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How humanitarians work when faced with Al Qaeda and the Islamic state

Jean-Hervé Bradol

Medical doctor, specialized in tropical medicine, emergency medicine and epidemiology. In 1989 he went on mission with Médecins sans Frontières for the first time, and undertook long-term missions in Uganda, Somalia and Thailand. He returned to the Paris headquarters in 1994 as a programs director. Between 1996 and 1998, he served as the director of communications, and later as director of operations until May 2000 when he was elected president of the French section of Médecins sans Frontières. He was re-elected in May 2003 and in May 2006. From 2000 to 2008, he was a member of the International Council of MSF and a member of the Board of MSF USA. He is the co-editor of "Medical innovations in humanitarian situations" (MSF, 2009) and Humanitarian Aid, Genocide and Mass Killings: Médecins Sans Frontiéres, The Rwandan Experience, 1982–97 (Manchester University Press, 2017).

How to intervene with the civilian populations in the middle of the war in Syria? Jean-Hervé Bradol, director of studies at Crash and former project coordinator for the northern part of Syria in 2013, testifies about the negotiations carried out in Syria in cities taken by groups affiliated to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State.

MSF in the land of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State

In late August 2013, several members of the team I was coordinating and I spent an afternoon on a farm in northeast Syria.

MSF had opened a hospital in the town of Qabasin in Al-Bab district three months earlier. Using the hospital as a base, we provided support to the Syrian teams who were implementing vaccination campaigns and running small hospitals and dispensaries and assistance to several displaced persons camps in Manbij and As-Safira districts in Aleppo governorate.

We enjoyed a close working relationship with the members of a local family prominent in the area’s civic, religious and military affairs and they had invited us to the farm. Guests were not only from the host family but also included men from diverse backgrounds, for the most part connected by marriage to the various families. Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, rich, poor, town and rural dwellers, men of all political persuasions, were present at the gathering. All were Sunni Muslims and some recited the afternoon prayer as others just a few metres away continued to chat while drinking tea and smoking cigarettes.

‘‘What do you think of the foreign jihadists?”

I was trying to enjoy my break from work when the person talking to me brought me back to reality as he asked what I thought of the foreign jihadists. Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham, which had fighters from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, the Caucasus, Western Europe and Yemen, had been a major military force in the region since 2012. While its militants had originally been sent to Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), they progressively broke away and became independent. In the spring of 2013, ISI tried to retake control of its expeditionary force by officially merging the two groups under the name “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL). The leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra rejected the merger and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, which resulted in the defection of a large number of foreign fighters to ISIL.

Asked to settle the dispute, Al-Qaeda had disapproved of the Islamic State of Iraq’s expansion into Syria. ISIL then moved to gain supremacy in northern Syria and take control of some border crossings to Turkey. Since then, relations between ISIL and the various Syrian opposition groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, had been tense. Armed confrontations were escalating, giving the Syrian Armed Forces an opportunity to recover lost ground.

We were not the only MSF team in northern Syria. With 600 Syrian and international employees (who represented around 10% of all staff), MSF was one of the few international aid organisations to still have major operations in the areas under the control of the opposition In the summer of 2013, MSF was running five small field hospitals focused on treating emergency cases, particularly the war-wounded and burn patients. It provided general curative and preventive care, such as vaccinating children, and assisted with supplying drugs and medical equipment to several dozen Syrian teams. It also organised distributions of tents and relief supplies to displaced people. By late 2013, MSF teams had carried out a total of 4,900 surgical procedures, 108,000 medical consultations and 1,800 deliveries. Three tonnes of medical equipment had been distributed on a daily basis to a network of 40 hospitals and dispensaries where MSF staff was not directly involved. On the government side, the regime had consistently refused MSF assistance despite repeated requests through a variety of intermediaries, South African diplomats in particular..  In addition to our mission in Qabasin, a team was working in Al-Hasaka governorate that was under Democratic Union Party militia The Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD) is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdish Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK).   control and four other teams were operating in the districts of Tal Abyad (Ar-Raqqah governorate), Azaz (Aleppo governorate) and Harem and Jisr al-Shughour (Idlib governorate).

With the exception of those based in Al-Hasaka governorate and Harem district in Aleppo governorate, all the MSF teams had witnessed ISIL’s take over of power in the towns where they were working. As when Qabasin fell under ISIL’s control in August 2013, the group’s commanders could not have been more clear when they asked MSF’s teams to continue working or to come back if they had been evacuated to Turkey during the fighting.

The man I was conversing with was preparing to leave for the frontline in Aleppo to serve as an imam and sniper for a Syrian Islamist group well-established in the region. He vaunted the merits of the foreign jihadists who were coming to help the Syrian opposition fighters while the rest of the world abandoned them to the loyalist Armed Forces.

“They get bad press in the West but they fight side by side with us”, he said of his new friends come from around the world to participate in the jihad. Foreign governments supporting the opposition had limited their military aid—there was just enough to prevent the opposition from collapsing, but not enough to bring down the regime. By and large, the Syrian opposition looked as pitiful to Syrians as it did to the rest of the world, appearing disorganised, divided, corrupt, partly criminal, militarily ineffective and caught, on the one hand, between Bashar al-Assad’s troops supported by the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi militias and, on the other, ISIL combatants.

But what he really wanted to know was if we would agree to continue our work while each passing day saw ISIL and Al-Qaeda’s Syrian offshoots gain more influence.

He knew that we were already cooperating with most Syrian jihadist groups to provide humanitarian medical aid. But did we share what he viewed as the prevailing opinion in the West, i.e. intense hostility toward global jihadist movements, the most well-known of them all being Al-Qaeda? Were we, in the final analysis, as neutral and as independent as we claimed?

Everyone in the town was aware of the consternation that ISIL’s takeover had provoked among our team, as nine out of the fourteen members of the international staff had decided to leave in late August 2013. “What will we do when they begin to commit atrocities? Why not leave right now before they start on us?” asked our head nurse—even though she chose to stay.

A quick Google search confirmed her concerns. Ten years earlier, ISIL’s founders had claimed responsibility for the attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and they were also believed to have been behind the attack that used a booby-trapped ambulance against the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Iraq in 2003. Notorious for having filmed and posted online the beheading of 17 hostages—a practice criticised even by Al-Qaeda—, Islamic State in Iraq fighters had claimed responsibility for the massacre of thousands of civilians during hundreds of attacks, notably since 2010.

Moreover, we all had in mind what had happened only recently to our two colleagues in Somalia who had been freed on 18 July. Held hostage for 644 days, they had suffered ill treatment and a substantial sum of money had been demanded for their release. Although they were not the only organisation involved, local representatives of global jihad militant group Ḥarakat ash-Shabaab al-Mujahidin did play a role in the abduction of our two colleagues.

On top of having to work under a regime that would predictably be one of terror and where the delivery of humanitarian medical aid could quickly come to lose its significance, we were also exposed to the risk of arrest and abduction. The two most common accusations levelled by the Jihadist groups against foreign humanitarian aid agencies—spying and anti-Islamic proselytising—were recurrent and all too familiar. Given ISIL’s history, the two most likely outcomes after a lengthy period of imprisonment would be payment of a large ransom or death.

Avoiding either of these unenviable fates meant having to get information, or even protection, from either individuals or groups of fighters. To my mind, it did not seem impossible for these roles to be played by people like the person I was talking to and the organisation he was fighting with.

ISIL’s seizure of our town

I started by telling him that a few days previously the ISIL commander had come with several fighters to our office. This was shortly after the other groups had been side-lined after a confrontation with Kurdish combatants. He asked to speak with the person in charge of our team. Not wanting to come into our office unarmed, because of the risk of clashes with the Kurdish forces, or armed, as he knew that we would not be comfortable with, the ISIL commander asked to talk to me out in the street in front of a small crowd of bystanders, which actually suited me better. After the usual pleasantries, he said that he regretted our colleagues’ departure and wanted to know the reasons.

My answer avoided mention of how fearful we were of his organisation. He said he wanted us to continue our work and promised not to interfere in our running of the hospital. He added that he had no problem with our international staff members keeping their jobs, whatever their nationalities. He was not demanding strict separation between women and men while they provided medical treatment and the women could work with their heads covered but their faces unveiled. The hospital was allowed to receive sick and wounded patients, regardless of who they were—even Kurdish fighters.

He guaranteed our safety and put his word in writing in an official letter from ISIL delivered to the office a few hours later. He considered it crucial that his takeover of power would not lead to the closure of the town’s only hospital.

After relating this first contact with the ISIL commander, I went on to tell my Syrian acquaintance how I felt about his “new friends”. I explained that MSF had witnessed the emergence of global jihadist groups in the early 1980s during the resistance to the Soviet army’s invasion of Afghanistan—not that the presence of such groups in the same region at the same time implies a relationship between them.

While any contact in Afghanistan had for the most part been rare and purely fortuitous, they became more frequent after the 9/11 attacks and extended to a number of countries, including Somalia, Pakistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Mali. When the jihadists did permit us to work on their turf, sooner or later we would be forced to suspend our operations. The two reasons for this were not mutually exclusive: either the jihadists and their allies began to fight amongst themselves, creating a general climate of insecurity that led to our pulling out of several Somali towns in 2007, or, after a succession of victories, they ended up having to face a much more powerful military adversary. They would quickly lose ground, with devastating consequences for local populations who were bombed and sometimes massacred during “anti-terrorist” operations—Chechnya in 2000, Afghanistan after 2001 and Somalia after 2006.

My broad outline of the relationship between international Jihadism and humanitarian aid disturbed him and I drew some comfort from the fact that now I wasn’t the only one to be troubled. Yet this did not mean my problem had gone away. Should we continue to work in the town, now it was under ISIL’s authority?

Up until then, its fighters had managed to avoid a bloodbath in its military operations against the Kurdish forces and now they were proposing a conditional amnesty to the losing side: give up your weapons and don’t speak or act against ISIL, on the pain of execution and confiscation of property. The agreement was signed by the various parties, a witness and an ISIL judge and a video of the “amnesty” ceremony was posted on YouTube. The attitudes we observed vacillated between appealing to the population and threatening those that were recalcitrant.

The new masters announced cheaper prices for bread and fuel and, after they tracked down a gang of thieves, stolen goods were returned to their owners. They ordered shops to close during Friday prayer and word went around that tobacco would soon be banned. A period of better public security and lower prices appeared imminent.

Seeing ISIL’s young foreign and Syrian fighters—only just trained in guerrilla warfare—trying to administer the local community while claiming to represent the State would have come across as an almost comic attempt at social engineering, if only the violent propensities of its advocates could be put aside. The first serious incident took place on the Friday after their armed takeover when the ISIL commander bulldozed the tomb of a Sufi saint before going on to lead prayer in one of the town’s main mosques.

But, the ISIL fighters had more pressing concerns than the presence of MSF and the town’s administration. Firstly, their deteriorating relations with armed Syrian opposition groups. Unable to accept that an organisation arrived from Iraq barely a few months before wanted to impose state power on them by force—even if it was Islamic—resulted in these groups’ rejecting the monopoly that ISIL was trying to establish on Al-Bab district’s civic, military and religious affairs. As a result, the district’s Islamic Court, which represented all Syrian Islamist groups and the opposition’s provincial health authorities, insisted in writing that only MSF was authorised to run the hospital in Qabasin.

In private, members of other armed groups expressed real mistrust toward ISIL, even though they believed they were still capable of containing its ambitions of controlling not only the small town where our hospital was located but also the whole of Al-Bab district. A feeling circulated among the opposition that the only explanation for the regime so unaccountably sparing ISIL from shelling was some degree of collaboration. It was not yet open war with ISIL, but armed clashes, attacks and assassinations were escalating.

Secondly, after the Syrian Armed Forces massacred hundreds of people with chemical weapon sarin gas in a Damascus suburb on 21 August, the United States, Turkey and France were threatening to bomb Syria. ISIL soldiers also feared being targeted by American bombings and many of them left to hide outside the town.

Thirty years of experience

Maintaining our presence in the town supposed that episodes of humanitarian work could still be possible under the domination of a global jihadist organisation, even one as disturbing as ISIL. But how could we predict with any precision when the situation would become too dangerous?

I mulled over the conversation begun with the Syrian jihadist in an attempt to answer this question. I recalled examples of similar situations I myself had experienced or colleagues had told me about. With these in mind, I tried to sketch a broad outline of how relationships between populations, humanitarian workers and international jihadists evolved, using a model based on four phases: “knight of faith”, “honeymoon”, “disappointment” and “disaster”.

My attempt at a cut-and-dried breakdown of events was as hasty as it was crude. Never intending to create a predictive model, I was instead trying to develop a matrix for argumentation. I knew that, as team coordinator, I would not be the only one to pay the price if I made an error in judgement. Of course, the five members of the international team who had agreed to stay put were all free to leave, but their freedom to choose did not mean that they actually could leave. This was as much up to the town’s new masters now controlling the roads out of Qabasin as the safety along the ones leading to the Turkish border.

Moreover, our 100 or so Syrian colleagues could be subject to reprisals if the entire international staff were to pull out. When ISIL had taken over the town, the sudden departure of nine of our international colleagues had caught everyone unaware and we were conscious that we might not be able to benefit from the same element of surprise a second time.

"The Knight of Faith"

I continued to ponder, which had at least the virtue of having a calming effect. To my mind, the initial period in the relationship between the foreign jihadists and the local population could be described as “knight of faith”. Undeniably pious and courageous, the jihadists oppose corrupt and repressive monarchies and military regimes as well as invasions by foreign infidels (for example, the support provided by the Soviet Army to the Afghan regime of Mohammed Najibullah and by American troops to the Iraqi regime of Nouri al-Maliki).

With their apparent selflessness and readiness to sacrifice their lives to oust an authoritarian regime, during this period the jihadists enjoy real prestige among large swathes of the population as well humanitarian workers. Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria had until only recently embodied this role rather brilliantly.

In such an environment, treating wounded ‘‘knights of the faith’’ is in keeping with the principles of impartiality and the spontaneous inclination of many humanitarian workers to support those rebelling against oppression. I remember how thrilled a Chechen doctor and I had been back in the early 2000s when we learned that a Russian helicopter had been brought down by Islamist fighters—not that we were in any way indifferent to the terrifying aspects of the ideology and war crimes of Shamil Basayev’s supporters. But because of the Russian army’s brutal and blind repression, the Chechen warlord still managed to retain an aura of the resistant fighter, despite being already engaged in the process of signing up to global jihadism.

Over time, this “knightly” period in the Caucasus came to be marked by attacks resulting in considerable loss of civilian life, torture, gruesome stagings of prisoner executions, kidnappings, targeted assassinations and death threats against those refusing to join the cause.

"The Honeymoon"

As I continued to mull over the situation, I thought the second phase of the relationship between local populations and global jihadists could be best described as the “honeymoon”. In some towns, the jihadists’ seizure of power leads to a degree of temporary improvement in public security and a drop in the price of staple foods. The first pay-backs seem minor (stricter dress code for women, closing of businesses during Friday prayer, ban on the sale and use of tobacco, etc.), given the albeit short-lived improvement in public security and buying power of a population previously subjected to a violent dictatorship, the depredations of various armed political groups and criminality.

That is what happened in our town in late summer 2013. On my way to a meeting with the new local commander, I found him besieged by a crowd of civilians trying to retrieve their belongings that had been stolen by a gang of thieves and found by ISIL. Ranging from a small motorcycle to a mobile phone, the items had been carefully handled as evidence of a proficient police investigation. Each mobile phone was wrapped in a plastic bag and stored on the shelves of a locked metal cabinet in the commander’s office.

And, from the economic and social perspective, the Islamic State fighters were using their control over the region’s grain silos to lower bread prices and were planning to distribute fuel far below market prices to allow people to heat their homes during the winter months. They talked about reopening schools, saying they wanted to base instruction on the curriculum they had set up in part of Yemen’s Hadramout province.

The enthusiasm shown by some of the town’s inhabitants was nothing new to us. On a news programme broadcast on Radio France Internationale in 1996, the MSF coordinator in Kabul described the population’s joy when the Taliban came to power in the Afghan capital and it was the same 10 years later in 2006 when the Islamic Courts took control of Mogadishu. People could finally leave their homes without being harassed by militiamen or felled by a stray bullet.

"The disappointment"

But our previous experiences also showed that a darker period followed on from the “honeymoon” phase, the one I call “disappointment”. Initial improvements in the economy were the result of the fight against organised crime and corruption and the redistribution of resources confiscated from the enemy. Simply put, it is easier to empty a grain silo than to fill it, as it is easier to collect a tax than to keep an economy running smoothly. The redistributions made by the jihadists seem more like the attitude of a Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor than that of an Islamic State administrator.

While the jihadists’ funds are mainly earmarked for military spending, a significant portion is set aside for winning people over—from local dignitaries to the most disadvantaged among the population. But international jihadists rarely dispose of the financial resources they will eventually need to stop them becoming economic predators on local inhabitants and humanitarian workers.

During my stay in Somalia in 2008, I had been surprised at how easily Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen had taken control of large swathes of land. During a visit to a hospital in Daynile in the Mogadishu suburbs that we had been able to open thanks to the support of local dignitaries, I asked one of them how the organisation, which made no secret of its willingness to enlist in the Al-Qaeda network, had  succeeded in gaining acceptance so quickly from the clan leaders.

‘‘It’s simple; they do what everyone does when they come to Somalia for the first time. They hand out money”, answered a shopkeeper who was a member of the hospital’s board of directors. But this initial generosity was short-lived. In 2007, people in the district complained about the extortion committed by government militias and, when Al-Shabaab took over this lucrative activity in 2008 but in another form, the district’s inhabitants reacted with equal hostility. The price exacted—being isolated from the rest of Somalia, kidnappings, and restrictions on freedom—in exchange for Al-Shabaab protection was becoming steeper and steeper.

"The Disaster"

I also remembered how the strict control over morality and individual liberties in Kabul, Mogadishu and Timbuktu had become a source of tension and “disappointment”. Very quickly, the morality police were confronted with the very varied perspectives of the inhabitants. Many women complained of being all but housebound and losing their income because they could not afford the outfits needed to comply with the new regulations or of not being able to go about their business in the company of a man outside the home. And what about the young people who could no longer play football, wear the same clothes as their peers or listen to music, as was the case in northern Mali towns taken over by the jihadists in 2012?

The imposition of strict separation between men and women poses insoluble problems in the delivery of medical care. What happens when we have only one surgeon, who might be male or who might be female? This was the case in Qabasin hospital.

In our small town in northern Syria, the pressure was already mounting. A man ecstatic with joy at the birth of his first child had dared to kiss his wife on her hospital bed as a folding-screen separated them from the other patients. A staff member, although not prudish himself, asked me to intervene before the supporters of ISIL could jump in and take advantage of this “lewd” act to meddle with morality in the hospital’s wards. I recalled the stories related by my colleagues who, in the late 1990s, had to deal with Afghan Taliban demands for strict separation between the sexes during medical treatment. Organising medical care became a nightmare and resulted in fewer medical services being available to women.

Confronted with the economic and social setbacks that characterise the ‘‘disappointment’’ phase, the jihadists react by imposing their religious practices with even more violence, as occurred during the famine in Somalia in 2010 and in Mali in 2012. They blame the failures on a part of society’s refusal to respect the divine commandments and any military setbacks are explained away in a similar manner. Then begins the witch-hunt against infidels, apostates, spies and saboteurs.

This was the climate of paranoia unfolding before our very eyes in northern Syria. Purges, schisms and restructurings, always accompanied by violence, are commonplace within jihadist groups. The relative return to peace and prosperity seen in some towns after ISIL’s assumption of power descends into horrific violence against non-combatants: beheadings, throat slittings, stonings, crucifixions, executions by firing squad, amputations, floggings, expulsions, property confiscations and destruction of buildings.

Sooner or later, the ‘‘disappointment’’ phase is often followed by a real “disaster”. Strict control over a territory is not the sole aim of global jihadist movements as, like Al Qaeda and ISIL, they also seek confrontation with powerful States on the regional or world stage.

Recent history justifies the use of the term ‘‘disaster’’ to describe the violence inflicted on populations under the yoke of such organisations during the debacles that rarely fail to occur in their struggle against stronger enemies: the interventions by NATO in Afghanistan in 2001, by Ethiopia in Somalia in 2006 and France in Mali in 2013. In Somalia, after the Al-Shabaab fighters were ousted from the capital and withdrew to the southern part of the country, their region went on to become in 2010 the epicentre of a new famine. But it is also true that, from Yemen to Libya, from Iraq to Syria, the jihadists continue their attempts to conquer more territory. Will these end in disaster for the people there too?

Humanitarian aid under Islamic State

As for MSF’s presence in northern Syria, I came to the conclusion that the ‘‘honeymoon’’ period of summer 2013 was likely to be short-lived. And, on 4 August, an MSF car was intercepted by an unidentified group in the city of Aleppo. The driver was released immediately but the three passengers—an MSF assistant logistician, a Turkish telecommunications service provider and his American friend—were taken away. ISIL intervened and, although the MSF logistician and the Turkish service provider were released a few weeks later, the American passenger is still being held by the Islamic State.

On 2 September 2013, Syrian surgeon Muhammed Abyad, who was working in MSF’s Bab Al-Salama hospital (Azaz district), was abducted from the Sejo house where some of the Syrian staff were staying. The next morning, a photograph of his body was posted on the Facebook page of the Tal Rifat Local Coordination Committee. The corpse showed signs of torture and had nine bullet holes. Our colleague had been posting, notably on his Facebook page, religious and political opinions opposing the views espoused by the Islamists.

A reliable source had informed us a few weeks before his execution that ISIL members were accusing the MSF team at the Bab Al-Salama hospital of proselytising against Islam. During meetings held after the assassination, all of the region’s military groups—including Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL—claimed they were not responsible for the murder. On 6 September, the Syrian Human Rights Observatory confirmed in a press release that, according to doctors in their network, our colleague had been tortured and killed by ISIL Since then, other observers have accused local jihadist groups of having benefited from the help of some of their supporters among MSF's local staff..

In early 2014, tensions between ISIL and the other groups, which included Jabhat al-Nusra, descended into open war. About to be expelled from the Jisr Al-Shughour district, ISIL beat a strategic retreat, taking as spoils of war the five members of MSF’s international staff they had abducted on 2 January 2014. Despite the medical care provided to its wounded soldiers and the promises that had been made, ISIL physically mistreated two male staff members before demanding a large ransom for the release of our team. The last remaining members of MSF’s international staff in northern Syria left in February 2014, with the exception of those working in a region controlled by Kurdish forces in Al-Hasaka governorate.

Once its colleagues were finally freed in May 2014, MSF progressively closed down its operations in the areas controlled by ISIL, which in the meantime, after the proclamation of a caliphate on 29 June 2014, had become the Islamic State (IS).

Since then, IS authorities in Al-Bab district have again contacted MSF to ask for donations of drugs and medical supplies and similar requests have been made to other MSF representatives in Syria and Iraq. When, in response, we demand that IS explain the arrest, detention, mistreatment and extortion suffered by our team, they retort that it is too dangerous for them to pass on our grievances and demands to their superiors.

When we tell them that, before considering their request, we must receive an official invitation from IS leaders asking us to work in their territory and a public commitment to guarantee our safety, IS’s local representatives respond that it is unrealistic to expect such a decision from their leaders and reiterate their request for drugs and medical supplies, saying that a refusal by MSF serves to confirm our support for “Western” policy.

Seeking a resolution to the impasse in its relations with MSF, IS now sends us its local ‘‘allies’’ or ‘‘hostages’’ as emissaries. Representatives of the medical profession or the region’s most prominent families, some work voluntarily with IS while others are simply terrorised by the threats against them and their families.

These emissaries say that if we enter into an agreement with them, we will not have to deal with IS members, who supposedly leave the everyday administration of towns and hospitals to them. During these discussions, however, we understand that MSF administrators would not be allowed to speak freely with local people, assess medical and health needs independently or employ staff with sufficient latitude to abide by the principle of impartiality. We are told that only Muslims can enter the caliphate, it being understood that, according to IS discourse, all Muslims must pledge allegiance to the caliphate or be punished in the only manner appropriate for apostates—death.

Unconditional support

In no event would an independent humanitarian worker be able to provide medical care to wounded or sick patients without being continuously spied on. Aid agencies are invited to hand over their products to IS that will be responsible for staging the distributions provided that the products do not bear any mention of their origin. It almost goes without saying that humanitarians are not invited to participate in real assessments of the needs of the population.

In conclusion, it is not really humanitarian aid that IS is asking for; this is an organisation, after all, whose propaganda consists in broadcasting images of mass crimes, such as the mass execution of hundreds of prisoners of war. What IS does expect from international aid is unconditional support for its war economy.

After suffering violence at the hands of IS in Syria between August 2013 and May 2014 despite verbal and written guarantees of protection, we have little hope of coming to an agreement worthy of trust with the Islamic State,. But we continue our efforts, thereby demonstrating that we are willing to negotiate impartially with all the belligerents.

Is an organisation like the Islamic State amenable to change?

We know from experience that the groups who are least inclined to accept humanitarian aid not directed solely at serving their purposes often end up changing their tune. The Afghan Taliban and their foreign allies, for example, prohibited access to international aid organisations between 2001 and 2006. Since then, however, it has become possible for organisations such as the ICRC and MSF to work in areas where the Taliban are influential. In the case of IS, what signs might indicate a shift toward improved cooperation with humanitarian groups still concerned about delivering aid to non-combatants rather than to a military organisation committed to building a totalitarian regime?

The answer to this question can be found, in part, in Islamic State’s public discourse.

Monitoring how IS is evolving cannot, of course, be reduced to analysing its public communication. But for want of reliable field surveys and because we are dealing with an organisation mindful of the consistency between its words and its actions, the tenor of IS’s public addresses is one of the few sources of information available to us.

IS’s ideology, as presented in its official publications such as the four issues of magazine Dabiq, uses a millenarian narrative to justify mass violence and the terror they provoke. In Europe in particular, belief in the apocalypse and the emergence of a new world has been common in many protest movements, religious as well as secular, for centuries.

Two aspects are cited in the Sunni Islam referred to by IS and university scholar Mercedes Garcia-Arenal describes them thus:

‘‘Firstly, instead of the Mahdi [messiah] making a single appearance at the end of time, history will at various critical moments produce ‘Masters of Time’ who will save the community from some transient threat. And secondly, these ‘Masters of Time’ will have delegates (khalifas) who will lay the groundwork for their message Mercedes García-Arenal, “Introduction”, Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [Online], 91-94, Mahdisme et millénarisme en Islam, July 2000, published online on 15 October 2004, viewed on 31 October 2014. URL :”

While Al Qaeda and the Islamic State subscribe to this same theological narrative, the two organisations’ beliefs diverge on one significant detail: determining when exactly the apocalypse and the emergence of a new world are to occur. IS is alone in claiming that the prophecy is being fulfilled in the here and now and that the present time is less than ever a time of free will. Quite the contrary in fact, it must be a time of absolute obedience to the caliphate to ensure salvation for the faithful. IS uses this prophetic discourse rather than the Koran as the fundamental rationale for the violence it practices and promotes.

For example, it justifies enslaving Yezidi women not only as appropriate treatment for polytheists but also because the “revival of slavery before the Hour” is announced in the prophecy “The revival of slavery before the Hour”, Dabiq, No. 4, p. 14.. The ‘‘Hour” refers to the greatest of battles, al-Malhamah al-Kubra, when the Mahdi strikes down the Antichrist (al-Dajjal) to pave the way for a new world.

Other global jihadist organisations, including Al-Qaeda, take a somewhat longer view of the end of the world and this temporal distance provides an opportunity for tactical compromises.

Al-Qaeda, for example, recommends leaving regional management to local allies, such as Ansar al-Din in northern Mali and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It also advises its members and sympathisers to take into account the perceptions of local populations when implementing their religious practices.

As a result, Al-Qaeda may recommend that its militants adopt an educational approach, as demonstrated by the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb who wrote to their men operating in northern Mali in July 2012:  it would be “politically insane” to “rush headlong into enforcing Sharia without following the principle of gradual implementation in an environment where for centuries people have been ignorant of religious precepts. Experience has proven that enforcing Sharia without understanding the consequences repels local populations and pushes them to reject religion and hate Mujahideens, which of course leads to the failure of the whole project”.

Another distinguishing factor between IS and Al-Qaeda is that the leaders of Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s organisation call themselves “emir” (commander or prince of limited territories) rather than “caliph” (commander of all believers on the planet), the representative tasked with preparing for the return of the Mahdi. Spearheading an international network, Al-Qaeda leaves its local allies to manage their own affairs so it can concentrate on the global battle. IS has established a caliphate in the Levant itself—the site, it says, of the imminent coming of the apocalypse. While awaiting the return of the “Crusaders” for a remake of the Battle of Dabiq, its principal enemies are its most powerful neighbours, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, instilling the Islamic State’s beliefs on the apocalyptic prophecy in the Middle East does not prevent it from weaving its global network, with the caliphate at its centre.

To what extent do the supporters of IS believe in the mythical tale they are narrating and enacting? What passions and interests are played out behind the scenes where drama and horror are brought together to appall those looking on?

The purpose of this text is not to appraise different degrees of faith or map out the power struggles within international jihadist groups. But, as humanitarian workers, we can hypothesise that, as long as ISIL takes a short-term view of its end-of-world scenario, it is unlikely that cooperation will lead to anything other than the exploitation of international humanitarian resources to build, through the use of unfettered violence, a totalitarian society as a prelude to the end of time.

Because of its thirst for land, however, IS finds itself in a delicate situation  and must face major and unprecedented challenges. To cite just one example, how exactly does IS plan to address the health needs of a population of several million people? It will undoubtedly require many different kinds of international cooperation.  Yet, in its end-of-the-world scenario, what roles will IS be able to assign to organisations such as the World Food Programme, UN and ICRC or non-governmental organisations such as MSF?

To cite this content :
Jean-Hervé Bradol, “How humanitarians work when faced with Al Qaeda and the Islamic state”, 20 février 2015, URL :

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