Martin Chulov of The Guardian newspaper got quite the scoop the other day. He got to interview a top-ranking member of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) terrorist group, Abu Ahmed. Ahmed explained to him that around “17 of the 25 most important Islamic State leaders running the war in Iraq and Syria spent time in US prisons between 2004 and 2011.”
From Chulov’s findings we ascertain that the likes of Ahmed, not to mention the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were part of different groups before the formation of ISIS. Their time living together in those U.S. prison of war camps gave them time to plan how they would get together after their respective releases (many of them, including al-Baghdadi, were released due to the limited evidence the U.S. had on them). Following the crackdown on the Al-Qaeda in Iraq group these formerly unacquainted jihadis eventually partnered up to form the jihadi juggernaut that is today’s Islamic State, which eventually came to be repudiated even by the al-Qaeda network itself.
It’s quite a story. But does it necessarily indicate that the rise of ISIS was blowback from the Iraq War?
Blowback theories are important to take into consideration and carefully evaluate, not to mention scrutinize. After all the powers that be have a responsibility to understand the consequences of their own actions, past and present. It is therefore important to try to comprehend the direct consequences past actions have on the present. But at the same time many popular blowback theories tend to explain too much in very broad evaluations.
Looking for the ‘root cause’ of a problem is important too if one is really going to overcome it. NATO’s top commander, General Philip Breedlove, has recently said of the campaign that it “is a long-term, not a short-term fight.” He then quite rightfully added that, “Until we have addressed the root causes of these kinds of issues, we can expect to have to deal with these kind of issues.” The issue at hand being the threat posed by Islamic State. Understanding its rise is of instrumental importance when it comes to figuring out how to defeat it.
However, reevaluating past events through the lens of the present can lead to somewhat misleading conclusions about what led to certain events.
The 1953 coup against the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran by the U.S. is often cited as having ultimately resulting in the 1979 revolution which toppled the autocratic Shah of Iran who had close ties with the United States. Then shortly thereafter U.S. arming of Afghans fighting the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980’s is often cited as one of the events which led to the 9/11 attacks.
Both cases however are quite simplistic. While they all have a hint of truth to them each case is far more complicated. Mossadeq’s ouster for example was helped by cleric elements in Iran who would prove decisive in the toppling of the Shah later in 1979. It’s not as if, as the opening of the popular movie Argo carelessly insinuates, the seizure of the U.S. embassy at the end of 1979 by Islamic students was payback for the ousting of the popular premier years before.
Similarly many elements of those Afghans who fought the Soviets with U.S. support later, in the case of the Northern Alliance, helped the U.S. topple the Taliban regime in Kabul in late 2001. But at the same time it is true that there was a component of that arming and finance operation that did help incubate the Islamist monster which eventually brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11. The Central Intelligence Agencies’ Operation Cyclone carried out with the Pakistanis essentially saw to the U.S. help to fund and train many of the fighters, thousands of whom weren’t Afghans, which the Pakistani authorities favoured. Hence the more militant Islamist types who repudiated what they saw as a Marxist anti-Islamic tyranny in Kabul and accordingly sought its destruction, which it succeeded in doing by 1992.
In Iraq today it would be both a stretch and too simplistic to say that Islamic State was direct blowback from the Iraq War. Nevertheless at the same time it wouldn’t be a completely untrue statement. When you evaluate statements made by that group, coupled with the actions it perpetrates, they are fundamentally incongruent with the actions of some misunderstood political or civil movement trying to regain its rightful place under the sun.
In Iraq the Shiite Muslim Arab community is the largest demographically. Until the 2003 ouster of the Baath Party and its notorious President Saddam Hussein his minority clan within the Sunni-minority community ruled the country with an iron fist. Its ouster obviously radically upended the political order and inadvertently served to alienate many Sunnis. The more violent armed groups, like Al-Qaeda in Iraq, hated America’s presence in that country primarily because of this outcome, the emancipation of the Shiites. Remember such salafi groups hate the Shiites with a vengeance. Furthermore it is clear from Islamic States’ massacres and assaults on peoples and communities in Iraq they deem un-Islamic that their primary “grievance” with the U.S. is that, the fact the actions of the Americans served to emancipate Iraq’s largest community.
While the Sunni tribes did assist the new multi-denominational federal Iraqi government with the U.S. to quash that al-Qaeda group (during the surge period in and around 2007) the ascent to power of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki saw the Sunni Arabs and Kurds sidelined in many aspects of the political process, leaving them with a bad taste in their mouths and a feeling of genuine discontent. IS clearly capitalized on this discontent, as did the remnants of the now banned Baath Party (the most conspicuous of which being Iraq’s former sidekick Ibrahim al-Douri) who sought to stir-up social and political demonstrations in Sunni communities across Iraq following the U.S. withdrawal in late 2011. IS also capitalized on the ensuing instability (brought on in part by the heavy-handed response to political demonstrations by Maliki’s security forces) which eventually culminated in its rapid territorial gains in north which followed the failure of the Iraqi Army to effectively defend those areas last June.
What Chukov reports regarding how hitherto unacquainted like-minded jihadis in IS getting together after their time in U.S. prison camps is likely what did happen. But that doesn’t necessarily mean IS is a product of the Iraq War per se.
Remember in the Kurdish north of Iraq we had a shadowy jihadi group, Ansar al-Islam. As with IS they had sought to establish a theocratic Islamist state and subjugate people they didn’t like with brute force. Before the ouster of the Saddam regime they attempted, unsuccessfully, to subjugate and rule over local populations in a manner reminiscent to how IS is doing so today. Indeed following IS’s rampage across Northern Iraq they merged with that group given the fact their aims were essentially identical. It’s crucial to remember they had attempted to implement such a violent rule before Saddam’s aforementioned ouster.
What we’re seeing with IS is more of a violent reactionary response to the emancipation of large swaths of Iraq’s population. A process they wish to undo given their clear and expressed disdain for the majority of the peoples (including a great many Sunnis don’t forget) who reside in Iraq, that diverse land of two rivers.