Atrocities from Iraq to Syria will herald IS 2.0

Atrocities from Iraq to Syria will herald IS 2.0
Comment: As atrocities and war crimes committed against civilians in the name of fighting terrorism continue, international inaction risks a new generation of further radicalised extremists, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.
6 min read
24 Oct, 2016
War crimes, torture, and trauma among civilians under regime fire will reproduce ISIS [Getty]

Almost since the beginning of the Iraqi offensive to retake Mosul, videos of atrocities committed by Iraqi forces have been steadily emerging on social media.

Many of the videos show civilians' heads and knees being smashed with hammers, and yet others show what I call "the lucky victims" - those simply shot in the head at point-blank range.

They are only "lucky" in the context of the even-greater brutality of the violence around them, which is committed in the name of fighting terrorism, and which will result in the genesis of more extreme terror.

The case of Iraq

Iraq is perhaps the best-known case of what happens when violence is inflicted upon innocent people, or when disproportionate force is used in fighting terrorists or insurgents. The first to throw a match into the tinderbox of extremism was the United States, who succeeded in radicalising many of the Iraqis they fought, as well as those observing their suffering from around the world.

No one can forget the sickening photographs of Iraqi detainees being sexually abused and humiliated while in US custody at Abu Ghraib prison. Iraqis were tortured, raped, sodomised and even murdered - and those abuses began from 2003, almost immediately after Iraq was invaded.


"What will be the future of Mosul, knowing that cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah were laid to waste by previous military operations? What will become of the Sunni Arabs of Nineveh?

"And to what extent will the fate of Mosul determine the survival or collapse of the Iraqi state, which has been structurally bankrupt for many years?

"Without a tangible and effective administration, at either national or local levels, and without political representation of the Sunni population appropriate to what is at stake, a return to stability is far from certain."

Read more in our special commentary:
'The spectre of tomorrow: After the battle for Mosul'
by Myrian Benraad

Such was their impact in further radicalising and creating extremists that the full tranche of US torture photographs was censored.

Before and after the departure of US forces in 2011, the sectarian rule of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia backed by Iran, did much to prepare the ground that the self-proclaimed Islamic State group would farm for recruits.

Maliki persecuted Sunni Arabs viciously for the better part of a decade, and ended up ordering Iraqi troops to massacre defenceless civilians as they protested against his discriminatory and violent regime.

Maliki may be gone - though he is looking to make a comeback - but the legacy of his rabid sectarianism, breeding extremism, continues in the battle against IS.

the legacy of Maliki's rabid sectarianism breeding extremism continues in the battle against IS

Just the other week, Qais al-Khaz'ali, the leader of the Shia Asa'ib Ahl ul-Haq militia, said that the current Mosul operation was an opportunity to exact bloody vengeance and retribution for the death of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, around 1,400 years ago.

With footage now emerging of even children being tortured both by Iraqi forces and Shia militias after being accused of being IS operatives, we can only imagine that worse is yet to come once they enter Mosul proper.

The case of Syria

Just across the border in Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has also been busy in perpetrating gross violations of human rights and atrocities in the name of an amorphous and ill-defined war on terror.

Backed primarily by Russia and Iran - there is a discernible pattern forming here - Assad has overseen such devastation of Syria that the UN estimates the death toll has reached, and likely now exceeds, 400,000 people

Is it too hard to imagine that those survivors will not want vengeance to fill the gaping chasm left by the absence of justice?

Aside from branding the heroic White Helmets as terrorists, Aleppo is the most pressing reminder of the brutalities which Russian President Vladimir Putin is assisting the Assad regime to unleash upon civilians. Many countries have now denounced the Putin-Assad onslaught against rebel-held eastern Aleppo as a war crime, in which civilians and the hospitals treating them are bombed and obliterated in a city that can only be termed as a human catastrophe.

Syrians have been subjected to horrors that resemble the Nazi-inflicted Holocaust during World War II. Like those incarcerated at Abu Ghraib, only larger in scale, none can forget the more than 50,000 photographs smuggled out of Syria that showed Syrian detainees who bore marks of torture, starvation and terrifying abuse.

In a report titled If the Dead Could Speak, Human Rights Watch verified that the photographs showed the corpses of at least 6,786 Syrians who died after suffering unspeakable torment.

As the war in Syria grinds on and becomes ever more violent, with civilians seen as tools for negotiations in order to force the surrender of towns and cities under siege, is it too hard to imagine that those survivors will not want vengeance to fill the gaping chasm left by the absence of justice? Not at all.

Updating extremism

With the terrifying violence we see every day in Iraq and Syria increasing, we must bear in mind the psychological trauma that results from witnessing and experiencing so much physical suffering.

Many people look at the horror occurring in Mesopotamia and the Levant from afar, and feel a sense of unease and queasiness. However, by and large, they are sheltered by the distance and remoteness of the savagery that they witness.

I predict a far worse monster emerging out of the current war

A minority will feel pushed to take some sort of action to try to stop what they see, and not all are radical extremists. Let us not forget heroic, brave and wholly human examples of people sacrificing their comforts in the West in order to alleviate suffering elsewhere.

For such symbols of humanity that have been tragically snuffed out by Assad, look no further than Dr Abbas Khan who went to Syria to treat the sick and wounded, and who was murdered in a regime prison.

Nevertheless, for those directly impacted by atrocities committed under the misleading premise of the fight against terrorism, the potential for radicalisation and extremism is greater. This risk is compounded by the silence of the international community, who shy away from condemning - or are even complicit in - violations.

A lack of justice means the victims may one day decide that they have had enough of being prey to sectarian, murderous predators and will take matters into their own hands, conflating vengeance with justice.

Just as IS was a more extreme, mutated version of al-Qaeda born out of the brutality of the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, I predict a far worse monster emerging out of the current war.

That monster will be IS version 2.0, and may carry a different name - but its methods, reach and ability to turn the Middle East and the wider world into a paranoid den of insecurity will be updated and more advanced than anything we have yet seen today.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.