by Rick Love
On June 29, 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself ruler of a Caliphate, or a Muslim state, spanning Syria and Iraq known as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria). At one time ISIS controlled a swath of territory in Iraq and Syria comparable in size to the United Kingdom and with a population of about 5 million people.
Life under the black flag of ISIS reflects the most evil manifestation of terrorism to-date. A manifesto called “The Management of Savagery” guides their violence. The so-called Islamic State flaunts its ruthless cruelty and flamboyant brutality on social media.
For most people, it seems like ISIS literally exploded on the scene. But the birth of ISIS actually took a long, twisted road. This post and at least one other that I will write next week are based on two of the most well-researched books available on ISIS: ISIS: A History by Fawaz Gerges and ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan.
6 HISTORICAL FACTORS THAT GAVE BIRTH TO ISIS:
1. The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq set the stage for this new phase of terrorism. The wholesale dismantling of Saddam’s Baathist regime resulted in a fragile state, which played into the hands of Baghdadi.
2. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki alienated the Sunni community by favoring Shia Muslims and pandering to Iran, thus polarizing the country along Sunni-Shia lines (here’s a good summary of the differences between these two Islamic sects).
3. Camp Bucca (a US prison) became “an incubator of Islamist radicalization and a recruitment center for jihadists” (Gerges p. 134). US detention facilities became “terror academies” (Hassan p. XVI). Baghdadi was radicalized in Camp Bucca and then released in 2004 because he was considered a low-level threat! “According to the Iraqi government, seventeen of the twenty-five most important ISIS leaders running the war in Iraq and Syria spent time in US-run detention facilities between 2004-2011” (Gerges p. 133).
4. With the outbreak of the Iraq war, Al Qaeda Central (as Gerges calls it) opened a branch in Iraq with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi “started with fewer than thirty fighters at the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq and quickly amassed at least five thousand full-time fighters, bolstered by twenty thousand homegrown supporters” (Gerges p. 67). Just as the war in Afghanistan became the breeding ground for Al Qaeda Central, so too the war in Iraq became the springboard for ISIS.
5. “Zarqawi belonged to a new wave of Salafi-jihadists who are obsessed with … the struggle to purify Islam and Islamic lands of apostasy. The Shias top their list of real and imagined enemies” (Gerges p. 82). Bin Laden pleaded with Zarqawi to stop targeting fellow Muslims, because by doing so they would lose the battle for Muslim hearts and minds (which in fact is happening). But Zarqawi rejected Bin Laden’s counsel and shifted Al Qaeda Central’s focus from the far enemy (the US and the West) to the near enemy — Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims who disagreed with ISIS’ violent and vicious interpretation of Islam.
Zarqawi and his cohorts became more bloodthirsty than their parent organization, Al Qaeda. “Pioneering the beheading of captives, Zarqawi was eventually anointed with the name The Sheikh of the Slaughterers, reflecting his indulgence in the slaughtering of hostages” (Gerges p 88). He even had “a calendar for video recorded beheadings” (Hassan p. 37).
Zarqawi met his doom in 2006 when US forces “dropped two five-hundred pound bombs on his head” (Hassan p. 2). Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (not to be confused with the present leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) took over the leadership of Al Qaeda Iraq until his death in 2010. At that point, the present leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, inherited the blood-drenched legacy of Zarqawi.
6. The derailment of the Arab Spring became one more catalytic force for ISIS’ subsequent success. “In early 2011, millions of Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa burst out onto the streets and called for social justice, freedom, and a life of dignity” (Gerges p. 203). The Arab uprisings raised expectations for political change in the Middle East, but only one country, Tunisia, moved towards a more inclusive, democratic government. The hopes of millions of Arabs were dashed on the rocks of broken politics and oppressive rulers. This made many susceptible to ISIS’ poisonous promise of an Islamic Caliphate.
(Stay tuned for Part 2 of “What you need to know about ISIS”)