From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy. Filiu, Jean-Pierre. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Increasingly, authors are delving into the nebulous connections between autocrats, apparatchiks, and terrorists. Some have a tendency to view these connections as either the continuation of domestic politics or the instrumentalization of radicals in lieu of raising and equipping capable armies. These perspectives are heavily invested in the concept of the state — more invested in that concept than the individuals analyzed. Westerners of diverse backgrounds tend to latch on to simple narratives when seeking to explain what is really a complex and jumbled mess of motivations. (For a good account on why that is a problem, read this John Schindler post.) Misunderstanding the rise of the state security mafias could have significant consequences.
History is important, but so is understanding the complex motivations that lead these individuals and groups to make their fateful decisions.
Jean-Pierre Filiu has admirably attempted to correct these interpretations. He notes that various elements within these state security apparatus are not all treated equally. This is due to individual rivalries as well as underlying social and political differences that impact the composition of these forces. History is important, but so is understanding the complex motivations that lead these individuals and groups to make their fateful decisions. Filiu addresses these matters well, and is clearly trying to correct Western notions concerning these mafioso autocrats in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen. The repressive practices of these mafioso heads of state create opportunities for terrorist groups to operate within their countries and abroad. Perversely, these mafias utilize these threats to justify their retention of power. The game has worked quite well for decades now. But, that might not be the case for much longer.
When the strongman is no longer able to guarantee the network’s self-propagation, the television stations are seized and the armor rolls into the cities.
Power networks may be content to operate under a certain strongman for a very long period of time, as the individuals and groups within that network seek aggrandizement. When the strongman is no longer able to guarantee the network’s self-propagation, the television stations are seized and the armor rolls into the cities. Not long after that, bloody repression and revenue extractions resume their course.
For Filiu, some of these mafias operate as “Mamluks,” claiming power as an insular group but with the added illusion of the legitimacy of a captive Caliph. In this case the Caliph is the people supposedly conferring legitimacy through a meaningless plebiscite. An aspect of this book includes the tendency for these mafias, and other symbiotic networks, to have deeply embedded and insular power networks across and intermingling both state and non-state apparatus. These networks are prone to conspiracies, but not always with the involvement of the autocrat — or mafia boss — currently running the show. Individuals and groups seek opportunities for their aggrandizement independently. Smuggling, involving non-state networks and state organizations and facilities, is often an opportunity for significant revenue streams.
Once one is in deep with crime syndicates, one can employ hoodlums and toughs to raise hell on the streets — or terrorists to undermine rivals both home and abroad. Of course, there are plenty of coups and intrigues to be had. But the boss can often last for a long time, delegating rivals to jail cells, early graves, or perhaps just foreign assignments. Filiu focuses on Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen but these sorts of networks and deep states have been seen elsewhere in Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey. In fact, he notes the common links the KGB has had in many of his Mamluk states.
The nexus can also be strongest within just one branch of the state apparatus. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Haqqani network are clearly still linked within some component of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus. Branches within Russia’s security services currently are operating under different rules of the game as well.
War and peace are not just matters of state interests, they are the tools of a network within the state.
The global significance of these power structures can be seen in the would-be authoritarian developments in Turkey and with the greatest of all “Mamluks,” or state-mafia bosses, Vladimir Putin. Filiu notes this with Recep Tap Erdoğan, first as his movement combats the previous deep state, and second as Erdoğan built his own power base through the appropriation of the justice system for political ends. A move Nouri al-Maiki seems to have noted.
In recent weeks and after losing an election (in part to a Kurdish party), Erdoğan has reignited the Kurdish threat under the guise of fighting terror writ large in Turkey and Syria…and Kurdish held Iraq. Courts have moved against Kurdish leaders as well. (One example of analysis on this issue is from Yaroslav Trofimov.) Terrorists, as Filiu would perhaps note today, are once again useful to the Turkish would-be autocrat to ensure he is given leeway to settle domestic and foreign affairs to his liking. If a sufficiently powerful cabal finds opportunities to profit, he may very well succeed. If the dominate military and economic powers in the world can work with that cabal, it is more likely to succeed. War and peace are not just matters of state interests, they are the tools of a network within the state.
This text also provides a new interpretation of the Arab Spring in 2011 arguing that demonstrators took to the streets seeking revolution but were met with a sustained and bloody counterrevolution. The internal conservative elements, the security mafias which Filiu addresses, play an important role in his account. Outside conservative elements — like monarchical Europe in the age of the French Revolution — are highlighted in the text as well. The involvement between jihadis, organized crime, and the security mafias is discussed but in a less consistent manner. But, this project was already quite ambitious and the need to get the text to print likely ran into the difficulty of updating an account still very much in play. For the most part, with an occasional exception, Filiu maintains that these mafias are more interested in attacking democrats and moderates because those are the real threats to their power. This is undoubtably true.
This text is an excellent correction for our policymakers who with foolish gullibility allow for the supposed “stability” of tyrants in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen to justify those reigns.
But, these state security mafias often do much more than ignore the jihadis or attack common enemies. This text is an excellent correction for our policymakers who with foolish gullibility allow for the supposed “stability” of tyrants in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen to justify those reigns. Some of our other associates in the region, however, are playing a similar version of the same game. On the international stage, these mafias have appropriated the concept of state sovereignty as a tool to further their networks interests.
Filiu has paved the road for these topics to be more fully addressed, and hopefully the conversation will continue. The West, confident in the victory of capitalism and democracy, has been ambivalent toward the rise of these security state mafias in many parts of the world. Our leaders seem to assume that lip service given to democracy, human rights, and free markets represents the continuation of our influence and the preservation of the international order. As Filiu notes, the most cunning of these mafiosi have used those terms to expand and solidify their networks at the expense of the state. For these reasons, this book is essential reading. A thousand years ago, states began to coalesce around mafiosi using religious and ethnic myths alongside their increasingly centralized control of networks. There is no rule saying the process could not be run in reverse.
Chris Zeitz is a former member of the U.S. Army who served in military intelligence. While in the Army, he also attended the Defense Language School in Monterey and studied Arabic. He has a Master’s degree in Diplomacy from Norwich University. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Egyptian Army in Tahrir Square, January 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)