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.

Cross-posted from The Glittering Eye

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, , , , , , , , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Triumph says:

    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.

    There is nothing unusual about this–it has been done since the dawn of civilization. Hell, European colonialization used this same technique.

  2. Beldar says:

    I’m not particularly tribal, and I’m not an Iraqi, but I have two teenage daughters. Messin’ with them would be more likely to get me riled into some sort of blood rage than messin’ with just about anything else.

  3. Tlaloc says:

    That is an interesting article.

  4. tom p says:

    a very good read. I found this to be especially instructive as to the mind set of so many of our “leaders”:

    The original concept was that we… would create security, which would in turn create space for a “grand bargain” at the national level. Instead, we are seeing the exact opposite: a series of local political deals has displaced extremists, resulting in a major improvement in security at the local level, and the national government is jumping on board with the program. Instead of coalition-led top-down reconciliation, this is Iraqi-led, bottom-up, based on civil society rather than national politics. And oddly enough, it seems to be working so far… This was not what we expected,…

    Why is this odd? Why were we not “expecting” this? As Tip O’Neil once said, “All politics is local.” This is what we should have been trying to foster from the very beginning.

    It gives me hope that we may yet survive the blundering of the Bush Admin.


  5. Andy says:

    Fantastic! All we have to do is wait for Al Qaeda to try to marry the locals all over the world and we’ll soon have them on the run.

    Also, have we considered that these relationships may be collapsing because Massachusetts allows gay marriage? I’d say that we have overlooked a powerful weapon in the war on terror.

  6. C.Wagener says:

    In addition to messin’ with the women folk, screwin’ up perfectly good, semi-illegal businesses, AQ also doesn’t like people smoking. If you want to dominate the world don’t screw with people’s smoky treats.

    Philip Morris, not content with professionalizing women’s sports, being the largest corporate art supporter, defending our civil liberties via its legal budget, revolutionizing auto racing technologies, creating inhalable insulin, also isolates and destroys Al Qeada. Thank you Marlboro Man!