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ISIS, Iraq and the War on Terror

category mashriq / arabia / iraq | imperialism / war | opinion / analysis author Sunday September 28, 2014 16:13author by Joshua Virasamiauthor email joshuavirasami at gmail dot comauthor phone 002309604236 Report this post to the editors

It's official, extremist firebrand Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, will play the new bearded bogeyman. It's official, he didn’t loot the banks for gold but is in fact being paid by our friends, the good ol’ Gulf petro-monarchs. It's official, we are being frogmarched back into the 'kill the bogeyman' script. It's official, none of this is happening… "officially".
ISIS Fleet
ISIS Fleet

It's official, extremist firebrand Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, will play the new bearded bogeyman. It's official, he didn’t loot the banks for gold but is in fact being paid by our friends, the good ol’ Gulf petro-monarchs. It's official, we are being frogmarched back into the 'kill the bogeyman' script. It's official, none of this is happening… "officially".

“The Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War.” - Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution


Our attention astray, many of us seem to have missed the calamitous establishment of a state larger than Belgium and with a population larger than Ireland. Now that the media have begun their spiel and fearmongering about "the hounds of hell" and the politicos are not just paying them but paying attention, we are slowly being dragged back into another Iraqi intervention, mission creep style. It seems the Islamic state of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), now simply known as the Islamic State (IS) and formally known as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), has been very, very busy.

Reports are it is currently busy designing passports, expelling Christians, massacring minorities, expanding its new state borders and calling for all-out war against Shia Islam and the West. It claims it will soon engage in armed conflict with the United States and it will be more a war than a skirmish, for ISIS is no small terrorist cell. Estimates of its fighters stand at close to 50,000 and even the 200,000 Kurdish Peshmerga have needed US and PKK reinforcement just to regain lost territory.

Since the departure of US troops, the US-installed Shia dictator, al-Maliki, has been fulfilling his personal fantasies of squeezing the Sunni masses into abject poverty and because those Sunni masses are still reeling from 10 years of US sanctions and another almost 10 years of US bombing, the ground is fertile for ISIS to manufacture a "Sunni uprising". But revolt is what the war profiteers want, they are the global police force who comfortably enjoy the largest lobby from Whitehall to the White House and so war is what they get, and the "war on terror" is what they got. Permanent instability, with their petro-monarchs and oil contracts at the ready. The truth is that ISIS has long been monitored by our intelligence agencies, fostered by our allies’ intelligence agencies and allowed to grow under our watchful eye.

In the West we have long been in the business of dehumanising Muslims and when someone is viewed as less than human their lives are immediately of less value, are expendable. It is also widely understood that corporate interests place profit above human life. Since Sykes-Picot carved up the Middle East we have done nothing but secure corporate interests in the region at the cost of human life, predominately Muslims - and have used a process of desensitisation and dehumanisation to carry it out. This strategy only ever changes in manifestation. In ISIS lies the possibility for renewed engagement in the region, for a perpetuation of the colonial strategy, and, a renewed effort at destabilisation of regimes that don’t play neo-colonial ball, i.e. the Shiite crescent. In 2007 one of the most important political analyses of the last decade surfaced via Seymour Hersh. Hersh outlined how the US strategical redirection towards wholly embracing a Tel Aviv/Riyadh axis was born (from fear of Iranian regional influence) and gave a foreboding and timely warning, which is worth putting here in whole:

"The new strategy 'is a major shift in American policy—it’s a sea change', a US government consultant with close ties to Israel said. The Sunni states 'were petrified of a Shiite resurgence, and there was growing resentment with our gambling on the moderate Shiites in Iraq', he said. 'We cannot reverse the Shiite gain in Iraq, but we can contain it.'

“'It seems there has been a debate inside the government over what’s the biggest danger - Iran or Sunni radicals', Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has written widely on Shiites, Iran, and Iraq, told me. 'The Saudis and some in the Administration have been arguing that the biggest threat is Iran and the Sunni radicals are the lesser enemies. This is a victory for the Saudi line.' 'The White House is not just doubling the bet in Iraq', Martin Indyk, who is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said. 'It’s doubling the bet across the region. This could get very complicated. Everything is upside down.'”

We bet on the Sunni radicals. Here is their story.

Un-obscure beginnings

The metamorphosis of al-Qaida in Iraq into ISIS was relatively swift. After "operation accomplished" was being touted by the coalition forces from Afghanistan we caught the first signature attacks of al-Qaida in Iraq. Before the current leadership of al-Baghdadi, AKA Caliph Ibrahim, al-Qaida in Iraq started making serious headlines when in 2004 it broadcast the decapitation of US citizen Nick Berg (and now 10 years later the beheading of US journalist James Foley). This period ended with the assassination - via a US F16 fighter jet - of then-leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the end of al-Qaida in Iraq by name. From the ashes rose the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), formed in 2006 under the leadership of Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi and Abu Hama al-Mujahir - soon captured and killed. Their deaths marked the beginning of a newer Iraqi-centred era for ISI under al-Baghdadi’s current leadership. He is a man whose ambitions have catapulted the organisation into the spotlight but who at the time had inherited a deeply wounded infrastructure. al-Baghdadi has grown to such strength that he has severed ties to al-Qaida central, although they are not enemies as many suggest.

"They hate the Shiites, but they hate Americans more. If you try to outsmart them, they will outsmart us. It will be ugly."
The formation of the new ISI was for all intents and purposes the dying cries of an organisation that was gaining enemies faster than friends. The Sons of Iraq, Awakening councils and a troops surge by the US army pushed ISI further north and significantly diminished its operational capabilities. But rather than utterly destroy them, which we could easily have done, we left them in the north, until further notice. Ironically the Sons of Iraq, almost 85,000 fighters now abandoned by their coalition sponsors, have by and large joined the ranks of ISIS. The thing about sponsored Sunni radicals is that they are a gamble, they do the work of our Saudi allies, on behalf of all interests, but as a former Saudi diplomat expressed, "They hate the Shiites, but they hate Americans more. If you try to outsmart them, they will outsmart us. It will be ugly." By 2009 analysts were declaring the death of ISI when suddenly "further notice" arrived and it exploded back onto the scene in 2011 flushed with new tactics, new protocols, new weapons and new ambitions.

2011 was, of course, the same time the Arab Spring blossomed forth from a region long stretched thin by Western-propped-up dictators, still pursuing Sykes-Picot style ambitions by following the IMF/World Bank line. Emboldened by these events the Bahrainis turned to revolt and pockets of large, genuine protests also appeared in Syria and Libya; how we responded to the latter especially has everything to do with the rise of ISIS. Saudi counter-revolutionary forces were sent in to murder the largely Shia population into submission in Bahrain. However, the Washington/Brussels/Tel-Aviv/Riyadh axis came to a consensus that the opposition in Syria must be supported in order to create a powerful proxy force. In the last three years ISIS, the new powerful proxy of its patrons, has now fulfilled not only its previous dream of a caliphate in some of Iraq, but a further expanded one: a caliphate stretching from western Iraq to eastern Syria.

Bernaysian styles

But how did it experience a rapid rise to fame? In short, kittens, selfies and Kalashnikovs. ISIS has been kicking up a significant PR storm. Social media has long been at the heart of Salafi jihadists' PR, but the use of Android apps streaming out tweets of kittens and Kalashnikov selfies via algorithms that alleviate spam detection is a new level of integrated PR. ISIS garners 67,000-plus mentions a week on Twitter and posts obscene threats such as "Baghdad, we’re coming". In this approach it has proven itself to be one step ahead of al-Qaida central, by giving social depth equal standing to geographical breadth, a dangerous and successful concoction for popularity and power - across vast sections of society. As I sat in a busy restaurant in Dohuq a few months back, roughly 70km from Mosul, my good friend Nawrus (a self-exiled Syrian soldier) explained that he and his friends keep on top of rebel and jihadist activity via social media, the first time I learned of this.

I had hitched my way into the northern Iraqi border town of Zakho, slipping by the Syrian border and catching only a piece of bread by a roadside stall to appease some seven or eight hours of journeying. After some more assistance I was Dohuq-bound. The driver told me to skip my Mosul plans at all costs unless I wanted to lose my head via handicam. I took his advice and only passed through, having no idea at the time what I had avoided - the infamous siege of Mosul. We all now know it was the propaganda coup of the siege of Mosul, and its now debunked stories of $400 million bank lootings, which led to ISIS being catapulted into mainstream news. But if it didn’t loot those banks, where did the money come from?

Follow the money!

I first met Nawrus after wandering the streets late at night for a vegetarian food joint. Nawrus was working five minutes from my dingy motel; he hooked me up with a free meal in the restaurant where he was waiting and took up my request to sit and talk. He lifted his greasy red striped apron to sit comfortably, wiped the sweat of a hard day’s work off with his sleeve and amicably started the conversation asking me of my journeys. In turn he warmly, and in great detail, explained to me how more than a year ago he’d deserted the Syrian army after committing and witnessing atrocities that continue to plague his dreams.

Nawrus, 23, humble, intelligent, witty and grounded, seemed to understand well the geopolitics of his region and went on to explain to me that in Syria he and his fellow soldiers had heard there were well over 100 jihadist outfits. He suggested that, militarily, the army has the upper hand, which no Salafist group will surmount; at best they could seize certain areas in Syria – which they have. But many groups aren’t so interested in eliminating Assad; on the contrary, the more protracted the conflict the more they stand to gain in the way of recruits and the weapons giveaway frenzy. When I asked him what he thought about the training, weapons and overall logistics support being provided by Turkey in Iskerendum he went on to say he thought “nearly all successful rebels in Syria are armed and funded by foreign groups, especially Saudi Arabia".

"The US Treasury is aware of this activity and has expressed concern about this flow of private financing. But Western diplomats’ and officials’ general response has been a collective shrug." 2013 Brookings Institution Report


I took Nawrus’s words away and followed the money. “Everybody knows the money is going through Kuwait and that it’s coming from the Arab Gulf”, said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Kuwait’s banking system and its money changers have long been a huge problem because they are a major conduit for money to extremist groups in Syria and now Iraq.”

It was a speech given recently by former head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, which told the world plainly that the Gulf petro-monarchs, in particular House of Saud, are the financiers of the newly formed Islamic State, whose ambition is to destroy Shia Islam. He recounts when the infamous Prince Bandar told him “the time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.” Dearlove emphasised, on the topic of ISIS, “Such things simply do not happen spontaneously”. But this is also relatively old news since the leaked Wikileaks US embassy cable of Hillary Clinton showed her expressing that, “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups.”

On the ground

I met Ali by great serendipity. Local entrepreneur, water supplier, community leader, shop owner, senior government official, farmer and father he was a busy yet serene figure and knew well the life of Pakistan. I lived, loved and learned for some nine days while staying on the floor of a school complex he ran in Quetta, the capital of the Baluchistan province in Pakistan. Pakistanis are experts at living with the constant threat of terror, and nowhere is this felt more than in Baluchistan and Waziristan – Quetta in particular loses lives daily to state and rebel terrorism.

Ali, in his tidy Baluch-style shalwar kameez and grey waistcoat, laid out plainly to me one quiet evening in his spacious office that all terrorist groups owe their beginnings to Pakistan. “The 'war on terror' is our creation”, he explained with his unchanging demeanour. He told of how it was on US orders that Saudi money was funnelled through Pakistan to create jihadist outfits, all of which operate throughout Pakistan, India, Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq. This, he explained, is absolute common knowledge in Pakistan – I put his theory to the test in several cities across all provinces of Pakistan and sure enough, it was true. On the ground in Pakistan, and across the Middle East, the money trail has long been exposed and the harsh consequences are felt in daily life.

The resurgence and success of an al-Qaida consciousness in Iraq, under the banner of ISIS, can be understood through the light of two operational phases, "Breaking the Walls" and "The Soldiers' Harvest". In July 2012, al-Baghdadi announced the beginning of Breaking the Walls, outlining his intention to "target the pressure points of the Safavid architecture" and making clear his primary enemy is Shia Islam and its 100 million followers. This campaign was characterised by a little discussed, highly lethal and absolutely pivotal to ISIS weapon known as VBIED (vehicle borne improvised explosive device). The vehicle itself is made into a high-yield bomb, as opposed to a bomb being placed inside. This is the signature weapon of ISIS that has allowed them to execute eight prison breaks, including Abu-Ghraib, seizures of multiple oil fields and the capture of a major dam. Once the two operational phases began to slow, the VBIED attacks on Baghdad quadrupled and the efforts in Syria were redoubled, a victory in the large area of Al-Raqqa seeming imminent. When that victory was achieved, al-Baghdadi renamed ISI ISIS, in honour of succeeding in its push towards establishing a caliphate that encompasses Syria. This was in March 2013.

The massive increase in VBIED waves in Baghdad and Syria also means that ISIS has woken a slumbering giant in the form of Shia militias, which are back in aggressive action around the Iraqi capital – the al-Sadr brigades. Muqtada al-Sadr, the fierce-looking face of Shia revivalism and Iraqi nationalism, is a serious military and political figure and force; Shia are the majority in Iraq and the majority of Shia are Sadrists. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militant/political group, has in response also declared itself actively engaged in Syria, against ISIS. Continuing to prop up the Sunni radicals is a seriously dangerous gamble. A telling Statfor report explains how Saudi Arabia still has active engagement on the ground with ISIS through the Anbar Insurgents Council, moulding its initiative to "aggravate Iran in a highly sensitive spot". Washington has rubber-stamped these initiatives, just as it condones the illicit funding. A 2013 Brookings Institution report states “The US Treasury is aware of this activity and has expressed concern about this flow of private financing. But Western diplomats’ and officials’ general response has been a collective shrug.” Why the shrug?

The iron triangle and its dark ouroboros

The iron triangle, as US President Eisenhower spoke of it, is the nexus between the defence contractors, army and government: the military industrial complex. In his departing speech he said that in a situation of uncontrolled influence, it may soon pervade our lives; the well-documented privatisation of war and militarisation of state is the face of his forewarning. The "war on terror", brainchild of the Pentagon and thoroughly backed by the Washington/Brussels/Riyadh axis is the proverbial gift that keeps on giving, it is the pretext and solution, the snake eating its tail, it is the dark ouroboros. It ensures and extends the lifespan of the arms industry, the petrochemicals industry and other major industries, it is essentially a business venture. This means, put simply, that war is big business and the global "war on terror" is big, big business. The "corporatocracy" and its captains of industry simply can’t see the blood for the dollar signs.

I remember standing half asleep amid the hustle and bustle of Bank in the City of London, a global financial centre, I was waking from a late night in the Occupy London camp, discussing alternatives to war and debt. A well-dressed banker stopped to make a remark; his self-aggrandising manner no shock to me, I listened intently. He told me how we are "wasting our time". I asked him whether he understood how the banking institutions are at the heart of warfare; with no condescending air, he explained explicitly the relationship between war and money. What shocked me was his utter nonchalance; to him this was business, plain and simple, and off he went, he told me, to JP Morgan. Our interaction and his influence reminded me of an Edward Bernays quote from Propaganda, the founding book of US public relations.

"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of."

But this is no longer true; the emerging consciousness in activism that targets agrochemical business, banking cartels, arms contractors and petrochemicals companies is evidence we know quite well who this invisible government is. In a war zone of manufactured media, with embedded journalists abound, where manipulating consent is a major weapon, we must acknowledge the role of the war machine.

We must acknowledge our full responsibility for war in general and this conflict in particular. Under Anglo-American guidance and with Anglo-American-Gulf cash, as many as a million Iraqi citizens met gruesome ends. That the resulting fury catalysed ISIS is thus at least in large part our fault. Can we allow ourselves to respond to this situation by promoting the same methods that caused it? Are we this blind or this apathetic?

Instead, this conflict presents opportunities to break the spell of the war machine, to develop a significant counter-information campaign. As this article has demonstrated another elite-orchestrated bombing campaign, as being suggested to stop ISIS, is a joke, as the only reason it has come to force is that we finance and prop it up from Syria and beyond, both directly and through our wealthy conduits in the region. We must empower people to speak out both against another hypocritical, self-serving, murderous intervention and against the mechanisms that perpetuate war in the first place.

A world without war is not only possible; it must come to pass if we want to survive.

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