Over time I do get asked a few of the same questions many times, so I am going to try to answer the main ones here. And please note that what I am writing about below regarding respect to fighters and groups does not apply to IS/ИГ, организанция запрещена в России.
WHY DO YOU WRITE ABOUT NORTH CAUCASIAN FIGHTERS IN SYRIA?
Every girl’s got to have a hobby.
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 them to say. I wanted to know more: why were these guys fighting in Syria, so far from their homeland? 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. (A lot of 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. The less I felt I knew.
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.
Then I started to learn about the flip side of “jihad on the path of Allah” — the people left behind in the North Caucasus. The mothers. The families. The grief. This has all intensified recently with the disintegration of IS and I have seen a tsunami of people trying desperately to find information about their loved ones — women and children — in Iraq and Syria. Yes, I am trying to help them. In lots of cases, I learned about the families of men I had tracked for years in Iraq/Syria. I saw one side of them, then, but now I am learning another.
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 why do we believe literally what militants say on social media? I have seen some ridiculous examples of this.
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. Especially when your source is in a war zone and has opinions. North Caucasians have lots of opinions.
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, really?
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.
Here’s the disclaimer I use on my posts which explains this further:
It is my belief that understanding the various foreign fighter groups in Syria is key to a deeper understanding not only of the conflict in that country, but also of other conflicts around the globe, including those in these fighters’ countries of origin. In this way, by gathering information over time, we can see how these conflicts are interconnected, and how one affects the other.
By avoiding discussing these questions, by avoiding examining these groups, by avoiding understanding them, or by oversimplifying them or making assumptions based on what we would like to be true, and by avoiding knowledge about these groups’ motivations and beliefs, we are reducing our ability to make sense of and address important issues that lead to war, conflict and displacement of peoples. I would rather attempt to seek out complicated, messy truths that have to be constantly updated and amended with new information, than be satisfied with superficial knowledge. So here’s the information. You’re welcome.
HI I AM WRITING AN ESSAY ON CHECHENS! 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?
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. Also, I really do try to answer as many queries as possible, because I am so grateful for all the people who answered and helped me in my journalistic work.
WILL YOU WRITE FOR MY BLOG/NEW INTELLIGENCE BRIEF SITE? WE CAN’T PAY YOU BUT IT’S GREAT EXPOSURE?
Not unless you’re Aaron Zelin or Thomas Hegghammer.
Joking aside, I’m a professional analyst and journalist. I write for money, because I like bourgeois decadent things like “eating” and “wearing clothes.” So I can’t write for free, usually. Sorry. Also I really don’t have time.
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 RIGHT AT THE BOTTOM UNDER THE BIOGRAPHY?
No. This has happened. Please, please don’t do this to me (or anyone else). I am not your research assistant. I don’t want to overplay this but I really think some of this stuff is gendered as hell.
U THINK U KNOW EVERYTHING BUT U DON’T!!
Wait, I don’t?