Baghdadi may be dead, but the turmoil he thrived in lives on

Baghdadi may be dead, but the turmoil he thrived in lives on
Comment: US policy in the region has bolstered the forces that allowed IS to rise, while weakening the forces that have fought it, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
28 Oct, 2019
The self-styled 'caliph' blew himself up in a bid to evade capture [AFP]
It's not surprising that Donald Trump was very quick to link the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group (IS), to the general state of global security.  

Trump claimed that the death of the erstwhile 'khalifa' had made the world "a much safer place," and there's no doubt it's a symbolic event regarding the fate of Islamic State (IS).

But the idea that the killing of this decrepit figurehead of IS - hiding as he was like a rat in Berisha, an abandoned village in a remote mountainous region of Syria known as the 'Dead Cities' - is a great blow against IS and its ideology, is really an absurdity.  

Especially given Trump has, following the dismal path laid out by his predecessor Obama, enacted several policies regarding Syria, and the wider region from which IS was born, that have made the world decidedly less safe.

And especially if you happen to live in the region, where most of IS' victims were made.  

But that's not the 'world' that Trump means when he speaks of 'safety' and 'security'. 

Trump, the America-firster, and like all post-WWII presidents before him, ally of the array of vicious autocrats and kleptocrats that rule the region, means the safety of a US-friendly regional order and the lives of those in the West. 

However, even on these narrow terms of self-interest, the portrayal of the death of Baghdadi as a great blow against 'terror' or 'jihadism' is deeply dubious. Indeed, the very same order that the US heedlessly supports is part of the reason why IS has flourished in both its current and previous guises.   

It has been on the verge of annihilation in the past - and it has survived

On the surface of things, IS would appear to be rapidly diminishing. Earlier this year it surrendered its last stronghold in Northeast Syria to the US. Its deterioration has come almost as quickly as its rise. But while it's perfectly true that previous incarnations of the group never achieved the heights of pseudo-state form, it has been on the verge of annihilation in the past - and it has survived.   

I remember the very day the US excitedly announced they had killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of what was then called Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the true pioneer of what would eventually become IS.  

Zarqawi set a benchmark for the methodologies of brutality that would come to define IS.

He focussed attacks not on the "invaders and occupiers" of the US coalition in Iraq, but on Iraqi Christians, Shias, Sufis and simply just Sunnis who refused to acquiesce to his fascist ideology.

Most pertinently, Zarqawi recognised that the best circumstances to recruit Sunni Muslims to his cause would be sectarian civil war. 

In his own words, and pointing to the modern IS strategy of cultivating fitna in Muslim-majority countries or between Muslims and non-Muslims, he wrote of sectarian civil war in Iraq as a means to "awaken these inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death at the hands of these Sabeans" (Sabeans, in this context, is a derogatory term for Shia used by Salafi-jihadis).   

So when the US killed Zarqawi in 2006, some might have thought it a mortal wound against AQI. This was certainly the rhetoric of the US and its cheerleaders at the time, but the reality on the ground spoke an entirely different story.  Zarqawi might have been a visionary, but he was merely a figurehead.  

Those getting their hands dirty, so to speak, largely remained out of sight, including a young Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was a disciple-cum-henchman of Zarqawi. AQI continued its reign of terror in what was now a sectarian tit-for-tat.

Realising that their use of Shia sectarian militias was entirely counterproductive to the "stability" they wanted to take root in Iraq, the US formed an alliance with non-sectarian Sunni insurgent militias, mostly drawn from initially anti-US tribal forces and other elements of the Sunni resistance.   

The militias would lay down their arms against the US and would focus on attacking the invasive and intransigently sectarian AQI-affiliated forces, for which they would receive arms, training and salaries from the US army. 

US policy in the region has bolstered the forces that allowed IS to rise

These forces were known primarily as the Awakening Movements (Sahwat) and they successfully managed to push AQI out of Sunni areas and, by 2009, had weakened the group to the point of practical defeat.

But following the perceived nullification of AQI, the US abandoned the Sahwat to the sectarian Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki, who, fearing a large armed Sunni force, disbanded the Sahwat as part of his generally discriminatory policies against Sunnis in the North.  

The US, now under the leadership of Obama, was underwriting this sectarianism via large amounts of military and financial aid, as well as diplomatic support for Maliki. In 2010, when the non-sectarian al-Iraqiya political movement had beaten Maliki in a general election, the US, along with Iran, supported the authoritarian Maliki clinging to power.

Read more: Iraq imposes curfew on Baghdad, as more protesters are killed

With Maliki's brutal suppression of the consequent Iraqi Spring, a large component of which was calling for equal rights and autonomy for Sunnis, culminating in the sectarian Hawija massacre, the forces that would become IS began to rise again.

Just over the border, the Syrian revolution was rapidly becoming a genocide. The stage was set for IS to rise out of an Iraqi state mired in sectarianism and the sectarian killing fields of Syria. The rest is unfortunately not confined to history, but rather seems to be part of a portentous loop very much playing out in the present, with seemingly no end in sight.  

We've seen how the US has ignored or tacitly supported the root causes of IS, namely Assad-Iran-Russia's genocidal war, while it continues to support an intransigently sectarian and corrupt Iraqi government, ruled by the same Shia militias that helped foster IS to begin with.  

The conditions that engender the ideology of IS fester away among the brutality that is acceptable to the so-called 'civilised world'

The US first abandoned the Syrian rebels - those who first fought IS, to annihilation by Assad - and then abandoned the YPG - used by the US as its main ground force against IS - to annihilation by Turkey.

IS, which still has up to 30,000 members across Syria and Iraq, must be rubbing its hands together at these developments. US policy in the region has bolstered the forces that allowed IS to rise, while it has weakened the forces that have fought, could fight or act as an alternative to the vicious logics of IS. 

And this goes beyond Iraq and Syria. IS is like the shadow of the brutal order that has ruled the region for decades. Even those who acknowledge that the death of Baghdadi does not mean an end to the fight against IS, the fact they have embraced regional counterrevolution is evident of the fact that they don't even know where the true battle lines lie. 

There's an old Egyptian saying that roughly goes "you can't kill something unless you know how it lives."  

Whether it's among the death-stricken cities and towns of Yemen, or inside one of Sisi's dungeons, or under the boot of Assad, the conditions that engender the ideology of IS fester away among the brutality that is acceptable to the so-called 'civilised world'.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer. He is the author of the essay, 'Inconvenient Truths: The Rise of Daesh in Syria'

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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.
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