James Denselow


James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues.

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James writes regularly for The Guardian and has written articles for Middle East International, The Huffington Post The New Statesman, Syria Today, The World Today, The Daily Telegraph and The Yorkshire Post. He has been cited in many international publications including The Boston Globe, Voice of America, The Sunday Telegraph, Reuters and AFP

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James writes book, television and film reviews for International Affairs, Middle East International, The Arab and The Guardian

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James in the media - Watch James discussing Middle East issues on a variety of media platforms including the BBC, Al Jazeera and Russia Today
Dismantling ISIL's propaganda machine PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Monday, 13 July 2015 11:43

The killing of some 25 Syrian soldiers in the amphitheatre in Palmyra last weekend was the latest example of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's (ISIL) production of high quality media products that focus on the "theatre of death". The executions are part of a slick and professional propaganda campaign that has regularly made global news and have been shared far and wide across social media. Mass coordinated and choreographed murders - whether it is homosexuals thrown from rooftops, a Jordanian pilot burnt alive, or the iconic orange jumpsuit decapitations - have allowed ISIL to push out their messages and "brand" far and wide. The set piece killings, the iconography of using ancient sites, and the use of professionally edited film - all self-distributed and then aggregated by traditional media - is in stark contrast to other aspects of the conflict that continues to destroy Syria.

ISIL's fear factor

Airstrikes, barrel bombs, and artillery strikes kill the vast majority of civilians in Syria, but they lack the same fear factor that ISIL's broadcast executions manage to convey. Why is this? An airstrike on Aleppo, for example, may be captured by a shaky hand-held camera trying to focus on a fast-moving glint in the sky before a wall of dust descends upon now ubiquitous scenes of rubble and people frantically scrambling for survivors. Mainstream media doesn't show the horrific injuries or mutilated or crushed dead, and social media lacks the stomach to openly share such carnage.


If ISIL had traditional press officers, they would be winning awards for the amount of coverage and front page news they've secured. As part of their global branding, this has sent ISIL right to the top of the "most dangerous terrorists" list. It allows the franchise to indoctrinate curious outsiders, and manipulate those already under its control. They can use their constructed narrative to recruit globally and to burnish the fear factor that accompanies the black flag - fear that explains, in part, the propensity of their enemies to lay down their arms and flee before them.

Last Updated on Monday, 13 July 2015 11:48
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Euphrates: River of hope or hate? PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Thursday, 30 April 2015 11:41

Al-Jazeera - As we peer through the fog of war into the heart of the Middle East we see ISIL on the back foot in Iraq and on the front foot in Syria. This month, the loss of Tikrit and simultaneous gains in the heart of Damascus highlighted the different battlespaces that are in operation across the two countries.

The disconnect between the US-led ISIL strategy that supports the government in Baghdad and one that avoids dealing with Damascus will likely sustain this momentum as the Iraqi army pushes towards Mosul. However, unless a unified strategy is agreed for the two countries, then ISIL will continue to exploit the incoherence in such a dual approach to its advantage.

One key element that unites the two countries regardless of the politics of the moment is the Euphrates River, a 2,700km long waterway whose history and seeming permanence dwarfs the volatile changes in human behaviour around its banks.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 April 2015 11:45
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ISIL crisis: Everyone's a winner PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Monday, 29 September 2014 14:39

(Al Jazeera English) US President Barack Obama's offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) takes place at a time of heightened chaos across the region. The strategy is both complex and risky. It requires multilateral cooperation, to date unseen competence on the part of the Iraqi military and politicians, and for an ISIL response to be contained. Yet, the rewards for all parties concerned could be worth the investment in this new "coalition of the willing". In short, everyone could be a winner, excepting those civilians stuck in the middle.

Why is this? To date, the rapid emergence of ISIL has been characterised by those who have so obviously lost. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi military and the unfortunate hostages who've met gruesome deaths, stand out. But the brutality of ISIL and its willingness to tear down conventional norms of what the state should look like in the Middle East, place it in the crosshairs of almost all the players in the region. This confluence of interests in destroying or at least significantly marginalising ISIL was effectively shown in an infographic published this week in the Economist, put simply - everyone hates ISIL.


What does this mean in more detail? For Iraq, the fight against ISIL is a chance for the new prime minister, Haider al-Abbadi, to deliver a genuine and legitimate national unity government that brings Iraqis together rather than forcing them apart on the basis of sect or ethnicity. With the might of US air power, logistics and intelligence behind him, Abbadi will have the chance to fashion a vision of Iraq for all Iraqis that balances a traditional Baghdad-centric nationalism with the realities of federal demands from across the country and in particular from the Kurds and the Sunnis. Resource sharing, political recognition, and national reconciliation are the priorities for Abbadi with the threat of ISIL attacks being used as a common enemy going forward.

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Will Obama's ISIS Strategy Work? PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Monday, 15 September 2014 08:41

(Al-Jazeera) Tonight, US President Barack Obama will announce the latest chapter of US military intervention in the Middle East. The president is a reluctant interventionist with his foreign policy to date defined by caution and an attempt to distance himself from the conflicts started by his predecessor. However, the dramatic rise of the self-styled Islamic State group, which the world woke up to in June when they captured Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, has forced his hand.


The Mount Sinjar crisis, which raised real concerns that the Kurdistan Region could fall, and the horrific executions of US journalists are all milestones in the run-up to the new strategy Obama will announce to the American people on prime-time tonight from Washington.

Unlike last year's aborted Syria intervention, the president appears to have the backing of Congress and the US public. Polling this week showed that 71 percent of all Americans support airstrikes in Iraq - up from 54 percent three weeks ago. Meanwhile, Obama has the lowest personal ratings in his entire presidency and last month candidly admitted that the US didn't have an Islamic State strategy.

Last Updated on Monday, 15 September 2014 08:49
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Today’s Friends, Tomorrow’s Enemies? PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Wednesday, 28 May 2014 09:16

(Majalla) The Syrian government’s capture of Homs, the so-called ‘capital of the revolution,’ and Bashar Al-Assad’s inevitable victory in the upcoming presidential “election” appear to put the regime in a stronger position than ever before—but have these short-term victories come at a long-term cost?

Events in Homs last week raised questions about Assad’s future—questions that few have thought to ask so far. While Syrian state media wanted people to focus on the removal of the rubble, the reopening of the city’s shops, and the tourism minister’s bizarre claims that thousands would now flock to visit the city, deadly clashes broke out between two pro-Assad militia groups, the National Defense Forces and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. While the story barely registered with the international press, who’ve grown more accustomed to reporting on the infighting that has come to characterize the opposition, it is worth exploring for the light it sheds on the possible future direction of the country.

While Assad’s father was able to fully restore his full authority across the country following the crushing of the uprising in Hama in 1982, there is no guarantee that Bashar will be able to put the country back together again. Indeed, the fighting in Homs may be a sign of things to come, and the consequence of Assad’s ‘outsourcing’ of the defense of his regime to groups from both inside the country and across the region. These famously include between 4,000–5,000 members of Hezbollah, in addition to Iraqi militiamen and senior commanders from the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Syrian regime has also sought to empower informal—and notorious—local militias known as Shabiha(“ghosts”), as well as 60,000 members of the paramilitary ‘National Defense Force,’ whose role in a future Syria is debatable, to say the least.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 May 2014 09:17
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