Former Captive: To Defeat ISIS, Convince Civilians

If the war against the so-called Islamic State group is ever to be successful, our tactics must go beyond military ones, says French journalist and former ISIS captive Nicolas Henin.

Written by Shawn Carrié Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Released French hostage Nicolas Henin, left, hugs his wife and children upon his arrival at the Villacoublay military air base, outside Paris, on April 20, 2014. AP/Jacques Brinon

Nicolas Henin has reported on the Middle East for over 10 years, starting with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. But while reporting in Syria in 2013, he was taken prisoner by the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS) outside of Raqqa and held captive for nearly 10 months.

After his release in April 2014, Henin returned to France and continued his work as a journalist, focusing on his new book, “Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State.” Framed by his experience as an ISIS hostage alongside James Foley, Henin’s “Jihad Academy” exposes the myths surrounding Islamist extremism in Syria and provides insights into that world.

As the group steadily loses territory in Syria and Iraq, Syria Deeply spoke with Henin about the success and failure of the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS, the pros and cons of foreign intervention in Syria, and the relationship between Bashar al-Assad and ISIS.

Syria Deeply: You’re one of a few Westerners to have firsthand experience of ISIS. In your book, you write that the way the world has reacted to ISIS has been totally wrong – why is that?

Nicolas Henin: This is precisely what they want. If we want to give them success, then let’s be terrified, talk about them all the time, allow them to dominate our politics. A terror attack is only the first step; what is so important for them is what comes afterward. Take 9/11: I think – and I’m sure I’m not the only one to think so – the terrorists’ biggest success was not destroying the World Trade Center in New York. It was the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. What this means is that the completion of a terrorist attack comes not from its perpetrators, but from its victims. The point is to alter the way you think, make you behave in an irrational way, to become obsessed with the people who just attacked you, so that you will eventually keep shooting yourself in the foot. You’d have to be stupid to believe al-Qaida was injured by the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, their influence has grown exponentially since before 2001.

Syria Deeply: You write about how ISIS’ recruitment strategy plays off this hatred. Their use of the media is very sophisticated, and their recruitment ads have many similarities with Western action films. But what about the role of the Western media? Is Western media helping or hurting the fight against ISIS?

Henin: Saying your enemy is bad doesn’t weaken him. It doesn’t help, it’s even counterproductive. I do some consulting work now with radicalized detainees in France. And what I notice is while people speak a lot about how radicalization happens on the internet, one of the main factors that these guys say was a part of their radicalization wasn’t the internet – it was TV. And it wasn’t jihadi speech, it was the caricatured representation of Muslims on the TV.

Syria Deeply: In the U.S., politicians like Ted Cruz have said the solution is to carpet-bomb ISIS-held cities. Is this realistic? How do you think the war can be resolved?

Henin: In an asymmetrical war like in Syria, the center of gravity is always the civilians. Not every person living under the so-called caliphate is a fighter; in fact, the majority are civilians. If there is to be a war against ISIS, it can only be won if we can engage and have the local people of Syria standing on our side. If you just start carpet-bombing them, you are quite unlikely to engage them in a positive way, and you are actually very likely to push them toward ISIS’ side. That being said, I’m not someone naive enough to say that all military involvement is bad, and this can end just by showing peace signs. There is a need for some military action to fight terrorism, but this is just the cherry on the cake – most of the work is actually political. If you can restore peace and security for the local people and have them on your side, then you remove the safe haven for the terrorists.

Syria Deeply: Your book looks at the progression of the peaceful protest movement in 2011, from the armed attempt at revolution, to a conflict dominated by jihadist groups. What brought this change about?

Henin: The radicalization of the revolution was inevitable. I like to quote a Syrian activist friend of mine, who told me that “if the Dalai Lama were Syrian today, he would be a jihadi.” What the Syrians have suffered over the past five years, living with so much pain, suffering, mourning and loss – this [is what] radicalizes you.

So basically you have some secular armed groups, and armed groups that are religious, but not jihadis. The Free Syrian Army was originally quite secular, or had secular elements. Today, the biggest example is probably [the second largest rebel faction] Ahrar al-Sham. They are Salafists, they are jihadists, but they are fighting for a national agenda. Yes, they are very conservative, very sectarian, but what is important is that international law considers them as an armed group taking part in a civil war, but that doesn’t have a terrorist agenda or terrorist means.

On top of that, you have Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the official affiliate of al-Qaida – that is a terrorist group because of its allegiance to a terrorist group. However, it has probably the most support from the Syrian population because it is to a huge extent made up of Syrians, and it is said to have more concern for the people, and it fights for a national agenda. And then there’s ISIS, definitely not an indigenous rebel group, that is a jihadi terrorist group and the only group that never made alliances with anyone.

Syria Deeply: You discuss how the inaction of Western governments contributed to the further deterioration of the conflict, even calling the reluctance to intervene a “knee-jerk anti-Bush reaction.” Which aspects of the conflict today can be blamed on foreign intervention?

Henin: The West is responsible for a lot in the creation of ISIS. Islamic State has two parents – the first is the American invasion of Iraq, because this created the insurgency that was the grassroots for al-Qaida in Iraq, which is a predecessor of ISIS. The second parent is the lack of support by the international community after the repression of the revolution in Syria. That being said, after we’ve blamed ourselves a bit as Westerners, we have to focus on a number of local issues. What the West is not responsible for are the regional dictatorships that came before [2011].

As for the inaction of the international community, Russia is a huge player, because it was Russia that blocked any kind of solution to the Syrian crisis in the U.N. Security Council. Any attempts at a solution are paralyzed because we have Russia siding with the Syrian regime. By design, if one of the P5 members is a party in a war, then you just can’t do anything.

As for the disintegration of the opposition, I would put the blame on the Gulf countries. Neither Turkey nor Qatar nor Saudi Arabia has an interest in democracy or human rights in Syria, but since early on they have been the sponsors of Syrian armed groups. Why? They wanted to compete with one another, when you look at the relationship between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and because they had a sectarian agenda. Turkey, in short, wanted to block the Kurds, and Qatar and Saudi Arabia wanted to counter what they consider a vicious Iranian influence across the Middle East, the famous “Shia Crescent.” Through their support, they contributed to the derailment of the Syrian opposition, and to its division, because each group started competing with the others. The groups that were sponsored by Saudi Arabia started not only to fight the regime, but also to compete with the groups supported by Turkey or Qatar.

Syria Deeply: In your book, you argue that Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, has utilized sectarianism as a tactic of political control and succeeded in convincing the international community that he’s the only thing preventing ISIS from taking over the entire country.

Henin: ISIS is Bashar al-Assad’s life insurance policy – without the jihadis at their doorstep, no one would support him anymore. Of course, there isn’t any kind of plot or conspiracy there – of course [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al Baghdadi doesn’t phone the palace in the evening to ask, “What shall we do tomorrow?” It’s a [tacit alliance], meaning they are not partners, they don’t coordinate, officially they are enemies, but actually each one needs the other to fuel its own success and survival. If ISIS were to vanish, it would hugely weaken the support of the West for Assad, or the fear of what would happen if Assad falls.

And that fear is also from the Syrian people – a huge portion of whom are living in regime-held territories, and these people are terrified because they have lived the past few years with the idea that they will be massacred if the revolution succeeds. They are constantly told that the revolutionaries are all extremist radicals who just want to slaughter them all. So the regime uses the atrocities committed by ISIS both on the international level as much as the domestic. Vice versa, Bashar al-Assad is the best possible recruiting sergeant for ISIS, just like the Shia militias in Iraq, because many people will join ISIS if they believe that their fellow Muslims are martyred by a sectarian regime.

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