The Islamic State is here to stay. That is the conclusion of the book “ISIS. Inside the Army of Terror” by journalists Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. This important book is the first in English that gives an insight in what ISIS is, where it comes from and where it is heading. This unique book should be mandatory reading, as this would put an end to the vast amount of badly informed comments, nonsensical debates and counterproductive political decisions. The most important lesson of the book is that Assad is not part of the solution against ISIS, but a part of the problem from the very beginning until now.
Al-Zarqawi, the father of ISIS
The story of ISIS – and the book – starts with Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian smuggler who became a Salafist in one of Jordan’s mosques. Al-Zarqawi went to Afghanistan in 1989, just in time to see the Red Army defeated. He stayed there a few years while being trained in one of the Al Qaeda training camps where he also made his first Jihadist contacts. Back in Jordan he came in contact with the (this week released) preacher Al-Maqdisi who used Al-Zarqawi to hide weapons. The latter was arrested and sentenced to jail, the place where he radicalized. There are more than a few important facts about Al-Zarqawi that gives us a better inside in today’s actions and thoughts of ISIS. The first is his hatred to everything that is not Sunni. He is convinced that only by killing Shia and creating a civil war between Sunni and She he could bring back the prestige and the old glory of the Islamic caliphate of Baghdad. His second mission was to get rid of the US occupation in Iraq. With the support of Syria and Iran he carried out the one attack after the other. A third fact is the tension between him and his group Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) on the one side and the Al Qaeda leadership on the other. Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri didn’t agree with Al-Zarqawi’s concept of civil war and his barbaric way of killing Shia, as he was the one that started the publicized beheadings. Fourthly, AQI became rich by smuggling oil and didn’t need that much of foreign funding. The final crucial fact of AQI was that the main group of fighters were former soldiers of Saddam’s army.
Mistakes were made
It is impossible to understand the rise of AQI and later ISIS without the policies and mistakes of Iraq’s leadership of the last 20 years. First there was Saddam Houssein who was not only Baathist but sectarian too. After the war against Iran and the US invasion in 1991 his army slaughtered Kurds and Shia. In order to make his Sunni army more loyal he started the Faith Campaign exposing his soldiers to Salafi teachings. The result was that many soldiers became more loyal to Salafism than to Saddam. The second, big mistake was made by the US and more specifically Paul Bremmer, the “governor” of Iraq after the invasion of 2003. By one stroke of a pen Bremmer made tens of thousands members of Saddam’s forces unemployed. The step to join the anti-US war of AQI was very small. No wonder that AQI became a very serious force. They were not only able to do multiple attacks. AQI even conquered Mosul, installing Al-Zarqawi’s regime of terror. It were not the American troops but the tribes that started an uprising, the so-called Anbar Awakening. With American support the tribes succeeded in kicking out AQI from Mosul. The American support was crucial. When the US troops left Iraq in 2011, Mosul became an easy target again. The third mistake was one made by the dictatorial Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki. With the support of Teheran he continued the sectarian politics of Saddam, but then in the opposite way. By discriminating the Sunni, punishing the tribes of the Anbar Awakening instead of rewarding them, by pushing Sunni officers out of leading positions in the army Al-Maliki embittered the Iraqi Sunni population. This only worsened the moment the US troops left Iraq.
The end of Al-Zarqawi, the start of ISIS
On June 7, 2006 Al-Zarqawi was killed after a US air attack. He was succeeded by Abu Ayyub Al-Masri, an Egyptian national, as leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Masri decided to strengthen the home grown resistance in Iraq and founded the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). He appointed Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi, a native Iraqi, as its leader. The book quotes Al-Jibouri, a tribal Sunni leader that “ISI represented Al Qaeda’s attempt to hijack the political channel of the Iraqi (Sunni) insurgency”. The brutality with which ISI and AQI operated was unseen, even in Iraq. But their power play worked in that way that more and more frustrated Baathists joined them. ISI and AQI became that big that they had become uncontrollable in 2007. The Anbar Awakening was for the US in Iraq the start of the crackdown. Many leaders and fighters went to one of the infamous jails, where their hatred for the US even increased. We know now that these jails served as a university for jihadists. In Camp Bucca for example jihadists and Baathists learned to know each other better. They exchanged contact numbers (written in their underwear) and contacted each other once out of prison. One of the prisoners of Bucca Camp was Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi, a doctor in Islamic Studies, was a quiet prisoner who had gained the trust of the guards as he was able to resolve conflicts between prisoner’s groups. He could even travel around in prison. That way he created a vast network of fighters who would become the core of the future ISIS. The same quality he used when released from prison in 2004. Many meetings between AQI leaders and ISI leaders happened at his place. Al-Baghdadi also pretended to be a descendent from Houssein, the grandson of the Prophet. So when Al-Masri and Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi were killed in 2010, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi became the obvious choice. It was Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi who sent a small team to Syria in August 2011 in order to prepare the foundation of Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The leader of the group, Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani was not by accident a former prisoner of Camp Bucca and most probably also from Sednaya prison in Damascus. He was not the only one. On 31 May 2011, two months after the start of the Syrian revolution, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad issued a general amnesty. In reality “it was applied selectively – plenty of protestors and activists were kept in jail, while an untold number of Salafist-Jihadists were let out.” They not only created Jabhat Al Nusra, but also Ahrar Al Sham and the Syrian pillar of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (the Levant).
What does Assad want?
For many it seems not credible that Assad would have a hand in the creation of Jihadist groups that are fighting against his own regime. Nevertheless, it is a fact that he released the most fanatic Jihadists out of prison. It is also a fact that it was Assad’s army that bought the oil from Jabhat Al Nusra and later from ISIS in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and paid them to protect it, helping ISIS to become extremely rich. And it is a fact that there were hardly any clashes between the Syrian Army and ISIS before October/November 2014. Since then, Assad pretends to bomb ISIS strongholds while in reality these bombs kill civilians rather than ISIS fighters. An intriguing story quoted in the book from the Guardian is about two secret meetings hosted and supervised in Zabadani (near Damascus) by the Syrian regime between Al Qaeda agents and Iraqi Baathists in 2009. Iraq’s PM Al-Maliki blamed Assad for a devastating series of attacks against Iraqi state institutions on August 19, 2009. The book also contains witnesses of Syrian security ratlines into Iraqi Jihadist groups and of the fact that it was easy for Jihadists to cross the Syrian-Iraqi border. In a police state like Syria such things don’t happen by accident. Ali Mamlouk, Assad’s director of general intelligence, explained in 2010 what Syria wanted to achieve: “1) Syria must be able to take the lead in any regional actions; 2) politics are an integral part of combating terrorism, and a ‘political umbrella’ of improved US-Syrian bilateral relations should facilitate cooperation against terrorism; and 3) in order to convince the Syrian people that cooperation with the US was benefiting them, progress must be made on issues related to economic sanctions against Syria including spare parts for airplanes and a plane for President (Assad).” In other words, for many years the strategy of Assad is the help create terrorism in order to use it as a tool to be invited on the table to fight it. In the light of what is happening today with ISIS that makes perfectly sense. In his interview with BBC this week, Assad repeated that most protesters and rebels were terrorists from the beginning and that he had to fight them. As nobody believed his claims back in 2011, he helped to create ISIS and help them grow in order to prove his point. Now he hopes that the international community will invite him on the table in order to fight these terrorists. The same strategy has been used concerning sectarianism. With the support of the Iranian Quds force and the Lebanese Hezbollah Assad has been trying to baptize the Syrian revolution as a sectarian war of Sunni fighters against the rest. His militias have been killing Sunni, while leaving the Christians unharmed, hoping to provoke a counter-reaction. It is a classic strategy, also used by Serbian President Milosevic in Bosnia. While the Free Syrian Army has always refused to use sectarian speech, it has become the core of the ISIS rhetoric and appeal. Assad is using this discourse to propagate himself as the protector of the minorities in Syria. Again the same strategy: he first creates the problem and then proposes himself as the only solution.
What does ISIS want?
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi follows very much the ideas and strategies of Al-Zarqawi. He believes that by triggering a civil war between the ‘takfiris’ (Muslims who call other Muslims, Christians or Jews apostates) and the rest he will restore the glory time of the Bagdad Caliphate. It is not by accident that he chose Al-Baghdadi as his nom de guère. “In much of its public discourse, ISIS relies on Islamic eschatology (end of times) for legitimacy and mobilization. A hadith attributed to the Prophet Mohammad about tan end-of-days battle between Muslims and Christians in Dabiq, a town in rural Aleppo, is a frequent reference point – so pervasive that ISIS’ propaganda magazine is named for it. (…) According to (another) famous hadith, Mohammad explained to his followers that after him, a caliphate modelled on prophethood would be established, and that would then be followed by a coercive kingdom and tyrannical rule. Finally, another caliphate modeled on prophethood would be established.” ISIS, or since June 2014 IS, the Islamic State, isn’t about Assad. It is about this last war of the takfiris against all the rest. It is about the installation of this new Caliphate. It is about abolishing all decisions of the apostate West, not the least the borders of the 1915 agreement of Sykes-Picot (between Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq). Hence the rhetoric against crusades or against the new “Lawrences of Arabia”. It is a discourse they are communicating in the most sophisticated way, attracting a lot of Salafist-Jihadists who are disillusioned in the failing Al Qaeda and the failed Muslim Brotherhood. That is the reason why they are happy with the international coalition and with the reaction of Iran. It leads to this historic grand war they are looking for. And success breads followers. The difference with Al Qaeda is that ISIS calls on individuals to pledge allegiance to Al-Baghdadi, where-ever they live, and organize attacks on their own initiative. Ahmed Coulibaly, the man who killed 4 Jews and held 15 people hostage in a Parisian kosher shop, was an individual who pledged allegiance to ISIS. He never went to Syria or Iraq but committed a sectarian crime on his own initiative. The authors of the book, Weiss and Hassan, even spoke to a man in Turkey saying that he was part of an ISIS sleeping cell and that there were many outside Syria. This way of organization of ISIS, it’s richness, the way they govern the cities and villages they occupy, the way they communicate and attract people, the fact that they believe that this is a holy war, the end war and that they will get a martyr’s treatment in heaven when they die, convinces the authors of the fact that ISIS is there to stay, in one way or another. Airstrikes might move them a bit to the left or to the right, but they will not defeat ISIS. It is also clear that Assad cannot be trusted in any way. Moreover, becoming one of the biggest war criminals of all time, Assad can never be a part of the solution for the problem he by purpose helped to create. The only possible groups that might be able to defeat ISIS are precisely the groups the West refused to support in the first place. By not supporting the FSA and other groups the West weakened and divided them and made them an easy prey for the extremists of ISIS. Also, the non-attack in the summer of 2013 after Assad crossed Obama’s red line by using chemical weapons convinced many Syrians that the West is no ally anymore. In fact, they might be right. M.Weiss and H. Hassan, “ISIS. Inside the Army of Terror”, Regan Arts – New York, 2014, http://shop.reganarts.com/products/isis-inside-the-army-of-terror. by Koert Debeuf, 11/2/2015 Koert Debeuf lives in Cairo, Egypt, where he represented the EU parliament’s Alde group for many years. Currently he is Project Coordinator “World Leaders on Transitions towards Democracy” at International IDEA. He is a former advisor of a Belgian prime minister. Reporting from post-revolutionary Egypt, his columns are a window on events in the Arab world. Koert Debeuf is also author of ‘Inside the Arab Revolution’. For more columns of Koert Debeuf, click here.