Is it all about the cigarettes?

Cigarettes. Islamists don’t like them. But I wonder if they could yet prove fatal to Isil. With the Shabaab back in the headlines this week, I have been thinking of their stance on cigarettes. I have been reminded of it several times in the past few months as it has been reported (several times) that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has banned smoking – along with skinny jeans.

And while it is wrong to extrapolate too much across geographic zones –  most of these conflicts originate in and are driven by local factors – I tentatively wonder if there might be a hint of a pattern.

You see an oft forgotten aspect of the rise of al-Shabaab is what happened to the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), its forerunner as the main Islamist movement in Somalia. Before it was driven from power at the end of 2006 by Ethiopian troops, the courts were suffering from declining popularity and had alienated businessmen – for banning cigarettes. It had already banned qat and closed Mogadishu’s informal cinemas.  And as a result the moneymen in Somalia, who had initially welcomed the courts for the stability and security they brought, were close to abandoning the movement.

Of course, we will never know what might have happened. The ICU was pushed from Mogadishu at the end of December 2006, splintering and leaving its young footsoldiers of the Shabaab to launch their insurgency. Maybe they would have reigned for decades without Ethiopia’s intervention. Perhaps it is too optimistic to say they would have collapsed.

And Somalia is not Iraq or Syria.

But people in Afghanistan also describe the way the Taliban initially offered peace and security, but by the time they were chased from Kabul were resented by much of the population.

Is there a pattern? Along the lines of….

  1. Movement offers peace and security after years of turmoil and civil war
  2. Wins support of local population – and crucially business leaders who see opportunity to make money more easily
  3. Increasingly oppressive dictats alienate population and the money men, who find revenue streams cut off when alcohol, cigarettes or qat are banned
  4. Foreign intervention unites dying Islamist movement against foreigners
  5. Long running insurgency

The last two points are the more speculative. But the bottom line is that Islamist movements cannot govern without the support of the local population. And in Somalia and Afghanistan they appeared to have alienated supporters.


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