Turning on the TV, browsing through the news on the internet, even walking on the street… So much repetitive talk about ISIS, all over the place. And yet, so often, I feel like nothing (new) is being said. Like nothing (new) is being learned. What do we even know about ISIS?
In his recent talk with Democracy Now! Patrick Cockburn tried to talk about some of those things we don’t know, and don’t hear about in the mainstream news. Cockburn discussed the funding of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He said it seems like the Islamic State has much more money than it ought to have. “It’s raised certainly 100,000, and getting on over 200,000, soldiers. They’re all being paid. It’s introduced conscription. It recently lowered the age of conscription below 18. If you join up, you don’t get much. You get $400 a month. If you’re a foreign fighter, you’ll get $800 a month and your keep. But this is a pretty large army they’re putting in the field, and they don’t have many sources of revenue. They have some oil. They have some taxes. So, there’s a great big gap there, which senior Kurdish officials and officials in Baghdad have told me they’re convinced come from private donors in the oil states of the Gulf. That’s the only real explanation for that,” Cockburn said.
/Patrick Cockburn’s book The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution/
In his recent article for The Independent ‘Private donors from Gulf oil states helping to bankroll salaries of up to 100,000 Isis fighters’, Cockburn writes: “There are two further developments to the advantage of Islamic State. Even in the face of the common threat, the leaders in Baghdad and Erbil remain deeply divided. When Mosul fell last year, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed that the Iraqi army had been stabbed in the back by a conspiracy between Kurds and Isis. The two sides remain deeply suspicious of each other and, at the start of last week, a delegation led by the Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani failed to reach an agreement in Baghdad on how much of Iraq’s oil revenues should go to the Kurds in exchange for a previously agreed quantity of oil from Kurdish-held northern oilfields.”
In the interview with Democracy Now! he also talked about the atmosphere in Mosul, saying: “But one should also say two things. One, that the Sunni Arabs in Mosul are very frightened of ISIS, what they call DAESH, of ISIS, but they’re also very frightened of the idea of the Iraqi army or the Shia militias capturing Mosul. So, they don’t really know which way to go. I was talking this morning to some people in a refugee camp here in Erbil who had left Mosul because their parents had been in the Iraqi police force. And what happened was that they had fled Mosul, but then ISIS goes to their houses and blows them up and then puts the video of the explosion on the social media, so the—saying this is a message to even people who have fled, that they’re blowing up their houses (…)
And there’s one other point, a very important one, I’d like to make, which I don’t think people have taken on board. As you know, that the U.S. government, the Pentagon and the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, have said there’s going to be an offensive to capture Mosul. But the major relief organizations, the World Food Program, believe that if there’s an attack on Mosul, there’s going to be an exodus of up to a million refugees, of basically the Sunni Arabs who live in Mosul, that they’re going to flee the city when airstrikes intensify and they believe it’s going to come under attack. At the moment, they couldn’t get into the Kurdish region. They’re banned. So they’re all going to be on the road. So, they’re pre-positioning supplies for one of the biggest exodus of refugees that we’ve seen, I don’t know for how long. But it’s going to be massive. There’s going to be terrible suffering, and many will die.”
Cockburn briefly reflected on Turkey’s (possible) role in the ongoing conflicts: “Yeah, I mean, there are about or said to be 20,000 foreign jihadis who have gone to the Islamic State. One of the amazing things is that they’re still quite easily able to cross the Turkish frontier into Syria to—into the Islamic State, despite the fact that Turkey is meant to be part of the coalition to eliminate the Islamic State. But there’s a 500-mile border between Syria and Turkey, and it still seems to be generally open.”
What I find as one of his most important points is that the Islamic State is very obsessed with the idea of dominating the news agenda, and it doesn’t really matter how they do it. After months of seeing videos of executions, libraries burning and statues smashing in prime time news hours, we can all agree with that point. “So they know that if you have a Japanese hostage and you demand $200 million ransom, that that’s going to be leading the news. For a long time, cutting off people’s heads led the news. Then that—people became used to that, so they burn to death this Jordanian pilot in a cage, knowing again that will dominate the news, will be assertion of their strength. And they do that particularly when they’ve had a military setback. When things aren’t going too well on the battlefront, they want the news to be dominated by some assertion of power on their part, which may be a hideous atrocity, usually is, but they feel they’ve achieved their aim if that’s what everybody’s talking about. They said at one moment on their social media that media is half jihad. So it’s something they do very consciously, and it’s something they use, particularly foreigners entering the Islamic State, as a method of publicity,” Cockburn explained.
It makes one think – should media stop covering ISIS stories, stop covering them the way it did so far? Because, so far (with some great and notable exceptions like Democracy Now!, Independent’s Cockburn and Fisk, just to name a few), media coverage suited ISIS’s agenda. Showing videos of executions. Statues smashing. Libraries burning. People burning. And that would be it, maybe a sentence or two of comment (with words like outrage, brutality, evil), a sentence or two about the references made to the prophet and Islam, sentence or two of some superficial analysis of the situation, a sentence or two of some additional ‘facts’. We get to know so little about the general situation on the ground, about the funding and the organizing of the fighters, about the various interests tangled in this story, about the background stories and issues. I don’t know if that is intentional, it might be. One thing I am certain of – the mainstream public, the average viewers, the ‘regular people’ – we get to know only the things ISIS serves us. Is that journalism? No, it isn’t. Our main media outlets are basically ISIS PR teams.
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For more on ISIS, I recommend reading Patrick Cockburn’s book The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. I hope to review this book and write more about ISIS sometime soon.