AQ Runs Afoul of Iraqi Marriage Customs: When Soft Power Turns Hard

There is an absolutely fascinating post over at SWJ Blog from David Kilcullen on the origins of the tribal revolt in Iraq.

Some tribal leaders told me that the split started over women. This is not as odd as it sounds. One of AQ’s standard techniques, which I have seen them apply in places as diverse as Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia, is to marry leaders and key operatives to women from prominent tribal families. The strategy works by creating a bond with the community, exploiting kinship-based alliances, and so “embedding” the AQ network into the society. Over time, this makes AQ part of the social landscape, allows them to manipulate local people and makes it harder for outsiders to pry the network apart from the population. (Last year, while working in the tribal agencies along Pakistan’s North-West Frontier, a Khyber Rifles officer told me “we Punjabis are the foreigners here: al Qa’ida have been here 25 years and have married into the Pashtun hill-tribes to the point where it’s hard to tell the terrorists from everyone else.”) Well, indeed.

As I understand it Arabizing local populations through intermarriage is a practice that goes back thousands of years. Apparently, Al Qaeda has adopted the strategy themselves as a method of creating bonds with local populations. Unfortunately for AQ, the approach runs afoul of Iraqi tribal customs since they are, reportedly, endogamous with respect to tribe.

Marrying women to strangers, let alone foreigners, is just not done. AQ, with their hyper-reductionist version of “Islam” stripped of cultural content, discounted the tribes’ view as ignorant, stupid and sinful.

This led to violence, as these things do: AQI killed a sheikh over his refusal to give daughters of his tribe to them in marriage, which created a revenge obligation (tha’r) on his people, who attacked AQI. The terrorists retaliated with immense brutality, killing the children of a prominent sheikh in a particularly gruesome manner, witnesses told us. This was the last straw, they said, and the tribes rose up. Neighboring clans joined the fight, which escalated as AQI (who had generally worn out their welcome through high-handedness) tried to crush the revolt through more atrocities. Soon the uprising took off, spreading along kinship lines through Anbar and into neighboring provinces.

I guess it’s not just Americans who are insensitive to local customs.

The post goes on to describe conflicts between tribal organizations and AQ over business operations (legal and illegal), AQ’s links with Iran, the form that the tribal revolt might take in Baghdad, and future prospects.

Highly recommended.

6 comments… add one
  • Al Qaeda positioning on this is actually quite ideological with respect to desiring to subject tribal organisation to purist Islam. Really quite an old issue actually. I am not sure I buy the marriage/women line he’s selling – the Arab tribal organisation throughout al Jazeerah – that is through the Peninsula up into Jordan, Syria, Iraq all shares the same habits in this area. Given the Jordanian presence in the Iraqi organisation, I find the proposition … not plausible.

    Now, it may be a tiff over women / marriage in combination with Iraqi particularism set things off, but if you’re buying the idea that the Iraqi tribes are so very different….

  • I really have no idea, Lounsbury. It’s something I hadn’t heard of before and found interesting and it’s outside the run-of-the-mill pap one reads these days. I don’t have a formed opinion.

  • Dave,

    Glad to see you’re reading SWJ – they publish some excellent stuff.

    From people I know who’ve worked in Anbar, the change in tribal loyalties is not solely due to the marriage issue, but it was a major factor.

    Patrick Lang published a good primer on dealing with tribes that applies to this discussion. Some excerpts:

    The Al-Qa’ida and
    associated movements (AQAM) follow forms of Islam based on acceptance
    of a consensus of belief among AQAM of the opinions of Muslims far more
    extreme than any the tribesman of Anbar Province have ever followed.
    AQAM believes that ANY cooperation with non-Muslims is religiously
    impossible and that only war to the death is possible between Muslims and
    infidels. AQAM extends this attitude toward Shia Muslims and any
    Muslims who do not accept their views. This is an opportunity for
    Americans or other foreigners to align themselves with moderate Muslims of
    the kind found among the tribesmen of Anbar. In their interactions with the
    tribesmen the Jihadis have often over-played their hand by attempting to
    force the tribesmen into acceptance of puritanical interpretations of Islamic
    law and practice which are alien to them.

    Tribesmen often operate
    within at least two sets of rules. These are the dictates of tribal customary
    law (“‘Urf” in Arabic) and also of whatever kind of religious belief they
    subscribe to. In the case of the Sunni Arab tribes of Anbar Province, their
    religion is Islam observed according to the Shafa’i school of Shariah law.
    The tribes of Anbar Province are sections or sub-tribes of the Dulaim tribe.
    Dulaim has such a large group of sub-tribes that it might well be called a
    tribal confederation. In Dulaim all claim descendance from a common
    ancestor. This is the essence of tribal membership. Sometimes such
    descendance is genuine and in other cases it is not and “memory” is shaped according to need for unity. These peoples have a powerful oral tradition and a lot of analysis of the character of the foreigner will be based on his willingness to sit and listen patiently and appreciatively to the elders who will tell him the truth of tribal belief in their situation.

  • Note that I’m on their blogroll, Andy. They know I’m a constant reader.

  • I had heard rumors about a year ago that the trouble originated when AQI killed an old Sheikh who was mediating a dispute over a stolen automobile(s). Have no idea if that is true or not.

    As far as Kilkullen goes, this is not his first jaunt into a tribalized, complex, Muslim society, being a professional anthropologist, though not an Arabist. He has credibility with me though I do recognize he is in an official capacity in Iraq at this time, with all the pressure that goes with the territory.

  • Stepping back, let me repeat – the issue of in-clan / in-tribe marriage is not something strange to the Jordanians, Syrians and Sudanese, not even urban ones. Quite the contrary, tribe is disturbingly present in marriage calculations in urban Jordan – bizarre in my mind, but there it is.

    Kilkullen is likely describing real dynamics, but the characterisation that Dave took away is silly (and the urban versus rural, well, that depends)

    But leaving that aside, what likely is the case is the issue of women and marriage is the lever or hot-spot the tribal elders latched on as accumulated irritation and differences with the al-Qaeda organisation, and diverging interests, led them to decide the smack them down.

    This paragraph: Marrying women to strangers, let alone foreigners, is just not done. AQ, with their hyper-reductionist version of “Islam” stripped of cultural content, discounted the tribes’ view as ignorant, stupid and sinful. is an exageration (or he doesn’t understand the background of many of the al Qaeda people.

    Not wrong, but over-drawn.

Leave a Comment