ISIS AND THE NEW SUNNI UPRISING
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Though capable of staging spectacular attacks like 9/11, jihadist organizations were not a significant force on the ground when they first became notorious in the shape of al-Qa‘ida at the turn of century. The West’s initial successes in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan weakened their support still further.
Today, as renowned Middle East commentator Patrick Cockburn sets out in this explosive new book, that’s all changed. Exploiting the missteps of the West’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, as well as its misjudgments in relation to Syria and the uprisings of the Arab Spring, jihadist organizations, of which ISIS is the most important, are swiftly expanding. They now control a geographical territory greater in size than Britain or Michigan, stretching from the Sunni heartlands in the north and west of Iraq through a broad swath of north-east Syria. On the back of their capture of Mosul and much of northern Iraq in June 2014, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been declared the head of a new caliphate that demands the allegiance of all Muslims.
The secular, democratic politics that were supposedly at the fore of the Arab Spring have been buried by the return of the jihadis. As the Islamic State announced by ISIS confronts its enemies, the West will once again become a target. Cockburn cites an observer in southern Turkey interviewing Syrian jihadi rebels early in 2014 and finding that “without exception they all expressed enthusiasm for the 9/11 attacks and hoped the same thing would happen in Europe as well as the US.”
How could things have gone so badly wrong? Writing in these pages with customary calmness and clarity, and drawing on unrivaled experience as a reporter in the region, Cockburn analyzes the unfolding of one of the West’s greatest foreign policy debacles and the rise of the new jihadis.
150 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-939293-59-6 • E-book ISBN 978-1-939293-60-2
Patrick Cockburn is currently Middle East correspondent for The Independent and worked previously for the Financial Times. He has written three books on Iraq’s recent history as well as a memoir, The Broken Boy and, with his son, a book on schizophrenia, Henry’s Demons, which was shortlisted for a Costa Award. He won the Martha Gellhorn Prize in 2005, the James Cameron Prize in 2006, and the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 2009.
This book focuses on several critical developments in the Middle East that are affecting or will affect the rest of the world. The most important of these is the resurgence of al-Qa‘ida-type movements that today rule a vast area in west Iraq and eastern and northern Syria. The territory under their sway is several hundred times larger than any territory ever controlled by Osama Bin Laden, the killing of whom in 2011 was supposed to be such a blow to world terrorism. In fact, it is since Bin Laden’s death that al-Qa‘ida affiliates or clones have had their greatest successes, culminating in the capture of Raqqa in eastern Syria, the only Syrian provincial capital to fall to the rebels, in March 2013. In Iraq, they took over Fallujah, the city 40 miles west of Baghdad famously besieged and stormed by US Marines ten years earlier, in January 2014. The battle lines may change, but the overall expansion of their power appears permanent.
A reason so little attention is given to events in this enormous area is that control by al-Qa‘ida-type jihadis means the zone becomes too risky for journalists and outside observers to visit because of the extreme danger of being kidnapped or murdered. “Those who used to to protect the foreign media can no longer protect themselves,” one intrepid correspondent told me, explaining why he would not be returning to rebel-held Syria. This lack of media coverage is convenient for the US and other Western governments because it enables them to play down the extent to which “the war on Terror” has failed so catastrophically in the years since 9/11.
This failure is masked by deceptions and self-deceptions on the part of governments. Speaking at West Point on America’s role in the world on 28 May 2014 President Obama said that the main threat to the US no longer comes from al-Qa‘ida central but from “decentralized al-Qa‘ida affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused on the countries where they operate.” He added that “as the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.” True enough, but Obama’s solution to this danger is “to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists.” It is here that self-deception takes over the agenda because the Syrian military opposition is dominated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IsiS), formerly al-Qa‘ida in Iraq , Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the official al-Qa‘ida representative, and other extreme jihadi groups. In reality, there is no dividing wall between them and America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies.
An intelligence officer from a Middle East country neighboring Syria told me that Isis members “say they are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind because they can always get the arms off them by threats of force or cash payments.” Nor are these empty boasts, given that arms supplied by US allies such as Qatar and Turkey to anti-Assad forces in Syria are now being captured in Iraq. I experienced a small example of the consequences of this inflow of weapons when I tried in the summer of 2014 to book a flight to Baghdad on the same efficient European airline which I had used to travel there a year earlier. I was told it had discontinued flights to the Iraqi capital because it feared that Iraqi insurgents had obtained shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles originally supplied to anti-Assad forces in Syria and would use them against commercial aircraft flying into Baghdad International Airport. Western support for the Syrian opposition may have failed to overthrow Assad, but it is successfully destabilizing Iraq.
The failure of the War on Terror and the resurgence of al-Qa‘ida is further explained by a phenomenon which became apparent within hours of the 9/11 attacks. The anti-terror war was to be waged without any confrontation with Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, two close US allies, despite the fact that without the involvement of these two countries 9/11 was unlikely to have happened. There is nothing conspiratorial or hidden about their ultimate responsibility for the operation that led to the destruction of the Twin Towers. Of the 19 hijackers 15 were Saudi; bin Laden came from the Saudi elite; US official documents stress repeatedly that financing for al-Qa‘ida and jihadi groups came from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. Above all, the ideology of al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and imitators is not very different from Wahhabism, the exclusive intolerant creed of the Saudi state. As for Pakistan, its army and military service had played a central role since the early 1990s in propelling the Taliban into power in Afghanistan where they hosted bin Laden and al-Qa‘ida. After a brief hiatus at the time of 9/11, Pakistan resumed its support for the Afghan Taliban. Speaking of the central role of Pakistan in backing the Taliban, the late Richard C Holbrooke, US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said: “We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.”
The importance of Saudi Arabia in the rise and return of al-Qa‘ida is often misunderstood and understated. Saudi Arabia is influential because its oil and its vast wealth make it powerful in the Middle East and beyond. But it is not financial resources alone that make it such an important influence but their use in propagating Wahhabism, the fundamentalist 18th century version of Islam that imposes sharia law, turns women into second class citizens and regards Shia and Sufi Muslims as heretics and apostates to be persecuted along with Christians and Jews. This religious intolerance and political authoritarianism, which in its readiness to use violence has many similarities with European fascism in the 1930s, is getting worse rather than better. A Saudi who set up a liberal website on which clerics could be criticized was sentenced to a thousand lashes and seven years in prison. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, critics of this new trend in Islam do not survive long because they are murdered or forced to flee. Denouncing jihadi leaders in Kabul in 2003, an Afghan editor described them as “holy fascists,” misusing Islam as “an instrument to take over power.” Unsurprisingly, he was accused of insulting Islam and forced to flee abroad.
The nature of Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia’s vigour in propagating it is so significant because one of the most striking developments in the Islamic world in recent decades is the way in which Wahhabism is taking over mainstream Sunni Islam. In country after country it is Saudi Arabia that puts up the money for the training of preachers and the building of mosques. A result of this is the spread of sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia as the latter find themselves targeted with unprecedented viciousness from Tunisia to Indonesia. Such sectarianism is not confined to country villages outside Aleppo or in the Punjab, but is poisoning relations between the two sects in every Islamic community. A Muslim friend in London told me: “Go through the address books of any Sunni or Shia in Britain and you will find very few names belonging to people outside their own community.”
Obama evidently realizes that al-Qa‘ida-type groups are far stronger than they were, but his recipe for dealing with them repeats and exacerbates earlier mistakes. “We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us” he told the audience at West Point. But who are these partners to be? Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not mentioned since it goes without saying that they remain close and active US allies in Syria. But Obama singles out “Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq” as partners to receive aid in “confronting terrorists working across Syria’s borders.” There is something absurd about this since the foreign jihadis in Syria and Iraq, the people whom Obama admits are the greatest threat, only get there because they can cross the 510-mile-long Turkish-Syrian border without hindrance from the Turkish authorities. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan may now be frightened by the Frankenstein, but there is little they can do to restrain a monster that is, at least partly, their own creation.
The resurgence of al-Qa‘ida-type groups is not a threat confined to Syria, Iraq and their near neighbors. What happens in these countries, combined with the increasing dominance of intolerant and exclusive Wahhabite beliefs within the Sunni community, means that all 1.6 billion Muslims, almost a quarter of the world’s population, are affected by these conflicts. Holy fascism is on the march.