Counter-Terrorism: How Al Qaeda Devolved Into ISIL


June 16, 2015: ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria) is a renegade faction of al Qaeda that was long a troublesome branch of al Qaeda before it sought to replace al Qaeda. Since this Iraqi al Qaeda franchise was established in 2004 it has been trouble for al Qaeda leaders. Eventually the Iraqi al Qaeda developed what they believed was a superior strategy (more violence, fewer restraints and more intense and sustained Internet presence). Al Qaeda did not agree, nor did most Moslems. But the Iraqi Islamic terrorists didn’t care because the al Qaeda approach to Islamic terrorism wasn’t working for them (or anyone else) and a sense of desperation produced what we now know of as ISIL.

Al Qaeda has gone through major changes before. The original Al Qaeda ceased to exist in late 2001. That’s because “al Qaeda” means “the base” in Arabic. It’s an accurate name for an organization that was created to replace the Cold War era terrorist sanctuaries and support services that made possible the first wave of Arab terrorism in the 1960s and 70s. Back then, the Soviet Union established training camps and university level instruction for Arabs wishing to commit terrorist acts in the West. The Soviets also provided sanctuary. In addition, the Soviets helped Arab nations, like Syria and Iraq, establish terrorist training camps, and provided advice on how to support terrorism without getting caught by the victims. For about ten years, Al Qaeda replaced the former Soviet terrorism support. But by late 2001 the U.S. had chased the Taliban and al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. At that point, without a sanctuary to operate from, “the base” was no more.

What eventually became ISIL began as Sunni Arab nationalists who lost their jobs, power and wealth when Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party were overthrown in early 2003. Saddam Hussein was a secular dictator who tolerated Islamic terrorists if they attacked his enemies and behaved while hiding out in Iraq. After Saddam’s forces were thrown out of Kuwait in 1991 his policy changed and he declared that he was actually religious and he backed Sunni Islamic terrorist groups as long as they helped him keep the Shia Arab majority of Iraq under control. Sunni Islamic terrorists were willing to do this because Sunni conservatives consider Shia heretics worthy only of torture and death. The Iraqi Shia had staged a major rebellion against Saddam right after Saddam’s army get chewed up trying to hang onto Kuwait in 1991. That rebellion festered throughout the 1990s. Saddam and his key associates developed relationships with Sunni tribal leaders and Sunni Islamic terrorist groups, who had for decades been forced to keep their heads down. Once Saddam was out of power in 2003 the Sunni tribes and Islamic terrorists lost the financial and military support Saddam provided for over a decade. The Sunni Arab minority (about 20 percent of Iraqis) also lost control of the Iraq economy and all that oil money. This came as a big shock. Many of these Sunni Arabs wanted their wealth and power back and were willing to do anything to accomplish that task. That led to support for Islamic terrorist groups. The Sunni Arab minority in what is now Iraq has long dominated the area and feels that this domination is a right and a responsibility. They were always wealthier, better educated, more organized and prone to ruthlessness. By merging with Islamic terrorists they acquired the belief they had divine approval for their goals.

Sunni Islam is what the majority (over 80 percent) of Moslems believe and in Arabia itself (where Islam first appeared in the 7th century) the locals believe they are more Islamic than other Moslems. After all, the Koran was written in Arabic and all the founders of Islam were Arabs. For over a thousand years there has been a tradition of different factions in Arabia trying to be more Islamic than each other. One of those factions is the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia. Wahhabis are very conservative and very hostile to non-Moslems and Moslems who are not Sunni. This meant little to the non-Moslem world until lots of oil wealth appeared in Arabia after World War II. Suddenly it became possible for Moslems to show how pious they were by funding Wahhabi missionaries going to other Moslem (and many non-Moslem) nations and to preach, establish Wahhabi religious schools and mosques and create the current Islamic terrorism problem. Billions was spent on this and the policy of getting the young boys into these free religious schools and turning many of them into hateful (of non-Sunni) Islamic religious fanatics led to a major outbreak of Islamic terrorism in the late 20th century. Saddam had kept this out of Iraq until 1991. Many secular rules of Moslem countries (like Syria and Libya) had also resisted the Wahhabi and regretted it when they ran into problems with Islamic terrorism.

After 2003 many Iraqi Sunnis were always certain they could regain power. They considered that the natural order of things, temporarily interrupted by evil and ignorant foreigners. They had history on their side. Even when the Turks controlled the area for centuries before the Turkish Empire fell apart after World War I (1914-18) it was the Sunni Arabs of Baghdad the Turks depended on to keep the Shia majority under control. The oil wealth and independence came in the 1930s and for the next 70 years the Sunnis did quite well for themselves. Losing it all in 2003 encouraged the Islamic terrorist groups to make common cause with the Sunni nationalists (including the Baath Party) to put Sunni Arabs back in charge. What was left unresolved was whether the new Sunni dictatorship would be secular (like Saddam) or religious (like neighboring Iran).

ISIL began as ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) after 2004 and was one of many Sunni Islamic terrorist groups operating in Iraq back then. By 2010 ISI was almost destroyed due to U.S. efforts, especially getting many Sunni tribes to turn against the Islamic terrorist groups. But after U.S. forces left in 2011 the Iraqi government failed to follow U.S. advice to take good care of the Sunni tribes, if only to keep the tribes from again supporting the Islamic terrorist groups. Instead the Shia led government turned against the Sunni population and stopped providing government jobs and regular pay for many of the Sunni tribal militias. Naturally many Sunni Arabs went back to supporting terror groups, especially very violent ones like ISI.

After 2011, as the Iraqi Shia were turning on the Sunni Arab minority, there was a rebellion against a minority Shia government in Syria, led by the Sunni Arab majority there. The Sunni tribes of western Iraq were linked by culture and sometimes family links with the Sunni tribes of eastern Syria. The rebellion in Syria got ISI thinking about forming a new Islamic Sunni state out of eastern Syria, western Iraq, Baghdad (historically the seat of Sunni power in the area, despite it now being half Shia) and Mosul. Actually this also includes Lebanon and all of Iraq, but this was kept quiet initially. This decision had ISI spending a lot more time and effort recruiting in western Iraq after 2011. ISIL was created in 2013 when ISI sought to become the dominant rebel group in Syria by persuading men, especially foreigners, from other Islamic terrorist groups fighting in Syria to join a new, united Islamic terrorist group called ISIL. This caused problems because of the harsh way ISIL treated civilians and anyone who opposed them. ISIL relished the publicity their atrocities received. But al Qaeda knew from bitter experience (in Iraq from 2006-2008) that the atrocities simply turned the Islamic world against you. The bad relations between ISIL and all the other Islamic radicals in Syria reached a low point in June 2013 when the head of al Qaeda (bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri) declared the recent merger of the new (since January 2013) Syrian Jabhat al Nusra (JN) with ISIL unacceptable and ordered the two groups to remain separate. That was because the merger was announced by ISI/ISIL without the prior agreement of JN leadership. Many JN members then left their JN faction to join ISIL. JN leaders saw this as a power grab by ISI/ISIL and most of the JN men who left to join ISIL were non-Syrians. Many of these men had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group. A month later al Qaeda declared ISIL outcasts and sanctioned the war against them. By January 2014 this had turned into all-out war between ISIL and the other rebel groups in Syria. By 2015 ISIL had, like al Qaeda before it, gained many franchise allies. These were local Islamic terrorist groups, many of whom had earlier declared themselves al Qaeda branches but now changed to the more attractive (to fans of Islamic terrorism) ISIL.

The 2013 incident was not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq. It is a problem for Saudi Arabia because the Saudis finance al Nusra and some of the other Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria that are now at war with ISIL. To the Saudis such support is the lesser of two evils as ISIL is crippling rebel efforts to overthrow the Assad government. This is also part of the ideological war the Saudis (and most other Sunni Moslems) are fighting with Shia Iran (and its Shia allies the Assads and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon). Meanwhile the Saudis continue crushing the Sunni Islamic terrorists that try to attack them at home. This includes local members of ISIL. All this sounds somewhat bizarre, with Saudi Arabia funding missionaries that create Islamic terrorists who become uncontrollable and seem to overthrow the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Absurd it may be, but it is a familiar pattern in this part of the world where religion and politics have long been intertwined in absurd and tragic ways.

The Saudis have been dealing with Islamic terrorism within their borders since the kingdom was formed in the 1920s and were able to quickly defeat the 2003 al Qaeda offensive. At first al Qaeda terrorists appeared capable of doing some serious damage in Saudi Arabia. In 2003-4, they made four major attacks. These killed 68 people, including twelve Americans. But most of the dead were Saudis, and this turned the population against the terrorists. All the planned terror attacks since then have been aborted by security forces, usually via tips from Saudi civilians. Most Islamic terrorists have now fled the kingdom. Despite this a large minority of Saudis still support al Qaeda, but it's the majority who do not and that makes it nearly impossible for the terrorists to operate in their "homeland." Killing civilians will do that, and al Qaeda has not been able to figure out how to fight without shedding the blood of innocents. So the innocents are taking their revenge. Meanwhile there is still support for groups like ISIL inside Saudi Arabia and ISIL has been recruiting for Saudi men to go fight in Syria and Iraq.

Taking Mosul in mid-2014 was crucial to the ISIL plan for regional and world conquest. Mosul was part of Turkey until 1918, when the victorious Allies took Mosul province, and its oil, away from Turkey (to prevent the Turks from financing an effort to rebuild their empire) and gave it to the newly created Iraq. In the 1980s Saddam Hussein, again feuding with the Kurdish majority in northern Iraq, killed or drove Kurds out of Mosul and invited poor Sunnis from the south to move in and take over. After 2003 the Kurds came back seeking to regain their stolen property and control of Mosul. The Sunni Arabs there did not want to give up their new homes as they would be destitute if they did so. So the fighting was vicious and the Mosul Sunnis were glad to get help from ISIL and other Sunni terror groups. But now most Mosul residents are feeling the impact of the ISIL take over as new lifestyle rules have been issued forbidding many things Westernized Iraqis take for granted.

The current ISIL offensive in Iraq is, so to speak, a mile wide but an inch deep. It worked more because of the demoralizing impact of corruption in the Iraqi government (especially the armed forces). The troops and police, most of them Shia, felt abandoned and mistreated (often not paid or provided with essential supplies because of corruption) by their own government. ISIL concentrated their terror attacks on the security forces, to the point where the losses from these attacks plus the bad leadership and poor treatment the soldiers and police suffered caused many of them to flee a large scale series of ISIL attacks. Because of this the main task of the returning American troops is to quickly measure the extent of damage done to the armed forces by three years or corruption and mismanagement. When U.S. forces were in Iraq there were American advisors at all levels of the armed forces. In addition to advice, these American officers and NCOs also reported incidents of corruption and the U.S. was able to take these complaints to senior members of the government and keep the stealing, and the negative impact on military performance in check. Once the Americans were gone the stealing was out-of-control and the security forces began to decline. It’s uncertain how long it will take to get things put back together. There are still some capable units, but not enough to take care of all that needs to be done.

The Sunni Arabs can’t defeat the Shia majority as long as the Shia are armed and have outside support (mainly from Iran and the United States and, quietly, Saudi Arabia). The U.S. also encourages the Sunni Arab Gulf States (especially Saudi Arabia) to oppose Iraqi Sunni Arab efforts to regain control of the country (as some form of dictatorship because the Sunni don’t have the votes to get elected.) The U.S. also restrains the Iraqi Shia from turning on the entire Sunni population, as happened from 2006-8 and drove a third of the Iraqi Sunni out of the country and nearly as many from their homes to get away from the Shia death squads. Despite what the United States and the West wants, events in Arabia follow a different rhythm. Right now the local support for ISIL is just not there except among the Sunni minority.

Meanwhile the ISIL advance was not a surprise to the United States. Since 2013 Iraq has been negotiating with the United States for the return of some American intelligence units. This is something Iraqi leaders don’t like to discuss in detail, because to do so means admitting that the Americans were so successful at crushing the Islamic terrorists because the U.S. had technology (hardware and software) and skilled intelligence personnel capable of monitoring just about all wireless communications in Iraq, in addition to most of what happened on the Internet. Wikileaks and the later NSA leaks make it pretty clear how this all worked. The difference between how effective counter-terrorism operations were in Iraq (not so good) and Afghanistan (still very good) after 2011 is, to the Iraqi leaders, traceable to the decision to eject all U.S. forces after 2011. Despite Iraqi political resistance the U.S. resumed its intelligence efforts over Iraq more than a week ago. U.S. warplanes and UAVs from American carriers and Persian Gulf air bases have resumed reconnaissance flights over Iraq. Spy satellites have been moved into position as well. The intel specialists in the American embassy in Iraq are reactivating sources inside Iraq and seeking sharing arrangements with intelligence agencies of Iraqi neighbors. Actually some American intelligence activity remained in Iraq after 2011 and the U.S. reported the growing anger among Sunni Arabs and the growing power of ISIL to Iraqi officials. But too many Iraqi leaders believed that they could cope. They were wrong but many of the Iraqi politicians at fault are not willing to surrender power despite their obvious shortcomings.



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