Jason Burke has been reporting on Islamic militancy for nearly two decades, but if his reportage in the Guardian and the Observer has slipped past you for some reason, it’s worth looking at his books. The previous two have simple, self-explanatory titles. If you want to know about al-Qaeda, you might want to read Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam. If you’re interested in understanding the conflicts that engulfed the world after the twin towers fell in New York, The 9/11 Wars does what it says on the tin. Burke’s writing works in two ways – pressing forward, describing the world he encounters over the course of his reportage, and also working back into the history of militancy, the root causes and context. His recent book The New Threat offers nuance in place of the blanket statements given by politicians and pundits, and provides more than a few much-needed corrections. His reportage after the Paris attacks on 13 November described, with great care, the purpose of ISIS’s use of violence.

We here at Five Dials were anxious to ask Burke about, among other things, the use of that word ‘medieval’, which seems to spring up in most discussions of the Islamic State.

Five Dials

Politicians often call extremism ‘medieval’. Why is this wrong?

Jason Burke

There are various problems. The first is that it is historically inaccurate. The adjective is used as a kind of shorthand for barbaric, retrograde, brutal and ignorant, and we know, of course, that much of what happened in much of the world in the Middle Ages was the opposite of this. Nor does anyone ever specify where or what they mean by ‘medieval‘. Are we talking eleventh-century northern Europe or twelfth-century Mesopotamia, for example? But the broader issue is that it frames a phenomenon that is fundamentally contemporary as something that is some kind of irrational eruption from the past. This leads us to underestimate the very real capabilities of Islamic militants by effectively implying that they can and will inevitably be overcome by us with our modern ideas and modern weapons, and also leads us to misunderstand the nature of the enemy, which is fundamentally contemporary.

Significantly perhaps, the ‘medieval’ label was notably absent in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. I’m not sure why. Perhaps observers just worked out, watching the news as it came out and learning about the killers, that there was nothing at all medieval about them or what they were doing.

In 1998 and 1999 I watched executions in Taliban Afghanistan. The audience was limited to those sitting or standing alongside me. Now we can all view the executions of the IS because of social media. This is a different kind of event, a contemporary one, not a throwback to a previous era. Islamic militants are of our time, now, and of our place, which is here. They are in fact ahead of the curve very often, not behind it. They were crowd-sourcing funding before the word was even invented. Their vision of a state without contiguous borders – the Caliphate as it has now been reimagined – is very novel and very much a product of our current globalized world and fragmented international political system.

This is a different kind of event, a contemporary one, not a throwback to a previous era. Islamic militants are of our time, now, and of our place, which is here. They are in fact ahead of the curve very often, not behind it. They were crowd-sourcing funding before the word was even invented.

Five Dials

Obama described IS as ‘a terrorist organization, pure and simple’. You point out it’s not. It’s a hybrid of insurgency, separatism, terrorism and criminality with deep local roots in local environment, in regional conflicts, and in broader geopolitical battles. Why is it so tough to view IS with nuance?

Burke

It’s tough to view any extremism or terrorism with nuance. We have a deep need for a simple enemy, or simple problems, with the implication that a solution will be equally simple. Obama, who is a highly intelligent man being properly advised by well-informed specialists, is no doubt well aware that the IS is more than a terrorist organization, but recognizes that there is little room for a complex and nuanced description, and a complex and nuanced debate, in the current environment. Any analysis – including my own – necessarily involves a degree of simplification. The question is what degree? Not so much as to be distorting, I’d argue.

Five Dials

Is IS failing in its attempt to create a different form of government? Is it becoming a traditional nation state?

Burke

The project of the Islamic State is evolving all the time. It’s certainly not becoming a traditional nation state as such, not least because the idea of a Caliphate precludes the existence of nation states as we know them. The IS has made a major effort to explicitly base its appeal on the rejection of boundaries imposed by colonialists in the twentieth century and adopted by later regimes in the region. But it has nonetheless exhibited many of the same elements as those regimes, which is not surprising given that many of its senior members are former Ba’ath Party members who served Saddam Hussein. There’s the same authoritarianism, use of public violence, repression, surveillance, intimidation of all dissent, attempts to brainwash, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, exploitation of sectarian or other identity-based prejudices, incompetence, arbitrary taxation, corruption, favouritism, manipulation of tribal allegiances and sense of victimhood. None of this is exactly unfamiliar locally.

Five Dials

Why is it so hard for extremists to govern? Are they bad at the boring bits?

Burke

It’s hard for anyone to govern, especially if you simply don’t have the people with the experience and skills necessary to organize, say, rubbish collection, but particularly so if there is a series of fundamental conflicts between various elements of your overall project. The Islamic militants follow an agenda which has a global, expansionist drive at its heart, but which is supposed to convince people who are usually much more interested in local issues. All politics is local, and almost all conflict is too. So the aggregated vision of a global war between belief and unbelief, Islam and the West, etc., etc., isn’t a great deal of use when trying to explain why sewers don’t work in Abyan province or Falluja.

Indeed, there’s a strong possibility that the IS is trying to offset its problems at home, locally, with the move to a global strategy. That’s where the attack on Paris would come in, clearly. The message sent is that this movement, this project is still moving forward, it is both expanding and enduring, as the IS motto has it. The forward movement is absolutely essential to maintain credibility, appeal and the sense that this is a divinely favoured venture. There’s a sense that the momentum has been slowing recently, even if it hasn’t gone quite into reverse.

All politics is local, and almost all conflict is too. So the aggregated vision of a global war between belief and unbelief, Islam and the West, etc., etc., isn’t a great deal of use when trying to explain why sewers don’t work in Abyan province or Falluja.

The militants also seek to control the behaviour of their population – the logic is that only if all Muslims are good Muslims and follow the shariat, the true path, to the letter will the community be able to withstand the onslaught of the unbelievers – and do not seek consent. This is pretty tough for many people to accept. The result is that the Islamic militants have to lever local rivalries to gain support, win over individual power brokers, or simply coerce people into staying in line. Almost every Islamic militant effort to create a state has ended up with an increasing level of violence towards the people they are supposed to be ruling, simply because the package they are offering is only attractive in the most extreme circumstances – such as the Syrian civil war. Militants want the active support of local people, not just their passive acquiescence but eventually tend to end up with neither.

Five Dials

In the new book you present al-Qaeda as an ageing presence – not great at technology, unwilling to change. How important are production values for today’s militant group? Does al-Qaeda not care as much about production values?

Burke

Islamic militants’ use of contemporary media technology no longer surprises us. But we see it as an opportunistic exploitation of technical tools. This is too narrow. The evolution of media technology has not just determined the choice of tactics from suicide attacks to execution videos, but the very structure of the organizations themselves. This has always been the case with terrorists, but is more marked than ever now. From bin Laden structuring al-Qaeda to be able to launch massive spectacular attacks to the dependence of IS on shocking videos and combat footage, from embedded ‘reporters’ with their militants and on to the new ultra-decentralized world of individual lone wolves with their GoPro cameras and laptops, Islamic militancy has not just used media technology but has been profoundly shaped by it. Indeed, of all the various factors influencing the evolution of Islamic extremist terrorist activity, this may be the most important. So yes, al-Qaeda has been very late in catching up on the potential of modern technology and has been less influenced by its capabilities. It is increasingly marginalized as a result.

Five Dials

Organizations pledging allegiance to IS are compared to inkspots appearing around the globe. One example is Boko Haram. Where else are inkspots forming? Where could they form in the future?

Burke

You basically see the inkspots forming where several factors are unified: a prior history of Islamic militancy or at least activism locally, a degree of marginalization in cultural, economic, political or economic terms, some effective local actors on the militant side, some ineffective local actors on the government or local authorities side and a more general lack of governance. Put all that together and you’ve got a fairly toxic brew which suits the militant ideology with its ideas of victimhood, utopianism, violence and redemption perfectly.

This is dynamic of course. So where governance is established or certain actors eliminated, militancy will go into decline, or likewise surge where there is a particular change that brings a breakdown in law and order. The Arab Spring brought the latter on a vast scale, so many of the IS inkspots we see today are emerging in places like eastern Libya, north-eastern Nigeria, parts of Afghanistan, the Egyptian Sinai desert, and so on. I’m personally fascinated by the role certain towns play, such as Ma’an in Jordan or Tetouan in Morocco, over decades, both in revolutionary secular activism and religious militancy.

Five Dials

What’s your operating gambit when interviewing a former torturer? How do you get a person like that to talk about his past?

Burke

The one I interviewed in Iraq was quite happy to talk. I think it helped that I instinctively shook his hand when we were introduced, something I later regretted.

Five Dials

What are considerations when interviewing the family of a suicide bomber?

Burke

The same as when you are interviewing any bereaved relatives. Tread softly, show respect. You have to try gently to get behind the boilerplate conditioned responses of ’I miss my son, but I am proud he is a martyr’. Clearly also there will be a lot that you won’t be told. A lot is unsaid, implicit too. Having a very good translator is a must. My own local languages are too rudimentary to pick up on all the nuances.

Five Dials

Have you ever been forced to reconsider your views on militancy after an interview? Have you ever conducted an interview with someone who made you understand the allure of a call to arms?

Burke

I think I’ve always understood the allure of a call to arms, just not their one. I went off to spend time with Kurdish pershmerga guerillas in Iraq when I was a student. The things I tend to bear in mind are that a) very few people fully understand the implications of getting involved in something when they initially become involved, b) once caught up in something, an individual’s outlook can change dramatically, but then also change back again and c) the process which leads someone into extremism is not dissimilar to that which leads people into a range of other extreme, if less nefarious, activities, such as drug-taking or high-risk sports or a particular music scene or body piercing or something. The psychological and social barriers to actually committing violence are much higher, of course, but the actual mechanics of how a person becomes involved are fairly universal. Terrorism is a highly social activity, and we tend to forget this in our haste to imagine ‘lone wolves’ and masterminds in our simplistic, if reassuring, way.

We see this very clearly with the recent attacks in Paris. You have friends, relatives, brothers, all linked pretty closely. The recruitment, if that’s the right word, appears to have been through friendship and kinship, not ‘brainwashing’. If the killers had been taken off somewhere against their will and indoctrinated, it would have been much less concerning.