VICE secured exclusive access to those fascinating peace talks that, at moments, seemed to resemble scenes from a Pauly Shore movie. Indeed, the delegates themselves were jokingly referring to them as “the alternative Geneva talks”—in the usual al Qaeda way of rejecting mainstream human logic.
The talks were held over a period of three days in a location that we cannot disclose for security reasons and also because we’re not stupid. From the start we knew that this was going to be a logistical nightmare. For one, the identities of al Qaeda’s leaders in Syria are secret and there are no publicly available photographs of the main figures. It also turned out al Qaeda doesn’t issue its members with IDs (we think it’s an effort to cut down on costs).
A panel of al Qaeda’s senior experts greeted every delegate and asked them to cover their face and record a short tape with an improvised jihadi message. It was a sort of jihadi auditions that we were fortunate to be allowed to observe. The delegates were assessed on style, use of obscure and archaic Arabic words, and level of menace. Any hints of “rational logic,” as the press officer described it to us, would mean disqualification and immediate death. This was apparently an indication that the person was a spy.
These auditions quickly became an event in their own right, as delegates tried to outdo each other with their rhetorical flourish, their familiarity with jihadist jargon, and, above all, menace. Delegates were pacing anxiously outside the audition room like hirsute ballerinas in period costumes, reciting their favorite prayers or pulling hairs nervously from their beards. Who could blame them, for they faced the prospect of death or, even worse, humiliation in front of their brothers. (And it is indeed only brothers.)
The auditions tapes quickly spread on jihadi forums, and the leadership decided to broadcast them live to al Qaeda’s followers around the world. The auditions were jokingly referred to as Jihadi Idol,and they may now become a regular event that would also serve as a way for al Qaeda to recruit new talent. This was the only positive outcome of the talks, which broke down with no agreement reached and amidst chaotic scenes.
The biggest obstacle was conceptual in nature, as the leader of one faction put to it al Qaeda’s global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri he stressed the importance of maintaining peace in Syria in his opening address: “You’re asking us to promote peace and go against our core values. This is conceptually inconsistent.” This was a crucial turning point after which the proceedings were bogged down with highly academic discussions about who’s a legitimate target and whether such considerations should be entertained in the first place, “as they make us sound like the infidel UN,” in the words of one angry delegate.
The decision to allow weapons into the venue proved catastrophic—especially allowing suicide bomb vests into a closed space, which was a particularly ill-conceived in hindsight. When the leader of one of the main factions said he would not meet his opponent face-to-face, his nemesis brought his head to the meeting and placed it on the meeting table. The delegates we spoke with thought this was an overly dramatic gesture but there was no denying it made his point.
At various points, the chairman (and yes it is always chairman) had to intervene to ask people in the back to stop beheading each other. But there was no way of stifling the rowdy nature of the proceedings, which did make for a change from the usually dull and monotonous nature of such events. Al Qaeda does really know how to put on a show, but in this instance the glitz pushed the substance of the entire conference into the background.
The decision to conduct the entire proceedings in Arabic and without providing simultaneous translation also caused a lot of friction. Dozens of young British delegates felt alienated and side-lined by this omission, as if their opinions didn’t matter. When asked what their opinions were, they made some vague and incomprehensible statements about jihad and the conspiracy against Islam and then quickly lost interest and started playing with their smartphones. It wasn’t even clear how they made it past the auditions, but we believe Zawahiri himself had granted them a special dispensation that took into consideration the sad state of British education. The press officer indicated that this was part of his minority outreach program.
One of the interesting sights we encountered during the conference was the large number of delegates that arrived disguised as women. A special room was allocated for them to change into their usual clothes, and it was a touching scene to see those tough men in their tight bras and overly embellished panties help each other remove the makeup they had applied generously to their faces. Sadly, it was to be the last moment of harmony in an otherwise raucous event, but it did for an instance represent a fleeting symbol of the elusive peace and respectful coexistence.
This post originally appeared on VICE