Much has been made of the rebirth of the Islamic State (IS). Some common ideas have emerged about how it was able to revive itself. Most of that focuses upon the Syrian conflict allowing an opportunity for the group to rebuild and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki alienating the Sunni population in Iraq. Another growing narrative is the role former Baathists play in the group. Much more happened for IS to make its comeback. To help explain some of these issues is Associate Professor Craig Whiteside from the Naval War College in Monterey. Whiteside is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His doctoral dissertation at Washington State University focused on the Islamic State movement. He can be followed on Twitter
1. After the Surge the Islamic State (IS) was thought to be near its end. It had lost most of its local support in Iraq, the Sahwa had been created, and most of its leaders were dead or imprisoned. That last issue might have been an asset. Much has been made of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s time in Camp Bucca, and how the entire U.S. prison system in Iraq was like a networking system for insurgents. Can you talk about how the militants used being arrested to their advantage?
IS strategy in this particular area has been to exploit our legalistic approach to warfare in an asymmetric manner. I am not trying to be critical as much as I am describing/explaining – this is who we are. We don’t see the object worth changing our own deeply held values. I think at some point Camp Bucca, like its big sister Guantanamo, sublimated its primary purpose of keeping militants off the battlefield until a peace could be established to being a showcase for COIN experiments and de-radicalization programs. These programs worked well in rehabilitating the average inmate at Bucca who was of the accidental guerilla type, as David Killcullen would call them. But our management of the hard-core salafist insurgents, who were allowed to network, organize, and plan, is undoubtedly a failure when you consider that 19 of 20 of IS leadership were alumni of Camp Bucca (this count as of last November). The IS fighters captured on the battlefield – mostly by specialized units using methods worth shielding - had to be released when we left in 2011, due to an inability to hand these prisoners over to the Iraqi Government with legally sufficient prosecution packets. The rolling set of releases happened to coincide with the return of the organization to fighting strength. Most of these fighters went directly back to the fight, usually in management positions due to their experience (a great example of this type of leader is Hudhayfah al Battawi, p. 40 in the latest issue of IS’s Dabiq - 9). Our preference on capturing (vice killing) these militant and warehousing them until we were ready to leave allowed the IS movement to have their own surge in 2011, if you will. If you look at the statistics on IS activity, it definitely picks up around this time. Since most of the other Sunni nationalist insurgent groups had given up the fight at this point, almost all of the violence is attributable to IS – which is different than the first part of the insurgency (2003-2007) where Zarqawi’s movement was a smaller part of the overall violence.
We knew this was going on, but I think we just weren’t honest with ourselves on what the impact would be. Those insurgents went back to Sunni communities controlled by the Sahwa (Awakening) units that were loosely supported by Iraqi Security Forces – lightly armed police in most areas – that would not be able to handle this surge.
2. A conventional wisdom has formed about how the Islamic State was able to rebuild itself after its nadir in 2008. Most of that argument centers on Syria providing a rebirth for the group, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s autocratic politics. You’ve written those were important, but there was more to the story. What else do you think was pivotal for the group’s re-emergence?
We tend to rely on these simplistic narratives to explain complex events like the resurgence of the IS. Not to defend the indefensible, but I don’t think you can say that Maliki’s autocratic politics – as counterproductive as they were - can physically force someone to join a horrific organization like the Islamic State. The Sunnis know exactly who IS is and what they are capable of doing. I mean, if you looked at who has harmed the Sunni people the most since 2008, it would easily be the Islamic State movement, which has killed thousands of Sunnis in its return to power (and advertised this fact in real time on jihadist websites by the way). So I don’t see the IS resurgence simply as a result of some grievance narrative against Maliki, or from the very real advantages the IS movement did see from their investment and leverage of the chaos in Syria to recruit, upgrade weapons, and secure additional funding from extortion and oil sales. It is more complex than that.
The narrative described above created an environment and provided resources, and were necessary but not sufficient for IS to be successful. The IS subversion campaign post-Awakening, that I kind of stumbled across during my research into their strategic decision making, is really breathtaking in my opinion. For my research I read almost three thousand IS documents, mostly media press releases but also around a hundred captured documents, that depicted an organization that did not see itself defeated as much as it needed to refocus its efforts on regaining its Sunni base – much like American politicians do early in political campaigns. Their foes in the Awakening movement were a visible representation of the power brokers in the Sunni community that had belatedly realized the Islamic State was a revolutionary movement dedicated to destroying the tribal system and replacing it with a religious state subject to administration by its sharia and shura councils. This was a direct threat to the tribal leaders/power brokers. The Awakening movement was able to use surprise to upend the IS just at a time the U.S. and its coalition were strongest (2006-7) and was applying maximum pressure on the IS. IS had divisive, even violent relations with other insurgent groups and this pushed most of these groups into the Awakening movement as well, and as a result of all of this pressure the movement lost most of its fighters. Some of these IS fighters joined the Awakening, but most local cells just went home. The Awakening defeated the IS in its core areas with US help and then put captured IS people in their own prisons until they promised to be good, and then released them. Not unlike a shorter version of our own Camp Bucca (intriguingly, IS uses a different, more high-risk strategy, opting to kill their enemies instead).
Our collective (Sahwa, IG, US) misinterpretation of this setback for IS was that the group was defeated and had melted away to the desert (and later supposedly fled to Syria, where they slowly gained strength and returned in a lightning campaign in mid-2014). This is simply not true from the evidence. First, IS continued its terrorism campaign in the Shia areas all over Iraq to show that they were still fighting and capable of projecting power against the government, and is easily discernable in the continuous suicide bombings and pilgrim attacks from 2008-present. Second, they returned to the Maoist Phase One insurgent activities of subversion, including discriminate assassinations and infiltration of security forces – particularly the Sahwa – in the very sanctuaries they had lost in 2006-8. It did not help that neither the U.S. nor the Iraqi Government were working to help the Sahwa manage the security in their area. We really outsourced security in the crucial Sunni sanctuaries to a loose aggregation of untrained local Sahwa militias that had no chance of withstanding a countrywide organization (IS) with a central leadership that delegated certain operations to local leaders. In fact, IS used this network to mass against isolated Sahwa units one after another, with traveling hit teams that seem to have worked in one area after the next using local contacts (sometimes called sleeper cells) for intelligence. They successfully used a carrot and stick approach to woo back indifferent Sunni tribal leaders just looking for the best deal and wiping out those leaders that stuck with the government. I saw this play out especially within Sunni tribes, as ambitious relatives fingered government supporters for IS cadres. This is really an intensive, under the radar Sunni civil war that lasts for many years, from 2008-2013. I argue that what you see in 2014 is really just the straw breaking the camel’s back, with a light raiding force tipping the balance for a harried ISF that was worn down from an insurgency that just never stopped attacking them for over a decade, and the ISF fled. IS had long ago established de facto control in many of these areas – particularly in Mosul where they had never left. IS essentially severs the cords between the Sahwa on the ground and the Sunni power brokers that are still outside of the country (or at least outside of Sunni areas). This is why you see Sunni “leaders” talking but nothing happening. The reason for this is not an overwhelming fear of Shia militias (who aren’t good guys to be sure), but because the Sunni community has no choice but to be in the IS camp. The Sunni leaders do get some benefit from living under IS government, but they are also afraid to do anything else, because they have seen how IS treats possible Sunni rivals. This is what control on the ground allows you to do, something the United States has been slow to learn in its own counterinsurgency doctrine.
3. Another story that has been gaining traction recently is that IS is really just a new manifestation of the Baath Party. The fact that so many of its military leaders are Baathists and that Baghdadi recruited party members while he was imprisoned in Camp Bucca are often cited as examples. What is your take on the relationship between these two groups?
I’ll get stoned for saying this, but there isn’t a more dangerous idea out there right now that is absolutely unproved then the one that says IS is a bunch of Ba’athists in disguise. I am not saying it is not true, I am saying that we just don’t know this for sure. I certainly haven’t seen it in a single document (of almost three thousand), but maybe they don’t have this in writing. And I worry that it will distort our understanding of the group, with inherent dangers I will talk about later.
There are former Saddam regime members that joined IS to be sure, and I have seen this in eulogies of Iraqi fighters that joined the foreign fighter core of Zarqawi’s movement early on (the Ansar, or supporters). When actually mentioned, it almost always points out that they publicly recanted their Ba’athist past and acknowledged their mistakes when joining. Zarqawi himself was a former drug user who was embarrassed of his past, and made up for it with zeal – so in this organization, repentance is the norm. That is how I would characterize many of the Ba’athists that joined IS, as people who truly renounced their past and found either a new-found attachment to salafi jihadism or faked it to be part of a winning team with a charismatic leader.
Some people claim that Bucca was the meeting point where Ba’athists were converted to IS, and I am sure this happened to some degree. But it was a self-select operation at Bucca where you could choose which camp you went to (don’t ask me why this is a good idea). Then AQI was not a Ba’athist friendly organization then (although they worked with nationalist insurgent groups on the battlefield to be sure against a common enemy), so you would have to be a salafist already to want to go to that camp and be subject to the IS movement proselytization. Again, this was a self-selection dynamic.
The problem with this idea is that the key Baghdadi lieutenants that are often used to exemplify this Ba’athist connection joined the IS movement before they went to Bucca, and in fact were early Iraqi adopters of the movement. This is more of an indicator of their true identity (salafist over Ba’athist) as they selected a group that fit their preferences best. There was no indication in 2003-4 that Zarqawi’s movement was going to dominate the resistance, especially since it was foreign-led, so in my opinion these people joined a group that fit their overall preferences.
This is not much different than Baghdadi himself, a non-Ba’athist who was a preacher from a long line of Salafists in the Bo-Badri clan who had left the Muslim Brotherhood (Iraqi Islamic Party) for being too ineffectual (all talk and no action), and made connections at Bucca with fellow salafists in what was then Zarqawi’s Tawhid wal Jihad. Baghdadi joined sometime after being released after serving 7-8 months in Bucca and then worked his way up the IS movement hierarchy since 2004.
Another argument that is made affirming the Ba’athist connection is that the resurgence could not have happened without Ba’athist training and expertise in security/counter-intelligence training. Again, we seem to need a simple explanation to understand how something inconceivable could happen, when as I laid out above, it really was the result of a lot of hard work and evolution that took years to accomplish. While the commitment to such a long-term project rings incredible in our ears, nonetheless, it is more likely than this explanation in my opinion. The jihadist movement actually does have its own subversion doctrine and organizational culture developed over several generations of jihadists, beginning in Afghanistan. Zarqawi’s original group had many jihadist veterans in it and when he finally brought himself to join Al Qaeda Central (a marriage of convenience and a relationship that quickly soured, long before their divorce in 2013), he got even more jihadist veteran help. If you read al Muqrin’s handbook on subversion, published in 2004 for his al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula movement and translated/explained by the fantastic Norman Cigar, you can get a sense of where the jihadist movement is as early as 2004 on this. I am sure Zaraqawi and company developed even better tactics, techniques, and procedures by 2005 through trial and error in combat against the world’s greatest military (as Zarqawi called it). In fact, that year Zarqawi created his own assassination brigade (Omar Brigade) dedicated to behind the scenes killings of members of the Shia militias (Badr and Mahdi) that tormented Sunni civilians. This effort expanded to a brigade targeting Iraqi Security Forces (in their homes) and the Sahwa hunters from 2008-13. In fact, one document I read from 2009 was the diary of an ISI fighter who claimed to have infiltrated a Mahdi Army unit (Shia) in Kadhimiyah (a very Shia area) and was assassinating his own coworkers. He was not a former Ba’athist.
I am sure I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that the argument about Ba’athists dominating IS has a timeline problem and is based on simple correlation to carry its water. Prior affiliation with the former regime is not proof-positive of any particular counterintelligence skill, nor does it measure for us any particular depth of affiliation with the Ba’ath party. I would argue that anyone that is still for the Ba’ath probably belongs to JRTN, a weak and ineffectual organization. Proponents of the Ba’ath angle disregard this final fact: when IS took formal control of Mosul last year, they rounded up dozens of former prominent Ba’athists in the city… and executed them. I think that act sums up the real relationship.
4. In terms of tactics, what kinds of acts did IS carry out to regain its influence and control in Iraq from places like Anbar, which it had largely been purged from?
Since I have described some of them above, and cover specifics in several of my articles in War on the Rocks, I will just relate this anecdote from a series of situation reports from an ISI emir to his boss in 2009, that I found in my research at the Conflict Record Research Center at National Defense University. This emir was in charge of the “Southern belt,” a term developed during Zarqawi’s era describing an area which stretches from south of Fallujah to just beyond the Tigris River south and east of Baghdad. These are rural Sunni farms that form the border with the “Shia south,” and the tribes there fought the occupation and government very hard before switching sides in mid-2007. His reports, to someone who reported directly to both Abu Omar (the ISI emir) and Abu Hamza (ISI military commander), described his outreach to Sunni tribal leaders in Jurf ah Sakhr, Yousifiyah, Amiriyah al Fallujah, and other former ISI sanctuaries. The emir brought them gifts of fine robes and headdresses, and played on their Sunni ties and suspicions of the government. He reported who was amenable to the ISI, who was willing to sabotage Sahwa participation in the tribe, and who was stalling and maintaining ties to the government. In one case, he asked his superior in the letter for permission to move against one prominent Sheik who had spurned his engagements and elected to run for government under the Maliki ticket. Finally, tying into the assault on the legal system, the emir worked to pressure Sunnis to drop wrongful death lawsuits against former IS fighters that had killed relatives. This helped convince older, experienced IS members to return to active duty.
I cover the process that followed this outreach in depth in my War on the Rocks article “Small Ball,” but the above story of the Southern Belt Emir is important and describes the carrot and stick approach very well. The documents I read were captured in 2010, most likely in the exploitation of the airstrike that killed Abu Omar and Abu Hamza, indicating that the ISI resurgence pre-dates their death and carried on regardless of what happened to the leaders who had succeeded Zarqawi in 2006. In fact, operational reports for the next year (until mid-2011) credited each result of the “Harvest” plan to their lost emir, Abu Omar, an interesting indicator of his influence (as an aside, as you can see in the linked news report about their deaths, no one understands the command relationship of Omar and Hamza, despite their telling us – truthfully in this case, that Omar was the emir or caliph of the Islamic State and Hamza was his deputy/military commander). By then, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had quietly succeeded Omar and maintained a low profile, no doubt having learned from being a survivor of several near misses himself in his five year rise to the top of the organization.
5. Finally, both the Iraqi and American governments were severely criticized after the fall of Ramadi in April 2015. What do you think of the strategy those two countries are taking in fighting the insurgency?
That is a very tough question Joel. I study the Islamic State mostly from 2003 to 2013, so I am always a bit reluctant to make statements that I can’t back up with my research, or at least my interpretation of that research. What I can say is that we really don’t seem to know this organization very well. Often people refer to them as a new group loosely tied to the old AQI, or sponsored by Saudi Arabia, run by Saddam from the grave, re-writing the borders of a fake state, and/or spawned from the overt discrimination of the Sunni population by the Iraqi government. This group didn’t come back because they had a sanctuary in Syria. And it didn’t come back because Maliki’s men killed a few dozen protestors, however horrible that mistake was. IS came back because it was filled with dedicated men who stayed loyal to the cause in some dark years, but went out and established the conditions that allowed them to win over former friends and eliminate their enemies, all the while exploiting lax security to intimidate and coerce the weak who weren’t protected by the government. They did this while the US was in the country (2008-2011), and we were powerless to stop it. They have built on a doctrine that stresses patience, a factor that has allowed them to carefully build a pseudo-state that produces order, controls territory, and administers services (with some skill in certain areas) to a population that identifies culturally with them and maintains significant blood ties to the members of the Islamic State. The only thing that keeps them from being a full-fledged state is the lack of international recognition.
To date, a failure to understand this group has hurt our formulation of a plan on how to defeat it. As Sun Tzu says, know your enemy and know yourself; Clausewitz says to make sure you understand the type of conflict you are entering, and don’t use wishful thinking to make it something you want it to be. I think we have failed in both of these dictums.
Ramadi is important to all of this because it symbolizes our ignorance of a conflict and enemy we should know pretty well by now after the tremendous investments we have made. US leadership has made public statements that this place and that other place was more important to us than Ramadi, and from a strategic and normative sense, this was sound logic. But from a psychological sense, a realm that the Islamic State masters through the exploitation of sectarian narratives of grievances and identity comparison, Ramadi mattered a great deal. Ramadi was the birthplace of the Sunni uprising against the IS movement, a critical event that shook the worldview of the Islamic State to its very core. Since that catastrophe, they have worked hard to win back the Sunni tribes. Part of their strategy has been to punish the “traitors,” and for certain tribes, like the ones in Ramadi, they haven’t been allowed repentance. Our collective focus on areas that are more “strategic” than Ramadi turned out to be a mistake. How do you repeat the strategy of splitting the Sunni from the Islamic State, when as late as 2015 you still can’t protect the Sunni that declare for your side? Especially when you remember that the father of the Awakening movement, Abu Risha, was assassinated way back in 2007. While we forgot, others did not. Baghdadi, Adnani, and the other key leaders of the IS were mid-level leaders in the organization when the Sunni tribes and resistance groups broke hard against them, and they learned a hard lesson about securing your base. What you see today is the successful realization of their long-term strategy. It seems like even a year after Mosul, we still don’t get it.
The Iraqi government probably has always understood this, but many of its members and its auxiliaries in the Hash’d have never trusted the Awakening/Sunni in the first place. Their ambivalence and policies of benign neglect toward the Sahwa, and failure to really try and govern the Sunni areas or at least compete with the remnants of the Islamic State to show who could govern best, is what another major factor in the rise of the Islamic State. As Bernard Fall would say, the IS won the governing competition - and Ramadi might simply be the acknowledgement that Baghdad cannot or will not compete for the Sunni.
The United States really has never understood what is going on in Iraq since we pulled out of direct control (if we ever had it) of the Sunni areas and handed them over to our Sahwa allies. The US has never gotten over its romantic view of the Sahwa experience (one that I shared for a very long time too). We used the rose scented after-glow of a temporary victory to simplify and exaggerate what the Sahwa were able to do for us in the Sunni areas, and this more than anything else, created the conditions that allowed the IS movement to gain the initiative and move things back in the other direction.
That said, we probably have a good strategy right now to fit the objectives we are willing to work toward – although it is a very disingenuous one. We aren’t trying to defeat and eventually destroy the Islamic State. That can only be done with some very heavy lifting, lifting we are not willing to do. Even an invasion equal to 2003 would leave us (US/IG) in the very same place we were back then – with no one that wants to or is able to commit to a long term occupation that will change the control dynamics on the ground. Ironically, we belatedly understood in 2003 what we needed to do and finally figured out how to do it by late 2006. By the end of 2007 we had actually accomplished bringing order to Iraq… and promptly squandered it for the same reason we foundered in 2003 – a lack of a solution for what to do next.
Instead of defeating IS, we are committed to containing the Islamic State and hoping it either collapses, suffers another uprising, or the Iraqi government finds the will and capability to regain their territory. All of these outcomes are possible, although following the setback in Ramadi - the odds of any of these happening are lower than before.
Whiteside, Craig, “Catch and Release in the Land of Two Rivers,” War On The Rocks, 12/18/14
- “ISIL’s Small Ball Warfare: An Effective Way to Get Back into a Ballgame,” War On The Rocks, 4/29/15
- “War, Interrupted, Part I: The Roots of the Jihadist Resurgence in Iraq,” War On The Rocks, 11/5/14
- “War, Interrupted, Part II: From Prisoners to Rulers,” War On The Rocks, 11/6/14