ISIS draws on legitimate Sunni fears of Iran, argue Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan in a new book
Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan
Regan Arts, £9.13
ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, is brilliantly easy to read. Concise yet thorough the book charts the history of a group, “[a]t once sensationalized and underestimated,” that is simultaneously a terrorist organisation, mafia, conventional army, sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus, propaganda machine and the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime which controls an area the size of Britain in the heart of the Middle East.
The book begins with an underemphasised point: neither the Islamic State (ISIS) nor its governing method – extreme violence coupled with distributing stolen oil revenue and extortion – is new. The United States battled ISIS, then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), as the US tried to stabilise and democratise Iraq in the last decade. Moreover, ISIS is built out of the ruins of the Saddam regime.
In the late 1980s, Saddam launched the Faith Campaign and “Islamised his regime”. The campaign pushed a hardline Salafism combined with a cult of the leader, and involved setting up of elaborate networks of patronage, informants, militias and weapons to control the religious institutions and prevent a renewed Shi’a uprising as followed Saddam’s eviction from Kuwait in 1991. In tandem, Saddam’s deputy, Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, to this day an important insurgent, set up smuggling networks into neighbouring States. These networks would come under ISIS’ control as the Ba’athist-Salafist remnants of the regime fused with foreign al-Qaeda forces in the post-Saddam insurgency.
ISIS was initially led by a Jordanian drug-taker and street-thug turned religious militant named Ahmad al-Khalaylah. Khalaylah had arrived in Afghanistan in time to see the Red Army leave, and then been imprisoned when he tried to take jihad home. In prison, Khalaylah gained status over his mentor, al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and migrated to Taliban Afghanistan in 1999, where he was given start-up funds for a terrorism camp by Osama bin Laden. The world would come to know Khalaylah as Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, and his group would become AQI in 2004. Zarqawi’s supporters would brand him the “Shaykh of the Slaughterers” because of his fondness for decapitating prisoners on film.
While AQI primarily stayed in Iraq, Zarqawi often targeted the homeland he fled: the first attack of the Iraqi insurgency was against the Jordanian Embassy in August 2003; and there was a massive attack against hotels in Amman in November 2005
In post-Saddam Iraq, many Sunni Arabs joined the insurgency to thwart Shi’a power, and others joined because they were made jobless by the disbanding of the army. If the insurgents were not radicalised beforehand they were after time in American prisons, which were “little more than social-networking furloughs for jihadists”.
“If you were looking to build an army, prison is the perfect place to do it,” one expert says. “We gave them health care, dental, fed them, and, most importantly, we kept them from getting killed in combat.” AQI also actively infiltrated the US prisons to help make them jihadist production facilities.
ISIS has now Iraqised, with senior levels made up of these Salafised ex-Saddamists. (The only non-Iraqis in senior posts are Chechens.) ISIS’ draws from both the elite intelligence agencies of the fallen regime, giving it a superior counter-intelligence capability to protect its leadership and infiltrate other groups and countries, and the mid-level of Saddam’s army – the professionals (the top level being political appointees.)
In documenting the formative history of ISIS, the authors will surprise many lay observers who think ISIS is supported by Sunni Gulf States, by leading the trail to “the agendas of regimes in Iran and Syria”. Gulf contributions never made up more than five percent of ISIS’ budget; Tehran and Damascus were the real difference-makers.
The theocracy in Iran sheltered Zarqawi when he fled Afghanistan after NATO overthrew the Taliban in 2001, allowing him to set up a network stretching across Iraq into Syria and Lebanon; as well as a five-hundred square-mile base in Iraqi Kurdistan with three-hundred Salafi jihadists, well before the American-led invasion of Iraq. Iran is said by some accounts to have trained Zarqawi at an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) camp in Mehran. What Iran certainly did was help ISIS during the American regency in Iraq, both directly with finance and arms and indirectly by playing into ISIS’ plans for a sectarian mayhem as a means to drive the Americans out.
“The proliferation of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria cannot be understood without examining Damascus’s long-running collaboration with its forerunner organization,” the authors note. Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria – now presenting itself as the sworn foe of Islamic militancy – assisted Zarqawi in assassinating a US diplomat in 2002 and facilitated virtually all AQI foreign fighters before 2011 who waged holy war against constitutional government in Iraq. Assad wanted to protect himself by keeping the Americans tied down in Iraq, diverting the attention of Syria’s Islamists, and using terrorism as a bargaining chip against the West to acquire a larger regional role. “[Assad] creates the problems he then oh-so-magnanimously offers to solve,” Tony Badran tells the authors.
When the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011, “Assad wasted little time guaranteeing that extremists dominated the insurgency”. Assad freed violent Salafist prisoners. Despite claims that these releases were part of a general amnesty for “political prisoners”, in fact this amnesty was “applied selectively” – and did not apply to secular activists. “Prisons in Syria are bywords for Islamisation”, and defectors have noted: “The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in … their creation of armed brigades.”
The Syrian regime then set about shaping conditions in which radicals prospered, with “abuse unleashed on Sunnis [that] was designed to radicalise them”. With the Houla atrocity in May 2012, when Assad set Alawi villagers with knives and pistols on a Sunni hamlet and slaughtered more than one-hundred people, a template was furnished for repeat atrocities that shattered the national movement and started a war coloured with sectarianism.
This was one among many things Assad did to “bring violent Islamism home to Syria” in order to lure in foreign Sunni jihadists against whom Assad could pose as the last line of defence.
Once ISIS had taken root, Assad avoided attacking it because “letting black-clad terrorists run around…crucifying and beheading people made for great propaganda”. When the rebels went to war with ISIS, Assad “intervened objectively on the side of ISIS”. And when the US intervened with airstrikes in Syria to target ISIS, the regime took the chance to attack the moderates – all in the cause of trying to make-good on Assad’s claim that his only opponents were takfiris.
While Assad, with Iran’s help, was busy paving the way for Sunni extremists in Syria, Iran was busy doing the same in Iraq. Ever since Saddam’s fall, Iran had been busy forming a ‘Deep State’ on the model of the Hizballah in Lebanon. The disengagement of the Obama administration, first diplomatically and then militarily, in Iraq, meant that the Awakening (Sahwa) forces, the Sunni Arabs militias who turned on AQI, were dismantled by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, leaving a security vacuum, as Maliki consolidated an Iran-backed sectarian autocracy, which further provoked the Sunnis and opened space for ISIS. In a pattern eerily reminiscent of Syria, while “AQI was hunting Sunnis who had repudiated it; anyone affiliated with the Awakening was targeted for arrest by the state”. The regime and ISIS were working together to squeeze out the Sunni moderates.
The reasons for people being drawn to ISIS are complex. The authors note: “What draws people to ISIS could easily bring them to any number of cults or totalitarian movements.” But ideas do matter, especially for foreign fighters where religion is the main inspiration, though there are some thrill-seekers. For locals, considerations of power are often important. Making up a “weighty percentage of its lower cadres and support base” are those who see ISIS as the only viable political project for the Sunnis. With Iran’s expanding influence, many Sunnis now identify as madhloumiya (an embattled community), a thoroughly Shi’a concept, and ISIS is seen as the only redeemer.
In no small irony, Kurds have found ISIS’ Islamism more accommodating than Ba’athism/pan-Arabism, as have Turkomen. Saddam’s chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, and its rebuilding by religious charities, has made it a centre of Kurdish Islamism. Again, Saddam paved the way for ISIS.
Even when recruits join ISIS for material reasons, ISIS works hard to make them true believers. The group is defined by ideological takfiris, and has elaborate and highly effective means of identity restructuring: of breaking people down and then rebuilding them in its own image. It also has a notoriously sophisticated means of propaganda and disinformation which have been greatly helped by the (KGB-trained) ex-Saddamists in its ranks, which mean that recruits are often converted before they join.
One way ISIS shatters people’s belief in mainstream Islam is by raking-up obscure pieces of Islamic theology that most imams don’t know about to show that mainstream Sunnism has “deviated from true religion”. The failure of mainstream clerics to engage these texts means ISIS can present them in a literalist way, and buttress its claim that it is a representation of pure Islam while its foes are effectively heretics.
The lack of Western action to build up the nationalist Syrian rebels meant they devolved into “[f]actionalism, profit-making, and incompetence”, while Gulf donors led a “bidding war” for rebels who would make a show of having been radicalised. In this environment of chaos and radicalism being legitimised, ISIS thrived, ostentatiously suppressing banditry and applying its harsh version of law to its own fighters to outstrip other insurgents in credibility.
ISIS draws on widespread terms of reference, the Sunnis’ existential fears of mass-murder by Iranian-backed governments, and its ability to provide services, all of which make it alarmingly popular in the areas it controls. “The combination of brute force and effective governance means that the local population has little motivation and a huge deterrent to rise up against ISIS, particularly in the absence of a viable and acceptable alternative,” the authors note. This is especially true of the tribal areas.
The book’s section on the tribes is probably its most unique contribution. In the Jazira, eastern Syria, where ISIS now has its stronghold, more than ninety percent of the population is tribes. Tribes are thirty percent of the population but cover sixty percent of the land. The “tribes are bound to the countryside, where insurgents have found it far easier to navigate and bivouac”, and even the fight between ISIS and al-Qaeda (Jabhat an-Nusra) in Syria has been affected by tribal dynamics: with sides being chosen by tribes who have long been at war – usually in disputes over resources.
ISIS has managed to pit tribes against one-another, and even pitted generations within tribes against one another. ISIS made secret contacts with younger tribesmen, who were credible and popular because they were less tainted by collusion with the regime, and promised them revenue and authority. These secret loyalists allowed ISIS to conquer eastern Syria. In other tribal zones, ISIS simply bought its way in. ISIS arbitrates tribal disputes and has, as elsewhere, garnered a reputation for fairness.
ISIS has also “made tribal outreach an integral part of its governing strategy”, the better to avoid a repeat of the Sahwa. The tribes see ISIS as the best option for now, keeping their area from being warzones. “But they don’t endorse ISIS ideologically or join it en masse because they calculate that its reign won’t last forever.”
The Obama administration has made large claims of success for its air campaign against ISIS. Where ISIS had accrued up to two-million dollars-per-day from oil sales, sixteen of twenty ISIS oil refineries have been destroyed, they say, and ISIS has lost ninety percent of its oil revenue. Statistically this is correct. It’s also misleading. The impact of this has fallen mostly on civilians, hampering ISIS’ ability to provide things like gas cylinders.
And all ISIS’ other revenue streams – zakat (poor tax), jizya (non-Muslim tax), fines, foreign donations, sale of stolen artefacts, and above all ghanima (war booty), weapons and property – are virtually untouched. ISIS has actually gained territory in Syria since the airstrikes began, despite some losses of territory in Iraq. In Syria, ISIS has a revenue-producing proto-State. And even ISIS’ losses so far have been tactical and on enemy territory.
Concurrently, Iran is consolidating control over Iraq and Syria, primarily through Shi’a militias – which are as fanatical, anti-Western, and cruel as ISIS. Shi’ite jihadists have been flooded into Syria by Iran on the pretext of protecting the shrines, but “this custodianship of sacred architecture became a…Shia Islamist holy war”. Iran reorganised Syria’s battered army into a sectarian militia, the commanders of which say it is designed to “kill the Sunnis and rape their women”.
These forces now have the US as their de facto air force. As one Syrian activist put it, if “the [U.S.-led Coalition] raids had targeted the regime and a large number people had been killed by mistake, we would have said they were a sacrifice for our salvation”. But no Sunni wants to die to pave the way for Iranian domination, which was the problem in the first place.
ISIS deliberately raises sectarian tensions, just like the Assad regime, attacking its enemy sects to “prompt their counter-reaction (and overreaction), in order to drive Sunnis into ISIS’s protective arms”. ISIS then couches its fight in “sectarian-existential grammar”.
With Iran’s domination of state institutions in Syria and Iraq, and the conduct of those governments and Iran’s militias, this world-historical framing of a fight for Sunni Islam in its heartlands has some traction. The US’s “perceived alliance of convenience” with Assad and Iran is preventing even a chance of a Sunni rebellion against ISIS, which, whatever else it does, damages the central governments in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi once said, “When the people of Syria asked for help and everyone abandoned them, we could not but come to their help”.
The impression that only ISIS can save the Sunnis because the US is in a strategic alignment with Iran makes defeating ISIS impossible because it pushes the moderate Sunnis into ISIS’ camp. This war has already spilled onto Europe’s streets. Continuing this policy will not make it any better. As the authors conclude, present trends suggest ISIS is going to be with us for a very long time.
Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.