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.