Did the 2003 Iraq war create ISIS?

The global jihadist insurgency would have happened regardless of the war in Iraq


It is becoming accepted dogma in some political circles that the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq created ISIS and other jihadist forces that are now wreaking havoc in the region. This line was even used by Obama during an interview with Vice News and, predictably, the Guardian’s resident hard-left fruitcake Seumas Milne today churned out a piece on the idea that was littered with half-truths and cynical contortions.

Milne, in one fell swoop, defends those waging war against British and American soldiers for a jihadist cause whilst claiming the US actually intended to create ISIS in a grand divide-and-rule strategy. Of course, for the likes of Milne the truth is less important than opportunities to maximise the anti-US propaganda value of the horrific situation in Iraq.

This claim, however, is a half-truth at best. The reality has not been fully explored, perhaps because most of us only started paying attention to Iraq after 2003.

Historically, jihadist factions have arisen from Islamist groups that have failed to seize power through political and non-terrorist means. In Egypt, Tanzeem-ul-Jihad (TuJ) was made up of the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood after the latter gave up violence in the late-1970s. TuJ was the precursor to two jihadist groups that were prominent in the 1980s and 90s, Islamic Jihad and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, with the latter waging a jihadist insurgency against the Egyptian government during the mid-1990s.

Many prominent jihadists in Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia began their careers as non-terrorist Islamists that eventually tipped over into jihadism after becoming frustrated with Islamist attempts to seize power and galvanise the masses. These include Usama bin Laden and the current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, who were devotees of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Syed Qutb.

In the UK, the jihadist group al-Muhajiroun, led by Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri Muhammad, emerged from Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a group that ostensibly operated in a non-terrorist fashion. Iraq is no exception to this norm.

The Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) was founded in 1979 as an ultra-conservative Islamic movement based in Northern Iraq. The group initially stayed out of politics, preferring to build its own infrastructure and support base. By the early 1990s, however, it began participating in local politics and came third in a regional election with 5.1 per cent of the vote.

This poor result, as well as other disagreements, led to armed hostilities between IMK and other secular Kurdish factions such as Kurdistan Workers Party (KWP) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

By 1999, the IMK had ceased hostilities, toned down its rhetoric and begun to re-integrate into the political order of Iraqi Kurdistan. However, a number of disillusioned members broke away to form more hard-line factions opposed to peace in the region and keen to continue armed conflict against the more secular factions.

These factions were eventually brought together under the Ansar al-Islam brand by September 2001. It is reported that around this time, and before the 9/11 attacks, the group visited al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to pledge its support and attract seed funding. Soon after, Ansar al-Islam managed to seize control of and govern a number of villages in Northern Iraq, implementing a harsh interpretation of Shariah that included closing down girls schools, beheading prisoners and banning music.

During the late 1990s, al-Qaeda also supported the formation of a Jordanian jihadist faction called Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad that included another jihadist who previously operated in Afghanistan, namely Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. As well as focusing on overthrowing the regime in Jordan, Zarqawi sought to build local alliances and affiliates since his eventual goal was to spread his message across the Levant.

Shortly after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Zarqawi moved to Iraq where he made contact with jihadist actors with a view to transforming his Jordanian jihadist group into a regional network.

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq both the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the precursor to ISIS led by Zarqawi, and Ansar al-Islam were at the forefront of the jihadist element of the insurgency against the US occupation and the post-Saddam political order. These two factions at times co-operated and at other times clashed, yet both helped spread jihadism across Iraq and helped seed the infrastructure and environment that ISIS is now exploiting to devastating effect.

It is true to say that the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, namely the lack of a coherent post-war plan, created a vacuum which jihadist groups filled. It is also true to say that the alienation of the Sunni minority in Iraq, driven as much by Iranian influence and Nouri al-Maliki’s arrogance as US incompetence, helped create a fertile base for jihadist to recruit from.

However, it is very important to remember that the Iraqi invasion took place at a time when jihadism was on the march globally. Countries in the region that were not invaded by the US also witnessed an increase in jihadist activity post-2001. These include Yemen, Morocco, Jordan and others. Therefore, it is highly likely that Iraq would have experienced increased jihadist activity even without the 2003 invasion and especially since it already had al-Qaeda affiliates operating within it.

Furthermore, the Arab Spring affected practically every Arab country that was not a monarchy, with even Morocco and Algeria experiencing large scale protests. Iraq would almost certainly have been beset by mass protests and a brutal crackdown similar to what happened in Syria in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. This would have almost certainly created a vacuum which existing jihadist groups would have filled.

It is, therefore, important to acknowledge that whilst the invasion of Iraq did contribute towards creating an environment conducive to a jihadist insurgency, there were many other factors involved as well. The key factor, however, is the fact that since the mid-1990s Jihadism has spread across the world at an alarming rate.

Al-Qaeda began to seed jihadist factions, using its network of fighters in Afghanistan, across the Muslim world after the end of the Soviet occupation with a view to taking the fight to the West. A steady stream of deadly attacks on Western targets globally also began after this time. This included 1992 the bombing of the Gold Mohur Hotel in Yemen that was housing US troops, the 1993 World Trade Centre attacks, attacks on US embassies in Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi in 1998, and the USS Cole bombing in 2000.

Today jihadism is truly global. Countries as diverse at the Maldives and Kosovo are contributing jihadist fighters to places such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. Nigeria, a country that has had no western intervention since the end of the British occupation in 1960, is now experiencing a fully blown jihadist insurgency in Boko Haram, a group that has recently announced its allegiance to ISIS.

According to recent estimates, 60 per cent of ISIS in Iraq is now made up of foreign fighters. Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Yemen have also received a significant amount of foreign fighters in recent years.

Political events such as the ‘War on Terror’ and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have not prevented the rise of this global jihadist trend. Arguably the manner in which these wars have been conducted has made the situation worse overall, but in acknowledging this we should not lose sight of the fact that the global jihadist insurgency would have existed regardless of these events.

If no action had been taken, 9/11 would have been followed by more spectacular attacks and jihadist branches in places like Iraq would have continued to grow and threaten regional stability.

It is, therefore, vital that we ask the far more pertinent question – why does jihadism have such global appeal right now?

Amjad Khan is a Muslim writer and commentator

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23 Responses to “Did the 2003 Iraq war create ISIS?”

  1. Al

    In light of the success of Game of Thrones, it’s good to see Left Foot Forward trying their hand at the fantasy genre.

  2. Nancy Mills


  3. JoeDM

    Islamic State. The clue is in the title !!!!

    It’s the ‘Religion of Peace’ don’t you know. Disagree with that and they’ll chop your head off or blow you up on a bus or tube, or even fligh a plane into your office building.

  4. CGR

    Islam is a religion based on violent expansion. Just read the history books.

  5. swat

    Yes. You’ve got it in one. We have the USA and NATO to thank for creating these monsters. How do we now put them back in their box?
    The answer might lie in how ‘The Terror’ was dealt with that followed the French Revolution. A strong figure like Napoleon has to emerge to bring order to chaos and anarchy. Ok, he overstretched himself when he stepped out of France and wanted to dominate the world, but during the Napoleonic era there was order and the arts Science and Culture flourished.

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