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Connecting Dots: A Short History of the Islamic State

by Berry Friesen (November 21, 2015)

Al-Qaeda came to Iraq in 2003, after the U.S. invasion.  The absence of an Iraqi government created space for al-Qaeda to survive and the presence of a foreign invader created the opportunity for it to attract recruits and money.

Because of extensive coverage by Western media, Al-Qaeda in Iraq became the most visible of the insurgent groups opposing the U.S. occupation.  But its frequent and brutal attacks on other Muslims—mostly of Shia persuasion—are what distinguished it from the al-Qaeda we associate with 9/11. Instigating Sunni-Shia animosity seemed to be a core part of its agenda.

In October 2006, a faction within Al-Qaeda in Iraq announced the establishment of an “Islamic State of Iraq.”  At the time, it didn’t seem significant; people were focused instead on how to extract the U.S. military from a country wracked by sectarian violence so severe that Baghdad resembled a killing field.

Yet the announcement clearly signaled an intention to seize and govern territory in the manner described by the Wahhabi strand of Islam. This strand takes the traditional Sunni mantra "One Ruler, One Authority, One Mosque" as a mandate to impose conformity on all others (including Muslims of Shia or Sufi persuasion), even if that requires the use of violence. Moreover, Wahhabism seeks to replicate the purity of an ancient era when the Prophet Muhammad ruled from Medina.

Today, Saudi Arabia is the primary source and promoter of Wahhabism; those who follow its teachings are called “Salafists.”

In early 2007, President George W. Bush commenced a military “surge” of 30,000 additional troops in an effort to restore security in Baghdad and weaken terrorist activity. Also, the U.S. paid 100,000 Sunni civilians to join the “Sunni Awakening,” an organized resistance to Sunni terror groups led by outsiders.

By late 2007, the strategy seemed to be working. Baghdad was pacified by disarming Sunni residents, the number of attacks on military units declined and the number of sectarian killings decreased as Sunni and Shia adopted segregated living patterns. Beginning in 2008 and the three following years, the U.S. dramatically reduced the number of troops in Iraq.

But also in 2008, leaders of the embryonic Islamic State of Iraq regularly began meeting with former Baathist military officers who had been drummed out of the Iraqi army by the U.S. occupation.  As U.S. forces withdrew, the enlarged group—equipped with strengthened operational expertise—began to assert itself using car bomb assaults on Iraqi military units, prisons and Shia gatherings.

By the end of 2012, the Islamic State of Iraq had become the most prominent of the insurgent groups opposing the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Moreover, many Sunnis who earlier had been paid members of “the Awakening” switched sides after U.S. dollars stopped flowing.

Meanwhile, in next-door Syria, an alliance of the U.S., the U.K., France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Israel was rolling out a plan assembled in 2006-07 to take down the government of President Bashar al-Assad and break Syria into pieces.  Amid Arab Spring demonstrations in March 2011, the plan was covertly implemented by inserting snipers into the crowds.  When Syrian authorities responded harshly to the murders of numerous police officers and soldiers, insurgents within Syria took up arms against the government.

The western media reported extensively on the outbreak of war in Syria.  It characterized the conflict as a civil war, but tens of thousands of foreign Sunni fighters from across North Africa, Europe, Central Asia and the Arab world flocked to Syria to join the fight.

In the spring of 2012, United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan led an initiative to bring an end to the fighting.  The U.S. publicly supported the Annan initiative, yet also pursued its plans to take Syria apart.  A May 2012 report in the Washington Post described an extensive war-making effort coordinated by the U.S. and involving huge amounts of direct assistance to the insurgents from other members of the coalition. By late June, the Annan-led effort collapsed, unable to overcome U.S. insistence that President Assad immediately resign.

An August 2012 Pentagon intelligence report on Syria predicted the establishment of a “Salafist principality” in the eastern part of the country.  The report identified “al-Qaida in Iraq and fellow Salafists” as the “major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” Most importantly, it stated that “western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey” supported the Salafist effort to take control of eastern Syria.

Other sources identified Saudi Arabia’s head of intelligence services and former ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as the individual responsible for the development of Salafist forces. The Saudis contributed billions for the purchase of weapons and the payment of stipends to the fighters.  

Buoyed by the U.S.-led network of supporters, events proceeded just as predicted by the Pentagon report.  In April 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq announced a merger with al-Qaeda in Syria and took the name “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL).  In the following months of 2013, especially after President Obama abandoned his plan to provide air support for the insurgents attacking the Syrian government, ISIL seized control of small eastern Syrian towns and villages.  And in January 2014, it seized control of Raqqa, the largest city in eastern Syria.

ISIL also ramped up its operations in Iraq, launching frequent attacks against the Iraqi army throughout 2013.  In January 2014, it captured Fallujah, just west of Baghdad. It repeatedly overran Iraqi army units in skirmishes across Anbar Province.  Using suicide bombers—often in vehicles loaded with explosives—ISIL captured during June the cities of Tikrit, Sinjar and Mosul and Iraq’s largest oil refinery.  With each victory, it captured state-of-the-art military equipment the U.S. had provided the Iraqi army.

On June 29, 2014, ISIL announced the establishment of a new caliphate that spanned western Iraq and eastern Syria. It called upon Muslims all over the world to pledge allegiance to their Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdad.  Also, the group formally changed its name to the "Islamic State."

Flamboyant and brutal executions of those who would not accept its authority followed each of the Islamic State's military successes.  It routinely slaughtered captured opponents, especially government soldiers, but also Sunni insurgents who fought under the flags of other groups.  At Ar-Raqqah (Syria), it crucified a group of captives.  Twelve Sunni imams were executed in Mosul for refusing to swear loyalty to the Islamic State. Several Western hostages were beheaded; a captured Jordanian pilot was burned alive in a cage. Christians were victimized too, although most fled safely to Kurdish-held territory in Iraq and government-held territory in Syria.

Abundant western media attention to these acts of brutality added to the group’s notoriety and fueled its recruitment efforts.  Indeed, it appears some atrocities were designed for viewers in the West.

U.S. officials steadfastly downplayed the significance of ISIL until the summer of 2014 when media coverage of the beheadings of westerners forced the Obama Administration to act.  In August, President Obama authorized targeted airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State; in September, U.S. coordinated air strikes against the Islamic State began in Syria. In subsequent months, the U.S. assembled a broad coalition of nations committed to “containing” the Islamic State through air strikes and the arming of militias willing to fight it on the ground.

Yet despite the many expressions of alarm about the Islamic State, little effort has been made to isolate it from the day-to-day support any large organization needs.  Funds continue to flow from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Turkey’s border continues to be open to the truck convoys that resupply the Islamic State and export its oil and to the steady supply of new recruits coming from other countries to fight under its flag.

Iraq continues to find U.S. air support to be unreliable and frequently incompetent, with air strikes hitting Iraqi troops and dropping supplies to Islamic State units.  But it is Syria where the contradictions of U.S. policy are most graphically on display; getting rid of President Assad has remained the primary U.S. goal, notwithstanding the horror of the Islamic State.

Due to the recent entry of Russia into the war, the ground forces of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have become much more effective in rolling back the Islamic State in Syria. In Iraq, government forces also have been making gains, in part because the Russians have provided intelligence data the U.S. has inexplicably been unwilling to share.  These developments are a major embarrassment to the U.S. and its allies.

The recent Islamic State attacks in Paris fit well with its historic pattern of using violence to sow division and fuel extremism by provoking a disproportionate and violent response.  In France, the strategy appears to be working; many leading voices in the U.S. also want to join in.

As history confirms, none of it will succeed; the Islamic State has too much support within governments around the world.  Moreover, it already has demonstrated its capacity (whether alone or with the support of others, we do not know) to carry out sensational atrocities far from its territory, including Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan and China.

What is needed now is for the nations of the world to agree that isolating and weakening the Islamic State is more important than the narrow national goals that to date have only facilitated its success:  getting rid of President Assad, grabbing a piece of Syrian geography, exporting the Wahhabi version of Islam, controlling world energy reserves, and making money through the sale of ever more weapons.