On August 7th, President Obama authorized airstrikes on Iraq in nominal support of a besieged population of about 10,000 Yezidis, a Kurdish ethnic minority, who were placed under siege by the Sunni Jihadist Islamic State, henceforth to be referred to as (ISIS). In mainstream media, the intervention has been criticized as backtracking on what is already a quagmire precipitated by the 2003 American invasion under Bush II, and an occupation inherited and supervised by Obama from 2008-11. Another argument is that Obama is showing his support for the autonomous region of Kurdistan, a US ally whose leaders provided pivotal assistance to the United States during the 2003-2011 Iraq War.
The document that follows offers a brief history of the Islamic State entity and the method by which US policies under both Bush and Obama facilitated its growth, primarily through the opening of power vacuums created via ill-advised and ruinous imperialist policies. The underlying irony of this story is that George W. Bush fabricated a premise for invading Iraq under the assumption that Saddam Hussein was harboring al Qaeda operatives, and what has resulted from the events set in motion by the US invasion is the fall of a significant portion of Iraq to an organization even worse than al Qaeda, and the establishment of a jihadist haven the likes of which bin Laden could have only dreamed.
This is a long document and filled with a great deal of information about a topic greatly affecting the lives of millions of innocents across the world. I hope that it finds you well. A few notes on clarification of terms before I begin…
ISIS has gone through several transformations. I will detail each stage, as well as the US’s role within each of them. They are as follows:
- Jama’at al Tawhid w’al Jihad (JTJ)
- Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)
- The Islamic State in Iraq (ISI)
- The Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS)
- The Islamic State (IS)
Note: I am referring to the current incarnation of the Islamic State as ISIS because it is the abbreviation most familiar to the Western audience and because it is extremely annoying to use the IS abbreviation, particularly when typing the phrase "IS is…"
Jama’at al Tawhid w’al Jihad
The original incarnation of ISIS was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, America’s "boogeyman" in Iraq between the years of 2003-6. The information I obtained and present to you here on JTJ and Zarqawi is derived from Loretta Napoleoni’s 2005 book, Insurgent Iraq, which is the best English-language resource on his life and early organizational activities. JTJ was, at first, distinct from al-Qaeda in operations, but identical in ideology. It was one of the myriad jihadist groups that incubated in Afghanistan during the 90s up until the US began dropping bombs there in 2001. Zarqawi and his militia left Afghanistan to take refuge with (ironically) the Kurdish branch of al-Qaeda, who were based in the northern mountain ranges of Iraq. It is worth mentioning that this migration by Zarqawi from Afghanistan to Iraq was one of the key pretexts that the White House under Bush II gave for invading the country in the first place. Saddam had nothing to do with facilitating Zarqawi’s arrival, however, as he was enemies with the Kurds and especially antagonistic toward foreign jihadists.
I will spend what may seem like an inordinate amount of time talking about Zarqawi, but it is necessary because he is the physical and spiritual progenitor of ISIS. If we follow the “great man” theory of history, I would say that there would be no ISIS today without Zarqawi and his “vision.” He embodied a mission so extreme and performed acts of violence so horrific, that he essentially tore through the fabric of the existing state paradigms of the region. The vacuum he left in his wake would be filled, successfully it would seem, by his successors.
Zarqawi and his JTJ did not participate in battles against US forces until August of 2003. By that time, they had had the opportunity allow the occupying forces to settle in and had scouted their positions and tactics. JTJ selected terrorism as its strategy for dominating Iraq, and its inaugural bombing campaign was directed at both US forces as well as Shiite civilians. It was the attacks on the Shiites which immediately perturbed the jihadist leadership in Afghanistan, including bin Laden who, at first, demanded Zarqawi cease killing Muslims. While most jihadists were all for attacking US forces, attacking Shiites was viewed as too extreme and counterproductive. In the eyes of the al Qaeda bosses of the time, Shiites were still Muslims, even if they were not Sunnis, and the goal of bin Laden in particular was to unite all of the Muslims against the United States in order to expel them from Iraq.
Bin Laden, however, was not on the ground to understand the situation from the lens of Zarqawi. Through Zarqawi’s looking glass, tainted as it was, the Shiites were collaborators with the US occupation and thus enemies of the Sunnis. The key thing to focus on here is that the US deliberately adopted a sectarian-based strategy to divide and conquer Iraq from the outset of its invasion. They intentionally took sides on a sectarian basis, exploiting a key division in society which ended up backfiring in their face as I will expound upon later.
Pre-invasion, the US had negotiated with a number of Iraqi dissidents, but the majority of the Iraqis who helped the United States plan the invasion were Shiites and Kurds. Thus, these became the favored groups and, notably, the US did not station its forces in the Shiite south of Iraq, instead leaving the responsibility up to the British whose mission was more symbolic than operations-oriented.
Meanwhile, Zarqawi migrated from Kurdistan and found refuge amongst the Iraqi Sunni tribes in West and Central Iraq.
Iraqi Tribal System
It is necessary to talk about this system because it is a key part of the conflict and often overlooked. Norman Cigar, a researcher and professor at the Marine Corps University, wrote a highly detailed and informative book on the tribal dynamics between Salafist organizations and the Iraqi tribes. I obtained much of my information on the politics of these tribes from him. The tribal system is exactly as it sounds: it is an ancient institution which distributes power and control on a hereditary basis. Within each tribe, there is a subset of clans, then individual families, and so on. The largest tribal confederations in Iraq number in the hundreds of thousands and the largest tribe, the Dulaim, is three million strong. These people essentially enforce their own laws, and the failure to end or marginalize the tribal system by local state actors is a large reason why the Middle East remains so backward and violent. They essentially act as a state-within-a-state and have proved to be wonderful proxies for meddling foreign powers, including the British during the colonial era.
Cigar notes that the Sunni tribes also came into prominence in Iraq after the Iran-Iraq war and First Gulf War in 1991. Saddam was badly weakened internally by these conflicts and thus fell back on the tribes to bail him out politically as Shiites and Kurds began rebellions against his rule. Tribal leaders assumed high ranks in the Iraqi Army, thus entrenching their power. The tribes became Iraq’s powerbrokers and naturally saw the US invasion and Saddam’s subsequent demise as a direct threat to their newfound dominance.
However the tribal system has its weaknesses. Because tribes are so enormous, and because power is concentrated at the very top of the hierarchy in accord with an irrational tradition where heredity implies merit, the tribes give rise to large swathes of disaffected men. Essentially, the tribal system can be modeled with a pyramid structure where the men at the bottom lose out on privileges, i.e. jobs, monetary handouts, and wives. Furthermore, because Islam permits polygamy with up to four wives, men at the bottom of this pyramid often miss out on mating opportunities. Tribes tend to be highly fundamentalist in their interpretation of Islam largely because fundamentalist Islam is a system which offers considerable advantages to tribal alpha males, such as the aforementioned polygamy. The creator of Islam, Muhammad, was a tribal warlord himself.
Sectarian violence in Iraq during the US occupation
Zarqawi’s stated aim was to precipitate a sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. His goal was to undermine Iraqi nationalism for reasons I will explain later. Most Sunnis were not on board with this plan, particularly the jihadist leadership in Afghanistan and the majority of Sunnis in Iraq. The tribal warlords who held sway in the Sunni regions of Iraq (located in the central, west, and northern parts of the country) had everything to lose from a protracted war against the Shiites who were ~66% of the population. Their plan was instead to establish a confederacy within the borders of Iraq so that they could practice a degree of autonomy. The warlords viewed Zarqawi as a foreign troublemaker and harped on the fact that he had come from Afghanistan to wage war against a "foreign power" when he himself was a foreigner to Iraq meddling in Iraqi affairs.
According to Napoleoni, Zarqawi was well aware of his perception as a foreigner, but did not accept it as valid criticism. He did not consider the Sykes-Picot arrangement as valid, and sought to redraw the region’s boundaries on sectarian lines instead. In his view, he was not an outsider, but a Muslim in the lands of Islam. Zarqawi opposed Iraqi nationalism because Iraqi nationalism was a dire threat to his life, his mission, and his organization. If the Sunnis rallied around a nationalistic banner, his pan-Islamic organization’s ideology would become viewed as a threat to be excised by not just Shiites, but also his Sunni brethren. Through his terrorism in the name of Sunni Islam, he attempted to poison the well of Sunni-Shiite relations so extensively that a unified state would become impossible. With the power vacuum left by Saddam’s fall, it appeared Zarqawi had plenty of space to maneuver and craft such a venomous milieu.
Ironically, Iraqi nationalism was also a strong danger to the United States. Chapter 10 in Insurgent Iraq describes a botched campaign of prewar bribery, one where the US had managed to stoke resentment even within their supposed Shiite allies. The funds it distributed to the Shiite political warlords who helped pave the way for its invasion were (predictably) corrupt and hoarding money intended for the Iraqi public amongst themselves and their cronies. Furthermore, Washington’s Shiite agents were mostly composed of individuals who had been expelled from Iraq by Saddam during the 80s and 90s. Many of them had not set foot in Iraq for years. These new US-sponsored political leaders were alien to the local Iraqis, notably the powerful clerics of the Sadr family. Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric backed by his Mahdi Army militia, claimed to represent the interests of his sect’s poor and downtrodden in Iraq. Sadr was essentially the warlord of Baghdad’s Shiite slums and his men battled US forces throughout Baghdad in response to the occupation. Sadr openly shunned the upper class Shiites collaborating with US occupation forces, choosing instead to ally himself with Iran in exchange for funds and training for his militiamen. This development was important because it provided a political and military entry point for Iran into the Iraq War.
Effectively, the US had thus created enemies with both the Sunnis and the Shiite lower class. The nightmare scenario for the United States was that Sadr’s Mahdi Army would sign an agreement with the Sunni insurgent groups in West Iraq, thereby forming a unified national front against the US occupation and critically endangering any claim they might have made on forming a government in the name of national unity. The US thus had to undermine Iraqi nationalism from coming into being under the pretext of armed opposition to the US occupation. They instead sought to funnel nationalism, via a system of bribery and military force, into a US-dominated order held aloft by a charade of democratic elections.
Of course, this bribery was not effective in actually building a coherent Iraqi nation. Factions would participate in elections only to keep the American money flowing and, as we will see, when the US left, Iraq broke down along militant sectarian lines again. The farce of Iraqi “democracy” was a PR stunt to convince Americans that Bush and the neocons had not swindled America out of billions for a war that had failed on its original promises and was producing countless casualties on both sides.
According to Norman Cigar, the US believed it would be able to ignore the Sunnis at the outset of the Iraqi rebuilding effort, and thus focused its bribery efforts on the Shiites and Kurds, funneling money to cooperative “politicians” and granting them power within a US-designed state. The Sunnis responded to the American strategy with a sustained revolt against the US occupation between 2003-8, coming to a head in two battles for Fallujah in 2004. Chapter 11 of Insurgent Iraq describes how it was during the second battle of Fallujah that JTJ made a name for itself as one of the vanguard groups of the Iraqi resistance. The US stated their goal in Fallujah was the dismantlement the “Zarqawi network” purported to be based there. Despite massive destruction and devastation inflicted on Fallujah from an American encirclement and siege, they failed to do so, probably because Zarqawi wasn’t even in Fallujah to begin with. Following America’s failure to dismantle JTJ with such an enormous show of force, Zarqawi became a superstar among jihadists worldwide.
Islam and tribalism
Political Islam has always sought to undermine the power of the tribes. Muhammad himself was a low-ranking member of the Quraysh tribe and his story, if we are to look at it rationally, is essentially about how he used a divine pretext to overthrow the tribal leaders of his own family and assume the dominant position.
The ideology of ISIS and al-Qaeda is referred to as "Salafism," and it is a movement stressing a return to the literal and metaphysical foundations of Islam. It even entails mimicking the lifestyle of Muhammad and his followers in 7th century Arabia. This is considered an insane proposition to many Muslims (and non-Muslims), but this brand of piety does find a very large following in tribal regions across the Muslim world. One reason for this is that many of the lower caste tribal youth resonate very strongly with the story of Muhammad and seek to recreate his story. Tribal systems, even those outside of the Arab world in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kurdistan, are breeding grounds for this type of religious fanaticism. The Salafists seek to replace the irrational authority of the tribal warlords with the irrational authority of religious scholars and Mujahidin.
JTJ metamorphoses into Al Qaeda in Iraq
After the second battle of Fallujah, Zarqawi’s propaganda apparatus purported him as one of the heroes of the fight against the Americans. As the legend went, he was one of the few who had stood his ground against suicidal odds and clambered out of the rubble to fight another day. Zarqawi still had problems with legitimacy and funding in Iraq. The issue of legitimacy arose from the persistent nationalist angle perpetuated by Sunni Iraqis, as well as his lack of religious authority. According to Cigar, to cope with the first problem, he had to start recruiting Sunnis from within Iraq in order to give the organization a more "national" flavor. He got these recruits from the lower strata of the Iraqi tribal system. Essentially, he offered these individuals, who had no hope of social mobility in their own system due to birth order, an opportunity to have a stake in a new, Islamic "tribe."
Loretta Napoleoni described Zarqawi as functionally illiterate, and militant Islamists derive much of their social support from the fact that their leaders are titular experts in Islamic doctrine in a region where theology is considered the supreme form of thought. Zarqawi’s Sunni rivals were able to encourage Islamic scholars in Iraq to label his mission of establishing a caliphate and an Islamic State theologically impure, and so he was losing the ability to find recruits and find sanctuary amongst the members of his sect. He had to find religious authorities to sanction his mission, and he found that lifeline with a couple of old associates: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri: the heads of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, religious scholars, and experts in jihadist financing.
The alliance between Zarqawi and bin Laden was mutually beneficial. Osama bin Laden wanted a stake in the Iraqi violence, as the war in Afghanistan was going poorly for him. He offered to make Zarqawi an "emir" of al Qaeda, essentially making him a sponsored warlord of Iraq and giving him access to all of Qaeda’s financial and political connections in the Arab Gulf. Bin Laden also issued religious edicts sanctifying Zarqawi’s mission, thus granting him, at the very least, a temporary theological shield with which to ward off the lacerating words of his critics.
Ironically, the US’s harping on Zarqawi as a boogeyman made him more popular. It was free publicity for him. One of the reasons why bin Laden selected Zarqawi as his emir was because he was by far the most well-known jihadist, and such an alliance would bring great prestige to al Qaeda. However, this also implicitly meant that bin Laden signed onto Zarqawi’s sectarian war. This development is ironic given that JTJ was only one of many jihadist factions, but the US, in its desperation to fabricate a strawman it could point to as “proof” that American forces had a coherent enemy in Iraq, ended up bringing to life the fictional Frankenstein they’d been obsessively parading before the eyes of the world. It is a sad fact that much of the current Iraqi tragedy came about because of Bush’s cynicism and narcissism in trying to sell across propaganda points to the American public.
In 2005, JTJ changed its name to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and continued its bombing attacks. By 2006, Zarqawi got what he finally looking for: a civil war in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites. Hostilities erupted after his operatives blew up the Askari shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam. These massive sectarian hostilities were the de facto end of Iraq within its Sykes-Picot borders.
However, in addition to the Shiites, Zarqawi had also managed to precipitate a war against the Sunni tribal warlords in Iraq who began to see him as a serious threat to their rule now that he was recruiting their lower caste to fight against them. This AQI-Tribal war heated up significantly in 2005 when Zarqawi bombed hotels in Jordan and Egypt, which were housing Iraqi tribal leaders who had found sanctuary there away from the Iraqi violence. This move was his undoing, as Zarqawi had then created enough Iraqi enemies that he had scant few places to find refuge.
AQI had bitten off more than it could chew, now fighting a war against the superpower, Sunni tribal warlords, and the Shiite majority of Iraq.
Zarqawi was finally killed in a US airstrike in July 2006. He was replaced by another operative named Abu Ayyub al Masri who steered AQI in much the same way that Zarqawi had, focusing on "high-profile" bombings of Shiite targets, usually civilians and the holy shrines and mosques sacred to them.
Sahwa Militias and the disintegration of the Iraqi state
In 2005, general elections were held in Iraq, which the Sunnis boycotted. I am jumping around here in the timeline, but I promise this section will end being temporally coherent. All of the information I use on Sahwa militias and other players mentioned in this section can be found in Norman Cigar’s book.
With the Sunni boycott, the United States again had a problem with its PR in that one of the three major sects refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Iraqi state, thus detonating the premise of Iraqi nationalism being the unifying factor behind the new government. Sunnis had no interest in joining an order dominated by Shiites and Kurds. By the US-designed law, the president of Iraq must be a Kurd, and the prime minister will inevitably be Shiite since they are more than 60% of the population of Iraq. Sunnis thus had very little interest in democracy in a place where they were heavily outnumbered. They were the kingmakers under Saddam and were not willing to join the government established by the Americans. For them, no Iraq would be better than an Iraq under American-imposed circumstances and Shiite rule.
US command viewed JTJ/AQI as an obstacle in getting Sunni popular opinion on their side, and so they began searching for divisions within the sect that they could exploit and thus rattle Zarqawi’s power base. They found agents with the tribal warlords whom the Salafist groups had greatly agitated and warred against. Trial runs of arming Zarqawi’s tribal enemies began in 2005, but it was not until September 2006 that agreements between tribal warlords and the United States to fight the Salafists went public. This strategic maneuver on the Americans’ part enraged the Shiite political establishment because, by then, the sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites had reached a fevered pitch. Shiites viewed the US-Tribal alliance as an act of treachery, believing that the US was trying to engineer a stalemate, exhaust both sides, and prolong the war. Arming Sunni tribal militias, who now called themselves the "Sahwa" (translation: Awakening) in Iraq, was a critical juncture in the country’s history. In bolstering the military might of a sector of the Iraqi population that had already historically existed as a “state” for centuries, the Americans further eroded any chance that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government could exercise a monopoly on force within its Sykes-Picot geography.
Around the time of its alliance with the Sahwa, the US also began to design its "surge" strategy where it would increase the number of US troops by 20,000 in the Sunni regions of Iraq.
Like the Shiites the US funded, these Sahwa leaders were also corrupt and hoarded their cash stockpiles. The US was spending millions of dollars a day on these Sahwa militias and incompetence and corruption was rife it was estimated that the rosters submitted to US command for salary payments by tribal leaders were padded with up to 60% fake names, and these warlords spent the American-distributed cash on frivolities like mansions painted pink, stables of race horses, and sports cars all courtesy of the US taxpayer (or the Federal Reserve, depending on how you look at it).
However, the US kept paying because the strategy was working, and the Sahwa were successful in curbing the activities of AQI. They probably ratted out Zarqawi to the US, who killed him in the aforementioned 2006 air strike, and they also helped locate and kill Zarqawi’s successors. At their height, the Sahwa fielded an estimated 118,000 men in Iraq. For comparisons sake, AQI probably had only 1,000 operatives, many of whom were probably foreign fighters alien to the terrain.
I will now skip an expanse of time, from 2007 to 2011, because these four years essentially see the marginalization and near disintegration of AQI thanks to the efforts of the Sahwa militias. During these years, AQI also changes its name to the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and takes a more Iraq-centric focus, consolidating its dwindling power base there. However, geopolitical earthquakes would rock the region in 2011 and rattle what was considered to be Zarqawi’s absurd and unfulfilled fantasy of restoring the Caliphate back to life.
Describing Jihadi Organizations
I’m including this section in order to better explain how these jihadist organizations derive their power. The jihadist mission is easily compared to European colonial-settler movements that were popular in the 19th century, only jihad is an export from the Gulf Arab states and thus assumes an Arab “flavor” (which makes me nauseous, might I add). Because these Gulf states derive their vast wealth from pumping black stuff out of the ground rather than contributing intellectual and scientific value to civilization, they can afford to indulge in self-serving religious backwardness. This fosters societies low on human capital, high in monetary capital, a cultish obsession with Islam, and a demographic of men willing to venture abroad to conquer other nations using religion as their pretext.
The Middle East is, as you may have long-realized, a medieval place. The tribal regions are, generally, stuck in the 10th or 11th century in terms of their thinking, as evidenced by their hereditary distribution of power, fundamentalist religiosity, and lack of industry. The most dangerous tribes are those like the Saudis, who have vast wealth and thus access to all of the First World’s weapons. The al-Saud tribe derives its rule from internal religious authorities. People like Zarqawi and bin Laden were essentially looking to replicate the example of the al-Saud’s elsewhere in the world. In Zarqawi’s case, it was Iraq; in bin Laden’s, Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda’s leadership are religious scholars. Bin Laden himself was probably an adept of Islamic theology, although it is equally likely that he purchased his Islamic "degree" and flaunted it as proof of his authority given how wealthy he was relative to his contemporaries. Although I used the colonial analogy, I also like to think of Al Qaeda and similar organizations as being the Muslim analogs to the Catholic Church in the medieval era, back when they sent mercenaries on "Crusades" to conquer foreign, un-Christian lands. Like the Crusaders, these al Qaeda operatives traverse the world in search of apostates to kill and a land upon which to establish their holy state.
It is my opinion that the reason why there are sects in the first place is due to the fact that one warlord using religious "authority" runs up against another person using the same religious authority and they essentially split off into divergent and antagonistic religio-tribal organizations. In the Arab world, the people who obsessively accuse others of apostasy as a pretext for violence are called Takfiris. This term is used in a pejorative manner, as the strategy of declaring enemies to be apostate is well known and has been performed throughout history by troublemakers. ISIS is the best example of a Takfiri organization. Takfirism is analogous to the prevalent tactic in the West conflating adversaries with Hitler and Nazis, or as “enemies of democracy.”
The two critical events that occurred in 2011 were the civil wars in Libya and Syria, as well as the US withdrawal from Iraq.
The fall of Gaddafi produced a strategic situation which saw Libyan jihadists, with the help of US air support, overrun Libya. What resulted was a situation where these jihadists opened up Gaddafi’s weapons stores to every other Jihadi group in the Middle East to purchase, and the war in Syria was the primary market for these "liberated" arms caches. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar were making several airlifts and cargo shipments from Libya to Turkey and back in order to facilitate the dispensation of weapons to an assortment of rebels, including ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the "official" al-Qaeda franchise in Syria. These arms ended up reenergizing the jihadist movement in Syria.
So, ironically, the United States, in destabilizing Libya, helped to pave the way for the rise of ISIS when a flood of fresh Libyan weapons came into their hands, most notably antitank and even anti-air weapons. The Libyan intervention is likely to go down as one of the greatest blunders of American foreign policy, as it has created yet another jihadist outpost, this time on African soil.
The war in Syria, unlike the Libyan conflict, is defined as a sectarian war similar to the Iraq’s. The "president" of Syria (really just the leader of the largest fighting force) is Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite sect of Islam. To Sunni jihadists, rule by an apostate Alawite is obviously unacceptable, and he is thus a great target for Takfirist defamation, especially given the fact that Syria is 80% Sunni. It was easy to paint Assad as a committed oppressor of Sunnis given these circumstances, and such sentiment was greatly fueled by the fact that the Sunnis were largely the losers of Iraq’s civil war and perpetual victims of a continuing Shiite conspiracy to dominate Sunni Islam. However, not to say Assad is even remotely a good guy, but his wife is a Sunni, and much of his army and its command are Sunnis as well. In other words, the idea that Assad is necessarily sectarian is false.
As the Libyan and Syrian wars ensued and set each respective country back a hundred years or more, the US began its preparations to leave Iraq in 2011. Part of this meant that they would cease their payments to the Sahwa militias, instantaneously leaving vast swathes of Sunni street thugs unemployed and politically marginalized. In arming these militias, the Americans had created a state-within-a-state situation. According to Cigar, The central government had no authority to rein these militias in, and integrating the militias into the armed forces had failed.
What ensued after the US withdrawal was the fracturing of the "central" (really Shiite, Baghdad-based) government along sectarian lines. The Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, sent Shiite troops to occupy the Sunni towns in Iraq, where they massacred civilians, and deposed Sunni politicians. Maliki even sentenced a former Sunni vice president, who served up until 2009, to death in absentia.
Simultaneously, because of the sectarian overtones of the Syrian war, Sunni donors from the Gulf states began to contribute vast amounts of money to al Qaeda central leadership in the Af-Pak tribal belt in order to fund the jihad against Assad. Al Qaeda subsequently increased the funding of its Iraqi cells to join the fight in Syria, as they were still operational on the Syrian border. ISI operatives were to infiltrate Syria under the organizational title "Jabhat al-Nusra" (JN), which translates to "The Front of Helpers."
Due to the fact that many former Sahwa militiamen were now broke with the departure of the United States, and because there was little use for their skills as career thugs outside the army in Iraq’s economy, many joined the fight in Syria under facilitation by JN. JN thus found a stable base within Iraq from which they could launch strikes into Syria. This Qaeda-tribal realignment represents another pivotal point in the history of ISIS.
US destabilization of Syria
In its support for toppling Assad by aiding the Syrian rebels, many of whose allegiances exist in a state of flux and who have defected to ISIS, the US essentially made it possible for ISIS to rise and take command of eastern Syria. While you can argue that Washington probably didn’t directly arm and train ISIS, it nonetheless facilitated and supported a chaos scenario where ISIS could rise to the top of the jihadist hierarchy.
Ironically, in 2010, Assad offered to assist the US in a war against Takfiri rebels operating on the Iraqi-Syrian border. Assad’s government has fought jihadists for decades and considered themselves “experts” on the affair. The US refused and, in 2011, they armed jihadists instead to depose Assad.
Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS
JN quickly gained a reputation as being the most extreme (and most effective) rebel fighting group in Syria. They were better funded, better trained, and many had had years of experience fighting US occupation forces in Iraq. One of the byproducts of wars is the creation of a class of experienced fighters. While many militants die in these infantry-based guerilla wars, the ones who survive tend to be resilient given their experience advantage. JN had a great number of survivors from conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Chechnya.
Furthermore, the extreme factions will often find the best recruits and people most willing to join up with their cause. If you look at the history of statehood in general, it is usually the most murderous and extreme of the militias who rise to power. This was true of the Leninists in Russia, the Zionists in Palestine, and it appears ISIS in Iraq/Syria.
JN eventually fractured, however, forming a splinter group called the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (Sham = Levant in Arabic). Effectively, the ISI fraction of JN had gotten "too extreme” for al Qaeda’s tastes. Perhaps too much of Zarqawi’s ghost had lived on in the organization. This schism precipitated bloodshed between JN members and the newly formed ISIS, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. JN was getting a lot of negative press in the West and the greater Middle East because of its penchant for using massacres as a tool for terrorizing populations into submission, as well as other heinous crimes such as mass rapes of female captives and wanton looting. Ironically, ISIS practiced Takfirism against JN in order to justify its split.
The schism was likely a calculated move on the part of ISIS, who were now the main players on the Iraqi-Syrian border. They did not need AQ central leadership because they had enough support from the Iraqi tribal system to survive and thrive.
What distinguished ISIS from the rest of the militias operating in Syria was that it had a coherent goal of statehood in mind, while other groups were just focused on toppling Assad. The state-building project entailed a focus on combat, but also a considerable attention was given to subduing the civilian population through propaganda and terror. The group was experienced in both facets of sowing the seeds of statehood, having had years of practice in Iraq and in other conflicts around the globe, most notably the Chechen-Russian wars.
ISIS also has an international angle, unlike the Syrian and Iraqi nationalist militias. This international focus gives them access to a far larger pool of recruits, and has enabled them to link up with several other jihadist factions across the world, notably the Chechen jihadists and other fighters across Europe and the Caucuses. The Chechens are also highly experienced fighters, having fought the Russians for years, and so they constitute one of the most deadly fighting forces in Iraq and Syria. The field commander of ISIS operates under the field name Abu Omar al-Shishani (literally Abu Omar The Chechen).
ISIS’s breakout moment was their June 2014 invasion of northern Iraq, which began with a jailbreak of thousands of Sunni prisoners from Iraqi military jails. In the eyes of ISIS, the Iraqi military are essentially a Shiite militia, referring to them pejoratively as the "Army of the Safavids," with Safavid being a reference to medieval Persian, Shiite rulers of Mesopotamia.
Following this jailbreak, ISIS launched a blitz on northern Iraq, seizing Mosul, Iraq’s oil-rich, and second largest city, as well as taking control of towns all over western and central Iraq. The US-trained Iraqi army, which took billions of dollars and years to create, effectively collapsed in 24 hours. 30,000 Iraqi troops shrank back in the face of about 3,000 ISIS militiamen, resulting in one of the greatest military routs in the region’s history.
If you remember how I mentioned previously that a great deal of this jihadist doctrine is tied into the militias viewing themselves as walking the path of the ancient, “untainted” Muslims around the time of Muhammad, then this episode featuring the ISIS blitzkrieg unto Iraq was a fulfillment of prophecy in the minds of Sunnis and ISIS. The original Muslim conquests of Mesopotamia and the Levant proceeded in the same blitz fashion, where a small army of Muslims conquered Byzantine and Persian armies which often outnumbered them by 4 or 5 times. The conquest by ISIS affirmed in the minds of Sunnis that history was repeating itself as the "true Muslims" routed the infidels thanks to the grace of god and the holiness of their mission.
However, the real story is less fantastical. ISIS had only took over the Sunni areas of Iraq which were under effective occupation by Shiite forces. Shiite troops and even the Sunnis serving alongside them in the Iraqi army had no interest in losing their lives for the sake of a corrupt authority in Baghdad bent on policing a disparate Sunni population. They dropped their guns, ran and were summarily routed by ISIS. Shiites were executed and Sunnis were spared as part of an ISIS amnesty program for their fellow Sunnis who had gone “wayward.” The sparing of the lives of Sunnis is actually a development in the tactics of ISIS, as they were against such amnesty policies in their past, less compromising iterations, notably under Zarqawi.
ISIS publicized images and video of the rout and ensuing capture of hundreds of Shiite troops, executing them on camera in systematic fashion. This represented Iraq officially splitting on its sectarian lines. Because the Iraqi Army left their equipment largely intact, ISIS got access to tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters (which they don’t know how to use yet), and a large amount of ammunition, uniforms, and other types of hardware to help them consolidate rule over north and central Iraq. In addition, they robbed the central bank of Mosul and other banks across Iraq which led to them claiming up to 400 million dollars in cash.
In addition to the arms and cash, ISIS also seized the precious bounty of oil fields across northern Iraq and now makes perhaps 3 million a day in black market oil sales according to experts. Cash and oil has made ISIS self-sufficient, and it is perhaps this conquest strategy is a large reason why they abandoned al Qaeda central leadership to begin with. ISIS had no intention on sharing the spoils of their hard-fought labor with an isolated leadership far away from the battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The success of ISIS has led hundreds of people from Europe and other parts of the world streaming into the area under ISIS control to pledge allegiance to their organization, with some estimated 6,300 aspiring jihadists migrating to Syria and Mesopotamia in the month of July 2014 alone.
Upon conquering northern and central Iraq, ISIS changed its name to the Islamic State (IS), and declared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph Ibrahim. Upon declaration of the restoration of the Caliphate, the Kurds also formally announced their plans to break from the Iraqi central government, hearkening the subsequent rebirth of Kurdistan.
In response to the ISIS takeover, Obama sent 300 advisors to Iraq. Ironically, the Iranian revolutionary guards are also in Iraq at the time of this writing to help bolster the defenses of Baghdad in expectation of an ISIS push to take control of Baghdad. At the end of August, Obama announced yet another 300 troops were to be sent back to Mesopotamia following the execution of American reporter James Foley and ISIS threats to murder another, Steven Sotloff.
The Islamic State and Kurdistan
The Kurds are dispersed throughout the Middle East, although they have a large territory in the Northeast of Iraq in the mountain ranges between Iraq and Iran and on the border with Turkey. Ironically, this is where Zarqawi initially found refuge when he fled Afghanistan.
ISIS began operations on Kurdistan in late July of this year, but prior to the commencement of those hostilities, they had been rooting out religious minorities under their dominion in Mosul and Anbar province. The message to the non-Sunnis was to convert to Islam or pay a "jizya," which is essentially a tax for not being a Sunni Muslim. After a short period, ISIS arbitrarily changed the message to "leave or die," thus triggering an exodus of Christians from northern Iraq.
After the Christians, the jihadists turned their sights on the Kurds, and the opening of this front is where the line in the sand was drawn by the United States. In the geopolitical theater, Obama had no intentions on allowing ISIS to usurp Kurdistan, as such a development posed a grave threat to the geopolitical balance in the region as it would place ISIS on the borders of both Iran and Turkey.
Iraqi Kurdistan is a socially divided entity. There are Salafi jihadist Kurds who generally are youth and low caste tribesmen. Kurds are also mostly Sunni Muslim, which would have meant that the transnational ISIS would possibly be able to incorporate Kurdistan as one of its "emirates."
The Kurdish leadership has a good relationship with Washington, as they were the chief, unflinching collaborators with the US occupation. They are also considered a vital part of the intelligence apparatus in the greater Middle East area, as they work with Mossad and the CIA to spy on neighboring Iran.
International outcry came about once ISIS added the Yezidi religious group to its genocidal hit list, leading to a set of massacres and the hot pursuit of a civilian Yezidi population up Shingal Mountain. The Yezidis began dying of thirst in the caves of their makeshift stronghold in the ensuing ISIS siege and it was at this time that the Americans made a humanitarian air drop to them while the world watched on. Assistance to Yezidis facing genocide was the political cover story for launching airstrikes on ISIS. The way I see Washington’s message to ISIS is “don’t mess with the Kurds, you can have everything else.”
While Obama was probably willing to tolerate the Sunni parts of Iraq falling to ISIS, the Kurdish regions were a red line. This is evidenced by the fact that there was no vitriolic reaction to the fall of Mosul and the drive of ISIS toward Baghdad. In fact, the central government of Iraq essentially had to turn to the Russians, who are allied with Assad and Iran, in order to assist them with the vital problems facing their rule in Iraq. Furthermore, there is the question as to why NATO member Turkey never sought to crush ISIS, despite the fact that they were willing to go as far as to stage a false flag attack on their own civilians to justify such a measure. Perhaps the US did not trust the Turks enough not to violate the sovereignty of the Kurds, whom they have been in on-and-off wars with for decades.
The relatively muted US response, which includes only limited airstrikes, and only airstrikes in ISIS’s Iraqi half, could be because it wants to keep ISIS intact enough that it continues to constitute a thorn in the side of Iran on its eastern border and Assad in the West. Perhaps Washington has learned its lesson regarding the dangers of creating power vacuums. The best case scenario for Washington may be a prolonged war between the Sunnis of Iraq and the Levant and the Shiite countries bordering them.
Notes on the Kurds
The information I’m including below is not to vilify Kurds, but rather to provide some clarity about the people who Washington is supporting.
Kurdish rule in Iraq is essentially a dictatorship led by the Barzani clan. It is a tribal area, like the culture of their Sunni Arab adversaries. In 2011, they violently suppressed protests by their fellow Kurds protesting the Barzani dictatorship. It is also an area where female genital mutilation is considered normal and, despite a nominal “ban” in response to Western pressure, the practice continues unabated. Note, male genital mutilation is also endemic across the Middle East, although it is FGM which generally gets Westerners up in arms, so I highlight this because it flies in the face of the narrative purported by the US government that it is assisting a free, democratic bastion of civilization against murderous religious fanatics. Truth is, it is one medieval set of people clashing with against another set of people whose psychologies lie somewhere between the invention of the agriculture and the Industrial Revolution.
Notes on US involvement
I think it is necessary to recap how the US helped precipitate this crisis:
- They invaded Iraq, thus upsetting the balance of power there and leaving a vacuum to be filled by Zarqawi and JTJ
- They pursued a policy of sectarian divide-and-conquer, thus effectively setting up sectarian military boundaries in Iraq when they simultaneously armed Sunni tribes alongside the Shiite-dominated central government
- The attack on Libya that toppled Gaddafi created the rise of jihadists there and a subsequent flood of weapons into Syria that bolstered ISIS
- US support for rebel groups in Syria undermined Assad who was a bulwark against Jihadism in the region, again bolstering ISIS
Walead Farwana is an American researcher, writer, and amateur historian currently residing in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 2011 with a Bachelor’s degree in biology. Walead is fluent in Arabic, with over a year of Middle East travel under his belt. You can follow him on Twitter @Walled_Farana