What ISIS has achieved in the past few years is remarkable by any standard. To create a de-facto state by carving out two other states, become financially sustainable, ruling over two million people and maintaining a disciplined and effective armed force is no mean feat. Many formal states have struggled to achieve that, Iraq being one. The journey that led to this point did not start with the takeover of Mosul, but over a decade ago.
The fall of Saddam
During his 24 years as the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein built up a sophisticated military and intelligence apparatus. But Saddam had a problem; he came into power by betrayal and so was paranoid of others betraying him. His solution was to fill the most powerful positions (army and intelligence) with his extended family and tribe, who he deemed most loyal to him.
There was room in Saddam’s Iraq for meritocracy. Some Shi’a Muslims s made it to the highest ranks in Saddam’s administration. Sa’dun Hammadi Abdul-Wahid was a Shi’a who served as Saddam’s PM and Shannan ar-Ribat was a high-ranking General in his army.
Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, a predominantly Sunni city, its people and the surrounding areas were heavily rewarded for their blood relations to Saddam. So were other loyal cities and towns. But this discriminated against the rest of Iraqis, regardless of their sect or ethnicity. Iraq’s Sunni tribes in Anbar never warmed to Saddam. His efforts to tame and disarm them failed, and they fiercely fought for their quasi-independence from his hold. Iraq’s Kurds (who constitute 20-25% of Iraq) and large Shi’a community (who make up 50% of Iraq) were significantly discriminated by Saddam as he was never certain of their loyalty. Or, simply put, if they rebelled against him he would lose his power. Saddam’s discrimination and brutality led to the Kurds and Shi’as rebelling. Saddam used force to quell it.
Between 1988 and 1991 hundreds of thousands were slaughtered.
It is vital to note that this wasn’t rooted in sectarianism. Saddam, and those loyal to him, were fiercely secular. The Muslim Brotherhood and other organised Sunni institutions, whether Sufis or Salafis, suffered the most as they appealed directly to Saddam’s Sunni base. They were viciously repressed and replaced with puppet religious figures. In fact, Saddam mistrusted his own family. The servants in his palaces were Christians and Assyrians, a small and deprived minority and that posed little threat to him.
Saddam’s drive to reward those loyal to him resulted in a generation of people who believed that they were entitled to run Iraq. Their sense of entitlement ran so deep that they ruled with absolute impunity. Alongside this the Shi’as lived in abject fear of what the rulers would do to them (at this stage the Kurds, with Western help, managed to form their own administration).
The situation was radically changed when the US invaded in 2003. Having swiftly taken Iraq the US had no post invasion plans. What they decided to do was to go down the most difficult path, dismantle the old regime entirely and rebuild a new Iraq. Rebuilding a state from scratch is notoriously difficult, as those who lost power will continue to attempt to regain it.
Of all the hasty decisions that the US made, the most de-stabilising was the disbanding of the Iraqi army and intelligence. They also stopped their wages and detracted their pensions. These men were the most able to access and use weapons, had direct connections to newly disenfranchised communities and they felt most humiliated by the US’ invasion. Instead of recognising their power and treating them sensitively, the US excluded them. Their numbers is very difficult to obtain, but some estimates put them at 100,000.
Out of the 100,000, some decided to move on. Others were determined to fight the US, an illegal occupier and their chief humiliator.
The US, having already failed in dealing with them, deteriorated the situation with its over-aggression. The US army engaged in indiscriminate killing and arresting in towns and cities that resisted its invasion and subjected many of those it arrested to torture and humiliation. This aggression and outright indifference to Iraqi lives reached a peak when pictures of the severe abuse at Abu Ghraib prison were leaked to the media. The insurgency against the US gained momentum afterwards.
The rise and fall of Al-Qa’ida
Due to Saddam’s repression of religious organisations, and Iraq’s Sufi history, the Salafi ideology did not have a large number of followers. There was hardly a trace, except in the Kurdish regions.
However, global Salafi militants, including Al-Qa’ida, saw an opportunity to fulfil their dream in Iraq.
For Al-Qa’ida’s leadership, especially Osama bin Laden, the ultimate aim of Al-Qa’ida is to overthrow the Arab dictators and establish a Caliphate in the same lands the Prophet established his state. Their base in Afghanistan was because of its availability, nowhere else in the world could they find a safe haven.
Al-Qa’ida was initially welcomed. They offered the insurgent tribes funds, provided with dedicated soldiers and military experience to help fight the US. In return, the tribes offered Al-Qa’ida access to Iraq, safe houses and an opportunity to hurt the US.
The relationship soon soured. The main culprit was Al-Qa’ida as its ambitions were much larger than the tribes. While the tribes only wanted the removal of the US and a return to their quasi-independence, al-Qa’ida wanted to spread its ideology and establish a state to fight the US. Part of spreading of its ideology included the tribes, who were conservative but not radical. Al-Qa’ida married into the local tribes against their wishes, breaking a tribal taboo of not marrying their girls to outsiders. They hijacked the tribes’ lucrative smuggling operations and forced its ideology on the tribes.
There was widespread discontent with Al-Qa’ida which led to fighting between the Sunni tribes and Al-Qa’ida during 2005 and 2006. As a result Al-Qa’ida started to focus more of its resources on dominating as much of Sunni Iraq as possible. Their efforts succeeded by capturing Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and a city of half a million. For many tribes and Sunnis Al-Qa’ida became an existential threat.
Al-Qa’ida’s rise in Iraq was halted by a radical change of policy from the US army. The US army, which was the most powerful uniting factor between Iraq’s Sunnis and Al-Qa’ida, decided to exploit the rifts between Al-Qa’ida and Iraq’s Sunnis by supporting the Sunni tribes against Al-Qa’ida. There was a huge trust deficit between the US and the Sunnis, and this needed to be bridged before a meaningful partnership would develop.
The US’s well crafted strategy started by capturing land from Al-Qa’ida, inviting the tribes or local Sunnis to return. Once they returned they trained and armed them with effective weaponry, distributed aid, invested in public services (mainly water, electricity) and promised the locals that they would stay as long as they were needed (this was crucial as locals feared that if the US left Al-Qa’ida would lash out against those who cooperated with the US).
Crucially the US did not do this alone. They empowered tribal and local leaders by asking them to recruit for military training (who once graduated were paid), giving them the aid to distribute and responsibility over public services, making local leaders popular and, in turn, the US popular. In return for the US investing in them, tribal leaders started to provide intelligence on Al-Qa’ida operatives’ whereabouts. As the local leaders became confident in their ability to defend themselves, the US withdrew allowing the locals to return to the way they were before Al-Qa’ida’s intervention. The success of this became contagious, tribe after tribe offered to help the US. The movement became known as the Sahwa (The Awakening). Once large areas of Iraq were under tribal control, the US asked the local leaders to unite and chose a leader who would become administratively responsible for the area. Once in place the US withdrew, while continuing to pay the wages of the local defenders (this was crucial in reviving the local economy).
This Sahwa was so successful that the US was happy to withdraw from Iraq completely a few years later once they captured and killed the majority of Al-Qa’ida’s leadership, dismantling its smuggling network and bankrupting it. Although Al-Qa’ida was not defeated the US presumed that the Sahwa, with the support of Iraq’s army, would be capable enough to contain Al-Qa’ida. The US handed responsibility of the Sahwa to Iraq’s central Government and withdrew completely from Iraq.
The departure of the US left the Sahwa movement at the mercy of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s then PM, and his Shi’a led Government. Despite being the majority, Shi’as for the first time in history, found themselves, as the rulers of Iraq.
Under Saddam, the leaders before him and the British occupation, Shi’as lived as second class citizens. Many Shi’as, including their leaders, struggled to accept this reality. They lived with a fear that Saddam and his men would eventually return when the US left, but this was quelled with the hanging of Saddam in 2006.
For al-Maliki, the history of Shi’a oppression in Iraq acted as a reminder of what could happen to Iraq’s Shi’as if he was to lose per. He saw Iraq as a zero-sum game, any gain by those not loyal to him was a loss to him, and the Shi’as. This was the view he took towards the Shi’a opponents and the Sunnis at large. This drove al-Maliki to campaigns such as the operation ‘Charge of the Knights’ against the Sadr Army (a rival Shi’a militia) and to oppose the establishment of the Sahwa.
At the time of the US’s departure, Iraq’s Sunnis were somewhat content in the new, Shi’a-led, Iraq.
The US had trusted them with arms, which they deployed reasonably, they organised and united themselves politically, forming a party called Iraqiyyah which attracted significant votes from Shi’as, and won the 2010 General Election (due to the splintering of the Shi’as into two political parties). After nine months of dispute the two Shi’a Muslim parties overcame their differences and formed the Government led by al-Maliki, albeit under the guise of a US negotiated National Unity Government which included Iraqiyyah figures. This was as good as it got for the Sunnis.
When the US soldiers left, al-Maliki went on an aggressive campaign to weaken his political opponents, with a particular focus on the cross-sectarian Iraqiyyah party. al-Maliki was Iraq’s PM, holder of all Iraq’s security Ministries and had influence across Iraq’s bureaucracy. He used his power to pursue Iraqiyyah’s leaders, chasing some of the most senior members out of the country. He worked to split and weaken Iraqiyyah by favouring some of its leaders and marginalising others. Sunnis saw this as an attack on their democratically elected reps, and by extension, an attack on their stake in the new Iraq. Distrust grew between them and Iraq’s leaders.
The Sahwa was also in al-Maliki’s line of attack. He broke a promise to hire thousands of locals into the army, he delayed wages and arms, failed to protect them against reprisal attacks by al-Qa’ida (either deliberately or due to army incompetence) and generally distrusted them. Morale among Sahwa’s leaders, fighters and the Sunni population plummeted, while anger towards the Government increased. With that the Sahwa lost to overcome the threat al-Qa’ida posed. For al-Maliki Sahwa-al-Qa’ida fighting was the most ideal way to weaken the Sahwa. In fact the rise of al-Qa’ida better served al-Maliki’s interest as the terrorist group helped his narrative that he was fighting extremists, which allowed him to repress internally and ask for international support. After years of relentless pursuit by al-Maliki, Iraq’s Sunnis felt marginalised in the new Iraq. If there was no electricity, jobs or education it was because the state diverted electricity to Shi’a areas. Even local politicians found an easy target in blaming the central Government for its failure. In reality Iraq was run by incompetent and corrupt elite and all Iraqis suffered.
Sunni anger with the Government peaked when hundreds of Sunni were arrested, over an extended period of time, under terrorism charges. When their families demanded to know their whereabouts the Government’s reply was lacklustre. Rumours spread of mistreatment and harassment, Sunnis were fed up and started to protest. There were continuous protests for a year, which largely fell on deaf ears. Eventually the protests turned violent and al-Qa’ida exploited the situation.
ISIS learns from Al-Qa’ida’s mistakes
When the US left Iraq, it thought that the majority of Al-Qa’ida’s leaders were killed and defeated. Little did it assume that by killing their leadership the group’s most capable leader would emerge. Now known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he would be a ruthless calculator and institution builder. His first act as leader was to comprehensively assess the strength and weaknesses of al-Qa’ida and build on it. He renamed the group ISIS.
His first lesson was that Sunnis simply rejected ISIS’ hardcore extremist ideology. When locals fought for ISIS they fought for other motives. Al-Qa’ida accepted such Iraqis but when their motives clashed, Iraqis did not hesitate to rebel. To remedy this ISIS did not water down its ideology but set out to instil fear in the population, and ensuring ranks were not broken. To achieve this ISIS needed to increase the number of fighters that adhered to their ideology. From 2010-2013 ISIS launched an evangelical crusade to convert Iraqis and recruit international, readymade, fighters.
ISIS successfully recruited the most disenfranchised Iraqis. Those who had lived in poverty, were uneducated, unemployed and who were abandoned over an extended period of time, since before Saddam. Some of these groups and tribes were made the laughing stock of the local cities. These recruits were indoctrinated and, along with the international recruits, have become directly loyal to ISIS. They carry out ISIS’ dirty work, even if they are required to fight local Sunnis and tribes. This is critical, as al-Qa’ida struggled when its allies turned against it.
The second lesson was training and bureaucracy. Al-Qa’ida was not able to conduct advanced military operations to significantly harm their opponents. Al-Qa’ida was only able to attack and run, with a very limited ability to hold land or apply comprehensive pressure on a location or launch multi-wave attacks. Al-Baghdadi wanted the ability to attack, grab and hold and conduct complex military manoeuvres. To do this required professional military training and experience, the kind not available to guerrilla organisations. al-Baghdadi turned to ex-military men that served in senior positions in Saddam’s army during its peak. These men were bitter, humiliated and had no route back into normal civil life as they were wanted men. With nothing else to do, and wanted to extract revenge on the new Iraq, these men were willing to help, even though ISIS’ ideology was in direct contradiction to the secular ideology they adhered to. They were given comprehensive powers within ISIS to professionalise, develop and lead ISIS’ fighting force. They mixed their expertise in professional army tactics and strategies with a non-conventional, guerrilla organisation to deadly effect.
Al-Baghdadi wanted to also professionalise ISIS’ bureaucracy. Al-Qa’ida struggled to discipline its organisation. Subgroups within the organisation were given funding but were given autonomy. Al-Baghdadi wanted to centralise the organisation, especially as he wanted ISIS to do more than al-Qa’ida: build a state. Such a complex bureaucracy also required professional expertise, rarely available on the black market. Once again he turned to men who were part of Saddam’s capable bureaucracy. These men found themselves in a similar situation as the ex-military men that joined ISIS. These men were tasked with organising ISIS’ finances. They also helped set up ISIS state infrastructure.
The third lesson al-Baghdadi learnt from al-Qa’ida’s failure was that the lack of basic services could build anger among the locals towards ISIS, especially as al-Qa’ida cut public services. So it decided to invest in basic services. The returns on this investment quickly materialised. It reduced the motive to rebel against ISIS and in some cases it increased ISIS’ popularity. These three radical changes turned
ISIS into a fighting force that al-Qa’ida could only dream of. Using their bureaucratic strength ISIS has created a state, an achievement that no other guerrilla group has achieved. What ISIS does next does not matter, as long as it survives as an organisation it is creating history.