Vladimir Chukov: Free Syrian Army Will Carry Out Land Operation against Islamic State

Interview |Author: Angel Petrov | December 11, 2014, Thursday // 17:25|  views

Photo: politika.bg

Novinite.com has asked Prof. Vladimir Chukov, an expert in the Middle East, the Arab world and Islam, for a wrap-up of the latest developments related to the Sunni extremist group Islamic State, including the likelihood of a Bulgarian involvement.

Prof. Chukov was born in Athens in 1960. He studied at French-language schools in Tunisia and in Sofia, and graduated from the University of Damascus, Syria. He teaches at Sofia University St. Kliment of Ohrid and the New Bulgarian University in Sofia.

In 2005, he joined the Higher Attestation Commission, a Bulgarian government body overseeing the awarding of higher academic degrees.

In 1999, he set up a Bulgarian Center for Middle Eastern Studies; in 2002, a Center for Regional and Religious Studies. In 2008, he started orientbg.info, a website providing analyses on the Middle East. He is the author of several books.

Prof. Chukov, you earlier argued that the so-called "Bulgarians" fighting for IS were mostly people with Bulgarian consciousness and not citizens of the country. A month on, does anything make you think we are now having a different picture?

No. I have got no data, facts and documents pointing out that people with Bulgarian IDs have been IS members. If there are members with Bulgarian ethnic consciousness is another question - and these are holding Russian citizenship. They are mostly from the Republic of Tatarstan, part of which have a Bulgarian ethnic consciousness. I have more than once cited the famous Salman the Bulgarian, who was a prisoner at Guantanamo, has a very long story as a jihadist and has been entered into the respective services' files as a Bulgarian. He does not know Bulgarian and communicates with jihadis using Russian. De jure he has not relation to our country. We should say that within the southern subjects of the Russian Federation there are indeed people who have an ethnic Bulgarian consciousness and are radical elements. Some of them have a long story in the Islamist movement, either in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. Yes, there are such fighters. But with regard to our state they belong to a different social, political and religious reality. Bulgaria is immensely different from Tatarstan, Bashkiria and Chuvashia, not to mention Dagestan and Chechnya.

After the special operation in November against people allegedly preaching radical Islam, officials said the defendants were not part of IS, but wanted to "show off". Is there a precedent of hiring people who "show off" to IS in other countries?

This is a very important issue: how does one gain membership in IS? Believe me, neither I nor you are capable of preparing a precise table with the criteria one has to meet to become a member. You should have in mind it has control over a territory roughly the size of Finland. Imagine a population of 8 million as well, more than that of Bulgaria. The estimated members of IS are between 50 and 70 thousand. In other words, it is not easy to get there. The criteria are often tied to a recommendation. But if we cite Western sources of literally 10-15 days, after a reduced flow of Western foreigners [to US] due to a pressure from Western countries IS have lowered the criteria a bit. If recommendations formerly had to come from three people, normally IS members, now only two are needed, and the recommendation is actually quite often from a local official whom IS trusts, regardless of whether he is in London, Paris or elsewhere. If there is no recommendation, the next option is a test, a combat ordeal and knowledge on Islam. This is a set of requirements that makes me think one should doubt that people preaching radical Islam in Bulgaria could tackle such challenges.

We should also tell something of one's motivation to join. Societies wherein standard of living is high, motives are ideological. There was something that stroke me today [Wednesday]: the story of three Americans of Indian origin who were stopped at the airport in Chicago on their way to Istanbul. People with a high living standard, people who lived in a house with a car and a swimming pool. This is the classical model of ideological subscription, while societies with lower standard the attraction is mostly financial. This is what normally happens in Arab countries. This is why, if there are such people in Bulgaria as well, motives are mainly financial. By "submitting" themselves they seek to earn money. This was the case with the people who acted as "brokers" for Western jihadis helping them to find accommodation on their way to and from Syria. They are commissioners, people who want to make profit.

Days after the arrest of Ahmed Musa Ahmed during the special operation, are processes of radicalization being witnessed there?

It is hard for me to say. This is a question for the special services to answer. Naturally the operation's effect could be felt both ways, there are elements of intimidation and silencing. This [operation] is the entire might of the state. Wouldn't you be scared if DANS agents pop up in your yard? Then there is social implosion: internal fury which is naturally being built up when there is no clear evidence. I really would like to think every thing was well premeditated and planned by institutions.

How do people living in IS-controlled territories perceive the organization? And how do Muslims in general? Recently an opinion was voiced that IS is embodies the essence of Islam...

In no way does it embody [Islam]. Serious Islamic institutions like Al-Azhar, the most authoritative Sunni Islamic university in Kairo, held some days ago a remarkable conference against terrorism targeting mainly IS. These people have nothing to do with Islam and I will give you an example. They are trying to reproduce Islam as it was in the 7th century - something which cannot happen, since it is now the 21st century. Even within the community [of IS] itself there are ethnic divisions. Iraqis constitute the leadership, since the leading "Caliph" is Iraqi. Second are the so-called "Ansars" - Syrians, their aides; this shows they are "second gear", second-grade. The problem is there are also foreigners. Especially Western foreigners are the Iraqi's favorite ones, something like a "brooch." If you read more about this you will see there are shootouts among Iraqis, Syrians and foreigners. The Iraqi government for instance has its agents inside. Defeats of the IS are quite often due to information given out by agents of the Iraqi government. They are snooping on each other. And there are shootouts when foreigners suspect Iraqis of being "agents". A week ago IS declared they would give USD 5000 to who exposes an agent and gives information about someone being an agent. Foreigners are part of the IS economy. Do you know, for example, that a citizen of Eastern Syria lives with just USD 1 a day? On the other hand potato chips and a Red Bull are things locals have never seen until foreigners bring them. The former costs, say, USD 1.5, while the latter is at USD 5. Well, you can see the huge civilizational difference. Persian Gulf jihadis are addicted to iPhones and iPads. An English-born Pakistani fighting for IS was notorious for eating only American fast food and could not live without it. His codename was "the Poisoned": Iraqis and Syrians laughed at him for eating this kind of food. This is why I am telling you: this "state" will have it very difficult to survive, because it contains different layers. IS are not true Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad neither used iPad or iPhone nor drank Red Bull.

Apart from minting, what other tools of statehood is IS developing?

Courts. We must say the court is very clearly established. They have an army, a Consultative Council, which is something like a Council of Ministers [the Bulgarian government], they have people responsible for certain portfolios. They are trying to revive the seventh-century structure as it was at the time of Umar al-Khattab, the righteous caliph who established the Caliphate. But I am telling you again: there was no oil at the time. Whereas these people have submitted a job advertisement on the Internet looking for a specialist to use oil-extraction equipment for a yearly salary of USD 190 000.

Earlier this week it was reported that the US-led coalition against Islamic State is to deploy 1500 more soldiers to Iraq to boost the assistance provided to the Iraqi army. Do you think a military operation on the ground is looming?

Air strikes alone will not stop the terrorists. Who will carry out a land operation is another thing. I think there is a relative consensus that the Free Syrian Army is to conduct it - a move which will not involve Western soldiers, but only locals. By the way, on Iraq's territory terrorists are already losing. The big question is about Syria. At least as of today [December 10, 2014] is just an imaginary entity. This is where Turkey steps in with its conditions. It says: we will not backtrack. If you want us to participate against terrorists, we have to set up a buffer zone. But Americans are reluctant. [However] messages were spread recently that both sides were ready to concede.

At the same time I feel alarmed by the reports of a few days ago that IS had appeared in Southern Syria. Until now they were mostly in the country's northeastern part. How come? Normally, ex-FSA members pass to the other side when they fail to receive salaries and declare themselves [part of] IS. These people have often been armed, trained and financed by the coalition - by the US, Jordan, Turkey... Such cases often involve defected soldiers from the Syrian army who later pass to the opposition, but the external factors do not meet their obligations (mostly the salary). This is how a bundle of 300 people appears around Deraa, the southmost part of Syria, where the Syrian revolution started. This is a very dangerous precedent involving forces created to topple Bashar Assad. The game seems to be very complicated and for now it is not very clear how an operation on the ground could look like.

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Tags: Islamic state, IS, jihadist, Syria, Iraq, turkey, US, bashar assad, Vladimir Chukov, Umar al-Khattab, caliphate, Free Syrian Army


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