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Letter to the Editor: Isis and You, Part II

“We Will Find You … Here or New York”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a somewhat shadowy figure about whom little is known, was born in Sammara, Iraq. Like thousands of others, he was radicalized by the US-led invasion of his country, perhaps at the moment his home town was heavily bombed.

Like many other Sunnis, he helped create a small insurgent group. US security forces found him out, deemed him small potatoes, and imprisoned him at Camp Bucca.

Whether he was brutally tortured there, as many prisoners have been by Americans and Iraqis, we don't know. But his acquaintances agree that Baghdadi was transformed by his prison incarceration. On his release, so it is reported, Baghdadi said to a prison guard, “We will find you … anytime and anywhere … here or New York.” *

US-run prisons like Camp Bucca, Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib, were of course fertile schools and training grounds for insurgents. Literally thousands of detainees, including former Baathist officers, who had not previously allied with Al Queda, became, in these prisons, converts to insurgency and were recruited and mentored by jihadists, later joining Zarqawi's AQI and Baghdadi's ISIS, often in key positions.

“According to the Iraqi government, seventeen of the twenty-five most important ISIS leaders running the war in Syria and Iraq spent time in US-run facilities between 2004 and 2011” *

It is known that Baghdadi developed negotiating and leadership skills at Camp Bucca.

He has been described by those who knew him as, variously, a somewhat nerdy loner or a charismatic leader whose calm, decisive manner echoed that of bin Laden.

In 2006, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi joined Al Queda in Iraq. In 2010, he, who had become in that span the closest aide to slain leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, was chosen to lead the group that was later to become ISIS.

In these four years, Baghdadi had risen through the ranks with amazing swiftness. His astonishing rise to power - implying ambition, an ability to learn, skill, perhaps luck – was all the more remarkable since jihadist leaders bin Laden, Zawahiri and others did not then even know who he was!

“Obey Me!” This was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's instruction in his first public pronouncement.

Acknowledged by his associates more brutal, more vicious even than Zarqawi, Baghdadi through discipline and strategic understanding transformed an insurgent group near collapse into an efficient, professional civil-military organization by recruiting former Baathist commanders experienced in civil and military administration and who assembled, commanded and directed an army capable of urban, guerrilla and conventional warfare.

Baghdadi's success was enhanced by other events: Iraqis, in successive massive protests, demanded from Malaki, at first democratic reforms and the restoration of basic services, then his resignation; he had become “worse than Hussein.” Malaki brutally suppressed the dissidents. In this atmosphere the insurgents' popularity bloomed.

Though Baghdadi, like Zarqawi, paid lip service to bin Laden's leadership, he focused only on his own jihadist vision, the destruction of the near enemy: the Iraq government, Shias or anyone or group whose aims were different, including “soft” Sunnis. Under Baghdadi, AQI's multitudinous suicide attacks are well documented as to effect and horror.

In 2011 Osama bin Laden, the powerful personality who had attracted many to Al Queda, was killed. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, more scholar than effective militant, was generally thought weak.

Baghdadi and his counselors - Al Queda in Iraq - now devised a brilliant plan whose success, paradoxically, threatened his leadership. Determined to become the dominant jihadists in Syria and to conquer Iraqi-Syrian territories effectively obliterating the two countries' dividing border, becoming a virtual state, Baghdadi arranged for subordinate Abu Mohammed al-Joulani to form a jihadist group - “Al Nusra” - in Syria. Provided with army officers, money and arms, Joulani was instructed to infiltrate every actual/potential insurgent group, make friends, gain respect and accumulate authority without ever making known the connection with Al Queda. This would obviate potential jihadist rivalry and hide its presence from the US.

The success of Al Nusra was astonishing; within a year, dispensing money, providing local services, displaying bold, successful military operations, Joulani became among Syrian insurgents one of the country's most respected anti-Assad jihadists. His concealment of Al Queda loyalty was so successful that even years later fellow insurgents insist he was, and is, independent.

But Baghdadi, who saw in Joulani's rise a threat to his leadership, then decided to make his major move. In April 2013 he blew Joulani's cover, publicizing their association, announced to the world the the dissolution of Al Queda in Iraq; the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); called on Joulani to dissolve Al Nusra and pledge fealty to him.

Joulani, who cherished his new status, appealed to Al Queda's Ayman al-Zawahari to intervene to protect his independence. Zawarahi complied, criticizing Baghdadi's independent action.

Baghdadi declared war on both, a struggle that still exists, but which ISIS has decisively won. Within a matter of months ISIS established itself as the major jihadist organization in Iraq and Syria; conquered territory in both; dissolved borders between the two, proving, it said, its legitimacy as a state.

ISIS has become the most prominent, successful, Salafi-jihadist group in the world. It has an annual budget of about $2 billion dollars, paid by profits produced from seized oil fields, taxes enforced on occupied territories, drug transactions and other sources.

ISIS embodies a very small, very narrow, very harsh but potent, sect of the Islamic faith, espousing a centuries-old, ultra-conservative doctrine that demonizes the Shia and brooks no opposition, no compromise with the establishment of an Islamic state, one not confined to mapped borders or to any nationalist identity: a caliphate, i.e., overseen by a single ruler, governed by the harshest religious mandates.

Those who oppose this vision, those who question it – nations, groups, persons – are seen as infidels, apostates who must be dealt with brutally, without mercy. Those who join, especially those who act on its behalf, are the anointed, to be protected in life and rewarded in the hereafter.

Ignoring centuries of tolerant Islamic interpretation, ISIS refers only to that Prophet who “dispatched by the sword.”

Capitalizing on generations of despotism; poverty; regional disenfranchisement; disillusionment with state and religious affiliation; foreign invasion; death and disease from contaminated water and seldom available electric power; toxic sectarianism fueled and inflamed by the US-led occupation of Iraq and by Malaki's US-supported administration, sectarianism further incited by national power rivalries (Sunni Saudi Arabia, Shia Iran); the emaciation of tribal associations by Britain/France's post-World War I shared split up of the Ottoman Empire – ISIS, making the most of this tortured regional history as well as offering a true spiritual home to many who yearn for just that – has accumulated an army of somewhere between 30–100,00 fighters, has conquered and occupied territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya, has established support structures in Afghanistan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen.

“The U.S. State Department estimates that about 12,000 foreigners have traveled to Syria from at least 50 different countries to fight with a number of different groups, including ISIS.” (time.com, Sept. 25, 2014)

Apparently now expanding on its fundamental goal of destroying the near enemy, ISIS has encouraged activists world-wide to kill as many regional “infidels” as any group or individual can manage. Agents - or sympathizers - in the United States, France, Belgium, Germany, Britain, Australia, Canada and Bangladesh, have responded. Whether this most recent campaign is meant to distract from ISIS' recent military/area losses, is an advertisement of ISIS' power and success to attract more adherents, or both, is not known.

It is known that jihadists plan not in terms of months or years, but in decades and generations. Time and again insurgent groups have failed, been beaten, only to revive and prosper, fail again, revive again. Setbacks are seen as temporary - even necessary - suffering to be endured in the holy struggle.

With this in mind, it is well to understand that a military defeat of ISIS will not eliminate Arab determination to revenge itself on – and overcome -foreign control of their lives and local despotic domination.

In the Middle-East the United States is desperately trying to tip-toe through a political minefield it has largely created. Hoping to appease both frightened Americans and war hawks, President Obama adds ground troops to attacks on insurgents, but as few as he thinks he can get away with so as not to stir up war fears. With the same motivation, he depends heavily on air attacks. With the same motivation he has for years authorized drone strikes – costing less money and fewer American casualties – on supposed Middle-Eastern “militants,” inevitably murdering and/or dismembering thousands of innocent people.

US media and US citizens, whose communities have not been torn apart by destruction since the Civil War, don't much care what their government does as long as others are doing the suffering. But when some of the millions of immigrants fleeing their destitute homelands begin to arrive, indignation is heard in the land. In other nations where such immigration is far greater, whole political factions rise or fall on their citizens' fury at the “invaders” whose wholesale flight from devastation the Western powers themselves brought about.

Americans, certainly, don't want to know or recognize that every US-coalition prisoner torture or drone strike creates someone who vows to retaliate by killing an American, Brit, Frenchman, German or Belgian.

How this will end – or if it does - is anyone's guess. The cross-current of wars, attacks, sectarian antagonisms, international power rivalries, political, social, economic divisions and strifes - within and across borders - play out as we watch.

Media-sponsored “solutions” by “experts,” who usually ignore the origins and history of these events - especially those shaming their own political affiliations – seem cruelly childish.

Limited as my comprehension may be, I have come to a few conclusions.

If there is to be any hope for a relatively stable Middle-East, regional governments must pay attention to their citizens' needs; must create societies that minimize poverty, minimize sectarian resentments, provide reasonable health protections, give equal access to election processes and seek a fair, practical resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a major cause of Arab fury. The prospects for these achievements seem very dim.

If there is to be any hope for a world in which we here are not continually targeted by enraged militants who seek revenge for our despotic intrusion in their lives, the United States must be led by those who don't thirst for empire and planetary dominance, who seek to improve the lives of the country's own citizens, using the resources we have to benefit us at home rather than expand our global “power.”

And the United States, which has in effect destroyed Iraq as a functioning state, must change course and do what it can, not by military might but by consistent diplomacy, to restore that country to a moderate administration - temperate, transparent, assuring participation for all.

Then get out.

William Smithers
Santa Barbara

* “ISIS, a History,” by Fawaz Gerges, 2016, Princeton University Press.

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