Commentary on the economic , geopolitical and simply fascinating things going on. Served occasionally with a side of snark.
Friday, March 21, 2014
Was there ever really a global war on the terror ( was it merely a grand excuse for different actors to fulfill agendas ? To the point , if one just looks at Al Qaeda today versus back in 2001 , how can one say the War on terror has ben successful - then consider all of Al Qaeda's violent and uncontrolled progeny ? ) Are the Saudis having second thoughts on their support for jihadisits fighting "presently " in Syria , as well as Iraq ? The removal of Prince Bandar from running Saudi policy is Syria ( merely a price of failure to win swiftly ) , may be too little , too late - US anger at the Saudis for funding / arming jihadists has already strained the relationship and the jihadists truly dance only to their own tunes ..... A great five part series by Patrick Cockburn focusing on the sectarian paranoia fueling the various forms of fighting and in-fighting occurring in Syria , Iraq ( between Sunni and Shia ) , by and between even different jihadists on the ground..... parts 1-4 presented !
Al-Qa’ida, the Second Act: Why the Global 'War on Terror' Went Wrong
In 2014 al-Qa’ida-type groups are numerous and powerful… In other words, the ‘war on terror’ has demonstrably failed
It is now 12-and-a-half years since the September 11 attacks that put al-Qa’ida firmly on the map of global terrorism. The US has spent billions of dollars on its ‘war on terror’ to counter the threat and succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden three years ago. And yet al-Qa’ida-type groups are arguably stronger than ever now, especially in Syria and Iraq where they control an area the size of Britain, but also in Libya, Lebanon, Egypt and beyond.
In a groundbreaking five-part series, The Independent’s award-winning foreign correspondent, Patrick Cockburn, investigates the resurgence of the terrorist organisation. Today, he asks: why did the ‘war on terror’ go wrong?
Al-Qa’ida-type organisations, with beliefs and methods of operating similar to those who carried out the 9/11 attacks, have become a lethally powerful force from the Tigris to the Mediterranean in the past three years. Since the start of 2014, they have held Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, much of the upper Euphrates valley, and exert increasing control over the Sunni heartlands of northern Iraq. In Syria, their fighters occupy villages and towns from the outskirts of Damascus to the border with Turkey, including the oilfields in the north-east of the country. Overall, they are now the most powerful military force in an area the size of Britain.
The spectacular resurgence of al-Qa’ida and its offshoots has happened despite the huge expansion of American and British intelligence services and their budgets after 9/11. Since then, the US, closely followed by Britain, has fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and adopted procedures formerly associated with police states, such as imprisonment without trial, rendition, torture and domestic espionage. Governments justify this as necessary to wage the “war on terror”, claiming that the rights of individual citizens must be sacrificed to secure the safety of all.
Despite these controversial security measures, the movements against which they are aimed have not only not been defeated but have grown stronger. At the time of 9/11, al-Qa’ida was a very small organisation, but in 2014 al-Qa’ida-type groups are numerous and powerful. In other words, the “war on terror”, the waging of which determined the politics of so much of the world since 2001, has demonstrably failed.
How this failure happened is perhaps the most extraordinary development of the 21st century. Politicians were happy to use the threat of al-Qa’ida to persuade people that their civil liberties should be restricted and state power expanded, but they spent surprisingly little time calculating the most effective practical means to combat the movement. They have been able to get away with this by giving a misleading definition of al-Qa’ida, which varied according to what was politically convenient at the time.
Jihadi groups ideologically identical to al-Qa’ida are relabelled as moderate if their actions are deemed supportive of US policy aims. In Syria, the US is backing a plan by Saudi Arabia to build up a “Southern Front” based in Jordan against the Assad government in Damascus, but also hostile to al-Qa’ida-type rebels in the north and east. The powerful but supposedly “moderate” Yarmouk Brigade, which is reportedly to receive anti-aircraft missiles from Saudi Arabia, will be the leading element in this new formation. But numerous videos show that the Yarmouk Brigade has frequently fought in collaboration with Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the official al-Qa’ida affiliate. Since it is likely that, in the midst of battle, these two groups will share their munitions, Washington will be permitting advanced weaponry to be handed over to its deadliest enemy.
This episode helps explain why al-Qa’ida and its offshoots have been able to survive and flourish. The “war on terror” has failed because it did not target the jihadi movement as a whole and, above all, was not aimed at Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two countries that had fostered jihadism as a creed and a movement. The US did not do so because they were important American allies whom it did not want to offend. Saudi Arabia is an enormous market for American arms, and the Saudis have cultivated and, on occasion bought up, influential members of the American political establishment.
A measure of the seriousness of the present situation is that, in recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has for the first time been urgently seeking to stop jihadi fighters, whom it previously allowed to join the war in Syria, from returning home and turning their weapons against the rulers of the Saudi kingdom. This is an abrupt reversal of previous Saudi policy, which tolerated or privately encouraged Saudi citizens going to Syria to take part in a holy war to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and combat Shia Muslims on behalf of Sunni Islam.
In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has called on all foreign fighters to leave Syria, and King Abdullah has decreed it a crime for Saudis to fight in foreign conflicts. The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who had been in charge of organising, funding and supplying jihadi groups fighting in Syria, has been unexpectedly removed from overseeing Saudi policy towards Syria, and replaced by a prince who has led a security clampdown against al-Qa’ida inside Saudi Arabia.
The US is increasingly fearful that support for the Syrian rebels by the West and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf has created a similar situation to that in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when indiscriminate backing for insurgents ultimately produced al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and jihadi warlords. The US Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, warned this month that “terrorist” movements, such as JAN and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), were not only destabilising Syria but “these well-funded and well-equipped groups may soon turn their attention to attacks outside of Syria, particularly as scores of newly radicalised and freshly trained foreign recruits return from Syria to their home countries”. The number of foreign fighters that Mr Cohen gives is a significant underestimate, since the head of US intelligence, James Clapper, estimates foreign fighters in Syria to number about 7,000, mostly from the Arab world, but also from countries such as Chechnya, France and Britain.
Al-Qa’ida has always been a convenient enemy. In Iraq, in 2003 and 2004, as armed Iraqi opposition to the American and British-led occupation mounted, US spokesmen attributed most attacks to al-Qa’ida, though many were carried out by nationalist and Baathist groups. According to a poll by the Pew Group, this persuaded 57 per cent of US voters before the Iraq invasion to believe that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and those responsible for 9/11, despite a complete absence of evidence for this. In Iraq itself, indeed the whole Muslim world, these accusations benefited al-Qa’ida by exaggerating its role in the resistance to the US and British occupation.
Precisely the opposite PR tactics were employed by Western governments in 2011 in Libya, where they played down any similarity between al-Qa’ida and the Nato-backed rebels fighting to overthrow the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. This was done by describing as dangerous only those jihadis who had a direct operational link to the al-Qa’ida “core” of Osama bin Laden. The falsity of the pretence that the anti-Gaddafi jihadis in Libya were less threatening than those in contact with al-Qa’ida was forcefully, if tragically, exposed when US ambassador Chris Stevens was killed by jihadi fighters in Benghazi in September 2012. These were the same fighters lauded by governments and media for their role in the anti-Gaddafi uprising.
Al-Qa’ida is an idea rather than an organisation, and this has long been so. For a five-year period after 1996, it did have cadres, resources and camps in Afghanistan, but these were eliminated after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Subsequently, al-Qa’ida’s name was a rallying cry, a set of Islamic beliefs such as the creation of an Islamic state, the imposition of sharia, a return to Islamic customs, the subjugation of women and waging holy war against other Muslims, notably the Shia, as heretics worthy of death. At the centre of this doctrine for making war is an emphasis on self-sacrifice and martyrdom as a symbol of religious faith and commitment. This has turned out to be a way of using untrained but fanatical believers to devastating effect as suicide bombers.
It has always been in the interests of the US and other governments that al-Qa’ida should be viewed as having a command-and-control structure like a mini-Pentagon, or the Mafia in America as shown in the Godfather films. This is a comforting image for the public because organised groups, however demonic, can be tracked down and eliminated through imprisonment or death. More alarming is the reality of a movement whose adherents are self-recruited and may spring up anywhere.
Osama bin Laden’s gathering of militants, which he did not call al-Qa’ida until after 9/11, was just one of many jihadi groups 12 years ago. But today its ideas and methods are predominant among jihadis because of the prestige and publicity it gained through the destruction of the twin towers, the war in Iraq and its demonisation by Washington as the source of all anti-American evil. These days, there is a decreasing difference in the beliefs of jihadis, regardless of whether or not they are formally linked to al-Qa’ida central, now headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. An observer in southern Turkey discussing 9/11 with a range of Syrian jihadi rebels earlier this year found 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”.
Unsurprisingly, governments prefer the fantasy picture of al-Qa’ida because it enables them to claim a se ries of victories by killing its better-known members and allies. Often, those eliminated are given quasi-military ranks, such as “head of operations”, to enhance the significance of their demise. The culmination of this most publicised but largely irrelevant aspect of the “war on terror” was the killing of Bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan in 2011. This enabled President Obama to grandstand before the American public as the man who had presided over the hunting down of al-Qa’ida’s leader. In practice, his death had no impact on al-Qa’ida-type jihadi groups, whose greatest expansion has been since 2011.
The resurgence of these jihadis is most striking on the ground in Iraq and Syria, but is evident in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia and, in recent months, Lebanon and Egypt. In Iraq, it was a final humiliation for the US, after losing 4,500 soldiers, that al-Qa’ida’s black flag should once again fly in Fallujah, captured with much self-congratulatory rhetoric by US Marines in 2004. Aside from Fallujah, Isis, the premier jihadi movement in the country, has rapidly expanded its influence in all parts of Sunni Iraq in the past three years. It levies local taxes and protection money in Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, estimated to bring in $8m (£4.8m) a month.
It has been able to capitalise on two factors: the Sunni revolt in Syria and the alienation of the Iraqi Sunni by a Shia-led government. Peaceful protests by Sunni started in December 2012, but a lack of concessions by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a massacre at a peace camp at Hawijah last April is transmuting peaceful protest into armed resistance.
Last summer, Isis freed hundreds of its leaders and experienced militants in a spectacular raid on Abu Ghraib prison. Its stepped-up bombing campaign killed 9,500 people, mostly Shia civilians, in the course of last year, the heaviest casualties since 2008. But there is a crucial difference between then and now. Even at the previous peak of its influence in 2004-06, al-Qa’ida in Iraq did not enjoy as strong a position in the Sunni armed opposition as it does today.
Jessica D Lewis, of the Institute for the Study of War, commented in a study of the movement at the end of 2013 that al-Qa’ida in Iraq “is an extremely vigorous, resilient and capable organisation that can operate from Basra to coastal Syria”.
In Syria, Isis was the original founder in early 2012 of JAN, sending it money, arms and experienced fighters. A year later, it tried to reassert its authority over JAN by folding it into a broader organisation covering both Syria and Iraq. The two are now involved in a complicated intra-jihadi civil war that began at the start of the year, pitting Isis, notorious for its cruelty and determination to monopolise power, against the other jihadi groups. The more secular Free Syrian Army (FSA), once designated along with its political wing by the West as the next rulers of Syria, has collapsed and been marginalised.
The armed opposition is now dominated by jihadis who wish to establish an Islamic state, accept foreign fighters, and have a vicious record of massacring Syria’s minorities, notably the Alawites and the Christians. The Islamic Front, for instance, a newly established and powerful alliance of opposition brigades backed by Turkey and Qatar, is fighting Isis. But that does not mean that it is not complicit in sectarian killings, and it insists on strict imposition of sharia, including the public flogging of those who do not attend Friday prayers. The Syrian jihadis rule most of north-east Syria aside from that part of it held by the Kurds. The government clings to a few outposts in this vast area, but does not have the forces to recapture it.
The decisions that enabled al-Qa’ida to avoid elimination, and later to expand, were made in the hours immediately after 9/11. Almost every significant element in the project to crash planes into the twin towers and other iconic American buildings led back to Saudi Arabia. Bin laden was a member of the Saudi elite, whose father had been a close associate of the Saudi monarch. Of the 19 hijackers on 9/11, 15 were Saudi nationals. Citing a CIA report of 2002, the official 9/11 report says that al-Qa’ida relied for its financing on “a variety of donors and fundraisers, primarily in the Gulf countries and particularly in Saudi Arabia”. The report’s investigators repeatedly found their access limited or denied when seeking information in Saudi Arabia. Yet President George W Bush never considered holding the Saudis in any way responsible for what had happened. The exit of senior Saudis, including Bin Laden relatives, from the US was facilitated by the government in the days after 9/11. Most significantly, 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report about the relationship between the attackers and Saudi Arabia was cut and never published – despite a promise by President Obama to do so – on the grounds of national security.
Nothing much changed in Saudi Arabia until recent months. In 2009, eight years after 9/11, a cable from the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, revealed by WikiLeaks, complains that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”.
Moreover, the US and the west Europeans showed themselves indifferent to Saudi preachers, their message spread to millions by satellite TV, YouTube and Twitter, calling for the killing of Shia as heretics. These calls came as al-Qa’ida bombs were slaughtering people in Shia neighbourhoods in Iraq. A sub-headline in another State Department cable in the same year reads: “Saudi Arabia: Anti-Shi’ism As Foreign Policy?” Five years later, Saudi-supported groups have a record of extreme sectarianism against non-Sunni Muslims.
Pakistan, or rather Pakistani military intelligence in the shape of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was the other parent of al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and jihadi movements in general. When the Taliban was disintegrating under the weight of US bombing in 2001, its forces in northern Afghanistan were trapped by anti-Taliban forces. Before they surrendered, hundreds of ISI members, military trainers and advisers were hastily evacuated by air. Despite the clearest evidence of ISI’s sponsorship of the Taliban and jihadis in general, Washington refused to confront Pakistan, and thereby opened the way for the resurgence of the Taliban after 2003, which neither the US nor Nato has been able to reverse.
Al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and other jihadi groups are the offspring of America’s strange alliance with Saudi Arabia, a theocratic absolute monarchy, and Pakistani military intelligence. If this alliance had not existed, then 9/11 would not have happened. And because the US, with Britain never far behind, refused to break with these two Sunni powers, jihadism survived and prospered after 9/11.
Following a brief retreat, it took advantage of the turmoil created by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, later, by the Arab uprisings of 2011, to expand explosively. Twelve years after the “war on terror” was launched it has visibly failed and al-Qa’ida-type jihadis, once confined to a few camps in Afghanistan, today rule whole provinces in the heart of the Middle East.
It is a chilling five-minute film made by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), showing its fighters stopping three large trucks on what looks like the main highway linking Syria and Iraq. A burly bearded gunmen takes the ID cards of the drivers who stand nervously in front of him.
“You are all Shia,” he says threateningly.
“No, we are Sunni from Homs,” says one of the drivers in a low, hopeless tone of voice. “May Allah give you victory.”
“We just want to live,” pleads another driver. “We are here because we want to earn a living.” The Isis man puts them through a test to see if they are Sunni. “How many times do you kneel for the dawn prayer?” he asks. Their answers vary between three and five.
“What are the Alawites doing with the honour of Syria?” rhetorically asks the gunman who by this stage has been joined by other fighters. “They are raping women and killing Muslims. From your talk you are polytheists.” The three drivers are taken to the side road and there is gunfire as they are murdered.
The armed opposition in Syria and Iraq is today dominated by Salafi jihadists, fundamentalist Islamic fighters committed to holy war. Those killing non-Sunni drivers on the Damascus-Baghdad road are an all too typical an example of this. Western governments may not care very much how many Shia die in Syria, Iraq or Pakistan, but they can see that Sunni movements with beliefs similar to the al-Qa’ida of Osama bin Laden, today have a base in Iraq and Syria far larger than anything they enjoyed in Afghanistan before 9/11 when they were subordinate to the Taliban.
The film shows the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants
The three Syrian truck drivers are pulled over
All three are killed for not being Sunni Muslims
The pretence that the Western-backed and supposedly secular Free Syrian Army was leading the fight to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad finally evaporated last December as jihadists overran their supply depots and killed their commanders.
In the past six months there have been signs of real anger in Washington at actions by Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf in supplying and financing jihadi warlords in Syria who are now so powerful. US Secretary of State John Kerry privately criticised Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of Saudi intelligence since 2012 and former Saudi ambassador in Washington, who had been masterminding the campaign to overthrow the Assad government.
He struck back by denouncing President Obama for not intervening militarily in Syria when chemical weapons were used against civilians.
Last month, it was revealed that Prince Bandar, while remaining intelligence chief, was no longer in charge of Saudi policy in Syria. He has been replaced by interior minister Mohammed bin Nayef, who gets on with the US and is chiefly known for his campaign against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, son of the Saudi King Abdullah and head of the Saudi National Guard, will also play a role in formulating a new Syrian policy. Saudi Arabia’s differences with some of the other Gulf monarchies are becoming more explicit, with the Saudis, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar this month. This was primarily because of Qatar’s backing for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but also for its funding and supplying of out-of-control jihadi groups in Syria.
Saudi Arabia took over from Qatar as the main funder of the Syrian rebels last summer. But Saudi involvement is much deeper and more long term than this, with more fighters coming from Saudi Arabia than from any other country.
Saudi preachers call vehemently for armed intervention against Assad, either by individual volunteers or by states. The beliefs of Wahhabism, the puritanical literalist Saudi version of Islam, are not much different from those of al-Qa’ida or other Salafi jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Libya.
The Saudis have always ideologically opposed Shi’ism as a heresy, much as Roman Catholics in Reformation Europe detested and sought to eliminate Protestantism. This hostility goes back to the alliance between the Wahhabis and the House of Saud dating from the 18th century. But the key date for the development of the jihadist movements as political players is 1979, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini turned Iran into a Shia theocracy.
During the 1980s, an alliance was born between Saudi Arabia, Pakistan (or more properly the Pakistani army) and the US which has proved extraordinarily durable. It has been one of the main supports of American predominance in the region, but also provided a seed plot for jihadist movements of which Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida was originally only one strain.
The shock of 9/11 provided a Pearl Harbour moment in the US when public revulsion and fear could be manipulated to implement a pre-existing neo-conservative agenda by targeting Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq. A reason for waterboarding al-Qa’ida suspects was to extract confessions implicating Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia.
The 9/11 Commission report identified Saudi Arabia as the main source of al-Qa’ida financing. But six years after the attack – at the height of US-al-Qa’ida military conflict in Iraq in 2007 – Stuart Levey, the Under-Secretary of the US Treasury in charge of monitoring and impeding terror financing, told ABC News that, when it came to al-Qa’ida, “if I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off the funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia.” He added that not one person identified by the US or the UN as funding terrorism had been prosecuted by the Saudis.
Despite this high-level frustration at the Saudis for not cooperating, nothing much had improved a couple of years later. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in December 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks: “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorists groups.” She complained that in so far as Saudi Arabia did act against al-Qa’ida, it was as a domestic threat and not against its activities abroad.
The US Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, last week praised Saudi Arabia for progress in stamping out al-Qa’ida funding sources within its own borders, but said that other jihadist groups could access donors in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is not alone among the Gulf monarchies in supporting jihadists. Mr Cohen says sourly that “our ally Kuwait has become the epicentre for fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria”. He complains particularly of the appointment of Nayef al-Ajmi as both Minister of Justice and Minister of Islamic Endowments (Awqaf) and Islamic Affairs. He says: “Al-Ajmi has a history of promoting jihad in Syria. In fact, his image has been featured on fundraising posters for a prominent al-Nusra Front financier.” He adds that the Awqaf ministry has recently announced that fundraisers can now collect donations for the Syrian people at Kuwait mosques, opening the door wide to jihadist fundraisers.
A further point coming across strongly in leaked American diplomatic traffic is the extent to which the Saudis gave priority to confronting the Shia. Here the paranoia runs deep: take Pakistan, Saudi Arabia’s most important Muslim ally, of which a senior Saudi diplomat said that “we are not observers in Pakistan, we are participants”. Pre-9/11, only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had given official recognition to the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.
There is something hysterical and exaggerated about Saudi fear of Shia expansionism, since the Shia are only powerful in the handful of countries where they are in the majority or are a strong minority. Of 57 Muslim countries, just four have a Shia majority.
Nevertheless, the Saudis were highly suspicious of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and made clear they would have much preferred a military dictatorship in Pakistan. The reason for the dislike was sectarian, according to UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed who told the Americans that “Saudi Arabia suspects that Zardari is Shia, this creating Saudi concern of a Shia triangle in the region between Iran, the Maliki government in Iraq, and Pakistan under Zardari”.
Sectarian hostility to the Shia as heretics is combined with fear and loathing of Iran. King Abdullah continuously urged America to attack Iran and “cut off the head of the snake”. Rolling back the influence of the Shia majority in Iraq was another priority. Here was another reason why so many Saudis sympathised with the actions of jihadists in Iraq against the government.
The takeover of Iraq by a Shia government – the first in the Arab world since Saladin overthrew the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt in 1171 – had caused serious alarm in Riyadh and other Sunni capitals, whose rulers wanted to reverse this historic defeat. The Iraqi government noticed with alarm in 2009 that when a Saudi imam issued a fatwa calling on Shia to be killed that Sunni governments in the region were “suspiciously silent” when it came to condemning his statement.
The Arab uprisings of 2011 exacerbated sectarianism, not least in Saudi Arabia which is always highly conscious of its Shia minority in the Eastern Province. In March, 1,500 Saudi troops provided back up for the al-Khalifa royal family in Bahrain as they crushed pro-democracy protests by the Shia majority on the island, the openly sectarian nature of the clampdown underlined when Shia shrines were bulldozed.
In Syria, the Saudis believed that the Syrian government would be swiftly overwhelmed like that of Muammar Gaddafi. They underestimated its staying power and the support it was getting from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But Saudi involvement, along with that of Qatar and Turkey, de-emphasised secular democratic change as the ideology of the uprising, which then turned into a Sunni bid for power in which the Salafi jihadist brigades were the cutting edge of the revolt.
Predictably, the Alawites and other minorities feel they have no choice but to fight to the death.
Many nonsensical conspiracy theories have evolved, peddling the idea that the US government was somehow complicit in the 9/11 attacks. The very absurdity of these theories has diverted attention from the fact that in one sense there was a conspiracy, but it was quite open and never a secret.
The price of the triple alliance between the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan was the jihadi movement. So far, this is anti-Shia before it is anti-Western, but, as the Isis gunmen on the Damascus-Baghdad road showed, any non-Sunni is at risk.
The Sunni Revolt in Syria Has Given al-Qa’ida More Power in Iraq
In the third part of his series, Patrick Cockburn looks at the growing influence of Isis, al-Qa’ida’s force in Iraq, which dominates Sunni areas and is wreaking havoc among the Shia majority
Events in Iraq are not always what they seem: take two occurrences over the past year illustrating the difference between appearance and the reality in Iraq. The first event took place outside Fallujah after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), formerly known as al-Qa’ida in Iraq, aided by tribal militias, took over the city in January. This was a body blow to the Iraqi government since Fallujah is only 40 miles west of Baghdad and was famously stormed by US Marines in a bloody battle in 2004.
But soon after Isis had retaken it three months ago, a reassuring video was circulated on Twitter and Facebook by government supporters. It had some narrative in Iraqi Arabic, was shot from the air and showed insurgents being targeted and eliminated by air-launched missiles. This was morale-raising stuff for the Iraqi government and to those loyal to it, but unfortunately it proved to be a fabrication and after a few hours someone noticed that the video had been shot in Afghanistan and it is of American drones or helicopters firing missiles at Taliban fighters. It is doubtful if Iraqi airpower is capable of carrying out such attacks.
But such deceptions are not all on the government side. In December 2012 the arrest of the bodyguards of the moderate Sunni Finance Minister, Rafi al-Issawi, by the government led to widespread but peaceful protests in Sunni provinces in northern and central Iraq, Sunni Arabs making up about a fifth of Iraq’s 33 million population. At first, the demonstrations were well-attended, with protesters demanding an end to political, civil and economic discrimination against the Sunni community. But soon they realised that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was offering only cosmetic changes and many stopped attending the weekly demonstrations.
In the Sunni city of Tikrit, capital of Salah Ad-Din province, 10,000 people had come to rallies at first, but then the number sank to 1,000. A local observer says: “It was decided that all mosques should be shut on Fridays except for one, forcing all the faithful to go to the same mosque for Friday prayers. Cameras eagerly filmed and photographed the crowd to make it look like they were all protesters and would beam the images back to the Gulf, where their paymasters were fooled (or maybe they weren’t) into thinking that the protests were still attracting large numbers.” The eyewitness in Tikrit cynically suggests that the money supposedly spent on feeding and transporting non-existent demonstrators was pocketed by protest leaders.
The two stories illustrate an important political truth about contemporary Iraq. Neither the government nor any of the constitutional political movements are as strong as they pretend. Power is divided and these divisions have helped al-Qa’ida in Iraq to re-emerge far stronger and more speedily than anybody expected. Its jihadist militants are still in Fallujah where they reportedly have 300 to 500 men armed with high-powered sniper rifles on its outskirts. The political winds are still blowing in their favour and peaceful protests are languishing.
“Belittled, demonised and increasingly subject to a central government crackdown, the popular movement is slowly mutating into an armed struggle,” reports the International Crisis Group. “Many Sunni Arabs have concluded that their only realistic option is a violent conflict increasingly framed in confessional terms.”
The government might have got away with its confrontational approach before 2011, after which the Arab Spring took the form in Syria of a revolt by the Sunni majority. With the Syrian rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf and Turkey, the sectarian balance of power in the region is changing.
Previously, the Iraqi Sunni had been resentful but largely resigned to the Shia-Kurdish domination of Iraq established since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. They were fearful of a renewed onslaught by Shia militias and Shia-controlled security forces which had driven Sunni out of much of Baghdad in the sectarian civil war of 2006-7.
A US embassy cable in September 2007 said: “More than half of all Baghdad neighbourhoods now contain a clear Shia majority. Sunnis have largely fled to outlying areas or have been concentrated into small enclaves surrounded by Shia neighbourhoods.” To a great extent, this remains true to this day.
Many Iraqi Sunni felt they had no alternative but to revert to armed struggle and they were encouraged by two regional developments: the Sunni-Shia conflict is intensifying as is the hot and cold war between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies backed by the US, in confrontation with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, who in turn are backed by Russia.
Iraq has long suspected the hidden hand of Wahhabism, the variant of Islam espoused by Saudi Arabia, as being behind many of its troubles. But it was only this month that Mr Maliki, in an interview with France 24 television, put the blame squarely on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, saying that “these two countries are primarily responsible for the sectarian, terrorist and security crisis in Iraq”.
He added that allegations that he was marginalising Sunnis was broadcast by “sectarians with ties to foreign agendas, with Saudi and Qatari incitement”. His accusations were angrier and more direct than before, alleging that Riyadh and Doha are providing support for the militants, including “buying weapons for the benefit of these terrorist organisations”.
How much truth is there in Mr Maliki’s accusations? A proportion of aid from the Gulf destined for the armed opposition in Syria undoubtedly goes to Iraq. Turkey allows weapons and jihadist volunteers, many of them potential suicide bombers, to cross its 500 mile-long border into Syria and inevitably some of the guns, fighters and bombers will go to Iraq. This is hardly surprising given that Isis operates in both countries as if they were one. Since mid-2012, violence has increased sharply, with 9,571 Iraqi civilians killed in 2013 and 2,006 in the first two months of this year, according to Iraq Body Count. A senior US administration official, speaking last August and quoted by Jessica D Lewis of the Institute for the Study of War, said: “In the [past] two years, we’ve had an average of about five to 10 suicide bombers a month, in 2011 and 2012… We’ve seen over the [past] 90 days the suicide bomber numbers approach about 30 a month, and we still suspect that most of them are coming in from Syria.”
A blind spot for the US and the Western powers has been their failure to see that by supporting the armed uprising in Syria, they would inevitably destabilise Iraq and provoke a new round of its sectarian civil war. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq, as it was then known, was at its lowest ebb in 2010. It had been vigorously pursued by the Americans, was under attack from the Sahwa or “Awakening” groups of anti-al-Qa’ida fighters, mostly drawn from the Sunni tribes. It had lost many of its veterans, who were dead or in prison, and survivors were unpopular among ordinary Sunnis because of their general bloodthirstiness, killing even minor government employees who might be Sunni. Above all, they had failed and up to 2012 many Sunnis were hopeful of extracting at least some concessions from the government without going back to war.
The spectacular resurgence of al-Qa’ida in Iraq came through a well-planned campaign, an important element of which was systematic attacks on the prisons. Known as the “Breaking the Walls” campaign, it involved eight separate attacks to free prisoners, culminating in a successful assault on Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons in July 2013 in which at least 500 captives, many of them experienced fighters, escaped. The attackers poured 100 mortar bombs into the jails and used suicide bombers to clear the way as inmates rioted and started fires to confuse the guards.
There were escalating attacks on Iraqi security forces by Isis all over Iraq last year. An assault by government forces on a peace camp at Hawijah, south-west of Kirkuk, on 23 April killed 50 people and injured 110, alienating many Sunni, including powerful tribes. Ill-planned government counter-offensives, which often mean detaining and mistreating all Sunni men of military age, are counter-effective. Sporadic shelling of Fallujah and Ramadi by government forces in Anbar forced some 500,000 people out of 1.6 million in the province to flee to safer places where they often live rough or whole families are crammed into a single room.
All along the upper Euphrates river, food is scarce and expensive and many schools have closed. The most important Sunni religious leader in Anbar, Abdul Malak al-Saadi, who had previously counselled moderation, says the April parliamentary elections are illegitimate. Election posters are torn down a soon as they are put up.
There is some uncertainty about the degree of control Isis has over Sunni areas, depending on whether or not it wants to advertise its presence. Its grip over Iraq’s third-largest city, Mosul, is probably more important than its position in Fallujah but gets little publicity because of an assassination campaign against local media appears to be aimed at concealing this: five journalists have been killed since October and 40 have fled to Kurdistan and Turkey.
Mukhtars, the most important of the government’s representatives, who are also community leaders, are being killed off, forced to flee or to co-operate with Isis. Minorities such as the Yazidis and Christians are being targeted to drive them out of Mosul. Isis has enough authority to levy taxes on everybody from people selling food on the street to construction and mobile-phone companies.
The surge in Isis’s control in Sunni Iraq has happened at speed over the past year, but there is no sign of an effective government counter-attack. The slaughter of Shia civilians continues, with a suicide bomber in a minivan packed with explosives killing 45 and wounding 157 people at the security checkpoint at the entrance to the largely Shia town of Hilla, south-west of Baghdad, on 8 March. Government security is incapable of finding and eliminating the hideouts where these devastating vehicle-born bombs are rigged.
Speaking early last year, Dr Mahmoud Othman, the veteran MP, said that “about half the country is not really controlled by the government”. Asked why Iraq’s 900,000-strong armed forces are so ineffective against Isis, another politician, who did not want to be named, said: “This is the harvest of total corruption. People pay money to get into the army [so they are paid] – but they are investors not soldiers.”
This may be a little harsh, but there is no doubt that Isis is stronger than ever before, controls much of Sunni Iraq and can carry out its murderous operations anywhere in the rest of the country.
Al-Qa'Ida, the Second Act: Syria’s Secular Uprising Has Been Hijacked by Jihadists
In the fourth of his series about the resurgence of al-Qa’ida, Patrick Cockburn examines how Islamists have turned the uprising against President Assad into a sectarian war
Just after the sarin poison gas attacks on rebel-held districts of Damascus in August last year, I appeared on an American television programme with Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Violations Documentation Centre, who was speaking via Skype from the opposition stronghold of Douma in East Damascus.
She gave a compelling, passionate, wholly believable account of what had happened. “I have never seen so much death in my whole life,” she said, describing people breaking down the doors of houses to find everybody inside dead. Doctors in the few medical centres wept as they vainly tried to treat gas victims with the few medicines they had. Bodies were being tipped, 15 to 20 at a time, into mass graves. She contemptuously dismissed any idea that the rebels might be behind the use of sarin, asking: “Do you think we are crazy people that we would kill our own children?”
Ms Zaitouneh, 36, had been defending political prisoners for a dozen years and was the sort of credible advocate that won the Syrian opposition so much international support in its first years. But on 8 December, gunmen burst into her office in Douma and kidnapped her, along with her husband, Wael Hamada, and two civil rights activists, Samira al-Khalili, a lawyer, and Nazem al-Hamadi, a poet. None of the four has been heard from since. The group suspected of being behind the kidnapping is the Saudi-backed Army of Islam, although it denies being involved. Ms al-Khalili’s husband, Yassin al-Hajj Saleh, told the online publication al-Monitor: “Razan and Samira were part of a national inclusive secular movement and this led them to collide with the Islamist factions, who are inclined towards despotism.”
The kidnapping and disappearance of Ms Zaitouneh and the others have many parallels elsewhere in Syria, where Islamists have killed civil activists or forced them to flee. Usually, this has happened when the activists have criticised them for killings, torture, imprisonment or other crime. All revolutions have notoriously devoured their earliest and most humane advocates, but few have done so with the speed and ferocity of Syria’s.
Instead of modernising Syrian society in a progressive and democratic manner, the Salafi-jihadists want a return to the norms of early Islam and are prepared to fight a holy war to achieve this.
Why has the Syrian uprising, whose early supporters demanded that tyranny should be replaced by a secular, non-sectarian, law-bound and democratic state, so totally failed to achieve these aims? Syria has descended into a nightmarish sectarian civil war as the government bombs its own cities as if they were enemy territory and the armed opposition is dominated by Salafi-jihadist fighters who slaughter Alawites and Christians simply because of their religion. Syrians have to choose between a violent dictatorship in which power is monopolised by the presidency and brutish security services, and an opposition that shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy and sends pictures of decapitated soldiers to their parents.
Syria is now like Lebanon during the 15-year-long civil war between 1975 and 1990. I was recently in Homs, once a city known for its vibrant diversity but now full of “ghost neighbourhoods” where all the buildings are abandoned, smashed by shellfire or bombs. Walls still standing are so full of small holes from machine-gun fire that they look as if giant woodworms have been eating into the concrete.
Syria is a land of checkpoints, blockades and sieges, in conducting which the government seals off, bombards but does not storm rebel-held enclaves unless they control important supply routes. This strategy is working but at a snail’s pace, and it will leave much of Syria in ruins.
Aleppo, once the largest city in the country, is mostly depopulated. Government forces are advancing but are overstretched and cannot reconquer northern and eastern Syria unless Turkey shuts its 500-mile-long border. Government success strengthens the jihadists because they have a hard core of fighters who will never surrender. So, as the Syrian army advances behind a barrage of barrel bombs in Aleppo, its troops are mostly fighting the official al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham, backed by Qatar and Turkey.
The degenerate state of the Syrian revolution stems from the country’s deep political, religious and economic divisions before 2011 and the way in which these have since been exploited and exacerbated by foreign intervention. The first protests happened when they did because of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. They spread so rapidly because of over-reaction by state security forces firing on peaceful demonstrators, thereby enraging whole communities and provoking armed resistance. The government insists that protests were not as peaceful as they looked and from an early stage their forces came under armed attack. There is some truth in this, but if the opposition’s aim was to trap the government into a counter-productive punitive response, it succeeded beyond its dreams.
Syria was always a less coherent society than it looked to outside observers, and its divisions were not just along religious lines. In July 2011, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote in a report: “The Syrian authorities claim they are fighting a foreign-sponsored, Islamist conspiracy, when for most part they have been waging war against their original social constituency. When it first came to power, the Assad regime embodied the neglected countryside, its peasants and exploited underclass. Today’s ruling elite has forgotten its roots.”
In the four years of drought before 2011, the United Nations noted that up to three million Syrian farmers had been pushed into “extreme poverty” and fled the countryside to squat in shanty towns on the outskirts of the cities. Middle-class salaries could not keep up with inflation. Cheap imports, often from Turkey, forced small manufacturers out of business and helped to pauperise the urban working class. The state was in contact with whole areas of life in Syria solely through corrupt and predatory security services. The ICG conceded that there was “an Islamist undercurrent to the uprising” but it was not the main motivation for the peaceful protests that were mutating into military conflict.
Compare this analysis of the situation in the summer of 2011 with that two and a half years later. By late 2013, the war was stalemated and the armed opposition was dominated by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), the former official al-Qa’ida affiliate now displaced by Jabhat al-Nusra.
Ideologically, there was not much difference between them and Ahrar al-Sham or the Army of Islam, which also seeks a theocratic Sunni state under Sharia law. Pilloried in the West for their sectarian ferocity, these jihadists were often welcomed by local people for restoring law and order after the looting and banditry of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loose umbrella group to which at one time 1,200 rebel bands owed nominal allegiance. In Afghanistan in the 1990s the iron rule of the Taliban had at first been welcomed by many for the same reason.
The degree to which the armed opposition at the end of 2013 was under the thumb of foreign backers is well illustrated by the confessions of Saddam al-Jamal, a brigade leader in the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade and the former FSA commander in eastern Syria.
A fascinating interview with Jamal, conducted by Isis and translated by the Brown Moses blog, was recorded after he had defected to Isis and appears to be reliable, ignoring his self-serving denunciations of the un-Islamic actions of his former FSA associates. He speaks as if it was matter of course that his own group, al-Ahfad, was funded by one or other of the Gulf monarchies: “At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the file was handled by Qatar. After a while, they switched to Saudi Arabia.”
Jamal says meetings of the FSA military council were invariably attended by representatives of the Saudi, UAE, Jordanian and Qatari intelligence services, as well as intelligence officers from the US, Britain and France. At one such meeting, apparently in Ankara, Jamal says the Saudi Deputy Defence Minister, Prince Salman bin Sultan, the brother of Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan, addressed them all and asked Syrian leaders of the armed opposition “who have plans to attack Assad positions to present their needs for arms, ammo and money”. The impression given is of a movement wholly controlled by Arab and Western intelligence agencies.
The civil war between jihadist groups that started with a co-ordinated attack on Isis positions on 3 January is damaging the standing of all of them. Foreign fighters who came to Syria to fight Assad and the Shia find they are being told to kill Sunni jihadists with exactly the same ideological views as themselves.
The Islamic State sent a suicide bomber who killed Abdullah Muhammad al-Muhaysani, the official al-Qa’ida representative in Syria, and also a leader of Ahrar al-Sham (evidence of how al-Qa’ida has links at different levels to jihadi organisations with which it is not formally associated).
Returning jihadists are finding the way home is not easy, since governments in, for example, Saudi Arabia or Tunisia, which may have welcomed their departure as a way of exporting dangerous fanatics, are now appalled by the idea of battle-hardened Salafists coming back. An activist in Raqqa, seeking to speed the departure of Tunisian volunteers, showed them a video of bikini-clad women on Tunisian beaches and suggested that their puritanical presence was needed back home to prevent such loose practices.
It is a measure of Syria’s descent into apocalyptic violence that the official representative of al-Qa’ida, Jabhat al-Nusra, should be deemed more moderate than Isis. The latter may be on the retreat but this could be tactical and it has a vast territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq into to which to retreat and plan a counter-attack. In any case, Jabhat al-Nusra has always sought mediation with Isis and does not want a fight to the finish. The jihadist civil war has made life easier for the government militarily, since its enemies are busy killing each other, but it does not have the resources to eliminate them.
Crucial to making peace is bringing an end to the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran which is intertwined with the vicious conflict between Shia and Sunni. Russia and the US need to be at one in ending the war, as they briefly seemed to be at the end of last year. Syrians gloomily say the outcome of their civil war is no longer in Syrian hands, but in those of the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and their various allies.
Peace, if it ever comes, will come in stages and with many false starts such as the failure of the Geneva II peace talks.