Book Review: The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn

Published by Muftah.org on October 27th, 2014

For over a decade, the United States has fought a post-9/11 “War on Terror”, often by giving terrorists more publicity than they deserve. Now, after a disastrous foray into Iraq—among other blunders—the world’s sole superpower has helped create the bogeyman it always feared. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now simply known as the Islamic State, may not pose a truly existential threat to the “free world,” but the people who live within its sphere of influence understand its menacing power. With fighters based about an hour from Baghdad, ISIS seems to be growing bolder by the day.

After 2001, George W. Bush and his administration were going to remake the Middle East in the image of the United States, promote democracy in the region, and usher in a new era of freedom for Muslim peoples. What followed, however, was, without question, one of the most spectacular political and military failures in modern history. Today’s Middle East is afflicted with a number of failing states, which have become incubators for apocalyptic violence. As of this year, ISIS is at the center of this instability. Having captured huge swathes of both Syria and Iraq, the group now controls territory comparable in scope to that of Great Britain. Dropping “Iraq” and “Syria” from their name, the “Islamic” State hints at grander ambitions.

ISIS’s rise from a discredited al-Qaida affiliate to the most successful terrorist organization in the region is the focus of Patrick Cockburn’s new book, The Jihadis Return, which published not long after the Islamic State proclaimed its “caliphate.” Cockburn is a veteran correspondent in the Middle East for the British newspaper, The Independent, with decades of experience in Iraq and the wider Middle East. This is probably why his brief study of ISIS eschews superficial cable news portrayals of the group as something that popped out of a vortex of Muslim backwardness and chaos.

Cockburn’s threat assessment of ISIS is alarming, as he quickly dispenses with the kind of “wishful thinking” that portrays the group as easy to defeat. ISIS’s takeover of Fallujah andMosul, Iraq’s second largest city, is emblematic of its strength, just as the Iraqi army’scollapsein both cities is characteristic of the state’s post-war weakness.

The U.S. Invasion of Iraq: Laying the Groundwork for ISIS

Iraq’s distinct makeup of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims played an important role in ISIS’s evolution since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Before the group tore through Iraq this year, it was known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a title it adopted after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (a Jordanian), the group’s founder, pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2004. Before aligning with al-Qaeda, Zarqawi’s group, which was founded in 1999, was actually known as Jamaat al-Tawḥid wa-al-Jihad, or “The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad (JTJ).”

Zarqawi and bin Laden were both in Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupiers, but Zarqawi arrived too late to see any real action. He was a convicted petty criminal and sex offender, while Osama bin Laden was a rigid fundamentalist who berated his childhood friends for wearing shorts during soccer because it was “immodest.” The two were rivals, but attempted to consummate a marriage of convenience after the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003. Bin Laden saw an opportunity to extend al-Qaeda’s presence to Iraq, which was occupied by Western heathens, while Zarqawi had slightly different political aims.

As The New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright notes, Zarqawi was heavily influenced by Islamist strategist and pseudo-scholar Abu Bakr Naji, who wrote a book called The Management of Savagery, in which he outlined the path to a Sunni khalifah purged of the impurities of Shiism and other non-Sunni, non-fundamentalist oddities. Meanwhile, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (who both saw Shia as heretics, but not necessarily as strategic targets of violence) envisioned a fundamentalist, global Muslim legion to fight the West, which, in their minds, was bent on conquering Muslims and Islamic ways of life.

In their own ways, both these visions are caricatured variations of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”, but Zarqawi, who initially refused an invitation in 2000 to merge his group with Al Qaeda, concentrated more on purifying the Muslim ummah by purging the Shia first—civil war style.

For Zarqawi, Iraq was an ideal starting point, given that most of its Muslims are Shia, though a strong Sunni presence also exists. The marriage with al-Qaeda only made sense after the political vacuum left by the ouster of Saddam Hussein, who created a Sunni-dominated political structure and actively suppressed the Shia population during his reign. There was a void to fill, and a war against the Shia was facilitated by the uncertain political circumstances. Exacerbating sectarian tensions, Iraqi civil society was thrown into chaos as a result of Saddam’s ouster and the subsequent occupation. In 2006, these tensions blossomed into full-blown civil war (though one can argue that substantial sectarian violence began right after the March 2003 invasion).

As the Iraqi Shia majority struggled against the Sunni population, the latter briefly allied with Zarqawi’s insurgents, who were effective at using suicide bombings against the Shia. Zarqawi insisted, however, that his Iraqi Sunni hosts adopt his stupefyingly crude interpretations and formulations of shariah, which made him immensely unpopular. Even al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri condemned Zarqawi’s tactics in a 2005 letter.

The tide began to turn against ISIS when Sunni groups, backed and financed by the Americans, formed the “Awakening” campaign (also known as the “Sons of Iraq” movement, among other names), which aimed to maintain security for Iraq’s large Sunnitribes. Believing American support would help them regain power in the country, Sunnileaders fought al-Qaeda. A surge in American troops accompanied this campaign and ISIS’s predecessor, AQI, began to melt away.

The Syrian War and the Rise of ISIS

Patrick Cockburn’s short work addresses some of this early history but largely forgoes most of this narrative, which forces the unfamiliar reader to research certain references for context. Instead, Cockburn focuses on the more immediate, post-Arab Spring years, to describe and explain ISIS’s rise.

Zarqawi died in an American airstrike in 2006. In 2010, a man known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became ISIS’s leader. At that time, the group, which changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006, had not added the last “S” to its name, as it did not have a viable means into Syria. ISIS was, in fact, losing relevance in Iraq after a resurgent Shiamajority gained control of Iraqi politics and local Sunnis dismissed the al-Qaeda affiliate’s over-the-top religious strictures. At the same time, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikiand his Shia-led governing coalition (elected in 2006 in Iraq’s first post-war election) was actively suppressing their Sunni counterparts.

ISIS needed a way to stage a comeback. As Cockburn stresses, it was the Sunni rebellion in Syria against dictator Bashar al-Assad that rejuvenated Baghdadi’s group.

The 2011 uprising in Syria against Assad united the Sunnis of Syria in violent resistance. Cockburn notes that experienced Iraqi officials and politicians told him again and again that the sectarian-nature of the war in Syria would eventually destabilize Iraq. As Cockburn argues, this has clearly happened, leaving the Shia with enclaves instead of the stronghold they previously enjoyed in Iraq.

Cockburn argues that the increasing prominence in the Syrian opposition of “Salafi-jihadist fighters” was one of the primary catalysts for ISIS’s rise. Syria’s deep religious, economic, and political divisions, which existed for decades prior to 2011, have been exploited by foreign elements. The anti-Assad revolution has degenerated into a sectarian, proxy war, with Iran backing Assad and Saudi Arabia (among other countries) backing opposition rebels.

Cockburn pinpoints Saudi Arabia’s support for the rebels as truly vital to the present day situation in Iraq and Syria. The country’s contradictory policies toward jihadi violence have long been a destabilizing factor in the region. According to Cockburn, this matter should have been taken up vigorously by the United States after 9/11, as most of the hijackers were of Saudi origin. Cockburn puts Pakistan in the same boat here, but points to Saudi Arabia as the state that is most widely believed to fund jihadists outside its borders, while suppressing such activities domestically.

Cockburn cites ISIS fighter Saddam al-Jamal, a former commander in the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group that was supposed to represent a non-sectarian, secular opposition, to illustrate just how much the opposition has depended on foreign assistance. Jamal stated in an interview with ISIS (as a part of one of the group’s propaganda videos) that opposition meetings were usually attended by intelligence officers from the Gulf petro-monarchies, as well as from the United States and Turkey. The officers would estimate the amount of material support the fighters needed, and coordinate the logistics for delivering the desired materials to the rebels. Their hope was to create a “Southern Front” based out of Jordan to fight both the jihadi presence in Syria and the Assad regime. Sitting in on these meeting though were members of jihadis who, along with the rest of their group, benefited greatly from Western and Gulf support. The situation on the ground was chaotic and disparate enough to make distinguishing between moderates and jihadirebels very difficult.

The United States seems to ignore the amount of jihadi influence inside the loose aggregate of rebels, many of whom are loyal to ISIS. This past summer, Obama asked Congress for $500 million to support the Syrian opposition, an act that Cockburn points to as emblematic of Western ignorance (willfull or otherwise) to the jihadi influence in the loose aggregate of rebels fighting in Syria. Just like U.S. and Saudi support for the Afghanmujahidin led indirectly to the rise of al-Qaeda, the indiscriminate arming of problematic groups in the Syrian opposition has created the catastrophic blowback known as the Islamic State. ISIS, after all, is hundreds of times bigger and more organized than al-Qaeda ever was—and even more brutal.

Is There a Way Out?

Cockburn concludes by arguing that the most troubling aspect of the ISIS threat is the lack of obstacles in its way. The takeover of Fallujah this January should have been a serious warning sign to the Iraqi government. In the lead-up to Iraq’s parliamentary elections this April, al-Maliki presented himself as the only effective bulwark against a resurgent Sunnipopulation fed up with the government’s sectarian policies.

Cockburn states in his book that he believed ISIS’s Fallujah victory gave al-Maliki a useful example with which to drive home his point. In time, Cockburn thought, the Iraqi army would get its act together and confront ISIS, but this never materialized. As ISIS’s spectacular summer offensive illustrates, the Iraqi army has serious, systemic problems. That the Americans funded and trained these forces to keep Iraq secure after its 2011 withdrawal only underscores the humiliation of this defeat.

The Iraqi government has spent approximately $42 billion on its army over the past three years. The Economist reports there were around 22,500 Iraqi soldiers stationed in Mosul before ISIS routed the army with a force of about 1,500 and took over the city. Large chunks of those forces in Mosul deserted and fled in civilian clothes to areas of relative safety, like the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq.

Cockburn cites the army’s highly entrenched state of corruption as the main reason for its dysfunction. Positions are bought, while training and morale have never been high on the list of priorities. This indicates that whatever training and support the United States gave the Iraqi army before leaving in 2011 has been futile.

When the bulk of U.S. forces withdrew in 2011, Obama talked about the importance of a “democratic” and “stable” Iraq. Three years later, it is questionable whether Iraq will ever reclaim its disparate regions into a cohesive state controlled by a single, central government. As the Americans and their allies bomb Iraq and Syria in an effort to rid the region of ISIS—a dubious strategy at best—history shows that crises of imperialism always prompt the empire to react with ineffective and discredited solutions. Airstrikes havealways been great at turning the local populations against those who are dropping the bombs, driving them into the embrace of the enemy.

The way out of this mess is not obvious, but it is evident that whatever follows, the Iraqi people will yet again shoulder the burden. After over a decade of war and instability, all the “War on Terror” has to show for itself in the Middle East are the bloody consequences of its failures.


middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Fear and Mourning in Ottawa

Published by The Islamic Monthly on October 26th, 2014

What happened this Wednesday in Ottawa, Canada is, to quote FDR, “a date which will live in infamy.” The shootingson Parliament Hill and near the National War Memorial by lunatic Michael Zehaf-Bibeau is Canada’s most prominent episode of domestic terrorism since the FLQ Crisis of 1970. The Prime Minister was whisked into a broom closet as the gunman barged into Parliament with a double barrel .30-30 calibre Winchester rifle, and was eventually gunned down after dozens of shots were fired.

One person died, a reservist named Nathan Cirillo from Hamilton, Ontario whose guarding of the War Memorial was prompted by previous cases of vandalism. I wonder what the miscreant creeps are thinking now. Cirillo stood guard, in uniform, with a ceremonial weapon (that is, unloaded), and was gunned down before anyone could make out what was happening. A cartoon from Halifax’s The Chronicle Herald shows the fallen Cirillo, dead for doing his duty, being tended to by the veterans depicted in the War Memorial statues, who come to life for one of their own. I suggest you take a look.

Once the smoke clears, though, and Parliament has decided that it has shown enough crisis-induced cross-partisan solidarity, the hard questions will be asked. In fact, even as the “asking” and debating have yet to commence, Prime Minister Harper has announced that legislation to increase powers/resources for Canadian intelligence and law enforcement will be tabled in the coming days. Canada’s efforts to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria will probably be bolstered, and mass surveillance and policing will certainly be given more legal leeway in the coming months. All this points to the construction of a Canadian security state that is the response to a homegrown terrorist threat that has killed only a handful of people since 9/11—far less Canadians than, say, car crashes or peanut allergies.

But that hasn’t stopped Canadian Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney from citingterrorism as Canada’s “leading threat.” Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), has put radicalization and homegrown terrorism near or at the top of its list of priorities for the past few years, as shown in its annual reports. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in a 2011 interview with the CBC, has listed “Islamicism” as Canada’s top national security concern. If this is indeed the case, then Canada must have the best intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the Western world. Why, then, such hastiness to pass (speed up, even) laws to give such agencies increased power to police, interrogate, and survey?

If you ask those paying attention, the right wing administration of Stephen Harper, which has been in power enough years to make our Prime Minister one of the most consequential politicians in Canadian history, has presided over an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in recent years. A 2013 Angus Reid poll shows that 54% of Canadians dislike Islam, excluding Quebec, where the rate is just under 70%. Anti-Muslim feeling is rising, and will probably continue to rise after what happened this week in Quebec (a Muslim convert ran over soldiers with his car) and in Ottawa. I’m also not naïve enough to think that the bolstered aspects of the Canadian security state aren’t aimed particularly (though not exclusively) at the Muslim community.

The former Canadian interim Privacy Commissioner revealed earlier this year that several anonymous government agencies have asked nine Canadian telecoms to give up private user data a total of 1.2 million times in 2011 alone. Nothing indicates that this kind of surveillance will simmer down, even as the current Commissioner is investigating RCMP practices. Combined with increased policing and likely infringement on individual, civil liberties, the state risks alienating the Muslim community, which should instead be a partner in the fight against extremism. In a secret study from CSIS that looks at the process of radicalization, it’s clear that the agency knows that individuals planning the next explosion in Canada reside outside of the purview of the mainstream Muslim community, its mosques, and places of gathering. If this reality is not included into the calculus of dealing with and the foiling of terrorism plots, then our response to terrorism will risk further alienation of a community that has the best chance of helping prevent some of its own members from radicalizing.

Much has also been made about how Western crimes/policies throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world cause radicalization. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a risk free foreign policy, especially if that policy is actively interventionist and jingoistic vis-a-vis a particular area of the world. Canada, since the Jean Chretien years, has played its part in the US-led “War on Terror,” which has been extended (and exacerbated, depending on who you ask) by President Obama, despite his renunciation of Bush-era terminology. But if that’s the case, then why aren’t all Muslim youth in the West who are angry at their governments buying up ammonium nitrate and guns to inflict harm on their respective polities?

The truth is that Western policies are a primer for the radicalization process. It provides the anger necessary for a “cognitive opening” to occur in an individual who, somewhere down the line, may or may not be exposed to radical rhetoric. If an individual who has been “primed” does encounter extremist discourse, then, depending on how impressionable that person is, such rhetoric may or may not be able to sway him/her into radical and violent responses. Certainly, a primed individual has a higher chance of being radicalized than someone who has channeled his/her anger in a nonviolent direction. This is a point made by noted American political scientist Robert Pape, who has led the University of Chicago’s Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) for years. The initiative has collected decade’s worth of data on suicide bombing, and has seriously influenced those who study Muslims and extremism for a living. The concept of the “cognitive opening” has also been used by Dalia Mogahed, who led Gallup’s 2011 effort tosurvey the Muslim world (after which she sat on an advisory panel reporting to President Obama).

Such nuanced discourse is not likely to make it into the Canadian debate on homegrown terrorism bound to unfold in the next few months. Harper seems bent on forwarding bulk legislation to bolster law enforcement in a way that allows the state to extend its security measures further into the public and private spheres. This, combined with anti-Muslim sentiment that has only risen in the past several years, will provide the Canadian Muslim community with serious challenges. The real question is what our community is going to do about it.

Which brings us back to the age-old question of how to lift our communities out of apathy. For a community that constantly talks so much about Palestine and Muslim victimhood, we’re awfully good at following up such fiery rhetoric with political ineptness.

So let this be a challenge to the Muslims in Canada.

We may have it pretty good here as compared to, say, Western Europe, but we’re wrong to think that we live on neutral ground. Canada hasn’t been politically neutral since even before 9/11 or the Toronto-18 incident, and will not be in the post-Ottawa shooting era. Muslims who come on Stephen Harper’s turf thinking that they can simply live here, assume political quiescence, and ignore their collective interests,have a fundamentally distorted view of how democratic societies work. In dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, you get what Big Brother thinks you deserve. In more fluid, democratic societies, you get what you have the leverage to negotiate for. The former is a game of navigating the politics of obedience; the latter is a matter of playing the game of public opinion. Because of our social and political passivity, our leverage right now is worth jack s**t.

Pushing the state to do what you know is in your community’s best interest is a part of democratic practice. If you don’t do it, then the machine won’t care what you want, and someone else will fill the gap you leave—usually someone who doesn’t like you and who would rather you be taken advantage of. Thank God we have leaders in the community who get this, and who have acted publicly, wrestling the permission to narrate away from centres of influence and into our own hands. This effort needs to be complimented and supported by a broad-based effort to weigh in on the upcoming debates on Canadian national security. If we falter and remain passive, then we do so at our own detriment.