The "Islamic State" and the illegal Sale of Antiquities

December 4th, 2014 - As some of you may have noted, a team of 12 reporters here at DIE ZEIT (in co-operation with German public TV programme "Report München") have conducted an in-depth-investigation into the finances of the "Islamic State", covering everything from extortion to taxes to oil smuggling to the kidnapping business. You can find an English version of our article here.

However, you will not find a section on the sale of illegal antiquities there. Why is that -- given that this sort of criminal activity is allegedly a major source of income for the IS? In June, for example, the "Guardian" quoted an Iraqi official saying that "they (the IS, YM) had taken $36m from al-Nabuk alone (an area in the Qalamoun mountains west of Damascus). The antiquities there are up to 8,000 years old," (…).

The reason we didn't cover this aspect in our article but rather published a separate piece in this week's edition (not available online yet)  is simple: We could not find any evidence that the IS is directly involved in the sale of illegal antiquities.

We in no way doubt that antiquities are being stolen and sold in Iraq as well as in Syria. But according to what we were able to find out through our sources in the region, the IS does in fact allow criminals to dig out and steal such antiquities in exchange for a fee -- but is not necessarily involved directly in selling.

Furthermore, we have found no evidence whatsoever of antiquities on the black or grey market whose origin can beyond doubt be traced back to areas that the IS is holding or has been holding. Again: This doesn't mean that private collectors don't buy this sort of thing through illicit networks in a way that wouldn't leave traces. But we can't prove this happened -- and we can't prove that the IS was involved, indirectly or directly. This is important, because the illegal sale of antiquities is nothing that the IS invented. It has been practiced in Iraq as well as Syria for many years by criminal gangs who engage in forging as well. The fact that about a third of the antiquities confiscated by the Syrian customs authority in recent months were fake speaks to that.

Given that we didn't find any evidence we had to assume that the IS is probably not making that much money off of antiquities after all. It the very least, that's a distinct possibility. They may be making some money through the above-mentioned fees, but we assume that it is not exactly dozens of millions they are generating that way.

We have come across anecdotal evidence that IS doesn't mind other people taking antiquities away -- at least those antiquities that they don't think needs to be destroyed straight away (which definitely is a grave problem). Some sources told us, e.g., that in IS territory caterpillars have been used to "dig" up antiquities. But again: We weren't able to prove a direct link.

Perhaps we will know more in a few years when some of the stolen antiquities may, after all, appear on the grey or black market. In any case, we - for the time being - remain sceptical that the sale of antiquities is in any way a major means of income for the IS. At least not if compared to the amounts of many they make off of oil sales, extortion and Western hostages.

Before I conclude, I want to make clear that this research on antiquities wasn't conducted by myself alone. Major research was conducted by my colleagues Fritz Zimmermann and Tobias Timm at DIE ZEIT, freelance crisis reporter Alexander Bühler and Ahmet Senyurt at "report München".

How to (not) deal with Jihadist propaganda on the Web

October 9th, 2014 - Jihadists may dream about the world as it was in the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula, but making use of the internet never was a problem for them. They look at it as Godsend. The most democratic of mass media is also the most effective tool for spreading Jihadist propaganda. Is it possible to take this tool away from the Jihadists? 
The short answer, of course, is: No. 
Granted, it has become more difficult for the "Islamic State" in particular to maintain an organized online presence. In June the IS had a Twitter account for every single one of its "provinces", through which the organization spread communiqués, propaganda, pictures and videos. When Twitter shut down these accounts in September, the IS accounts migrated to the Russian Facebook-style Social Media website VK. Two weeks later VK shut these accounts down, too. Until today, the IS hasn't come up with a new, comparable system of accounts. But the material that the group wants to publish still finds it's way. Partly through some of the Jihadist web forums that have performed this function for years now. Partly through other, personal Twitter accounts that are less easy to connect to the IS. And these are just two ways that still work. There are more. They are a bit less obvious now, but if you know what you are looking for and if you are smart enough to change your searching parameters a little, you will find what you are looking for sooner or later. "It's even possible", says Aaron Zelin, a US-based terrorism researcher who also runs the blog for primary-source material, "that they (the Jihadists) might try and create their own platform in the future." 
The EU now seems to be looking into ways to at least minimize the spread of such propaganda. Yesterday, a dinner took place in Luxembourg, to which the parting EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström had not only invited the EU ministers of interior affairs but also representatives of some of the bigger internet corporations and providers like Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. I haven't heard about any results of the meeting yet. But a spokesperson for the Commission told me ahead of the dinner that the aim was to foster dialogue between law enforcement and intelligence agencies on the one side and private internet companies on the other side. The idea was to look at "tools and techniques to respond to terrorist online activities". 
I think it is important to understand that talking to the big internet companies may help to limit the spreading of Terrorist propaganda on mainstream platforms. But it will not help stop it altogether. The example mentioned above illustrates that: You may be able to get official IS accounts off Twitter; but already now many of the videos in question are being uploaded to opaque hosting websites that law enforcement has a very hard time identifying, let alone prosecuting. "It does make sense to talk to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter", says Nico Prucha from the Vienna University. "But the other side would have to be equally well connected in order to effectively limit the flow of propaganda." 
Unfortunately, it isn't. And more than that: It is biased, too, consciously or not. Twitter and YouTube have for years not done very much at all to stem Jihadist propaganda. It was the videos of the murders of US journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff that seem to have turned the tide. I tried it: It has become very difficult indeed to find the original full-length videos of their murders on the web. But it is still fairly easy to find the arguably more influential, very glossy and high profile recruiting and propaganda videos "Breaking of the Borders", "Upon the Prophetic Methodology" or "Flames of War". 
The EU, however, seems to also be looking at a second way: Countering the propaganda's content rather than it's publication. Or as Malmström's spokesperson put it to me: a "particular regard to the development of specific counter-narrative initiatives" was to be given at the dinner. 
I personally don't like the notion of "counter-narratives". I know the term has been around for a while. And I understand why it looks like a tempting idea: It seems easy to debunk and de-mistify a a lot of the claims that Jihadists make in their propaganda. But the problem is two-fold. For one, no Western state authorities have any credibility among those that are being targeted by IS propaganda; they would very likely just laugh at such attempts. And secondly: Who would formulate such counter-narratives, based on what authority? Is it, for example, conceivable that the EU lets the world know what a proper interpretation of Koranic verses is and what is not? 
In January 2011 I was at a CT conference in Riyadh, Saudi-Arabia. "Counter-Narratives" were being discussed there, too. In more than just one session. On the second day, I asked the interpreter in his cabin, who was translating between the English and the Arabic, how he rendered the term "counter-narrative" into Arabic. He said he used the word "tashih". Now that means "correction". That's a very different thing from what other people have in mind when they talk about counter-narratives. In Germany, for example, officials tell me that they would like to spread the message that democracy gives everyone the opportunity to play a part in the shaping of a country's policies. I doubt that the Saudis see that as a good counter-narrative. One person's counter-narrative can be very different from another person's counter-narrative. And we have no guarantee that any one of them will work. (In a way, but that's just an aside, the US State department's "Think again, turn away" campaign on Twitter is a kind of counter-narrative initiative. I don't think it is a huge success.) 
Also, I have another, more general problem with the term: I think it is too defensive. Why is "our" narrative the "counter-narrative"? Isn't "theirs"?
So what can we do? I believe we have to accept that Jihadists will be around online for as long as there is a free internet. And in fact, for many researchers and even law enforcement and intelligence agencies, this is an important keyhole through which they can better understand the Jihadists' thinking. 
By this, I am not saying that it is necessarily wrong to try and make it more difficult for Jihadists to gain access to large numbers of people, among them potential sympathizers. But I do say this: Online presence isn't the biggest problem. Even if it were possible to block the Jihadists' access to the internet entirely, they would still be around. In the real world. 
It's a tool. It is not where they live. 

NOTE: This blog post is an extended and somewhat different version of an article I published in this week's edition of DIE ZEIT. If you wish to quote from it, please contact me. 

AQIM & AQAP adress Jihadists in Syria & Iraq

September 16th, 2014 - The al-Qaida branches on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have published a joint statement addressing their "brothers" in Iraq and Syria. Here are a few quick thoughts about this document. (Includes a correction at the end.)

1.- It's a first: AQAP and AQIM have never published a statement together before, a fact that is emphasized by the fact that the document is labelled "Communiqué No. 1". That's not exactly a sensation, but interesting nonetheless.

2.- There are two main messages in the communiqué: A call for unity among the Jihadists in Iraq & Syria. And a call to their own sympathizers "in the Peninsula and those countries that are part of the evil alliance" to fight back against this alliance that has decided to fight the Islamic State to fight back.

3.- It is noteworthy however, that the document doesn't mention either Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State by name. That's no coincidence. The AQ branches are not taking sides and they are clearly trying to avoid re-kindling or rather intensifying the strife between those two groups, even though Jabhat al-Nusra is, in theory, part of their team, while IS isn't. (Please not the correction at the end of this post.) 

4.- Which leads us to this: The very fact that AQIM and AQAP do not in any way at all criticize the Islamic State is indicative of two things: There is likely a degree of sympathy towards the "Caliphate" within the ranks of these two branches; and they are independent enough of AQ central's Amir Aiman al-Sawahiri to take their own decisions in how to address the issue.

5.- The call to unity, however, was received by internet Jihadis without much enthusiasm, as far as I can see. It seems like the crowd wasn't exactly waiting to be lectured about this issue by AQAP and AQIM (the latter of which is not very good at maintaining unity itself).

6.- In terms of reactions or consequences, I think that the call to their own sympathizers to react to Western led and Arab backed efforts to reign in the Islamic State is most important. In the worst case it may lead to actions like embassy attacks etc. in the larger region.

But be that as it may, this communiqué isn't much of an event in and of itself. It is much rather part of a development the outcome of which nobody knows yet - but it will be one of these three options: AQ and IS are either going to merge in one way or the other; or they will keep fighting each other; or they will find some kind of modus vivandi and exist alongside each other.

The statement in questions leaves all of these options open and contains no hints other than a general preference for unity. But attempts at unity can of course fail (and have failed) for many reasons, large or petty. material or personal, ideological or profane.

CORRECTION: The Islamic State is mentioned by name in the document, I have overlooked that at first, and Aymen al-Tamimi pointed me to it. However, I don't believe that changes much of my argument in this post, but that's up to you to decide. I would still maintain the notion that AQAP and AQIM have written nothing that would intensify the strife between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. 

5 Things we don't know about the Caliphate

August 26th, 2014 - Right now, a lot of people (and media) are asking for information on the "Islamic State", the "Caliphate" of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other things related to Jihadist activities in Syria and Iraq. That's perfectly understandable. But while I am answering as many of these questions as I can, I think it is equally important that we (and by "we" I mean those of us who have followed events there since, let's say, the days of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi) don't forget that there are a whole lot of questions we can't answer (even if these are not the questions we are usually asked).

So in the interest of self-discipline, academic transparency and self-questioning, here is a brief list of the five most important things we (or I, at least) do not know about the Caliphate, but really wish I knew:

1.- How important is the role of al-Baghdadi?

He is obviously the poster guy of IS, but in what ways does he direct operations, how much power of command does he yield, and what is his relation to his deputies and field commanders, given that at least some of them are apparently former Ba'ath regime military men? How much initiative are commanders in the field allowed? Have rules been laid out of whether or not and if so how to execute people - and if so, before or after the first instances occurred? Mind you, I haven't read a single article in which even three commanders of IS have been plausibly named. But understanding the extent of al-Baghdadi's control and wether he is all micro or macro would be very helpful indeed.

2.- Is there a plan for expansion of the "Caliphate"?

And by that a mean: A real, tangible one, not the ideological version. In propaganda videos, all sorts of targets are being named: Samarra, Najaf, Baghdad in Iraq; Damascus, Mecca, Jerusalem on a more ideologically motivated level; Rome as a symbol. But that is not helpful in predicting the IS's next moves. These will be determined by their reading of military conditions on the ground, or so I assume. So will they sit in Mosul and Raqqa and consolidate before their next move at a big city or town? Are they busy forging new alliances elsewhere in order to repeat what happened in Mosul? Are they clever enough not to try and take Baghdad - or stupid enough to play with that idea at this point? I can make assumptions, but they are based on my idea of IS, rather than facts.

3.- Does al-Baghdadi/IS want to strike in the West? 

The thing is: With al-Qaida, we always had a pretty good idea of what they thought was in their interest. With IS, we do not. With al-Qaida, we knew that - to a degree - we could rely on their words; they hardly ever struck in places they didn't mention/threaten/warn before. With IS, we do not know. IS is not like al-Qaida. There is no reason to assume they follow the same lead here. Al-Baghdadi may in fact be plotting huge attacks in the West without ever mentioning any desire of that sort. Or the opposite may be true: He may be all about focusing on the region and not give a thought to striking anywhere in the West.

4.- Is there communication between IS and al-Qaida's branches? 

Success is sexy. Aiman al-Sawahiri is not. Is it conceivable that one day we will wake up to a video message by the leadership of AQAP or AQIM or both pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi? Absolutely. Or so I believe. And that would be a game changer. Because the "Caliphate" as a state would suddenly become much more supranational/supra-state than it is. Such a move would spell the end f al-Qaida and likely be a rallying cry for many more recruits to come. It is, in a way, a very-bad-case-scenario. Right now, I can't assess the likelihood of this happening. AQ and its branches haven't been saying a whole lot about IS at all. So: Is there communication? Perhaps even negociations? I don't know. I daresay no-one really does. Which means that this 3-a.m.-scenario lingers above our heads....

5.- How stable/instable are relations to allies and helpers? 

It is evident that IS could not have taken Mosul by itself. We have hints that the relation to former regimes cadres and Sunni Sheikhs in Iraq are at least instable. But that's about it. We don't know these parties' calculations well enough to foresee how far these alliances may carry IS. And whether they can be brokered in other areas than the ones where they already exist. Is money a factor here? And if so, how convincing is it? And how much of it does IS have?

There are more questions, of course. Maybe some of you have strong opinions on one of these, maybe some of you have entirely different questions. In any case, I believe that admitting to what we don't know will eventually help us more than pretending we have all the answers.

As always, I am looking forward to your comments!

Cheers, Y

A few Thoughts on the ISIS-"Caliphate"

June 30th, 2014 - On Sunday, ISIS declared the existence of a "Caliphate" and changed its name to "The Islamic State", dropping "in Iraq and Greater Syria" in an effort to signal a universal claim of leadership and authority over all Muslims wherever they may live. This declaration was spread through an audio by ISIS's official speaker and also in a written version, supplied in several languages. There is little reason to believe this is a fake, given the established channels of distribution, the content and the reactions of ISIS sympathizers.

Many of us have been watching ISIS, al-Qaida and other Jihadist organizations for a while, and we will have a lot to report and discuss in the days and weeks to come, so I will keep this brief. These are just some early thoughts I have been having today and wanted to share with you.

1. In its declaration (Peter von Ostaeyen has covered it here), ISIS stresses the lack of legitimacy of existing Muslim states. This falls in line with ISIS ideology (and the ideology of the groups that ISIS stems from). But it should still be taken seriously. ISIS is clearly not done yet.

2.- ISIS clearly believes that a critical mass of Muslims sympathizes with them. I believe they may be making the mistake of over-estimating that support.

3.- ISIS is very likely hoping that the declaration of the "Caliphate" may lead to tribes or villages or other groups of people outside of the Iraq/Syria-thetare declaring their allegiance to Abu Bakr. While ISIS would know pretty well that this is not sustainable, it could still lead to a degree of chaos and strife in countries like Jordan or Lebanon or Saudi Arabia that may suit ISIS quite well. Remember: Since Zarqawi's days we know that the concept of destabilizing countries is part of the DNA of that group.

4.- It is interesting to note that ISIS argues that any delay in the declaration of a "Caliphate" would be wrong. Saying we had to announce it rather than we wanted to announce it is clever and can become part of a narrative that has the power to convince more people.

5.- You can't declare a Caliphate every other week. This is something that Abu Bakr can do once, and only once. This is why I think he must be pretty confident that even if everybody around him unites against him, he is still able to hold onto some areas.

6.- In terms of historic connection, I think it is important to understand that ISIS is not seeing this is a continuation of the Caliphate that was abolished in 1924. I think ISIS would claim that this Caliphate of theirs is the direct successor the the Caliphate of Ali. Jihadists aren't huge fans of the Ummayads, Abbassids and Ottomans.

7.- Declaring a Caliphate is a direct challenge to the leaders of Jordan and Morocco who are widely considered to be actual descendants of the Prophet Mohammed and (in theory) eligible for the position. It's going to be interesting to see how they will react. Anything ranging from ridiculing ISIS to asking for a war is possible.

8.- Of course Al-Qaida's reaction should be interesting, too. I am personally quite sure that Aiman al-Zawahiri would rather shoot himself than swear allegiance to Abu Bakr, but there may be important people within the AQ nexus who will think more pragmatically (and who don't like al-Zawahiri). There are significant rumors about voices within AQIM and AQAP looking at ISIS favorably. It is definitely not unthinkable that parts of al-Qaida switch to al-Baghdadi.

Do we have to talk Scenarios?

June, 10th, 2014 - The take-over of large parts of Mosul by ISIS has huge repercussions, some in the short term, quite a few in the long term. All of them are scary. None of them allow for any side interested in the future of Syria, Iraq or, in fact, the Middle East, to not at least think about possible reactions.

Why? Because Mosul is not any city. It is a big city, it is a commercial centre, it is the gateway to Syria and it is home to a diverse ethnic mix - including many Sunnis, but also Kurds, Christian, Yezids, among other groups. 

As long as ISIS can hold on to Mosul, a major hub is added to the loosely connected chain of islands under ISIS influence, now ranging from the outskirts of Aleppo in Syria to parts of central Iraq. It is telling and concerning that Iraq's security services apparently didn't put up much of a fight but instead seem to have left in a hurry. Given that the state of Iraq didn't manage to regain control over Faluja and Ramadi, I don't see how that is going to happen in the case of Mosul. 

It is going to be vital now what the Kurdish factions decide to do. They are probably the only ones who could make a difference at this point, but I assume they will, for the time being at least, concentrate on protecting the Kurdish areas in the environment of Mosul rather than challenging ISIS full-on. 

Given that, ISIS stands to exploit their seizure of Mosul - which includes, according to reasonable reports, not only weaponry and military vehicles, but also funds. Some of these additional resources will be poured into the Syrian struggle, making life harder for those Syrian rebels fighting the Syrian regime and ISIS at the same time. Those are the immediate repercussions. 

But it is also worthwhile noting that ISIS is coming closer to making good on their promise of statehood (not in any traditional, international law kind of sense, of course). I am ready to call their entity a pseudo-state at this point. Or perhaps even a proto-state. Why is that? Because they have displayed a learning curve as far as governing goes. Wherever ISIS takes control, the following things happen: Implementation of a harsh version Sharia law; supplying citizens with food; changing school curricula; training Imams; offering other services. Recently, e.g., ISIS boasted they had set in place a consumer protection agency. I don't think many Syrians like this style of governance; but they may, in many cases, prefer enduring it to fighting against ISIS. 

Now all of this is concerning enough. But the situation is even more concerning because ISIS isn't and never was about either Iraq or Syria. ISIS (even back then when it was the official Iraqi branch of al-Qaida) was about creating a coherent area of influence, ready to serve as an operational basis. National borders don't mean anything to ISIS. (And it is telling that in the wake of the fall of Mosul, some of their pundits declared the end of the Sykes-Picot-borders). To put in different terms: ISIS isn't fighting against anyone as much as they are trying to gain from the current situation in Iraq and Syria. And they are having successes. The momentum is on their side. 

This is why we may have reached a point where we need to talk about scenarios - because I, for one, believe that this debate will start soon. Who has a mandate, who feels a responsibility, who is capable of taking on ISIS? 

As I see it, no-one within Syria and Iraq has the power by himself to accomplish this. The Iraqi state already failed in Faluja and Ramadi. The Kurdish militias may not be strong enough. Jabhat al-Nusra and their allies in Syria aren't either. 

But allowing ISIS to go on should not be an option. ISIS fighters may not be a large force, but they also shouldn't be underestimated. They will not stop at Mosul. Why should they? So what's next? 

ISIS is currently exercising control over an area almost the size of Belgium. That is enough to have anyone worry. If they consolidate their position, if they are able to move resources and fighters, train fighters and make plans for expansion, they will do just that. The result would be that the problem grows bigger swiftly, with every new territorial gain increasing the risk of terror attacks beyond Iraq and Syria. 

I am not a fan of military inventions, as I have stated here before. I also am convinced that the best moment to intervene in Syria has long, long passed and won't come back. But I also believe that it is silly and ignorant to just close one's eyes in the face of this danger. 

Clearly, there is no power in sight that would at this point in time propagate intervention. However, I daresay that we will wee a debate about deploying US drones to Iraq in Syria soon - as dangerous as that would be, given the densely populated areas we are talking about here. 

I am quite ready to admit that I don't have a solution either. I guess all I am saying is that this problem is not going to go away by itself. So what I would really like to see is an informed debate about options before we find ourselves in a situation where our only option left to us is to discuss measures already taken. 

That means that now is the right time to talk scenarios. Even if we may not enjoy that. 

Truth, Ambiguity and Covering Terrorism

By Yassin Musharbash (c) 

I trust the ambiguous over that which appears certain; I believe it comes closer to the truth. As a journalist this sometimes causes difficulty, because the ambiguous dwells in cumbrous words: allegedly; supposedly; reportedly... I have spent more than one deadline day shielding words like these from editors. These words don't make for beautiful articles. My hope is they make for more truthful articles. It is rare enough we stumble across something truly true.

The last time I felt this happen was in November 2013. I was standing on a tiny balcony in the city centre of Alexandria in Egypt, smoking a cigarette. Two persons sat in the living room that led to the balcony; over the past two days I had spent a total of 14 hours with them. What went through my head on that balcony was that I wanted to write about how Leah Farrall, a former counter terrorism officer of the Australian Federal Police, and Mustafa Hamid, a former Taliban adviser, had gotten to know each other and built enough trust between them to be able to write a book together over the course of two years, here in Alexandria.

I assume that most professions have their own déformation profesionelle; journalists tend to look for the truth in details: When exactly did you hear about it? What went trough your head in that moment? Was is while you were having coffee? Did you learn about it from the radio, or from television? Or did someone call you? What station was it again? And what were you wearing that day, what did you do after you learned about it? What was the weather like?

I, for one, was walking past a café in Southern Greece on that day, noticing the oddness of patrons sitting at their tables, all eyes glued to the TV set, but no one saying a word. I approached the TV set, only to witness the second tower collapsing.

It is of course not interesting at all how I experienced 9/11. But from that day on I, as a journalist, worked mainly on al-Qaida and Islamist Extremism. On 9/11, I was still a student of Arabic Studies, but I had already begun to work as a freelancer for several papers. I had written about Islamism before. On that day, Terrorism as a topic came to me, and I very much accepted it as my topic.

I could not help but think about that moment in Greece as I was standing on the balcony in Alexandria more than 12 years later. Why? Perhaps because it is always special to meet someone who knew Osama Bin Laden. More, I suspect, because in Mustafa Hamid’s case it is indeed interesting how he experienced that day.

On 9/11, he was in the Afghan city of Kandahar, where sweets were handed out when news about the terror attacks in New York and Washington broke. Others may have been celebrating that day, but Mustafa Hamid wasn't. He was angry. Only three weeks prior, he had met with Osama Bin Laden. On that occasion, the Saudi al-Qaida chief had let on plans were in place for a „big strike“ that would kill thousands. Mustafa Hamid asked Osama Bin Laden to stop his plan: „I knew what this would mean for Afghanistan“, he told me. It was a frosty meeting. It turned out to be their last encounter.

After I got back to Berlin from Alexandria I asked Mustafa Hamid to describe to me in yet more detail how that last encounter took place. What was the weather like that day? Where exactly had they met? What had Bin Laden been wearing? Had he smiled when he talked about his „plan“?

Mustafa Hamid kindly sent me two pages in Arabic. But by the time his email arrived, an unexpected process had already been set in motion: I had begun to sense that the real story was not what I thought it was when I was standing on that balcony in Alexandria.

Detail is usually hard currency in journalism. I remember that I once wrote an article about a German convert to Islam who had joined a militant Jihadi group in Pakistan. On the day before his departure from Germany he had taken his cat to the veterinarian. What a great piece of detail! But unfortunately it didn't reveal anything. And it explained nothing.

So I asked myself: What difference does it make to know what clothes Osama Bin Laden had been wearing that day?

Wasn't it more important that Mustafa Hamid was angry at the Saudi? Wasn't it more important that Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall managed to write a book together? Wasn't it more important to ask if there was something to learn from this, for all of us? I don't want to be romantic, but: If a former counter terrorism official and a former Taliban adviser can laugh together, as Farrall and Hamid do – why can't all of us?

I asked them both about the common ground in their endeavour and they agreed it was to set the historical record straight. Hamid, the eye witness; Farrall, the academic who had read literally everything on the role of Arab fighters in Afghanistan from 1979 onwards. This common ground is the reason their book is as powerful as it is (The Arabs at War in Afghanistan will be published later this summer).

But at the same time I sensed another element beyond their shared academic interest. It is significant that Mustafa Hamid recalls he chose to be intentionally discourteous towards Leah Farrall when they first met: „I thought she was like those in Abu Ghuraib“. Soldiers, torturing Iraqis, heaped in naked piles: That, apparently, was what came to his mind when he learned that Leah Farrall had been with the Australian Federal Police – even though neither Australians nor Police were involved in the Abu Ghuraib scandal. „But I quickly realised she was different, she was honest and serious, and she gave me honest answers when I asked her something.“

And how about Leah Farrall? “I remember sitting with colleagues years ago, discussing whom we would most like to talk to from the mujahidin world (a surprisingly common topic of conversation). Mr Hamid topped my list and had done so since I chanced upon two stories he had recounted in his books. In one, he told of forgetting to buy his children sweets while on a trip away and returning to face their wrath; the other, recalling encountering the body of a dead Soviet soldier, and the sadness he felt, even for his enemy.”

When Leah Farrall met Mustafa Hamid in person years later, she addressed him as „Mustafa“, and not by his nom de guerre „Abu Walid“. „That reminded me of my humanity“, says he. What was the bridge that made them trust one another? I daresay: A degree of respect for another person's life. But foremost: Honesty about themselves and openness towards the other.

The US TV series “Homeland” is a global success and critics often praise it, saying that it sheds light on the shades of grey in “Great War on Terror” that unfolded after 9/11. A CIA-Agent, a former US-Marine, who was (or was not) turned by al-Qaida during captivity in Iraq: That's the set-up. It is true that “Homeland” plays skillfully with viewers' expectations. But shades of grey? The truth is that in “Homeland” there is black and there is white. The suspense of the show really only comes from the question of who, behind his last mask, turns out to be evil. And who, at the bottom of it all, is good.

But that is not what shades of grey are about. Shades of grey don't mean that you don't know enough. Shades of grey mean that sometimes there are no simple answers.

Mustafa Hamid makes a point of the fact that he always felt in alignment with the Taliban movement but was never a member of the terrorist network Al-Qaida. Leah Farrall says: “I was happy I worked in law enforcement and not secret services because I never had to lie, and I wasn’t part of an apparatus that was involved in activities now widely viewed as repugnant and very much dictated by this black and white distinction of evil and good and with us or against us that dictated how some of the covert agencies operated in their less accountable space.” That is what shades of grey are about.

In January 2011, when millions took to the streets in Egypt to protest the Mubarak regime, I spent two weeks in Cairo. One morning I spoke to a young revolutionary who had not been attending work for days in order to live in the protesters' camp on Tahrir Square. He was very tired and had all but lost his voice. But he was euphoric. One thing he said touched me in particular: „One day it will be cool to be an Arab!“ There was so much pain mirrored in that sentence. Pain because anywhere outside of the Muslim world for all of his adult life that young man had been considered, as a Muslim and an Arab, a security risk.

Sometimes I ask myself if we can actually remember what life was like before 9/11. And how we used to look at one another and at the world. This “we” I am referring to is an almost global “we”: It encompasses almost all people considering themselves part of “the West” as well as almost all people considering themselves part of the “Muslim world”. Plus those who believe they are part of both worlds - a huge number of people.

I believe that prior to 9/11 we all used to accept shades of grey to a higher degree than after. I believe that 9/11 is the day that killed all shades of grey. The day on which many of us, as individuals, as citizens, as members of nations, consciously or unconsciously organised ourselves in patterns like shards of metal under the influence of a magnetic field.

But if one day, if that day, has such a power, I want to understand it. And by that I mean: Not as symbol; not as warning but in its concrete historical genesis. Not as a deed with its own specific operational history and perpetrators, that's what the US 9/11 commission report is for. But as that which unfolded as opposed to those which did not.

In Alexandria, I asked Leah Farrall about the single most interesting thing she learned from her studies and her conversations with Mustafa Hamid. She replied: “The role of chance.” Chance? Chance is not usually a category that plays a role in the discussions of historians or terror experts when they talk about al-Qaida and 9/11.

In hindsight, it is always tempting to interpret history as an inevitable chain of events. In the case of 9/11, one such “inevitable chain” goes like this: In 1996, Osama Bin Laden declared war upon the United Stated; pronouncing every US soldier anywhere in the world a legitimate target. On August 7th, 1998, two huge bombs exploded in front of the US embassies in Nairobi and Daressalam, killing more than 200 people. On October 12th, 2000, 17 US sailors died when al-Qaida operatives attacked the USS Cole off the Yemeni port of Aden in a suicide mission. Given this prehistory, what could 9/11 possibly be other than the next logical step?

That is true. But is also not true. It is only true in as much as all three events have already been the result of a dynamic within the al-Qaida nexus that was all but inevitable. What happened was that Osama Bin Laden gained the upper hand and the means to pursue this particular course of action – even though many in the al-Qaida leadership and close to it were not in favour of attacking the US at all. It is important to understand this: While many inside al-Qaida were against 9/11, some of those who planned the attacks had only reluctantly become members of al-Qaida in the first place. Like Khalid Sheikh Muhammed.

In the summer of 2009, I received an unusual email. “I have a message for you”, it read. Then there was a link to an uploader website. I followed the link and found a letter in which a group of Jihadists from Germany, who had migrated to Waziristan and joined a terrorist group there, invited me to interview them. Naturally, I immediately informed my editors. A short while later my phone rang, a number from Pakistan: It was the spokesman of said group, a Turkish-German militant. He said I should fly to Quetta in Pakistan, and I would be brought to their camps from there. I would be allowed to take pictures, interview who I wanted to interview, etc. My editors and I agreed quickly that I would not take that trip. It was way too risky and we could not trust these people. But we agreed to send them a number of questions. If their answers were more than just propaganda, we would decide how to deal with their proposal later. A few weeks passed. Then I learned the Americans had contacted the German Office of the Chancellery and had supplied them with the complete correspondence I had had with the militants.

The Americans? I suppose, more precisely, the NSA. Honestly, it felt horrible. I remember gesturing my wife into the bathroom and then, like in a bad movie, turning on the tap of the bathtub. I whispered to her that we would have to assume that our communications were being monitored.

"Even if there's just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty”: This is how US journalist Ron Suskind in 2006 cites what he calls the “One per cent Doctrine”, also known as the “Cheney Doctrine”, for then Vice President Dick Cheney was the creator of this doctrine, formulated in the White house in November 2001, only weeks after 9/11.

The Iraq War, Guantanamo, Waterboarding, CIA Black Sites and renditions: Through the prism of the Cheney Doctrine all of these events seem less arbitrary, don't they? The same is true for global surveillance: Until this day, nothing explains NSA's greed for data better than this doctrine.

There is no need to compare Dick Cheney to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad to see that not only inside al-Qaida, but also within the US administrations the more extremist positions had the upper hand. Sure, Al-Qaida never distanced itself from 9/11 whereas in the US there was a process of democratic revision of all of these practices. But again: This isn't a comparison. It's just meant to re-iterate the fact that we are – in neither sphere – talking about inevitable chains of events.

Nobody knows what the world would look like if 9/11 had not happened. But what if we forced ourselves to try and look at the world as if that was the case? Bearing in mind that those responsible for 9/11 and the doctrine by which reaction was shaped are a handful of people – not millions.

I don't want to gloss over things: I am half-Jordanian, and I long for the times I experienced there as a kid. My Jordanian family is part of the country’s Christian minority. And until very recently what my aunt told me at my last visit there would have been unthinkable: That the guy in the bakery who used to bake all the cakes for our family events let it be known that he wouldn't put crosses on cakes anymore.

But by the same token I don't want to withhold that I am nervous whenever I have to travel to the US. Sure, so far I have always been allowed in. But the last time it really helped that the officer who screened me knew me from Twitter and thus was able to understand that my visa entries from Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia didn't mean I was a risk but were proof of my profession.

I believe in a way we are all prisoners – prisoners in a kind of Guantanamo of the Mind. But I don't want to live there. I want to continue to meet with and talk to people like Mustafa Hamid, even if the US decides to designate them as terrorists, and without accepting that judgment as something I have to agree with. Just as I want to keep meeting with and talking to CIA analysts and operatives without immediately categorising them as torturers or murderers. I want to draw my own conclusions. Sometimes I want to pass on drawing my own conclusions. And sometimes I even want to be able to admit that I can't draw my own conclusions.

Because I know and understand that the world is complicated and that almost nothing is either black or white; because I believe that people can change; because I know that our world, really, is a world of shades of grey.

One day we will look back on the “Great War on Terror” and its warpage, and we will realize that it didn't end on the day that Obama was awarded the Nobel peace prize; nor on the day that Osama Bin Laden was killed; nor on the day that the last NATO soldier left Afghanistan. The “Great War on Terror” will have ended, because enough people around the world will have understood and remembered that the ambiguous is closer to the truth and to reality than the seemingly certain. 

NB: This Essay was first published in German by ZEITmagazin on May 28th, 2014. It is copyright-protected. It has been marginally edited for this Blog.