Terrorism and counter-terrorism experts and analysts, even the genuine ones (plus the hundreds of others who mushroomed during the last years of the war in Syria), rushed to explain “Islamic State’s” (ISIS) power and ability to expand. This biased its beginning, disregarded its real defeat, and - most importantly - downplayed the major role played by Washington. The US supported the proliferation of this terrorist group in the past and continues to do so in the present.
Myth, Reality, and Opportunism
Those terror analysts live off the promotion of ISIS’s capability, celebrating its possible “rebirth”, and advertising its “expansion”. They recall the 2009-2011 period in Iraq when the group was reduced to few hundred militants only, and how ISIS managed to occupy large territories in Iraq and Syria few years later. This is exactly where this article will start, and argue that ISIS was merely a capable opportunistic group, not a strong group: it benefitted from many elements and opportunities but was much weaker than the world believed. Hence ISIS’s fall was quick and miserable, revealing the reality behind the group’s apparent power.
It all began with Afghanistan in 1979 when Russia invaded the country and the US thought it could defeat Moscow without considering that it needed a strategy that could not backfire against the world (and itself) later. The US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Hume Alexander Horan, confirmed that the “US and Saudi Arabia financed, trained and equipped Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to stand against Russia”. The problem manifested itself when Russia pulled out, and both the US and the Saudis were left with a dilemma, “how to integrate young warriors [these are his words] when these return home from Afghanistan,” said Horan.
Image via ISIS propaganda video.
Indeed, al-Qaeda - the Iraqi branch of which metamorphosed into ISIS later on – is the product of what the US and Saudi believed in the 80’s to be a genial idea to defeat Russia. Neither the US nor the Saudis bothered to think about or predict the consequences. In point of fact the US believed that whatever the consequences, these were the Middle East’s problems to deal with. They were certainly not considered at the time to be the West’s problem….until 9/11.
The Frankenstein Creation of US/Saudi Policy
Following the defeat of Russia, another US foreign policy decision created a boomerang effect and increased the spread of terrorism through its ally Saudi Arabia. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Saudi Arabia felt the directly threatened and called upon US forces for protection, however, the keepers of the Wahhabi doctrine dominating Saudi Arabia were totally against this move.
To appease Saudi radicals at home due to the presence of US forces on what is considered the most sacred Islamic territory (Mecca and Medina), the late King Fahd gave a free hand to radicals and conservatives who largely financed Saudi madrassas (Wahhabi teaching schools proliferating radicalism throughout the world) to spread their religious extremism and hate speech outside the country.
More was to come: following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the Jordanian Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalayla) joined al-Qaeda (he was leading Ansar al-Islam in the Kurdish controlled area of northern Iraq prior to 2003) and became its franchisee in Iraq. He was not the only one carrying out insurgency against the US occupation forces in Mesopotamia and against the Shia, and also against his Sunni opponents - there were also many other Iraqi nationalists, Baathists, tribes and Shia groups attacking the American forces: the insurgency was not exclusive to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The Bush Admin Exaggerated the Zarqawi Bogeyman in Iraq
Zarqawi was notorious for his brutality to the extent that when Osama bin Laden was still around, the same al-Qaeda called him “the sheikh of the slaughterers” (sheikh al-thab’baheen). His group was estimated at around 100 fighters, plus several thousand Saddam Hussein loyalists. In fact, his first ‘spectacular’ attacks were noted to have begun in August 2003 against the UN envoy Sergio de Mello in Baghdad and Sayyed Mohamad Baqer al-Hakim in Najaf. Not only had the media contributed to raising the level of interest in Zarqawi following his beheading of the US citizen Nick Berg in 2004 on video, but the Bush administration ignored opportunities to kill him and exaggerated Zarqawi’s profile, inflating him as a threat to the point that he managed to attract even more recruits to his group, raising his prestige.
Throughout the US “war on terror” in Iraq, American forces engaged in the shameful Abu Ghraib prison tortures and the exercise of the lowest level of human behavior against suspects often randomly arrested in security threat roundups. This particular story went viral, only to be forgotten years later, confined merely to the pages of history books. The world brushed aside the fact that this particular loss of human values by a superpower, itself advocating democracy and human rights, was the main trigger and incitement to terrorism recruitment for angry Muslims around the world.
The US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) "Viceroy" Paul Bremer’s decision of de-Baathification pushed tens of thousands of Iraqi Army and security forces members to become jobless overnight, without any future. These, as we have discovered throughout these years, in many instances became the elite among ISIS commanders and militants.
But that was not everything: the US formed a “University for Jihadists” which proliferated at Bucca, Cropper and Taji Camps in Iraq. This is where most (potential) terrorist leaders met, graduated from, and recruited their future army. In these camps there were Sharia courts (Islamic tribunals) to judge and condemn prisoners who refused to join the radicals: this would become typical behavior of the group (that later changed its name to ISIS - but its tactics remained the same) to impose itself by intimidation and menace.
Again, a few years down the line, the US facilitated the rise of ISIS and its plan to move to Syria, (a country rendered fragile when the world supported the push for a regime change) and it armed, trained and financed jihadists.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq took the advice of the deputy leader of al-Qaeda central, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the letter by declaring a (premature) “Islamic State” in Iraq. Zawahiri meant in his message to Zarqawi and his successors that the ultimate aim - as it is the case of every non-state religious actor in the Middle East - would be an Islamic Emirate. Nevertheless, the ambitious Zarqawi and after him all those who led the group, wanted a higher status than to be a local or regional group, or any group like al-Qaeda, and aimed to be independent and recruit youth from all over the world. The jihadists in Iraq were counting on much support from surrounding countries and also from the US’s mistaken foreign policy.
Sectarian War Unleashed
Competent researchers try to minimize, or even airbrush, the US’s main responsibility for the growth of extremist religious groups, blaming the Iraqi Shia leaders who were supported in the first years of the US occupation by the same US Viceroy of Iraq. There is no doubt that the rise of jihadist groups in Iraq was not exclusively the result of US mistakes - the rulers of Iraq also contributed by supporting US policy and US blunders in Iraq. Both (but not only the Iraqi politicians, as analysts like to project) led benefits for the jihadists.
The Iraqi Shia were not used to ruling: they had been under the thumb of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship for decades. They wanted to enjoy the overwhelming wealth Iraq produces and wanted to command power in the country. And they oppressed the Sunnis just as the Sunnis had oppressed the Shia throughout the years. It was a naïve vision of democracy that the US imported to the country (and to high profile individuals that had been oppressed, even on an individual basis, for years). Its birth was so much premature that it was, unsurprisingly, stillborn.
I once met Sheikh Jalal-eddine al-Saghir when he was distributing newspapers in the streets of Lebanon, at a time he was in exile during Saddam’s era. I also saw Nouri al-Maliki on endless occasions in even worse situations prior the fall of Saddam Hussein. One day, I found myself in Iraq along with many officials during a religious ceremony in Karbalaa. Adil Abdel Mahdi (who was Vice-President at that time), in the presence of several ministers (and myself) said: “We should clean out our offices in Damascus where we used to advertise for the fall of Saddam Hussein. We know how to run an opposition campaign but we have no clue how to run a country.” He was indeed correct. The Iraqi leaders were confused.
Jihadists in Iraq took advantage of this confusion and therefore aimed to create a sectarian war to add as many followers as possible to their ranks. Some Shia leaders fell into this sectarian trap and the Americans watched as elements of their creation fought it out.
Media Inflated the Threat
When ISIS declared its Caliphate in 2014, it was not the group, as so often advertised, who took control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Local tribes, several Sunni groups, and Baathist deserters were already present in the city, trying to prepare the ground for the uprising. Indeed, it was not an ISIS “plan, command, and control”. Many neighboring countries (including Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani) supported what they defined in 2014 as a “Sunni uprising and revolution” against Baghdad (Nouri al-Maliki was Prime Minister then). It was only when ISIS turned against these countries and their local Iraqi allies that ISIS became everybody’s enemy.
For example the Camp Speicher massacre was not done exclusively by ISIS (even if advertised as such by the group media and reported by mainstream media) but by local Salaheddine and Anbar tribes even though the footage was hijacked by ISIS and claimed as its own. In fact, ISIS used the same old style they used at Bucca camp: whoever is not with us is against us.
The “Naqshabandi Army” (one of the contributors to the occupation of Mosul in 2014 and an active insurgent group against the US and Iraqi forces throughout the invasion of Iraq) members fled Iraq several months after the occupation of Mosul, for fear of ISIS. The group used the media and internet effectively and adequately to its advantage, manipulating information and disproportionately blowing up its size to a point where its enemies, friends, and observers were all convinced that ISIS was a giant force.
The Jihadi Schism
When it moved to Syria, the ISIS Emir Abu Mohammad al-Julani (sent to establish a branch of the “Islamic State in Iraq” in Syria so it became ISIS) found enough courage to challenge its Emir, the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Julani knew the real size of ISIS and his own branch's size at the moment he challenged Baghdadi.
During the process of partition between ISIS and Julani (who joined al-Qaeda willingly, surprising his new Emir Ayman al-Zawaheri), many foreign fighters were divided between old al-Qaeda and new ISIS. This of course gave more power to ISIS but certainly not to the level of becoming the “all-mighty” terror organization advertising itself in 2014-2016.
Here again, ISIS effectively used the vulnerability of the Syrian government (engaged in battles on so many fronts), the mainstream media (to widen the distribution of its message), and the internet (through social media,Twitter and Facebook) to inflate its size. And, most importantly, it stunned most observers with its “stylish death methods” (drowning, burning, beheading, throwing from elevated buildings as a death sentence, stoning, executing prisoners by driving a tank over their body while alive, using explosives in a car with condemned prisoners). They also used special visual effects and computer games to attract the eye of tens of thousands of viewers.
All that ISIS managed to do was inject fear into the hearts of its enemies. This strategy was so successful that thousands of Iraqis fled Baghdad, Najaf and Karbalaa before ISIS’s arrival. It was not until the Iraqi Army and the Popular Mobilisation Units in Iraq, and paramilitary groups in Syria (fighting alongside the Syrian Army) decided to stand up to ISIS that the quality of the group was defined: car bombs, suicide bombers, and snipers are ISIS’s only real weapons.
Iraq fought back and recovered its entire country in a year or so. Syria postponed the confrontation with ISIS because the priority was to stop al-Qaeda and other rebels supported by countries of the region and by many western countries. Many commanders on the ground told me in Syria: “ISIS is an orphan group and can be defeated any time. Al-Qaeda is much more dangerous, more courageous and better equipped to fight and stand firm on the battlefield.”
ISIS was defeated by Iraq and Syria the moment the Iraqi and Syrian leaders decided to end the control of the group over their territories. Only a few pockets remain today, including in northeast Syria (under US protection).
The Return of ISIS?
Looking at its track record, the US has been using ISIS for its own purposes ever since its creation in Iraq, when Bush refused to kill its leader Zarqawi and put an end to the group. What the United States is planning in the future for ISIS is not yet very clear.
Many analysts predict the “return of ISIS” on an even stronger scale than before or in another form. But ISIS is only good in hit-and-run situations: it failed disastrously when it came to organizing and governing. Its failed experience buried a possible “Islamic State or Emirate” project for decades to come and has irreparably damaged the Islamic cause of al-Qaeda and any other similar group. No society will give it shelter, only sporadic hideouts - and there is doubtless some finance hidden secretly (in the same style as Saddam Hussein) that can buy a few people to provide some sort of assistance - but ISIS is too weak to be re-born as in 2014.
If only terrorism 'experts' and analysts would stop looking out for their own bread and butter and cease predicting - and thereby encouraging - “ISIS’s return” (it doesn’t mean terrorism will cease but there is no need to disproportionally inflate its danger), the world would be in a much better state (and we could sleep more easily in our beds).
This is one side of the problem. The real problem is the use of terrorist groups by liberal democratic countries for their own interests and to advance their own foreign policy.