The fall of Mosul in June 2014 caught the world by surprise. The Islamic State (IS) was suddenly able to take Iraq’s second largest city in just a few days and then sweep south into Salahaddin and Kirkuk provinces. IS had been growing in strength and rebuilding itself over the previous two years taking advantage of a number of factors in both Iraq and neighboring Syria. Its rise also presented a challenge to older jihadist groups like Al Qaeda. To help explain the growth and development of the Islamic State is Michael Weiss, co-author of . Weiss also writes for Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast, NOW Lebanon and Interpret Magazine. He can be followed on Twitter
1. Let’s start with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi the founder of the group that would become the Islamic State. Zarqawi came from a poor family in Jordan and was introduced to Salafism in a religious school there. When he got older he was caught up in the fervor over the war in Afghanistan. He went there twice, the first being in 1989, but wasn’t really involved in much fighting. What seemed like a more important factor in his early development was his relationship with Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi and their imprisonment in Jordan in 1994. Can you explain how that shaped the early Zarqawi?
In way, he was the jihadi commander who never should have been. Zarqawi had none of Osama’s eloquence or Zawhiri’s strategizing. He was a thug, an alcoholic and a bit of meathead who did time in Jordan for a host of petty crimes and what may have been not-so-petty ones such as pimping. His first trip to Afghanistan reads very much like an anti in search of a climax, to borrow a phrase from the late Christopher Hitchens. He arrived just as the Red Army was withdrawing. And while it’s true he attending a few notorious training camps, such as Sado (the Fort Dix of al-Qaeda at the time), Zarqawi really didn’t become a warrior until much later. Rather, he chose to immerse himself in journalism, acting as Boswell to all the veteran mujahideen then tromping around Peshawar and the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands. He wrote for a publication called The Impenetrable Edifice, although I've no doubt that what was truly impenetrable was Zarqawi’s prose. He was semi-literate and also non-starter as a jihadist theologian, until, that is, he linked up with Maqdisi, whom he met in Peshawar and who would go on to serve as his spiritual mentor, rather as Abdallah Azzam had done for bin Laden, at least until the latter linked up with Zawahiri.
When they returned to Jordan, Zarqawi and Maqdisi attempted to start their own terrorist cell, targeting the Hashemite monarchy and state institutions, but the entire thing devolved quickly into farce. Their cell had been monitored by Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID) more or less from its inception and an attempt by Zarqawi and Maqdisi to stockpile arms reads more Four Lions than The Hurt Locker. So they went to jail. It was here that Zarqawi really came into his own.
What he lacked in brains, he made up for in leadership. I think in the book we liken him to Che, who is much romanticized in communist historiography (and by misguided college students) but who had far more charisma than candlepower. Zarqawi built his body in the clink. He also cultivated a Salafist-jihadist following, impressing even the guards at al-Swaqa who saw him, rather bizarrely, as something of a conflict resolution specialist, a boss who could keep rival underlings in line and from tearing each other apart. (Although when he did stand up to prison authorities, he was isolated and tortured.) My favorite anecdote from this period was his confronting a fellow inmate who had been convicted for bomb-throwing. The guy had been reading, as one does in jail, Crime and Punishment and Zarqawi wrote him a hectoring note denouncing the infidel Russian novelist “Dofeesky.” That nation-states have been felled by such IQs…
Prisons in the Middle East are universities for jihadists, a place for them not to be rehabilitated but further ideologized. This was especially so for Zarqawi. He took lessons from Maqdisi in the art of writing fatwahs and tracts, one of which was apparently read by bin Laden approvingly once it had been smuggled out of prison. It was at al-Swaqa, too, that Zarqawi’s star began to outshine that of his master and a kind of protege-mentor role reversal began to occur. However, Zarqawi would always be in thrall to Maqdisi; when the latter later condemned al-Qaeda in Iraq’s brutal beheading of fellow Muslims — this in a letter Maqdisi was almost certainly coerced into writing by the GID back in Jordan — Zarqawi is said to have read the animadversion and wept.
2. Do you see any parallels between Zarqawi’s time in prison and his successor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi when he was arrested and spent a year in U.S. run detention facility Camp Bucca in Iraq in 2004?
Yes, absolutely. The administrators of Camp Bucca likewise saw Baghdadi as a wrangler of tougher elements “behind the wire,” although he was incarcerated for only a year, whereas Zarqawi did about five (he was let out when King Hussein succeeded his father on the throne and declared a general amnesty in Jordan). Another important distinction: Zarqawi’s total lack of an Islamic education versus Baghdadi’s PhD in theology from an elite university. This can only have leant the latter an automatic clerical authority whereas, as discussed, Zarqawi had to earn his bona fides.
But it’s certainly correct to say that Bucca in the early days of the occupation was horribly mismanaged, with very little regard for how jihadists were using the prison to recruit even minor criminals and also refine their tradecraft. There were actual bomb-making courses being taught there, believe it or not, and the facility was otherwise seen as a tremendous furlough opportunity for weary insurgents, some of whom, as Gen. Doug Stone told me, were actually trying to break into jail. And why not? You were fed three squares a day, protected by armed guard and otherwise kept from being killed by a rival group or by coalition forces. Club Med for head-loppers! Also, Bucca was a place to maximize what I’ve taken to calling Rolodex pragmatism. Counterterrorists tend to fetish rigid hierarchies — who made bayat to whom, who’s in the People's Front of Judea versus the Judean People's Front and so on — but the truth more often than not is that groupuscules and cells and factions coalesce based on mundane considerations such acquaintanceship and association. One inmate would befriend another and then write down the name of that guy’s cousin in Ramadi in the elastic band of his underwear so that when he got out, he had a place to go and an insurgency to join.
3. After being released from prison in 1999 under an amnesty Zarqawi went back to Afghanistan and met Osama bin Laden to ask for aid. Zarqawi would later pledge loyalty to Al Qaeda when he was fighting in Iraq in October 2004. Zarqawi always had a difficult relationship with Al Qaeda however, which was revived by Baghdadi leading the two to officially split in February 2014. Can you explain what the differences were between Zarqawi and bin Laden, and what that meant for the global jihad movement?
Yes, bin Laden hated Zarqawi and the feeling was mutual. Zarqawi didn’t come as a modest acolyte to Kandahar to meet the venerated leader of al-Qaeda; he came as a brash and arrogant wannabe who couldn’t understand why bin Laden was so focused on hitting the United States when all these taghut and apostate regimes were there for the hitting in the Middle East. (By this point, bin Laden had evolved, if that word can be used in this context, from a near-target to far-target proponent, which is to say, he no longer wanted to attack Muslim-led states but the imperial superpower responsible for their state of corruption and decay.) Furthermore, Zarqawi had a pathological hatred of the Shia, which offended bin Laden on two levels: not only did he think a sectarian war would undermine the greater jihadist enterprise but his own mother was a Syrian Alawite. So this was rather like Stalin cracking a joke about Jews in front of Trotsky. Nevertheless, thanks to one of bin Laden’s lieutenants, Zarqawi was seen as a useful ally because of his extensive Levantine connections (again, who he knew counted for more than what he knew). So a startup loan for about $200,000 was given by al-Qaeda to Zarqawi for the establishment of a training camp in Herat. By all accounts, this was more successful than even Zarqawi’s admirers believed it was going to be. So a pragmatic rather than formal relationship was struck. After 9/11 and the overthrow of the Taliban by NATO, bin Laden also foresaw the coming invasion of Iraq and Zarqawi was an early infiltrator of Iraqi Kurdistan. Thanks to a series of “spectacular” attacks his group Monotheism and Jihad perpetrated in the early days of the occupation, namely against the Jordanian embassy and United Nations in Baghdad, Zarqawi became both the public face of the anti-American insurgency as well as a celebrity jihadist. His pledge of allegiance to bin Laden in 2004, and the formation of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), was therefore a marriage of convenience rather than one of true love. It meant the Zarqawists would now have access to al-Qaeda’s extensive international finance network and propaganda apparatus, although the local subsidiary’s innovations in both areas would eventually eclipse what its parent organization could manage. Indeed, in 2005, it was bin Laden asking Zarqawi for a loan; and it was Zarqawi who patented the now-familiar agitprop of recording the decapitation of victims dressed in orange Gitmo-style jumpsuits.
Like all marriages of convenience, this one was dysfunctional and, in retrospect, fated for divorce. It just took ten years to happen. The genocidal campaign against the Shia — Zarqawi designated them his top enemy, even above the Americans — always horrified bin Laden because he knew that declaring war on Iraq’s (Muslim) majority was a strategic blunder. Zarqawi, on the other hand, reckoned that this would only militarize and radicalize the Shia, who already had the Badr Corps (his bête noire) and other IRGC-backed paramilitary groups acting as de facto arms of the Iraqi government, not to say death squads. The Shia would retaliate against the Sunnis, thereby driving the latter into AQI’s fold. Perhaps over nostalgic for the Afghan-Soviet War he never actually saw, Zarqawi believed that his grim plan to foment sectarian civil war would lead to a global casting call for mujahideen pouring into Iraq and thus swelling, or replenishing, the ranks of Sunnis.
Bin Laden thought this was madness as it would only create fitna and distract from the overriding objective of bleeding and defeating America in first Iraq and then elsewhere in the Middle East. So here we see the original argument between Zarqawi and bin Laden introduced in Kandahar in 1999 — how to treat the Shia and which target to prioritize — codified in fire and blood.
4. Al Qaeda in Iraq went through several stages until it became the current Islamic State. One of those was going from a mostly foreign entity under Zarqawi to a largely Iraqi one under Abu Ayub al-Masri and Baghdadi. How did that process come about and what was the motivation?
Zarqawi had problems to contend with which al-Qaeda never really did: nationalism. Even Iraqi Sunnis weren't keen on the idea of a jumped-up Jordanian telling them whom to kill and how to live, so Zarqawi attempted to “Iraqize” his franchise by incorporating other native insurgencies into the so-called Mujahideen Shura Council. Of course, AQI was primus inter pares of this cobbled-together body, the formation of which was really just a PR stunt to reduce what by now was becoming the popular perception of the Zarqawists as just another species of foreign occupier.
By the time he was killed by JSOC in 2006, Zarqawi was already moving AQI away from his nominal boss in Abbottabad. Bin Laden and Zawahiri dispatched Abu Ayub al-Masri, an Egyptian, to helm AQI, but al-Masri took Zarqawi’s independence further by anointing Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a native Iraq, the head of a new umbrella organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), into which AQI was subsumed. Al-Masri then took the extraordinary step of making bayat to al-Baghdadi, thus confusing who the rightful master and commander of Iraq’s al-Qaeda faction truly was and, not coincidentally, infuriating bin Laden. Indeed, the captured intelligence now in the Harmony database about how angry these moves made AQHQ is fascinating because it foreshadows what happened 7 years later, or rather 18 months ago: ISIS’s split from al-Qaeda and its repudiation of Zawahiri as a has-been and sell-out.
Al-Masri and al-Baghdadi’s existence was only ever confirmed by their demise in 2010, at the hands of another JSOC team. But by this point, what had happened at the upper echelons of AQI/ISI? Zarqawi’s Iraqization program succeeded all too well; many ex-Baathists from Saddam’s army or mukhabarat were now in key positions of power on the Shura and Military Councils and therefore the kingmakers of the future emir.
I’ll refrain from stoning my friend Craig Whiteside who says the Baathist infiltration of contemporary ISIS is overplayed because I think he and I agree that this isn’t about some furtive ideological power-play by the Saddamist equivalents of marranos. Though he knows as well as anyone that plenty of Baathists became true-believing Salafi-Jihadists before the U.S. invasion thanks to Saddam’s Islamic Faith Campaign, which was an attempt to create a Frankenstein monster of the perfect ideologue: half religious fanatic, half secular one. The Campaign, overseen by Izzat al-Duri, was envisioned as a bulwark against any threat, foreign or domestic (but primarily domestic) to Baathist rule. Khalaf Ulayan was Baathist who became a Salafist during the 1990s and formed Jaysh al-Islami after the invasion. And Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who was an anti-regime Salafist nonetheless tolerated by the regime during the Faith Campaign, became the speaker of post-Saddam Iraqi parliament. He allegedly moonlighted as an affiliate to Ulayan and may have had a hand in blowing up his own parliament. So these hard and fast distinctions really don’t apply.
Hell hath no fury like a counterterrorism analyst in search of straw men. The Baathist predominance in the leadership structure of ISIS is an established fact, but somehow this has now transformed into an argument over whether or not ISIS is fundamentally “secular”? No one serious can argue that, and no one serious has. I suspect this is just one of the sillier epiphenomena of the very silly debate, which preoccupied the American news cycle for 15 minutes, as to whether or not ISIS is “Islamic.”
It’s more than a mere coincidence that so many “former regime elements” have taken over ISIS. Might it be because they know a thing or two about operational security, counterintelligence, guerrilla and informational warfare and that this tradecraft trumped whether or not their beards were long enough or they had memorized the whole of the Koran?
If we only examine ISIS through the prism of their advertised dogma, or through our own preferred prism of counterterrorism, we overestimate and underestimate them simultaneously. ISIS has got us arguing over what to call it or whether or not it’s truly “Islamic,” which of course is a terrific distraction from killing ISIS. You could call ISIS Bette Midler and that still wouldn’t change life for anyone in Raqqa.
I remember doing a TV spot several months ago in which some very well-intentioned but not very well-informed MNSBC journalist made the case that during the Cold War plenty of socialists were opposed to Stalinism. Yes, indeed they were and I think I’m fairly well acquainted with this intellectual history. But I almost felt sorry informing him that the question as to whether or not Stalinism was the truest expression of Marxism or a perversion of it is one that Marxists still struggle with it, and they do so without getting the vapors of even having it raised in the first place. This debate, too, occurs alongside the one which queries whether or not Russia has simply got the “DNA” for authoritarian rule.
All totalitarian movements adapt, even to the point of turning their own doctrines upside-down. ISIS sells oil to the nusayris in Damascus and sells the priceless artifacts it doesn’t powder on the international black market, rationalizing this self-enrichment on the basis of Islamic canon. (In point of fact, it tends to smash the stuff that’s too damned big to smuggle out of Syria or Iraq.) Yes, well the Red Army under Trotsky used czarist officers to train its rank-and-file in the basics of 19th-century battlefield discipline. Stalin had “socialism in a single country,” which ran against the whole of Marxist-Leninist canon, an underlying principle of which was that without the exportation of revolution, the experiment in Russia would fail. Then Stalin had a pact with Hitler after characterizing German social democrats opposed to the latter as “social fascists.” The about-face was so dramatic that the morning and evening editions of a leading French Communist daily ran contradictory editorials on August 23, 1939. And so on. I’m constantly surprised that people are so surprised that history owes as much to brute improvisation as it does to the brutality of big ideas or that of even bigger personalities.
How else did ISIS get taken over by the ancien regime? Derek Harvey told me that the early days of the occupation were all about low-hanging fruit: the guys the U.S. caught or offed on the battlefield most easily were the ones stupid enough to use their cellphones and, in essence, the U.S. did the insurgency a favor by culling the idiots from the professionals. Making it through eight years of war, Sahwa and surge and coming out in the leadership structure of the most formidable terrorist organization in history seems to have a common characteristic. The Iraqi Baathists are better survivors than carbuncular, Nutella-munching teenagers from Jeddah, who are going to be used as suicide bombers or Kurdish target practice anyway.
Here's a final point. By 2013 there was a marked generational split detectable in the ranks of jihadism, with the MTV youth vote — or “cool” factor — going overwhelmingly to ISIS. The process which began under Zarqawi, who was about 10 years younger than bin Laden, but it only grew as AQI’s battlefield mythos did. There is now something of a turf war playing out between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS over control of Syria. ISIS accuses al-Qaeda of being a closeted upholder of Sykes-Picot, and it is true that Zawhiri seems far more concerned with the borders of “artificial” nation-states than does Baghdadi, a fact recently emphasized by Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani in his al-Jazeera interview (really, Qatar’s political campaign on his behalf) in which he basically asked, “Can’t we all just get along and listen to Gertrude Bell?”
5. By 2010 Al Qaeda in Iraq was at a low point with most of its leadership rounded up or killed and many tribes and other insurgent groups having turned against it with the Sahwa movement. Let’s talk about how the group made its comeback as the Islamic State. How important was Camp Bucca, the release of many prisoners after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, and the IS prison breaks?
Bucca played a big role, for reasons given above, as an incubator of the next cycle of AQI/ISI leaders and a place where you could simply cool your heels and manufacture new willing executioners, all under the supervision of Uncle Sam. When custody of detainees was more or less turned over to Baghdad in 2009, al-Maliki decided prioritized releasing those prisoners who had “only” targeted American soldiers, figuring that now that the foreign occupier was on his way out, there’d be no recidivism or return to sectarian civil war. As with most things, he was wrong. Look up Anthony Shadid’s reporting in the Washington Post from around this time. You had AQI guys returning to al-Anbar like mob bosses from Howard Beach, ready and eager to get back to business. And guess what they did?
Springing comrades from the clink is of course easier than recruiting and training new comrades, so there was every expectation that AQI would resort to “Breaking the Walls”-style jailbreaks. Also, conquering Sunni territory per force gives you access to all the Sunni inmates held in those cities and towns, a good number of them agents of your organization. So campaigns of conquest automatically swell the ranks, too.
Beyond Bucca, though, was that the former insurgents we had successfully turned against AQI felt abandoned by us and so melted back into old habits. Al-Maliki never trusted the Sahwa and had no interest in following on its military gains with concomitant political ones (and remember: Sahwa was all about Sunnis warily eyeing accommodation with a changed political reality in Iraq). How many Sons of Iraq were successfully incorporated into the ISF? Mullah Nathim Jabouri, who was actually one of the founders of the Mujahedin Shura Council, estimated that by early 2011, 40 percent of the Awakening had returned to AQI. This is roughly when Joe Biden went on record exclaiming that al-Maliki “hates the goddamn Sunnis,” but nonetheless backed his fraudulent re-election. Joe Biden also went on record betting his vice presidency that al-Maliki would sign the new SOFA. Joe Biden is still vice president. And al-Maliki is still largely in control of Iraq.
We have this wonderful anecdote in the book relayed to me to by Col. Rick Welch — it’s around early 2011, I think. A Shia tribesman goes to the U.S. embassy and complains to Chris Hill’s staff that a new Saddam is being born right in the Green Zone but this one with American connivance, and so what does Washington intend to do about it? He was met with looks which I’ve come to associate with Foreign Service types who wish they’d finished degrees in Comparative Literature instead. They were too busy popping the champers and packing up to the get the hell out of war-ravaged country and they told the sheikh that Iraq was now a “sovereign” country and the U.S. simply couldn’t interfere. This was right after Mubarak was told to step down and a no-fly zone was either being mooted or imposed over Libya. We’d gone from “You Break It, You Own It” to the Pottery Barn No Returns Policy, apparently.
There's this adorable non sequitur being put peddled by apologists for the Hashd al-Shaabi that the U.S. has somehow “romanticized” the Awakening as a grand moment of spiritual enlightenment for tribal Sunnis when in fact these were bad guys all along. U.S. brigade commanders seem to recall the Awakening and its precursors very differently; taking tea with sheikhs who not a month before had been taking shots at them, or trying to blow up their forward operating bases. What was Abd Sattar al-Rishawi’s compound before it was cannon fodder for insurgents? A clearinghouse for insurgents. That didn’t mean, however, that Abd Sattar wasn’t a valuable and necessary ally or sincere in pledging to chase the takfiris all the way into the Hindu Kush if that’s what it took. So long as the U.S. was on his side, he meant it. But here's the thing: Abd Sattar did not chant “Death to America” as his militias were receiving American air support and weaponry. Nor did he claim pompously to be able to uproot AQI without the Great Satan’s help. Quite the contrary, in fact — he said he’d deliver thousands of volunteers to join the Sons of Iraq and we didn't believe him; then he delivered thousands of volunteers and they kept coming even after they were blown up for collaborating with us.
Also, is it retrospective romanticism to point out that Abd Sattar was not fighting AQI on behalf of a foreign dictatorship's theocratic first principles but as a self-interested chieftain leader whose life and livelihood depended on doing so? A social contract was inked based on an avowed and desperate dependency. That's why the Sahwa worked. It was a matter of cold calculation and political realism, which might as well be the motto of every Iraqi and Syrian tribe. Sunnis didn’t like the Americans and wanted them gone but at least the Americans didn't rape their women, assassinate their leaders or monopolize their grey and black market economies. AQI did all of those things. Nor did the Americans ethnically cleanse Sunnis from their towns and cities once they expelled the Zarqawists, hoover up Sunnis at checkpoints and toss them into secretive dungeons hidden in the basements of Iraqi government ministries. The ISF, rife as it was with Sadrists, Badr agents and Special Group loyalists, did exactly that, and al-Maliki was an accomplice to it. That’s why the Sahwa unraveled.
6. In August 2011 Baghdadi sent men to create an IS affiliate in Syria. This would later become Jabhat al-Nusra. In Syria IS seemed to have learned from their mistakes in Iraq and implemented many policies aimed at tribes and the general public to win popular support. What were some of the keys to its success there?
First, it presents itself as a model of transparent good governance as against the fleshpots and corruptions of all alternatives, be they the Assad regime, the Islamic Front or the Free Syrian Army. Where the FSA devolved into warlordism and brigandry, ISIS adhered to strict administrative discipline — something even its detractors have to acknowledge. When they took over a town, they got the garbage off the street, the bakeries up and running, and their own draconian “courts” to adjudicate matters of law and order. (It helped greatly that Assad never prioritized bombing ISIS-held areas because he wanted the “controlled chaos” of a jihadist-dominant opposition. There were residents of al-Bab who at one point said, “We prefer Daesh here to the FSA because the former spare us from the regime’s bombardment.” Also, the regime agreed to restore electricity so long as the terrorists were in control of the town.)
We marvel at how anyone can find this appealing given what we know about ISIS jurisprudence. The U.S. government likes to pretend that there is no “state” apparatus of which to speak, we’re dealing exclusively with a brutal and barbarous terrorist organization. This is fanciful, dangerous thinking, and completely contrary to common sense. If you’ve survived four years of dire attritional warfare — barrel bombs, chlorine gas attacks, Scud missiles, terror-famines, and torture-house prisons — a Maoist re-education camp can seem the a Mövenpick hotel. ISIS capitalizes on the demoralization and exhaustion of local populations, principally in Syria, and convinces them that it is their singular, last hope for a bit of respite.
The biggest lesson ISIS learned from Iraq was that it could be defeated if and when Sunnis reject it like a body doing a transplanted organ. To safeguard against this, it’s made the Sahwa the nemesis of its internal propaganda campaign, presenting Sunnis with a stark choice: If you partnered with the Crusader-Rafida conspiracy in the past, all will be forgiven if you repent and pledge your undying allegiance to Caliph Ibrahim. They actually hold mass “repentance rallies” in mosques in Mosul and Fallujah, which are sort of like the takfirist answer to those Moonie mass weddings held at Shea Stadium in the 80s. Again, it’s not that former Awakening Council members are sinister to their core or have suddenly been converted to the ISIS cause; they just don’t want to get their fucking heads cut off.
So there’s the carrot. Now here’s the stick: their videos show ISIS militants, often dressed in ISF uniforms, tracking and murdering Sunni “collaborators” with the Iraqi government. It’s some of the sickest stuff they’ve produced, frankly, busting into a sheikh’s house pretending to be police or army soldiers, then forcing him to confess on camera and making him and his sons dig their own graves. Again, put aside whatever culturalist claptrap you’ve heard about the Middle East, Arabs, or Islam. From a purely human standpoint, what kind of choice is this: Submission or death? What would you do?
ISIS seeks to make those it enslaves complicit in its own crimes. It’s managed to divide a tribe against itself; in the massacre of the Albu Nimr, other members of the tribe took part in killing their confederates. Preventing the Albu Nimr from ever recovering from the trauma of fratricide is precisely the point. This is social engineering through atrocity. Read Robert Conquest. Read Tim Snyder. Read Anne Applebaum. This is nothing new to history.
7. In 2004 Zarqawi operative Abu Bakr Naji published Management of Savagery, which is said to be a seminal text for the Islamic State. What was the book about and how did it shape IS’s strategy and tactics?
What’s the one observational constant for the average Sunni in the cafes of Cairo or the shisha bars of Antakya? “We have been dispossessed, disinherited, ethnically cleansing, all with either the active support or acquiescence of the United States, which prefers the Shia to us.” It’s perhaps the compliment that vice pays to virtue that America always believes that its good intentions trump the darkest imaginings the rest of the world has as to its true motives. Zarqawi had us bungling our way into Iraq to accidentally enthrone the Shia. Baghdadi has done this story one better: America is conspiring with Iran and the Iraqi Shia to keep the Sunnis down, and this has been the grand design from 2003. Why did Obama fail to enforce his “red line” on chemical weapons? Because it was a lie from the beginning. Why did the U.S. oust Saddam but leave Assad in place? Because it supports the regime and a broader project to facilitate Shia hegemony in the region. Why is the U.S. dropping bombs on Sunnis but giving close air support to Qassem Soleimani and his jihadists? Ditto. Why is the U.S. acting as Iran’s lawyer in nuclear negotiations and freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars for Hezbollah and the Quds Force? You get the idea, habibi.
Look at ISIS snuff films. People only focus on the horrific mode of execution, and never on the agitprop either preceding or following the main event. They invariably exhibit the carnage, allegedly created by coalition bombs. “Here are dead Sunni babies killed by the infidel West, the Jews and their apostate Arab and polytheistic Shia partners.” It isn’t necessary to persuade the Sunni umma to subscribe to ISIS’s ideology or even believe in the establishment of the caliphate — a task that’s impossible, and ISIS knows it. It’s sufficient, however, to have Sunnis ask why Assad, Iran, America, and Europe are all on the same side in this war, why ISIS is deemed the greater menace to civilization, and to thus keep a distance from those seeking to oust ISIS. There is no credible or coherent answer to this question on offer from Washington, although Samantha Power tweets her heart out.
I’ve had a few breakfasts with a leading U.S. diplomat who asks me every time how best to “counter the ISIS narrative.” Leaving aside that I always nearly lose my breakfast whenever I hear the word “narrative,” I tell him, “What do you mean, counter it? U.S. foreign policy is the haymaker for that narrative.” Even Baghdadi must be impressed at the extent to which ISIS conspiracy theory has graded into actual American decision-making. That the Obama administration is seeking a condominium or rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, and actively desires IRGC control over restive areas of the Levant and Mesopotamia — this is no longer a feverish delusion confined to the pages of Dabiq. You can read it in every Arab newspaper, every other American broadsheet, and hear it in the interviews Obama has granted to sympathetic journalists where he contrasts “rational” Shia jihadism to the irrational Sunni variety. He even told the attendees of that awkward GCC summit at Camp David that they should invent their own Quds Force and model their expeditionary operations on the trailblazing Hajj Qassem. This is like Ronald Reagan telling NATO that must channel its inner Andropov. ISIS can’t buy this kind of propaganda.
8. Some analysts have begun to argue that IS is losing the initiative, and that the road to their defeat has begun. What is your position on this?
On its way to being defeated, which is why it’s in possession of one more provincial capital than it had before the U.S. declared war on it a year ago, and affiliates pledging allegiance to it from Gaza to Indonesia?
Look, I had to educate myself in researching the early years of AQI, which was really a process of immersing myself in counterinsurgency epistemology: how to be educated about this type of warfare. You can count bullets expended, corpses produced, square miles lost and gained, but are these really adequate metrics for determining who’s winning and who’s losing? What the jihadists get up to when the cameras aren’t rolling or their exploits aren’t making it onto A1 of the Times matters far more than whatever Josh Earnest thinks is the top news item of the day.
Did we “win” in the Battle of Second Fallujah in 2004? In the technical sense, we did in that AQI was expunged from the city, but not before thousands of pounds of ordnance were dropped on the city, practically leveling it, and not before we lost a proportionately high degree of Marines and Army soldiers and not before AQI had already embarked upon setting up a new command center in Mosul. This is how Zarqawi and bin Laden fashioned victory out of defeat; they “bled” the big bad superpower enough to make (almost) everyone in the U.S. realize what a mistake the Iraq war was in the first place. And this conceit became an enormous recruitment tool for mujahidin who saw American contractors being hung upside down in Fallujah and IEDs going off in the Green Zone, all played out on al-Jazeera and CNN.
Now we’re in far worse spot than we were under George Casey’s command because at least back then there was a command. It took 30,000 Shia militiamen and ISF soldiers to even try to “liberate” Tikrit, and they got stuck in their tracks by (at most) 750 jihadists. ISIS turns this into their Sparta moment. If U.S. F-18s are all that's keeping Iraq together, then there isn't much of a state left of which to speak, is there?
There’s a lot of a cheerleading masquerading as analysis right now (ironically, much of it coming from the very bien-pensant quarters that forecast the apocalypse a decade ago when George W. Bush announced the surge). We got lucky in 2006-2007 because the sociological Briar Patch in which ISIS thrives — the Sunni tribal heartland of Iraq — simply had enough. The difference then was that the U.S. had over 150,000 troops on the ground to try and capitalize on that disillusionment. Who is there now? Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataeb Hezbollah, the Badr Corps, Lebanese Hezbollah and the Quds Force, all chanting “Ya Hussein” and brandishing portraits of Khomeini and Khamenei. Michael Pregent has mordantly termed this the “Sons of Iran” moment for Iraq, yet still we find supposedly serious people in supposedly serious think tanks who say that Sunnis are going to rise up en mass to make the world safe for velayat e-fiqh.
In Syria, there’s a better chance to make a bit of good out of a lot misery, owing to the demography and the longstanding presence of battle-hardened anti-ISIS Sunni actors. But do I see even the beginnings of a hint that the Obama administration has any desire to do something substantive here? No. The president has consistently made two promises: the first is that fighting ISIS will be something for his successor to do (who loves you, Hillary?), and the second is that Iran will not get the bomb while he’s in office (Chelsea will be commander-in-chief when this happens). He’ll make good on both vows, I reckon.
The unfortunate truth is that the U.S. is treating Syrian Sunni Arabs rather as al-Maliki treated their Iraqi counterparts—as suspects who have to prove that they’re not terrorists in disguise. You might call this the lethal bigotry of high expectations. I mean, did you see poor Ash Carter, looking like a dog who’s just been through the car wash, explaining that $500 million in taxpayer money has gone to training 60 Syrian rebels? Sixty Syrian rebels — that’s barely an iftar dinner in Beirut. This is not a policy, it’s a college fraternity prank.
I’m all for helping the YPG, and I’m a proponent of an independent Kurdistan. But from a national security perspective, does it not disturb those paid to be disturbed by popular violent sentiments in the Middle East that America has now become the Kurdish Air Force in northern Syria while the Pentagon won’t even give the FSA’s CENTCOM’s phone number? What message does this send to both prospective Sunni allies and to ISIS and Iran? Will the YPG liberate Raqqa City, Deir Ezzor or Palmyra? I have a higher opinion of the Kurds than that.
What happens when we run out of ethnic minorities to protect? Are we going to countenance the majority in Syria, at long last? That I even have to put it like that shows you how lost America is in the region.
Weiss, Michael Hassan, Hassan, ISIS, Inside the Army of Terror, New York: Regan Arts, 2015