They publish a regular magazine called Dabiq. They have a pretty slick media machine—publishing their magazine, producing these videos—and I’ve seen camera phone footage from one particularly brave individual taken inside their studios, showing Jihadi John standing in front of a green screen, practicing.
As a side note: people have wondered why guys about to have their heads cut off are so calm. It’s because they “practice” these beheadings 20, 30, 40, 50 times. Every day. And they always tell the [would-be victim] “This is just for the cameras. Nothing’s going to happen to you.” And then one day the blade goes into you, and kills you, and that’s why you see the look of shock on the faces of the victims. There’s some kind of desensitisation that occurs when you’re put on your knees with a gun to your head 20 times a day. And the reason why they do this in front of a green screen with a desert background is because it would be pretty easy to spot a large camera crew in the desert. They even have a fan, way off to the right, to produce wind, so it looks like they’re outside. Their studio is in Raqqa, I believe. That’s what they’ve told me anyway.
The Interior Minister recently stated that there is no doubt that the terror threat in Iceland has increased. Meanwhile the police, which is overseen by that very minister, says that the threat has not really increased at all. Who’s got it right here?
I think the police’s interpretation is closer to the truth. Iceland, frankly, is a pretty shitty target. There’s a reason why Daesh didn’t attack Bretagne or Normandy. They attacked Paris, because it’s symbolic. It’s the heart of the French empire.
The thing about Daesh is that they’re not primarily focused on overseas missions. I mean, one of the reasons why I communicated with them is because I was trying to find out if rumours that were circulating last year were true, that there was an Icelander involved in making their videos. So one of them went on a mission for me to find out. He was actually kind of nice about it. He reported back and said he had been to the camp where they keep the foreign parties, and none of them had met any Icelanders. They’d met Norwegians, Swedes and Danes, but no Muslim Icelanders. So at least according to that guy, no, Daesh has no interest in Iceland.
How did you come to communicate with Daesh?
I started by going on the Dark Web, but my biggest success was when I broke through on Twitter. I follow like 200 of these guys on Twitter. And they’re always changing their accounts. I talked to them using PGP encryption. They have that, and they have their own encryption software, so they can talk to each other without being spied on—everything is instantly deleted, so there’s nothing left on their computers. But most of my communications were done through private messaging on Twitter. I’d see someone posting a photo of themselves with a gun, and I’d message them saying, “Would you add me so we can PM?” And a lot of them did.
Did you tell them you were a reporter?
I didn’t specifically mention it, but it was in my profile bio, so anyone who looked at it could know. I made sure to address them very formally, using all the traditional greetings. I never expressed any opposition, you know, “How could you do this?” That’s a dead end. So I basically just tried to ask them what life was like, where they came from, things like that. I developed quite a rapport with a few of them. Mostly the Westerners, the English ones especially. They were mostly very young men, in their twenties and late teens.
(A Kurdish fighter steps over a Daesh flag to plant the flag of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG)
I could understand if you’re a Sunni in the region, being oppressed by Shia forces, and then these guys roll in and liberate you. But why would someone in, say, Birmingham, want to join up with Daesh?
I believe it’s a mixture of things. A lot of these guys grew up in a culture where they’re alienated. They have much, much fewer chances of getting a job than anyone else. In some cases they’re well-educated, but not often, and have become embittered with life. One thing that the [sociopolitical blog] War Nerd pointed out is that one of the things that we have to face is that studies have shown that young men between the ages of thirteen and nineteen have a very unclear moral compass, and it’s possible to indoctrinate them with all kinds of shit. That’s the thing about Daesh: it’s an extremely conservative and chauvinistic movement. They treat women like cattle and talk about them like cattle. And that has a kind of appeal to violent, horny young men. Imagine living in a tenement flat somewhere. You don’t have a job, your parents are drinking, you want to have some kind of identity. You start reading the Koran, you start watching lectures online about jihad. And then this opportunity arises: you can go to Syria, you can carry a gun, you can lead a brigade of men, victoriously holding up your enemy’s head like you’re in some kind of video game. You get women, you get a free house, everything you need. All of the sudden, you’re somebody. And after you die, you can go to Heaven. If you take a good look at Daesh, you’ll see very few of them are older than 30. And you don’t really develop an appreciation for your own mortality until after 30.
But a lot of us have had rebellious phases. Maybe even most of us. Very few of us will decide to engage in jihad. What do you think of the religious angle to this?
One of the things that struck me most about them was their use of Arabic slang. They all use the same Islamic slang for certain concepts and they were really—I’m going to get beheaded for this—but they really sounded like poseurs. They didn’t really know much about Islam. They didn’t read Arabic. They hadn’t gone to mosque as children. There’s no depth to it.
One of the things I keep seeing popping up is that no one hates Daesh more than other Muslims, and the best thing we can do to help Daesh is slam the door shut in the face of Syrian refugees.
Absolutely—the thing that would help Daesh the most is if we were to shut the door on refugees. You’re feeding the problem, and creating a lot of disenchantment and anger. If you let in the refugees, you’re not risking that much, because there are much stronger checks on refugees than there are on people coming into Europe on a normal visa. Getting a visa is not that difficult, compared to getting refugee status.
So exactly how powerful are Daesh, anyway?
I think their military capacity is vastly overrated. For example, when they took Mosul in Iraq, and captured most of the military equipment that the Americans had left behind, there were like ten or twenty thousand Iraqi regulars in Mosul, and maybe five or six hundred fighters from Daesh. But what Daesh did was, in the days before they assault, they started sending messages to the soldiers stationed in Mosul, with all these pictures of people being decapitated and castrated, saying: “This is coming for you next week.” And they knew this annual sandstorm was imminent, which blankets everything. You can’t see anything. They launched their strike in the middle of a sandstorm, firing off missiles indiscriminately, blowing everything up. The Iraqis thought they were facing thousands of people, so they put down their guns and left, and Daesh just basically took over without a fight. They operate like this. They’re not actually really competent fighters.
But if they’re so rag-tag and bad at fighting, how have they been able to maintain their presence in their territory for years?
Because the state is broken. There’s no such thing as Syria anymore, people have no sense of national identity anymore. People are living hand to mouth. So people are using Daesh to fight proxy wars in the area. The official line is Daesh are awaiting the end of the world, to die, and to go to Heaven. But I have the sneaking suspicion that some of the older Iraqi generals, they’re not Islamists. They’re just old, bitter guys. This is a kind of revenge for them. In the meantime, they’re getting a lot of power and money.
What kind of endgame do you see here?
I don’t think we can end this until we get to who’s funding this, but there’s just so many connections. So it’s going to take that, as well as infantry on the ground backed up by low-flying aircraft. But nobody’s willing to do that, because Daesh have these TOWs [shoulder-launched missiles] that are American-made and probably Saudi-supplied. They’re not sufficient to shoot down an airliner at 30,000 feet, but they can take down a low-flying plane. So what we need is an infantry with close air cover from someone who’s not afraid to take some casualties. And in the western world, there is no army that’s willing to take casualties. Supplying arms to the people already fighting isn’t going to work, because the lines are moving so quickly, and Daesh end up stealing arms caches intended for others.
Maybe I’m making this unnecessarily complicated, but what we have here is a proxy war that serves the puppet-masters quite well, and no one’s willing to go in there and do what needs to be done. It’s a relatively simple proposition, but what comes after that, God only knows. Complete chaos. I think it’s going to be a clusterfuck for a number of years to come.
SIDEBAR: Why “Daesh” Instead Of “ISIS”, “ISIL” Or Whatever?
Prosaically speaking, Daesh is simply the acronym for the Arabic name of the group, “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham”. However, the guys in Daesh hate this acronym. As Zeba Khan explained in the Boston Globe, Daesh can be understood to be a play on words – depending on its conjugation, it can mean “to trample down and crush” or “a bigot who imposes his view on others”. So we call them Daesh, because fuck those guys.
Addendum: here’s a more detailed and very thoughtful take on the use of “Daesh” and what it means.