Nightmare after nightmare: How to run a polyglot terrorist organisation

…nightmare after nightmare from which I woke up screaming only inarticulate sounds because I couldn’t come up with the words that I needed in ANY of my languages

In my daily life, I speak English (my native language) six months out of the year.  The rest of the time, I live my life in French, except for one week in August that I spend doing volunteer work in Guatemala.  In preparation for that week, I stop using French July 1st and spend the entire month trying to push French down and wake Spanish back up.  This morning I laid down for a nap after a couple hours of studying Spanish anatomy vocabulary, and had nightmare after nightmare from which I woke up screaming only inarticulate sounds because in the nightmares, I couldn’t come up with the words that I needed in any of my three languages.

If you read this blog, you’re probably more than a little bit interested in language, its powers–and its complications.  If so: you could do worse than to read Michael Erard.

Erard is a UTexas-Austin-trained linguist and writer who has been especially active in the area of polyglottism.  Besides being an excellent narrative writer, he also has some ideas that are outside of the linguistic conventional wisdom, which is why I find him interesting–in particular, he has made me think a lot about what it means to “speak” a language.  I have always had the standard linguist’s attitude about that–you “speak” the language(s) that you learned natively; anything else… you don’t speak, exactly.  So, ask me whether or not I speak French, and I will say no, despite the fact that it’s the only language that I speak comes out of my mouth 6 months out of the year.  That’s the same thing that I’ll say if you ask me if I speak Spanish, despite the fact that I spend one week a year doing interpreting for a bunch of surgeons in Guatemala.  (You should donate some money–it’s a great group.)  Erard argues that in the global world in which we live today, where many people live their lives in languages that aren’t native to them, the definition of “to speak” a language would more usefully be broadened.  Erard is a smart guy who got his PhD at a hell of a lot better school than I did–he’s worth listening to.  (If you can figure out a way to end that sentence without a preposition: go for it.)

This 2016 article by Erard, currently writer-in-residence at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, is a good example of how he thinks.  The first in a 3-part series, it addresses the question of how the Islamic State manages to function on the battlefield in the absence of a shared language.  The French Foreign Legion and the Israeli Army have always been (and remain) forces with large numbers of members who don’t speak the national language.  They have historically dealt with the problem via formal instruction.  ISIS has gone a different way–as Erard shows, one that is not without precedent.

Erard’s native language is English, and he writes nicely in it.  Let’s start with some of the more-obscure words and phrases that he uses:

As everyone knows by now, ISIL has attracted new and seasoned jihadis from all over the world. But many of its 30,000 recruits (a typical estimate) don’t speak Arabic. So without a common language, how do they fight?

  • seasoned: experienced.
  • common: shared; the same for everyone.

This question has become particularly interesting in light of a fairly recent change to ISIL’s fighting structure. The change was revealed, in passing, in “Confessions of an ISIS Spy,” a series of Daily Beast articles last November by Michael Weiss, based on his interviews with a supposed ex-ISIL intelligence officer named Abu Khaled.

  • particularly: especially; more than some other things.
  • fairly: somewhat; not entirely, but not just a little bit, either.
  • in passing: from CollinsIf you mention something in passing, you mention it briefly while you are talking or writing about something else.
  • supposed: claimed to be.

(In passing, I will note that right at this moment, I can hear my cat snoring from the next room.  I didn’t even know that cats snored at all, let alone at high volume!)

Abu Khaled told Weiss that many of the ISIL battle groups, called katibas, were originally organized by language or ethnicity. But in mid to late 2015, ISIL began reorganizing fighters into mixed katibas, either combining muhajireen (foreign fighters) with ansar (local fighters) or mixing muhajireen from different places.

  • battle group is actually a technical term, referring to different sizes of units of organization depending on whether you’re talking about the Army or the Navy, but they’re typically probably a lot bigger than what Erard is referring to here, although I couldn’t swear to that as he doesn’t specify what he means.

Because I write about language, languages, and the people who use them, this piqued my interest. To confirm it I contacted Amarnath Amarasingam, a Canadian sociologist who studies foreign ISIL fighters. He told me he had heard from his contacts that linguistically heterogeneous katibas were indeed being assembled on a trial basis.

  • to pique (someone’s) interest: piquer la curiosité de quelqu’unsusciter l’intérêt de quelqu’un (  I’m a little nervous about that second translation–intérêt in French rarely seems to correspond to interest in English, based on the odd looks that I get when I apparently misuse it constantly where I would have used interest in English…

It seems that the operational simplicity of having everyone in a katiba speak the same language also had a downside: It created an insularity among some fighters, who were perceived as running their own agenda. Abu Khaled, who also speaks French, told Weiss he had put together a proposal for a francophone katiba, but that it wasn’t approved. Previous problems were cited with an all-Libyan katiba that had proven more loyal to its own emir (leader) than to ISIL, and also with Russian-speaking katibas that had a tendency to go rogue. To avoid rifts and create a coherent army, ISIL now seemed to feel, it was better to get people to exchange cultures and languages.

  • downside: disadvantage.  Often used when you’re comparing the disadvantage to an/some advantage(s), which would then probably be referred to as upside(s).  

But how, in that case, does ISIL turn a gaggle of immigrants with no common language into an effective fighting force?

  • gaggle: the term for a group of geese.  You can use it metaphorically for any group that lacks organization.

…and for the answer to Erard’s question, I’ll refer you to his article.  One little point that I’ll mention in there is the appearance in a quote of the word strategic: 

You don’t need to understand the strategic objectives to blow up a school bus. At that level, it’s easy: go there, kill everybody, end of discussion.”

Objectives here are goals.  Strategic, from strategy, is being opposed to tactical, from tactics.  See this post where we talked about that distinction, which is quite important in the quote that Erard gives, from the perspective of its use in Henry Reed’s poem Movement of bodies:

Those of you that have got through the rest, I am going to rapidly
Devote a little time to showing you, those that can master it,
A few ideas about tactics, which must not be confused
With what we call strategy. Tactics is merely
The mechanical movement of bodies, and that is what we mean by it.
Or perhaps I should say: by them.

Strategy, to be quite frank, you will have no hand in.
It is done by those up above, and it merely refers to,
The larger movements over which we have no control.
But tactics are also important, together or single.
You must never forget that, suddenly, in an engagement,
You may find yourself alone.

…and I’ll tell you this: in the American military, we are not allowed to refuse illegal orders (say, to blow up a school bus)–we are required to refuse illegal orders.  Think about that if you would like to understand how outraged my fellow veterans and myself were by Trump’s comment, in response to an interviewer’s question about how he could possibly support Putin, a killer: There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers.  You think our country’s so innocent?”  Fuck you: the American military is not the moral equivalent of the Russian military.

The graphic showing the distribution of languages in ISIS comes from the blog.






7 thoughts on “Nightmare after nightmare: How to run a polyglot terrorist organisation”

  1. This English use of “in passing” is interesting, because it is used in the same mood in French (en passant) and the phrase we hear a lot is “soit dit en passant” . Someone is telling something and when he mentions an anecdotically related, or nor even related, fact you hear “and there also was …., soit dit en passant, …”
    I’m surprised by what you write about “intérêt” because I often hear, read and use it this way . Intérêt has multiple meanings but “suciter, exciter l’intérêt de quelqu’un” is totally correct and clear . “Nous l’écoutions avec un très vif intérêt” is another common example .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Regarding “soit dit en passant”: what does the “soit” part mean? Something like “even if just” said in passing? I can’t quite wrap my head around it…

      Regarding intérêt: somehow, I always seem to screw this up. The more I think about it, the less clear I am about how to use it, actually. 🙂 Consider “l’intérêt général” : we have an expression with exactly the same words in English, but if I understand “l’intérêt général” correctly in French, the meaning is COMPLETELY different in English–something like “culture générale” in French!


      1. In “soit dit en passant” there is a silentimplied part : “Que ce soit dit en passant” is the origin (let this be said in passing). You might know the imperative at the 3rd person is made by the subjunctive (eg. “Que ton nom soit sanctifié”in the Lord’s Prayer) .

        1)L’intérêt général means the common good, “Tu dois faire ça, c’est ton intérêt” means do it for your own good . We can say rather “Tu as intérêt à faire ça” .
        2)Then there is the business meaning, loans and lends at interest .
        3) L’interêt as in being interested and here you can say “éveiller, provoquer, susciter, exciter l’intérêt de quelqu’un” .


  2. IN the Spanish Civil War, they had the International Brigades, which from what I’ve read were mostly organized by country of origin and language group, but I remember reading a description of some speaker being translated, as he spoke, into several different languages to the various groups of volunteers, grouped by language. I have the impression that they weren’t using microphones, but I suspect I added that detail. It must’ve been chaos.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s good, though, ’cause you tempted people to go read his excellent article! And thinking along the same lines as Michael Erard is hardly something for which one needs to apologize, Ellen. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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