Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University
Columnist, Foreign Policy
Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, and Graeme Wood, contributing editor at the Atlantic, join Foreign Policy's James Traub to discuss the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and the state of violent extremism in the region. The panelists consider the organizational structure of the Islamic State group, including the role of religious ideology in defining the group's identity. They reflect on Wood's March 2015 Atlantic article, "What ISIS Really Wants." Haykel, who is cited in Wood's Atlantic article, speaks to the Islamic State's use of religion. The panelists further address the ongoing policy debate on how the United States should respond to the Islamic State's territorial gains in Iraq and Syria.
TRAUB: Good morning. I'm Jim Traub, and welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Bernard Haykel and Graeme Wood, titled Understanding the Self-Proclaimed Islamic State. I'd also like to welcome the CFR members around the nation and the world participating in this meeting through Livestream and teleconference. We'll hear from them during the question and answer session.
Finally, our next meeting at the Council is the C. Peter McColough series on international economics with Arun Jaitley, the finance minister of India, who will be here this afternoon at 12:30.
So let me very briefly introduce our two very distinguished speakers this morning, Bernard Haykel, immediately to my left, is a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, where he's also director of the Institute for the Trans-Regional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia.
Professor Haykel has written a tremendous number of really important pieces on Islam, on ISIS, on Wahhabism, on that entire range of subjects. He recently wrote a piece that I urge you all to read, called, "Battle Lines," which appeared in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, which is about the poetry of jihadism, but really more fundamentally about the mythos of jihadism. A very important piece.
And then, to Bernard's left is Graeme Wood, who is of my tribe. Graeme's a journalist and a contributing editor to The Atlantic, who has written from around the Middle East, and wrote a piece that has been much talked about in The Atlantic, called, "What ISIS Really Wants." That was in the March issue of The Atlantic. And among the people he quotes at length there is Professor Haykel.
More important than all those things, or equally important, is that Graeme has just been named the Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations for the coming year.
So, what we want to focus on this morning is not so much the kind of politics of the American response to ISIS, but really what it is, what its foundations are, what its nature is. So let me first start with you, Professor Haykel.
So, ISIS grew out of Al Qaida, rebelled against Al Qaida, was then cast out by Al Qaida. So, is the salient difference between the organizations, from your point of view, chiefly theological, cultural, organizational, generational? How do you explain that?
HAYKEL: OK. Well, thank you for the generous introduction. I also want to wish the Muslims in our audience a happy Ramadan. Today is the first day of Ramadan.
To answer your question, when Al Qaida lost its base in Afghanistan, after the U.S. attack in 2001, this was in response to the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaida had a plan to find and establish a new base, a territorial base somewhere in the Middle East, and they thought that Iraq would be one of the best places to do this.
So they actually sent Zarqawi, who was the founder of the, you know, of movement of Al Qaida in Iraq, just before the Islamic State. So, basically established a base there. And so the idea of an Islamic State in Iraq is an Al Qaida idea.
Then the dispute took place over strategy and tactics. Zarqawi's basic view was that the only way to foment the global revolution of Muslims, a radicalization of Muslims and a revolution, was to attack Shiites, was to foment a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. That was his signature strategy.
Al Qaida felt that this was a very bad idea, that it would give—it would make for bad copy for Al Qaida. And they tried to convince them that this was wrong.
TRAUB: Well, Zawahiri really rebuked them on this score.
HAYKEL: Later on. That's right. There was an exchange of letters and rebuked them on it, but so did bin Laden. And what then happened was that, in 2006, an Islamic State was established in Iraq, after the death of Zarqawi.
And this state, or this movement called the state, was almost defeated in the Islamic awakening, but then resurrected itself in the last three years, largely, I think, as a result of the sectarian policies of the Maliki regime in Baghdad that alienated large numbers of Sunnis in Iraq, who then rallied to the cause of the Islamic State.
TRAUB: So, Graeme, in this piece you wrote in The Atlantic, you say that a lot of the new generation of jihadists who you talked to, view Al Qaida as a kind of old-school phenomenon. "We honor them very much, but we don't share their world view."
TRAUB: ... that—is that—what is the sense of, kind of, cultural or generational difference you were describing.
WOOD: So, I'd first say that everyone I spoke to who was supportive of the Islamic State had really only kind words for Al Qaida before...
TRAUB: That's reassuring.
WOOD: ... before recently.
WOOD: So, they would speak of Osama bin Laden as a martyr. They would say that it was sinful even to say that he was dead. They really think that he is in some sense alive. And—but they would say also that the Islamic State has gone further than Al Qaida ever wished it could. It doesn't differ in issues of creed, but really in issues of tactics, and it—they seem to view Al Qaida, certainly its current leadership, as really superannuated.
I mean, they would never say anything positive about Zawahiri, first of all, today. They consider him a figure lacking in charisma, and lacking in any kind of strategic sense, I think, as well.
The fact that a caliphate has been established, I think, really can't be underestimated as a motivating factor for them, too. They know that Al Qaida sometimes spoke of a caliphate, but the belief that it was coming soon, and that it could be this kind of rallying point at this point in history, is something that energized them in a way that nothing that Al Qaida had done before really seemed to have.
And to this day, you know, I've spoken to some of the sources from that piece as recently as a few weeks ago. And it's still something that they consider sort of an electrifying event of—it's almost, in their minds, minimizing to say of world historical proportions, because it's really of cosmic proportions.
TRAUB: And so, is that—so, both of you have made the point that this difference shouldn't be understood theologically, but tactically. But so, this idea of actually creating what is in effect a paradise on earth, a world you can go to now to experience this mythos that you described in this New Yorker piece, is that just a, kind of, a tactical choice? Or does that represent something fundamentally different between ISIS and Al-Qaida?
HAYKEL: No, I think it is a fundamental difference. ISIS isn't about a territorial state. It's much more—it pretends to be much more traditional in the sense of, you know, they have a caliphate. Once you have a caliphate, a lot of Islamic law, traditional, classical Islamic law fits into place. It's like Lego pieces that finally fit together.
A caliph has certain prerogatives and certain discretionary powers that a leader like that of Al Qaida does not have. So Al Qaida is more familiar to us as a terrorist organization that wanted to use terror as a way of radicalizing, but in a mode that is familiar from third-world, anti-colonial movements that the West has confronted many a time.
ISIS, the Islamic State, is quite different in that they want territory and they want to expand the territory. And they want to fully implement a vision of Islamic law. For instance, they reinstituted slavery. That was not something that was on Al Qaida's list of things to do.
TRAUB: But I think one thing you talk about is that things like—you might think instituting slavery, bad idea in terms of your public reputation. But at some level, this resonates with people. Instituting slavery, crucifixion, many of these heinous acts have a kind of mythical, historical resonance which actually enhances their power among potential followers, even as it profoundly repels those who are not followers.
HAYKEL: Yes. It is about—it is a culture. I mean, to understand the durability of the Islamic State, you have to understand that it's a culture. And it's a culture that creates a romance for a utopia that you called a mythos.
And this utopia is attractive, because it promises glory. It really promises that Muslims can finally find the power that they have lost as a result of enemies both on the outside as well as apostates, Muslims who have abandoned the faith. So it is a kind of an image of power that is constituted in individuals and institutions, and in territory.
TRAUB: Does that mean—so, Graeme, one—I would never say silver lining. One inference you could draw from this is that the intra-Islam focus of ISIS, both in regard to the violence—all the violence is directed against other Muslims, Shia and non-fundamentalist Sunni, and the creation of this geographically bounded state. In theory...
HAYKEL: It's not bounded.
HAYKEL: It's constantly expanding.
TRAUB: Right. Oh, yes, you're right. Geographically defined, but not bounded state, makes ISIS a greater danger to its neighborhood, but a lesser danger to the United States and the West. Is that a delusion, or is that actually a reasonable inference to draw?
WOOD: I think in the short and medium term, it's exactly the right inference to draw. You know, the—first of all, I would say that, although it's true by almost any normal standard, that the victims of the Islamic State have been Muslims, the Islamic State would not characterize them as such.
They would frequently say that these people are not Muslims. They're Shia. They are any number of types of Muslims who would not disagree with the Islamic State.
But of the supporters whom I've spoken to have said very clearly that, "Yes, we are establishing a state. Its base is in Syria, but it can—it has satellites elsewhere. And we are not principally trying to expand to places like Australia, to the United Kingdom. That time will come. But what we are trying to do is really strengthen the bases that we already have, and allow a kind of slowly expanding tide of the Islamic faith eventually to reach the shores of Australia, of the United Kingdom, and of America, eventually."
TRAUB: But so—but, Graeme, since so much of the fear here is that—well, there and many, obviously, many things. One, the inspiration of lone wolves who are in the West, but another that once this state consolidates itself, if it's permitted to do so, it will then turn against the West in the same way that Al Qaida does.
Do you have the sense, from talking to people, that that's actually a rather remote interest of theirs, and they're really consumed by the idea of creating this utopian caliphate?
WOOD: I think it's very useful to look at the exact way they've phrased their requests for lone wolf attacks. They're very clear that the obligation, principally, is to go to the Islamic State. They want people to go there, if they can. If they can't, then they can attack in lone wolf kinds of ways, like Garland, Texas, et cetera.
And that has a kind of self-limiting effect. So, if you have the resources to go to the Islamic State and you spend them by doing that, then you probably don't have the resources to pull off a $500,000 attack, like 9/11. So it has a self-limiting effect where you have two guys who can be killed by a Garland, Texas, police officer committing a lone wolf attack.
It means that the larger attacks, though, the kinds that would actually, perhaps incur a military response from the United States, are limited and don't happen at this point. They may, at some point in the future.
WOOD: I wouldn't be shocked if that happens.
HAYKEL: Yes, but I think I should add on to what Graeme was saying, is that the appeal of the Islamic State is the military victories that it enjoyed in 2014. The capture of Mosul seems to confirm that this was a God, not just inspired, but sort of anointed group, by God, to recreate this glory that Muslims had once had, but lost.
So if they're defeated militarily, I think a lot of the appeal will very quickly disappear. So, it's important for them to be defeated.
Having said that, I think the lone wolf business is something we had to live with, with Al Qaida before.
HAYKEL: So there's nothing new...
HAYKEL: ... in the lone wolf tactics. In fact, I think the Islamic State's appeal to people going there, to their territory, is a godsend, because a lot of people are actually going, and then they can't leave. They don't allow people to leave. And most of them, anyway, burn their passports. And eventually die there.
So, I think there can be a strategy for the Islamic State that says, you know, "Let's contain them to the western desert of Iraq and the eastern deserts of Syria, and then have them do what they want to do there."
TRAUB: If it was a containment in a way that would not make as much sense against Al Qaida because their goals are non-territorial...
HAYKEL: Right. Correct.
TRAUB: ... and to strike the West.
HAYKEL: Correct. Correct. So they're in a territory. They can be contained, and you have to be very clear, that is the West has to be very clear, as to what's really important in this part of the world.
So you can draw, you know, the so-called red lines around this territory, so that the oil fields of the south and the north of Iraq are off-limits to them. You know, attacking Jordan is not permissible. Iraq, Kurdistan, and Saudi Arabia, all of this will not be permissible. If they were to attack any of these territories, then, you know, we would come in and fight them.
But otherwise, what they do in that desert region is great. Let them just kill each other, you know, and have others kill them.
TRAUB: This is like the Iran-Iraq War, basically. You know, let the bad guys slaughter each other...
HAYKEL: Yes, it's a hard-nosed realism. It's a kind of hard-nosed realism.
TRAUB: I want to come back to this in a minute, but I want to ask both of you something else before, which is—so, part of the—I know, I think the core of the controversy, the reaction to Graeme's piece was the question of the Islamic nature of the Islamic State.
And Graeme made the point, very much buttressed by comments, quotations from Bernard, that the Islamic—that although President Obama wishes us to believe that the Islamic State and Islamic fundamentalism generally are perversions of Islam, that is not so. They are Islamic. And very Islamic, said Graeme.
So let me first ask you, why does it matter whether or not that's the case?
WOOD: Well, first of all, I would say that it actually wouldn't even have occurred to me to ask the question, "Is the Islamic State Islamic? Does it derive from this diverse and contradictory tradition of Islam?" except that this question was being answered. And the answer was being promoted relentlessly by the president of the United States and by many others who were saying simply that the Islamic State is not Islamic.
But I think it's important to say—to look and see what the—as Bernard has just said, the entire cultural production of this group, the intellectual history of it, the kind of ideational nature of it. It is a—it is a thing. It's not simply a psychopathic group with no ideology whatsoever. And the ideology that it does have derives from the tradition.
One can say, and most Muslims do, that its views of Islam are mistaken, perhaps to the point of obliging other Muslims to fight it. But the question of whether it looks to Islamic texts, whether it looks to Islamic history to justify itself and to self-conceive, is really a matter that's beyond dispute. And the reason we need to know this is because we're fighting it.
You know, we should understand who they are. We should understand what's motivating people to go there. And there are, of course, many reasons for this, but one of them that seems to be consistent is a belief that an Islamic caliphate is both a communal obligation for Muslims to establish, and an individual obligation for Muslims to immigrate to and to fight for.
TRAUB: But, so, how do you separate that from the clash of civilizations sense, that—as a surprising number of people have said, increasingly the West is in a war with Islam. And what we see with Islamic fundamentalism is a kind of evil emanation of Islam itself.
And so, when you say—and this is a question really for either of you—when you say that Islamic fundamentalism is not the full nature of Islam at all, but is Islamic, are you then moving in the direction of this notion that we are having forced upon us a war of civilizations?
WOOD: I think the war of civilizations narrative is what we must also relentlessly deny. It is what ISIS is promoting. And I actually made very clear in the piece, too, that that narrative is something that we can, based on readily available facts, show is incorrect, that the idea that it's a fight between crusaders, Christian crusaders, and ISIS representing Islam is simply false, based on what we've already said about the—about Muslims being the primary victims of the Islamic State.
There's no question that the primary war is within Islam, and it's not one between two religiously-based civilizations.
TRAUB: So, Bernard, obviously you were the intellectual authority for this in Graeme's piece. And you made a point of saying that it's kind of politically correct mush, to say, as Obama has said, that Islamic fundamentalism is not Islamic.
So how do you place this ideology within a larger Islamic framework?
HAYKEL: You know, I think what Graeme said is absolutely correct. I mean, the principal enemies of the Islamic State are other Muslims, right? So, if they're attacking other Muslims, how can it be a war of civilizations?
I mean, as a scholar, I can look at the Islamic State's ideology and say, "OK, I can trace this to a particular tradition, mostly minoritarian traditions within the Islamic intellectual history." And I don't want to get into the details, because it becomes very quickly like inside baseball.
But there's no question that they rely on texts that are canonical. They have a very particular literalist interpretation of those texts. They want to also revive institutions that most Muslims have abandoned, like slavery.
You know, having said that, I think that, you know, President Obama is correct in making a political determination, that it's wrong to use the term Islamic because it alienates Muslims who, after all, are its victims.
TRAUB: I take it he probably knows everything the two of you just said and would agree with you in private, but he just thinks it's not a good idea prudentially to say it.
HAYKEL: Yes. Prudentially he's probably correct, as a politician. As a scholar, though, my job is quite different, and I think in his case he has to tread very carefully because, firstly, he has no standing to determine what is and what is not Islamic. It's for Muslims to do that.
And secondly there's, if one want to pick holes at his argument, by just using the acronym ISIL, which is his preferred sort of acronym to call or label this group—I mean, ISIL stands for the Islamic State, right? So the term Islamic is there as well.
TRAUB: And the L is the Levant, which doesn't really change things...
HAYKEL: Right. Right.
TRAUB: ... very much.
HAYKEL: Right. So, you know, I think it's a bit of a red herring to ask, you know, is it or is it not Islamic? There's no question that this is a movement that's drawn from a very extreme version of the religion.
TRAUB: Well, let me ask you how—given that this tough theory idea, that is to say that other Muslims are themselves apostates if they are not practicing a correct form of Islam, is pretty close to the core of Saudi Wahhabism. Should one even say that, despite the weird efflorescences (ph) about slavery and crucifixion and so forth, there's not that qualitative a difference between the theology of ISIL—of ISIS and the state religion of Saudi Arabia?
HAYKEL: You know, ISIS's ideologues would love you for just saying that, because they're constantly...
TRAUB: They'll be calling in from the nation and the world as (inaudible).
HAYKEL: ... because they're constantly pointing to the Saudis that, "Look, here are your texts. We're living by the letter of these texts, and you're not," right? This is a constant refrain in ISIS's criticism of the Saudi Arabians.
Now, having said that, if you actually look at the history of Saudi Wahhabism, the movement that is the core of Saudi religions ideology, they never went as far as to kill people so wantonly. They also never established a caliphate. So, you know, there are differences. You can parse out significant differences between Wahhabism and ISIS.
The other thing that I should tell your audience, and it's probably not well known, is that even within ISIS there are groups that are even further to the right of ISIS. And that ISIS...
TRAUB: What a thought. I guess there's—
HAYKEL: That's right.
TRAUB: ... deviationists in every orthodoxy.
HAYKEL: That's right. So it is—there are these deviationists within ISIS and actually they've been—many of them have been executed for going so extreme...
TRAUB: What's an example of too extreme?
HAYKEL: Well, they just think that ISIS is not sufficiently extreme. And so ISIS captures these guys and often, you know, asks them to repent and if they don't, they kill them. So, you know, it is a movement that has built into its ideology this constant, you know, extremism and splintering that exists, you know.
Anyway, there's a wonderful Monty Python skit that—from the...
... that describes precisely this constant splitting phenomenon.
TRAUB: I'm sure you've seen the Palestinian is—a Palestinian sketch, where these ISIS guys stop people at a checkpoint and they want to make sure they're really orthodox. They say, "How many times do you have to touch yourself before entering the mosque?", and the guy gets the number wrong. And then the ISIS guys start arguing with each other about what the right answer is.
HAYKEL: That's right. That's right.
TRAUB: So, let's talk a little bit about what is to be done, before we then hand it off to you.
So, Graeme, do you agree with Bernard's sense that it's in the nature of the ISIS threat that it is perhaps containable from the point of view of the West, in a way that perhaps Al Qaida is not?
WOOD: Well, I would first say that ISIS will resist any attempts to contain it. ISIS thinks of itself as an expansionary state. So far it's been pretty successful in doing that.
The fact that it's reached the edges of Baghdad, I think, is probably a good point at where we should start containing it. But is it containable? I think that, yes, it's possible to contain it at the points where it ceases being supported by significant portions of the indigenous population. So, the Sunni areas of Iraq, for example, would be perhaps a place where we might start drawing some of those red lines.
The actual feasibility of doing that I think remains to be seen. So far, you know, it's been taking cities that I would have guessed a few months ago were unlikely to be taken.
TRAUB: So, like Ramadi.
WOOD: Like Ramadi, would be an example. And, you know, I probably would have guessed as well that Mosul would be retaken sometime this year. That now looks unlikely to happen.
TRAUB: Is it naive or too hopeful to think that precisely because ISIS does claim to engage in governance and nation-building, that it could actually discredit itself by its own failures to engage in successful governance and nation-building?
WOOD: So, I think it's important to see what a low bar they have...
WOOD: ... in doing this. You know, they have to implement a rule of law in a credible, in at least seemingly non-corrupt way.
And by implementing a kind of law that is very simple, quite brutal, I think that they can actually do that rather quickly, whereas any government that rolls in, any American-supported government, would have to quickly establish that it was able to do that in a way that was at least better than the Maliki government had done before. That's awfully difficult to do.
They're going to be a hard game to beat in terms of the reliability and the swift certainty of punishment that they offer to criminals (inaudible).
TRAUB: So that, if anything, you would say is likely to make them self-sustaining.
TRAUB: So that they're actually able to make good on promises of a better life than people would have otherwise.
WOOD: I think it's going to make it difficult to replace them, in that respect.
HAYKEL: I don't think it's a better live that they're offering. They're offering order in what is otherwise a choice between order and chaos.
HAYKEL: And most people choose order.
HAYKEL: Especially if they're Sunnis and they're being ruled by them.
The other point that I should perhaps add is that, you know, from looking at them from Saudi Arabia or looking at them from other Sunni countries of the Arab world, you know, many people think, "Well, yes, they're bad people," but they're not the only bad people out there. You know, the Iranians and their proxies are just as bad if not worse. The Assad regime certainly has killed many more people than ISIS has. So why are we expected to only focus on them and not on the others?
So there is a view from the region, amongst Sunnis, that, you know, exclusively targeting them is a Western obsession that is not one that is shared by the people of the region.
TRAUB: But since you said both that they're containable, but also that the best way of taking the shine off their reputation is military defeat, does that mean that the wisest strategy, from the point of view of the West, has to include a significant military element in order to undermine their claims of going from success to success?
HAYKEL: Yes, I'm not convinced that the U.S. or the West has to be involved militarily in fighting them.
TRAUB: Including the way it is now. (Inaudible.)
HAYKEL: Yes, including (inaudible) air campaign.
HAYKEL: I mean, I suspect that the Iranians and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are perfectly capable of taking these guys on. In fact, we should welcome that kind of fight.
TRAUB: Even if that's going to further alienate Iraqi Sunnis? Or will it not?
HAYKEL: Well, I mean, you know, I think people in that region have to own their problems. And I think the U.S...
TRAUB: Unless the problems are our problems as well.
HAYKEL: Well, yes, but the U.S. record in the region is really quite thereafter (ph). And I don't think that we have the tools to find the permanent solution to these problems. This is a problem that is in the region and amongst Muslims, and it's for them to sort out their messes.
TRAUB: Graeme, that's your view as well?
WOOD: I share the skepticism of our ability, actually, to invade that territory and replace it with a credible government. I mean, I think it's—you know, it's like asking whether I can telekinetically lift up the Council on Foreign Relations. I think there's lots of evidence that it's just not within my skill set, or within ours.
TRAUB: That remains to be seen.
So you would also say no, that the American bombing campaign is misguided.
WOOD: I would not go that far. I think the American bombing campaign may have been possibly even decisive in allowing Kurdish elements and also Iraqi elements to retake territory.
Whether we should actually have a further invasion, I think that's probably not a good idea.
HAYKEL: Let me—I mean, perhaps I can clarify. I'm against the American bombing campaign if it means saving the Iraqi Shiite government. I think to save the Kurds, to save the Jordanians, the save the Saudis, I would definitely encourage not just the bombing campaign but, you know, if these guys were to ever enter Saudi Arabia and threaten to disrupt 10 million barrels of production a day, the U.S. troops should go in and take then out.
TRAUB: You won't have to give that advice.
HAYKEL: Right. (Inaudible.)
TRAUB: But you would say, even if they're at the gates of Baghdad...
TRAUB: ... even at the gates of Baghdad, that's Iraqi problem, not ours.
HAYKEL: I think that it's an Iraqi problem. And I think we have to make those kinds of distinctions, between what is really important to us and what is not.
TRAUB: OK. All right. Well, thank you so much.
And I now would like to turn to our members to join the conversation. This meeting is on the record, so please wait for the microphone to come to you. Speak directly into it. Stand, state your name and affiliation. Limit yourself to one question, and keep it concise, to allow as many members as possible to speak. And I hope I'll also be receiving questions by teleconference.
QUESTION: Betty Marshan (ph), from the Duke Islamic Studies Center.
How effective is social media in recruiting? And if it is effective, why aren't they using it to unite the region rather than just recruiting people to come fight?
WOOD: I think social media has, first of all, been very important in recruiting people from overseas, within the Arab world, as well as from Europe, less so from the United States. And what it's been—what it's allowed to happen is kind of dissemination of ideology, as well as sort of a way of sending out information—of introducing people to those who can give logistical advice on how to get there.
It is very difficult, though, to counter a social media campaign like ISIS's, that is so fragmented, that's so person-to-person, and to have anything that offers the same kind of spirit of rebellion as well, that the ISIS social media campaign offers, I think is very difficult to give, especially from the perspective of large governments and institutions, like the United States or like the established governments of the Middle East.
It's sort of like fighting an insurgent tech company when you're Microsoft. Very, very difficult to do.
TRAUB: I should also add, anyone who is interested in this subject should read Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's book on ISIS, which has enormous amount of information about their very, very adroit use of social media.
Yes, in the middle there, sir.
QUESTION: Warren (ph) Hoag (ph), International Peace Institute.
Bernard, in that list you just gave of who we should be thinking of saving in the Middle East, who should we be thinking of saving in Syria?
HAYKEL: That's a trick question, and...
TRAUB: Nice try, Warren (ph).
HAYKEL: Yes. I—you know, really the choice is between, you know, worse and even worse, in Syria. I think that, you know, the Syrian civil war has to burn itself out. And I don't think that we need to choose sides at all. The Assad regime, anyway, has the full support of the Russians and Iranians. We certainly shouldn't side with ISIS or any of the extremist, you know, jihadi groups.
I mean, al-Nusra Front in Syria today, a branch of Al Qaida, is trying to present itself in a public relations campaign as a responsible and reliable group that we can work with. And, you know, the Qataris have promoted this TV interviews on Jazeera. I would be very reticent to get involved.
Again, I think Syria is a situation where you contain the problem to Syria, ideally, much in the same way that the civil war in Lebanon, from '75 to '90, was contained to Lebanon. I think one should think of containment rather than taking sides.
QUESTION: Matt Pottinger, with Davidson Kempner.
I was wondering if you could talk more about the vulnerabilities of the group, and whether governance might be one of them. Because I remember that Osama bin Laden thought that it was premature to declare, for Al Qaida to declare a caliphate, in part because he thought that they didn't know how to govern yet.
And is that something that, over time, that people are going to become disenchanted with the pact (ph). I mean, they're providing a little bit of order, I suppose, but they're going to have to do more than that, aren't they?
HAYKEL: Yes, I—I mean, (inaudible) take it, right?
Yes. I think their principle vulnerability is the fact that, you know, victory, military success is key to their continuing appeal. If they start losing battles, I think that's the one decisive factor that will make people turn away.
I mean, the other vulnerability is that the Sunni population—you know, they feed off of Sunni disenfranchisement, or the sense of Sunni disenfranchisement. So if you make Sunnis feel that they can be enfranchised in Iraq, they have a piece of the pie, and that it's not—and that Iraqi politics stop being a zero sum form of politics, then it's possible to undermine their support base.
But I still think that, you know, whether they govern well or not is not the key to their success. It's really mainly military victory. And the social media campaign, I mean, they're superb propagandists that are able to attract large numbers—I mean, fairly large numbers of Arabs, primarily Arabs. You have Tunisians, Saudis, and others who are joining in large numbers. The Europeans and the Americans are much fewer.
WOOD: I would add, too, that one of their other vulnerabilities is this very utopian sense that they have. You know, when they're promising people on social media what going to ISIS and fighting with them will be like, they do not mention who among the recruits has to clean the latrine.
There are plenty of stories that have already emerged and that I think have done actually a great deal to take the shine off of ISIS among some populations, about how miserable life is over there. And as soon as it's clear that the kind of ideal that's promoted about what life will be like, that is, a glorious fight in the cause of Islam, then I think that will be helpful. They promise so much that they can't possibly deliver.
TRAUB: Graeme, are the stories of their executing deserters, is that actually a common thing, do you have any sense, that people who want out are just killed?
WOOD: Certainly it's not easy to leave. If you try to, then there's a good chance you'll be killed.
TRAUB: Sounds like the Mafia.
WOOD: There are at least hundreds of cases that have been described so far.
QUESTION: I think it's like Hotel California, actually.
TRAUB: Yes. Exactly. Yes, yes.
(QUESTION): Bernard, I'm intrigued by what you said about containment, because you said they would be in both deserts, in Iraq and Syria, whereas they're really acting in the cities. They are destroying cities of the Levant.
So I'm wondering what do you mean, let the region own its civil war, let it burn itself? Do you expect the civil war, of course, as a blood bath between Shiites and Sunnis, and Sunnis and Sunnis? So, where is the strategy of defeating ISIS? How long would that take, or do you think they're just—you know, why would you promote the Shia-Sunni—let them go at it without any help in putting an end to it?
If I understand you correctly, you're just saying it's their problem. We shouldn't be there at all.
HAYKEL: Yes, that's exactly, actually, what I'm saying.
TRAUB: Way to own it.
HAYKEL: And I think that, you know, when America gets involved in the fight, when America is fighting with Shiites and with the Revolutionary Guard Corps, who, after all, by the way, have killed more Americans than Al Qaida has. So we're fighting with Iranians against them, it sends a message to the Sunni world, but especially it confirms ISIS's propaganda, that the United States is allied with Shiites against Sunnis.
And I don't see why we should have that taint. It's simply—it should not be true. We do not choose sides between Sunnis and Shia in that war. And it is something that has to be resolved by the people of the region.
As long as core strategic interests of the West, and I mentioned what some of them are. I can also add maritime shipping is another, and interstate warfare is also unacceptable.
QUESTION: Thank you. Rita Hauser.
Bernard, I remain very confused about the Saudi position. If you could elaborate—on the one hand, they're fearful beyond fear of the Shia, (inaudible) Iran, the Yemeni campaign. On the other hand, they don't like ISIS and we're calling upon them to help fight ISIS. And then there's all the ideology that emanates from there.
If you had to describe the Saudi position in this business, how would you do so?
HAYKEL: Well, I think the Saudis are fighting on multiple fronts. You know, they see Iran meddling in Arab affairs, and Iran has for a long time, through proxies. Iran has always used non-state actors to promote its revolutionary ideology and to commit terror throughout the world, not just in the region, and to control countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon.
And for a while, Hamas was also in the script in the Palestinian territories. And the Saudis see this as unacceptable. So that's one bit of the fight, including now with the Houthis in Yemen.
And on the other, the Saudis also have this, you know, enmity with an extreme form of Sunnism in the form of ISIS. And so—and ISIS wants to take over Saudi Arabia. And this is something that I think I should underscore, which is that the prize, for ISIS, is Saudi Arabia. I mean, they want to take over the oil fields, but also Mecca and Medina.
And the members of ISIS who are millenarian or who are apocalyptic really believe that taking Mecca is important because the apocalypse actually doesn't happen unless Mecca is under their control. And that's where the messiah figure appears.
So, you know, the Saudis are fighting on multiple fronts, and I think we should help them. Certainly against ISIS...
TRAUB: But let me follow up on Rita's question for a second. If you look at the role the Saudis are playing in Yemen right now, where they are basically sowing incredible violence and chaos in the country in order to root out the Houthis whom they see as the cat's paw of the Iranians, and are doing nothing to attack Al Qaida which is being enormously advantaged by this chaos.
Does that tell us that from the Saudi point of view the ISIS and Al Qaida threat is quite a ways down on the depth chart compared to the Sunni, Shia, and Saudi Iranian threat>
HAYKEL: Yes, I don't know. I don't accept your characterization.
You know, two Saudis were just executed by Al Qaida in Mokala, because the chief of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was taken out by drones, I think two days ago. And it was largely due to Saudi intelligence.
So I think the Saudis, even in Yemen, are attacking on dual fronts, both against the Houthis, and I disagree with that policy, because I don't see the Houthis as an Iranian proxy, exclusively as an Iranian proxy, but rather as a social movement from within the country. But they're also fighting Al Qaida.
We would not, I don't think, have killed the leader of Al Qaida without Saudi help. And that's also true, by the way, for a number of attacks against Al Qaida. It has always been in coordination with Saudi intelligence.
We have a question from one of our teleconferencers (ph). Wendy Freeman of Falls Church, Virginia, asks, and she doesn't specify who, but I'll ask this to you, Graeme.
She says, "How will an additional 450 advisers change conditions on the ground with respect to ISIS?"
WOOD: So, it may not change conditions that much at all. One way it will change conditions, certainly, though, is in ISIS's propaganda. They have been waiting for Americans to arrive. You know, they can always Photoshop an American into a battle if they want to, for their social media campaign.
But they can say truthfully now that there are Americans who are fighting against them. This has always been true from the air, but having more on the ground is something that they have been dying to be able to say. And, you know, it strengthens their narrative...
TRAUB: Do you mean there's something—there's something you think categorically different about the 3,000 American troops who are there now and these 450 who will come as well?
WOOD: Well, no. I mean, the fact that there are Americans on the ground in Iraq, that the 82nd Airborne has shown up in Iraq is important to ISIS's propaganda in that it says that Americans are fighting. So it's—that—whether it has material change, shows material change to the military situation, I can't say whether they're going to be that important.
But whether it changes the narrative or confirms it, yes, it does.
TRAUB: OK. Yes. In the back. All the way in the back, there, yes.
QUESTION: Very interesting. Thank you. I'm Carole Artigiani from Global Kids.
You haven't mentioned the Kurds who seem to be fairly effective in holding ISIS back. And I'm wondering what your predictions are about the Kurds and what will be the impact if they are successful.
TRAUB: Either of you.
HAYKEL: You know, so initially when Mosul fell and ISIS was moving into areas that were controlled by the Kurds, actually the Kurds did not do well. They turned tail and it took the American air campaign to actually stop ISIS in its tracks.
Now the Kurds, though, have turned around, especially in Syria. I mean, they just took Tal Abyad.
So I think, you know, we should fully support the Kurds in their campaign against ISIS, and we should think of them as allies in the region, which is what they are, and a community that has been much, you know, ill-treated by the government in Iraq under Saddam and even this government. And we should protect them. It's one of those red lines that I had discussed earlier.
TRAUB: Should the United States—for either of you—be putting more pressure on the Turkish government to stop putting impediments in the way of Kurds who are trying to retake territory from ISIS along the border? Is that going to do any good?
WOOD: I think yes. I think that pressure should be put on Turkey. The Kurds have, as Bernard just said, been very effective recently and in important strategic places. So anything that would assist them, I think, is probably something we should consider.
TRAUB: I guess we'll see how the Turkish election plays out in this regard, whether the Turkish government feels they need to form more common cause, because, of course, as many of you probably know, the Kurdish party in Turkey did extremely well. It got 13 percent of the vote in this recent election. It may change the political calculus of the government, or it may move it in the opposite direction, if they make an alliance with the right wing party.
QUESTION: Rick Petree from Ewing Bemiss.
Following directly on from that, I'd be particularly interested, from Graeme, given his contacts, I guess, with fighters, what is the anecdotal evidence of a tightening of the border between Northern Syria and Turkey, the extent to which fighters from the Syrian battlefield still are able to send wounded fighters to hospitals in Turkey, the extent to which arms are flowing, the extent to which customs at Istanbul and other ports in Turkey are being tightened to stop fighters?
What is your sense of the extent to which Turkey continues to function as a kind of reserve area to the Syrian battlefield?
WOOD: So, I'll say first of all that the contact with ISIS supporters that I've had has principally been with people who have been actually prevented from going there long in advance of getting to the Turkish border. They've had their passports confiscated, and they've acted as a sort of ideological rear guard of the Islamic State.
They are, though, in pretty regular contact, many of them, with people who are going there or attempting to go there, or who have gone there. And the anecdotal evidence is that, yes, it is more difficult for Islamic State fighters both to get across the border and to come back.
And, again, as we've mentioned, the coming back part is very important. The fact that it's very difficult for them to return from the Islamic State is indicative of something, that there are not a small number of people who have expressed interest in returning. And the fact of logistical difficulty in doing that, and also uncertainty about what their reception will be in their home countries, that's something we should be watching.
QUESTION: I'm Ethan Bronner from Bloomberg.
The Israel-Palestine conflict has long been viewed as a source of instability at the region. But all we've talked about this morning, of course, didn't touch on it. But do you have the sense that if that conflict were to be resolved in any way, any of this would be effective?
HAYKEL: Yes. Do you want to go first?
WOOD: Well, I'll say first of all, it's remarkable how rarely the Israel-Palestine conflict is mentioned in the context of ISIS by ISIS supporters. And I think there's some interesting reasons for that.
One is that if we take seriously their apocalyptic propaganda and the kind of order of events that they expect, Jerusalem comes pretty late in the game in that. Another is that the champions of the Palestinian causes are considered apostates by ISIS. They have failed to implement Sharia law along ISIS's guidelines. They've sat in elections. And all of these things are absolutely disqualifying for ISIS.
So the more ISIS talks about Palestine, the more it has to point out that some of the people who have positioned themselves as heroes in parts of the Arab world are enemies of ISIS, and would be on the chopping block if ISIS ever arrived.
TRAUB: Any thoughts on this, Bernard?
HAYKEL: Yes. I mean, I think that, you know, there are two camps in Israel. One says, you know, "Let's solve this problem," and once the after-effects of the revolutions and the Arab Spring uprisings and all that, and now the civil wars, ends, the problem is solved and, you know, there's no point of contention. And another camp says, you know, "This has nothing to do with it."
I think that, you know, if the Arab-Israeli—if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were to be resolved, it would be certainly something not to be discussed after this madness ends. But the madness has nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
And that I think if it were resolved tomorrow, as your question suggests, it would make no different. This is a battle that's happening elsewhere.
TRAUB: Well, let me ask you a broader question that comes out of Ethan's question, because we haven't really talked about this—which is, to what extent is perceived American sins against the world of Islam an important provocation to all that, and therefore to what extent would any change in American behavior, whether it's, I don't know, closing Guantanamo, or not bombing in Iraq and Syria, reducing its military footprint in the Middle East. To what extent, if any, would that drain the ideological swamp which ISIS lives in?
HAYKEL: I mean, I think your question applies to Al Qaida.
HAYKEL: But not to ISIS.
HAYKEL: I think ISIS—you know, for ISIS, America's role, whether it's involved or not, is always going to be the same. It's a nefarious and demonic force in the world, regardless of its footprints in the Middle East.
TRAUB: And so, is the political culture of the—we didn't sort of touch on this—so different that you would actually have an effect on Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and on other Al Qaida, not ISIS, organizations, because for them the United—Western behavior is a meaningful provocation and, therefore, change in that behavior would produce a change in—we reduce their ideological appeal?
HAYKEL: Well, the only time that Al Qaida has shifted is what we see with al-Nusra front in Syria today. And that's largely because of the pressure that ISIS represents. I don't think it has anything to do with the United States.
HAYKEL: Again, I think we should not place ourselves front and center in this conflict.
QUESTION: (Inaudible), Henry Tiger (ph). You haven't spoken this morning about the economics that are sustaining ISIS, and I'm curious what America, people in the region can realistically and effectively do to starve or otherwise compromise the regime, foil it and otherwise.
HAYKEL: Do you want to say something about that?
WOOD: Just very quickly, right now ISIS is a self-financing organization. It's—we've already taken steps to interdict and destroy its ability to sell and produce oil. So beyond that, I think we're pretty limited in what we can do.
HAYKEL: Yes. I mean, they were—in theory, they could have produced 350,000 barrels of oil a day. Now they're down to about 50,000, because of American attacks on their facilities, mainly refining, actually, facilities.
But their source of revenue is not, you know, the oil. They tax the population. They also—any time they take over a town or a city, they steal. I mean, most of the weaponry that they have, a lot of the money that they have has come from, you know, from the control of Mosul and other cities that they've captured, as well as, you know, contraband and, you know, export of antiquities and that sort of thing.
There's also a source of funding that in cash that comes out of the Gulf that's very, very difficult to—from private individuals. And that's very difficult to interdict.
TRAUB: Any further questions? Have we—yes. I'm sorry.
QUESTION: K.T. McFarland from Fox News.
To go back to your "Let them kill each other, play it out"—where is that five, seven years from now? Does somebody win if you ultimately have an ISIS-Iran fight? Does China get involved? Does Russia get involved?
HAYKEL: Right, so, I mean, China and Russia don't have force projection into the Middle East. So I doubt that they would get involved in any way.
You know, ISIS by its very nature and because of its radicalism and its extremism is a movement that is bound to burn itself out. It cannot sustain this level of extremism and remain a viable political movement. So I suspect that if—in a fight between Shiites and ISIS or between Sunnis and ISIS, eventually ISIS would be destroyed and defeated. But that may take time.
TRAUB: Graeme, would you—do you agree with Bernard's "Let the dragon and the scorpion fight each other," point of view?
WOOD: I'm—I'd be very cautious about agreeing with that. It would be an ugly fight. It would be very difficult for us, for me personally to watch. So I guess I just don't have the courage or stomach to confirm my agreement with that right now.
HAYKEL: I mean, it's happening, regardless of whether we like it or not.
TRAUB: No, but I think the question that's being—you know, that's being pressed upon you was whether or not the United States is right, whether it's right strategically and whether it's right morally for the United States to do what it can to try to limit that, both the political damage and the human toll. Or whether it's futile to do so and, as you say, the United States should just get out of the way, because it really can't do anything but cause more harm. If that's a—that is both a tactical and a moral question.
Do we have—yes, I think we have one more—yes, we have a question back there. Ma'am. You, yes.
QUESTION: Hi. Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch.
Graeme, how many would you number the hard-core believers of ISIS? Our researchs on the ground suggest that the vast, vast majority, particularly in Iraq, who have sided with ISIS have done so for tactical and not ideological reasons.
So I'm wondering what you estimate the percentage to be, and the sort of actual numbers of caliphate ideal—you know, deep in the Islamic teachings believers to be, and whether the alliances of ISIS with Baathists and tribes, who may not be full believers, actually shows that they are political actors willing to make compromises like everyone else.
And Bernard, in terms of the "Let's help the Saudis" narrative, going back to the question you were asked that I thought you didn't really answer, which is the parallels between ISIS's extremism and Saudis' extremism, don't you think we would best help the Saudis by urging them to stop modeling the behavior that legitimizes what ISIS does, or what Al Qaida does, like physical violence against journalists, a litmus test for what is legitimate Islamic beliefs, and record-breaking beheadings?
TRAUB: Good luck on that.
WOOD: So, your question's very important. I should say that the ideological supporters of ISIS—well, there are many people who are fighting for ISIS right now, who have simply been overrun by ISIS. There are people who are fighting for ISIS right now who are motivated by hatred of the Assad government or the Maliki government.
And the ones who are ideologically supportive in a robust way, I think, are overwhelmingly the foreigners who have gone to fight for them. And those, by most numbers, are in the low tens of thousands. This is not a small number of people, and it's also a group that is particularly eager to get involved in the fight itself, that is, actually to be taking up arms rather than taking simply administrative posts within the Islamic State.
So, to answer your question, I believe the actually ideologically motivated members of ISIS to be in the tens of thousands.
HAYKEL: Yes, I mean, your question seems to imply that I somehow condone the Saudi regime's interpretation of Islam. I don't. I mean, that's their interpretation. And in fact, that interpretation is going to get more accentuated in terms of its application of what we consider to be terrible penal punishments as the regime feels threatened, both ideologically, from ISIS, and it has to reinforce its legitimacy—its religious credentials and legitimacy domestically to its own population.
So my view of the Saudis has nothing to do with how they think of their religion or how they apply it. I think of them as a country that's crucially important strategically and globally for the United States and for the West, they are good stewards of their energy resources, and any instability in that regime would disrupt that way of life.
So it's a calculation that's based on pure power politics and not moral or legal arguments. And I think if we try to meddle with the way they think of their religion or how they apply and interpret their religion, we're not going to get very far. In fact, they might—it might have the reverse effect. So, you know, good luck with that.
TRAUB: All right. Well, listen. Thank you so much. This has really been an extraordinarily...
... useful meeting. And thank you all for coming.
HAYKEL: Thank you.