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Interview with Aisha Ahmad

Ottawa Review of Books' Menaka Raman-Wilms speaks with Toronto writer and researcher, Aisha Ahmad, author of Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power.

MRW: The argument in Jihad & Co., about the business class being instrumental in the rise of jihadist groups, wasn’t focused on before – what made you realize there was something going on here that was worth exploring?

AA: My family is from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region where trade has happened over the mountains for hundreds of years. My grandfather was a businessman in the area, and well before Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, he’d been involved in moving foodstuffs and clothing across that border.

Over the course of the war, that border transformed into the primary arms conduit that was financing the mujahedeen. So as a young child, I bore witness to the evolution of that trade into a powerful and violent war economy. I remember the armed guards and suitcases of cash. Even though my immediate family left that dangerous world, I got a glimpse into these frightening realities as a young person when I was visiting.

And then as an adult, after finishing my Masters at the University of Toronto, I took my first internship in Nairobi. It was there I met some Somali students who were at the University of Nairobi, who had come to Kenya as refuges. They told me about the war that was transpiring in their country, and there seemed to be some really remarkable parallels. The wars in our respective regions followed a similar economic logic.

We developed a research proposal to track weapons trafficking in the Horn of Africa, and it was through that research that I started to identify similar war economy dynamics across linguistic and geographic space.

On the outside, these wars look like they’re about identity politics and ideology, but on the ground, everyone is talking about money. I can see the price of war on every bazooka and sack of sugar being sold in the bazaar. And through that logic, I was able to identify new patterns and processes in these conflict zones.

MRW: Was there any kind of critical moment when you realized the argument was playing out?

AA: I remember interviewing one of the lead members of the Pakistani intelligence community, who was involved in financing, supplying, and training armed groups in Afghanistan. I asked him the critical question: why was the Taliban able to take power when you – and the Pakistani government – had been backing other seemingly stronger armed groups throughout the course of the war?

He told me that before the Taliban was even on the radar of Pakistani intelligence, the local business community had been secretly backing the Islamists, mobilizing them against other rival ethnic warlords, including those that had been supported by Pakistan. Their reason was simple: the Taliban had been removing checkpoints and lowering their costs of doing business.

That was the decisive moment when I realized the story could not be about external support. Foreign sponsors had been financing armed groups throughout the war, and they couldn’t win. The only thing that tipped the balance of power on the battlefield was the local business class. I have since seen this business-Islamist relationship emerge across the entire world.

MRW: You seem to have invested a lot of time in understanding the people you were speaking to, and the communities where you were conducting research. Why was this so important?

AA: The reason we have failed to understand these types of processes and movements is because so much research has been done from 80,000 feet above. Unless you are embedded and deeply connected to the communities you’re studying on the ground, you can often overlook, or oversimplify, in such a way that results in caricatures.

It was necessary for me to invest the time in establishing trust-based relationships, with both my research associates and interview subjects, in order to do my work properly. Also, I think there are certain processes that are only visible once you’ve spent time on the ground.

Everybody in these parts of the world experiences conflict on the price tags in the bazaar, because everybody has to eat and put clothes on their back. When a business person has their shipment extorted by 40% by a militia, everybody sees that 40% added to their goods in the bazaar. Then no one buys them and the goods rot. To understand this, it was necessary for me to spend time with the people who are living in, and adapting to, those situations. I did a fair bit of shopping in war zones, and it becomes easier to see patterns after you’ve experienced them.

MRW: In the book’s appendix, you write about the importance of being aware of your own positionality when conducting research. How does your position give you a unique ability or perspective on your research?

AA: I think this is a crucial question, which is why I spent so much time writing about it in the methodological section of my book. Each and every one of us as scholars has a position that needs to be accounted for. However, I’ve also noticed that women and minorities are asked about positionality more often than other colleagues, especially those who are male. This leads us to create incomplete pictures of the reality on the ground.

It’s as if we’re trying to describe an elephant. Maybe I have a view of the trunk, or the ears, so I acknowledge that I’m standing at the front. If my colleague has a different position and is describing the tail or the backside, he needs to tell me where he’s standing. Otherwise, he’s giving us an incomplete picture, and we’ll fail to see the elephant as a whole.

There’s an example I use in my book, where I’m in Somalia with a colleague of mine, who’s male and white. We interviewed very similar research subjects. Because of my particular position, I interviewed these men in a context that was closer to the mosque, so my interviewees expressed more piety and traditional cultural values. Then, my male colleague met them later in the evening; they maybe chewed some khat and talked in a more social and “un-Islamic” context. He saw a very different – and less pious – side of these same respondents. My colleague’s data reflected one side of them, and my data reflected another. Neither of our perspectives are complete representations of these individuals, and both sides of the story are authentic.

Only together can we get the full picture of the elephant. So I need to acknowledge where I stand, and so do my male colleagues.

It is imperative that this standard of excellence be met by all colleagues involved in security research, male and female, and across the academy. Otherwise, we’re saying that positionality is something that applies to women and minorities, which is unprofessional and inappropriate. Even more, we’ll fail to understand our research subjects, which in the security business is incredibly dangerous.

MRW: Since the publication of your book, what’s the next phase of your research?

AA: Right now I’m running two new projects: one in Iraq, and one in Mali. Both are exploring war economy dynamics in territories that have been held by Islamist groups in recent years, and are currently under contestation by government and Islamists rivals.

What’s really important in all of these contests is that even though we’ve seen jihadists lose power in these war zones – in Iraq with the fall of ISIS, in Mali with the Islamists pushed out of northern territories – we know that they’re still deeply entrenched in local war economies. ISIS is involved in money laundering, with huge cash assets in local businesses across Mosul and other territories, and Islamists in Mali still have a lot of control over the cocaine trafficking network.

What we’d like to determine in this next phase is how it is that high-level fragmentation and contestation intersects with the war economy. We’re also looking at what the international community is doing that inadvertently allows Islamists to gain advantage in local war economies. Indeed, corruption is a key reason that people give up on the government and run back to Islamists. Looking critically at these processes can help uncover ways to incentivize these local business communities to work towards the purpose of peace.

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