Frequently Asked Questions

Over time I do get asked a few of the same questions many times, so yeah, here goes. And please note that what I am writing about below regarding respect to fighters and groups does not apply to IS, организанция запрещена в России.

WARNING CONTAINS OPINIONS

WHY DO YOU WRITE ABOUT NORTH CAUCASIAN FIGHTERS IN SYRIA?

Every girl’s got to have a hobby. Traditional women’s crafts/stamp collecting/ pressing butterflies doesn’t do it for  me and there’s only so many times a day you can go to the gym. Ya know?

NO REALLY, WHY DO YOU WRITE ABOUT NORTH CAUCASIAN FIGHTERS IN SYRIA?

Oh, all right then.

I suppose there are two aspects to this: why did I start writing about them and why did I continue.

There are plenty of excellent people covering the Arabic speaking groups fighting in Syria. I don’t think I can add anything to what they do. You know who they are and who they aren’t.

When the Russian-speaking fighters first emerged in late 2012, I was fascinated, because I could understand what they were saying and writing (I speak Russian). And it wasn’t entirely what I expected. So I began to track them.

Then, personalities emerged. Many personalities. They had interesting things to say. Unexpected things. Some of them were rude. Some of them were smart. There were sides. Villains. Fitna. There were poems, and short stories, and dreams. Shashliks. Arguments over who cooked them better. People died. Their comrades wrote raw, personal accounts of the grief they felt. Then IS emerged. Things got darker. There was a clear split between the old school fighters who found IS horrifying, and the new, brash, IS militants who had no experience of the old armed insurgency in the North Caucasus. The more I learned, the more personalities emerged. The more I learned.

They forced me to forget my preexisting conceptions about Syria, about Salafist-jihadists, about war, about the North Caucasus, about why people fight, about the “of course we all know” narratives of radicalization and militancy and hatred and clashes of civilizations.

There’s more to it than that, but that’s the executive summary.

WHY DO YOU PUBLISH WHAT FIGHTERS SAY ABOUT THEMSELVES? YOU CAN’T TAKE WHAT FIGHTERS SAY ABOUT THEMSELVES AS BEING REALLY TRUE. ONLY WE, FROM WITHIN OUR ENLIGHTENED, INTELLECTUAL FRAMES OF REFERENCE, CAN TRULY ANALYZE THEIR MOTIVATIONS ANND MEANING AND KNOW THEIR MINDS. WHY, WE HAVE READ THESE MANY BOOKS ON….ZZZZZ

I dislike this attitude. It reminds me of those hideously awkward moments when you are sitting on a train and some pseudo-intellectual guy sitting opposite tells you that you “look sad” and “he knows what you are thinking.”

Let’s break this down, though.

I think some of this attitude stems from frustration. In part, people are trying to adopt a sort of anthropological approach to understanding these groups, but with no way of actually experiencing them, because we can’t go to Syria. So there are limited ways to find out what these groups say and mean. Often that’s social media. But think about it, how much does your social media reflect your actual self? Do you even have an actual self?  It’s like advertising. But we know that when Coca Cola says its brown fizzy shit is “the taste of life” that it’s not actually the real taste of life and that life doesn’t even have a taste. And that the ad doesn’t reflect the totality of American culture. So it’s frustrating, when all we have about fighters is social media. To get understanding one has to talk to people. But that has its own difficulties. I don’t want to overplay the journalist card, but there is a thing where people who haven’t had to find actual sources to write actual stories tend to believe that sources should be oracles on 100% of everything that happens in a given arena. But sources are people. Think about what that means.

On top of that there is the pressure of having to constantly dance a public dance of condemnation and distancing from these groups, lest someone think that by writing about them we are secretly supporting them. Which, duh.

All these things are understandable,  but yes, they inhibit understanding.

It’s incredibly disrespectful, though, to assume that you know better than someone else about their motivations and lived experiences. Please don’t do that. I don’t think it means that you are too close, overstepping, promoting or whatever else to come at it from this perspective.

PLEASE CAN YOU GIVE ME A LIST OF ALL THE RUSSIAN SPEAKING GROUPS IN SYRIA, WHO THEY SUPPORT AND THEIR INTERRELATIONSHIPS, THEIR LEADERS, MILITARY AMIRS & A LIST OF THEIR SOCIAL MEDIA/ CAN YOU HELP ME WRITE AN ESSAY?

Nope, don’t have time.

I’M A JOURNALIST, CAN I TALK TO YOU ABOUT A STORY?

Sure, please ask. If I don’t respond please don’t take it personally: I am most likely just too busy with my own work, or (it has happened a couple of times) overwhelmed with requests. As a journalist I have contacted many people who don’t respond, and I never took it personally because apparently I have a thick skin, but I have heard that some people do. So if you are one of those people, it’s not you, it’s me.

WILL YOU WRITE FOR MY BLOG/NEW INTELLIGENCE BRIEF SITE? WE CAN’T PAY YOU BUT IT’S GREAT EXPERIENCE?

Not unless you’re Aaron Zelin or Thomas Hegghammer.

I’m a professional analyst and journalist (well, I don’t really do journalism any more that much). I write for money, because I like bourgeois decadent things like “eating” and “wearing clothes.” So I can’t write for free, usually. Sorry.

Good luck with your blog though!

CAN I PUT YOUR WORK IN MY ACADEMIC PAPER THEN “CREDIT” YOU IN 8 POINT TIMES NEW ROMAN IN A TINY FOOTNOTE ON THE LAST PAGE UNDERNEATH THE BIOGRAPHY?

No.

U THINK U KNOW EVERYTHING BUT U DON’T

Wait, I don’t?