With a little under 24 hours in the city of Erbil, located approximately 80 km from Mosul, where the battle of the end or the future of the world is currently being decided, important questions are being asked about the nature of communities and their environment once ISIS eventually collapses. There is a real possibility disorder is potentially going to be replaced by more disorder. A 20-year long concentration on the topic of Islamist extremism in Western Europe has led me to a weeklong trip this week as part of work focusing on training researchers to be better researchers in identifying patterns, associations, and key observations to help determine not just the processes of radicalisation but also the implications of deradicalisation.
While radicalisation itself is a term that carries heavy connotations, where mobilisations that lead to violence extremism is perhaps the more accurate way of thinking through it, the reality is that communities have suffered immeasurably. This is particularly since the Iraq invasion in 2003, but also throughout the 1990s when the U.S.-led sanctions crippled the country after the end of the first Gulf War. Erbil is now the capital of Kurdistan, an independent state no less, with its own parliament, presidential system, army, police service and military. This is a lot more than could be said of Kurdish neighbours in Turkey, Syria and Iran.
In researching the question of violent extremism, it is almost next to impossible for researchers to ask about Isis as it is highly delicate and remains a greatly charged topic in the current political environment. The question is sensitive because the areas in which Isis dominates have suffered dramatically over the last two years or so, contributing to the collapse of Erbil, which has also suffered because of falling oil prices. Isis, furthermore, is not the only game in town. Countless other armed militia groups, of Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and other backgrounds, jostle for position and power, all with one eye on the inevitable collapse of Isis and the thorny question of what happens next.
The camps in which are located variously dispersed internal migrants are an important site for study because they contain various ex-militia, young people susceptible to recruitment to various militia, including Isis, and other groups whose aims have been to avoid getting involved with all of the above, ending up in camps as the only viable alternative. By exploring the dynamics in camps, much is learned about the ways in which recruitment operates, how disengagement results in reality and the processes of radicalisation associated with young people and their vulnerabilities in general.
On top of these dynamics, there are external security arrangements operationalised by the Iraqi state, which place a particular degree of risk upon researchers and the researched in relation to the theme of recruitment to and impact of Isis and other heavily armed militia. Hence, the matter of trust becomes more important than ever. Combined with an acute state of flux inside a war-torn country, different people on the move at different times create different challenges and concerns. While there are many who are fleeing Mosul as I speak, there are also those who were recruited to Isis simply because of the need for money or that there was an initial understanding that Isis aimed to help ameliorate problems local communities were facing before the extent of Isis’s debauchery was revealed. Looking at the situation beyond the collapse of Isis, with one country already in a state of intense upheaval, while a neighbouring country is also a power base for Isis, where it operates in the context of a civil war that predates the existence of the organisation, researching the patterns of violent extremism on its own is unlikely to net little or no long-term benefits to the affected communities.
Therefore, all of this is academic when the reality is that within a matter of a few months, there will be a power vacuum at the heart of Mosul and in parts of Syria. Given the underlying conditions facing communities in various locations, it is unlikely that whosoever comes to replace Isis could potentially be a whole lot worse. Especially as there are still huge problems in relation to development, education and employment among a wide segment of the populations of Iraq and Syria, both countries having encountered huge levels of destruction and destabilisation in recent years. The removal of Isis will not lead to significant change because nothing else has changed, including the dominant drivers, namely the push factors of alienation, hopelessness as well as related concerns as revenge, or simply an opportunity to make an income.
The research that is going to be carried out over the next six months as part of this project will undoubtedly reveal tremendous in-depth information and knowledge on the state of affairs affecting communities and the weaknesses of substructures that allow for the penetration of external motivating factors that lead to violent extremism. Without transforming this into an active policy that delivers real change on the ground, the communities endure yet another round of data collection, experiencing more levels of research critique, only for their frank and forthright accounts becoming irrelevant in the history of the struggle facing an oppressed people.