To those familiar with Arab military history the discovery of so many ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) weapon and ammunition manufacturing operations in Mosul and other urban areas ISIL occupied for several years was not a surprise. In fact, given the background of the region, it should have been no surprise at all. For centuries the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq was one of the best educated and entrepreneurial in the Arab world. Moreover, once oil was discovered the Sunni Arabs, who dominated the government, made sure that the Sunni Arab minority benefitted most from that oil wealth. That was one reason for the Sunni Arab coup in the 1950s, where the British-imposed constitutional monarchy was eliminated (and the royal family literally killed). In the 1960s there was another coup and the Baath Socialist Party took power. As its name implied, Baath was not religious and saw the Soviet Union as a good political and economic model. For young Sunnis going to college and studying engineering and science became popular, and possible because the Sunni Arabs controlled the government and the oil income. In the 1970s Baath was the organization Saddam Hussein took over used to control Iraq. Saddam concentrated on developing a Sunni Arab population that had the technical skills to run the government as well as factories, especially ones that produced weapons. That program produced a lot of Sunni Arab engineers and scientists and plenty of good jobs. This continued even in the 1990s when economic sanctions limited oil income.
Arab Socialism Takes A Baath
The Baath Party was officially dissolved by the Americans Saddam was overthrown in 2003. This made sense as the Baath party basically represented the interests of the Sunni Arab minority (about 20 percent of the population) in Iraq. Even though the Baath party was gone, the Sunni Arabs were still there. Moreover, the Sunni Arabs had the highest education levels in Iraq (and always have) as well as the most management experience in running the country and industrial enterprises. This caused problems right away since the Shia Arab majority lacked those skills and management experience. There were calls for keeping more Baath Party Sunni Arabs in positions of power.
When Japan and Germany were occupied after World War II, you could ignore, in most cases, that key government officials were members of the former ruling party. This was because such party membership was required of senior officials, whether they believed in the party or not. But in Iraq, these senior officials belong to a religious and tribal minority that depended on those key jobs to defend their comfortable lifestyles. These Sunni Arabs may not have believed in Baath philosophy, but they surely believed in Sunni Arab domination. This created a tricky problem as not only were the Sunni Arab technocrats qualified to get the country operating again, but they are also hated by most of the population and likely to start conspiring to put the Sunni Arabs back in charge as they did in the 1950s. This would eventually mean another Saddam Hussein (a Sunni Arab strongman running a dictatorship for the benefit of the benefit of the Sunni Arab minority.) The Sunni Arabs still had weapons, organization, local leaders and a lot of attitude.
It should not have been surprising that most Iraqis wanted Baath party members barred from political activity for life. Meanwhile, the armed Sunni Arabs continued to terrorize and intimidate Iraqis in several parts of the country (Tikrit, and some neighborhoods in Mosul and Baghdad.) Many Sunni Arabs outside Iraq supported this Sunni Arab uprising in Iraqi because Iran was seen as the main enemy and since Shia Arabs were the majority in Iraq, an elected government would put Shia, not Sunni Arabs in charge. Countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia saw thugs like Saddam Hussein as a necessary evil but after 1990 agreed there was a need for a kinder and gentler Sunni Arab dictator in Iraq.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 he was driven out by a coalition that included Arab countries and Iraq was subjected to economic sanctions. Invading an Arab neighbor was regarded as a bad move by most Sunni Arabs. As resourceful as ever Saddam Hussein and many Baathist followers got religion and presented themselves as devout Moslems opposed to kaffir (non-Moslem) presence in the Middle East. This set the stage for Saddam Hussein and his followers becoming the leaders of a pan-Arab religious movement. Socialism had failed Saddam so it was time to develop a Plan B and Islamic terrorism seemed the best option. This united the Iraq Sunni Arabs, including the Sunni Arab tribes that dominated western Iraq and Anbar province. These tribes had long been tolerated by Baath and the urban Sunni Arabs because the tribes were Sunni but in the 1990s the tribes got a larger portion of the national wealth than ever before and much praise from Saddam Hussein, who now presented himself as a devout Moslem. Many Sunni Arab tribal leaders saw it was another Saddam scam but the pay was good and what other choice did they have.
Saddam And Plan B
All this Iraqi politics was what led to Saddam’s “Plan B” for the possibility that he might be overthrown. In short the Sunni Arabs were to form a resistance organization based on restoring Iraq to Sunni Arab rule for the good of the Sunni Arabs and expand that to a state that controlled all of Arabia. Shia Moslems, which dominated in Iran, were a minority in Arabia, but a majority in Iraq (and tiny Bahrain). The countries of Arabia, especially Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE saw Iran as a greater threat than a Sunni Arab dictatorship in Iraq. Saddam saw this fear of Iran and Shia Islam as his way to redemption.
By the end of 2003 the U.S. declared that democracy, and majority rule, would prevail. Democracy was anathema to the Iraqi Sunni Arabs, who, as only 20 percent of the population, feared retribution from the majority (Kurds and Shia Arabs). In addition, there was the money angle. The Sunni Arabs had been keeping a disproportionate share of the oil wealth for themselves, and had been doing so for decades. In order to avoid poverty and prison, the Sunni Arabs went along with Saddam’s Plan B terror campaign against the coalition (mainly U.S. and British) troops. In early 2004, the Baath rebels allied themselves with al Qaeda, and Islamic terrorists in general. Al Qaeda saw the invasion of Iraq as an attack on their heartland, and an opportunity to defeat the United States, and the West in general.
The basic U.S. strategy in Iraq was, historically, sound. You help the locals get organized so they can take care of themselves. That means elections and help to rebuild local institutions. But there's never a guarantee that will work. The U.S. Marines were in Haiti for nearly 30 years (from 1914), and the country still reverted to dictatorship and poverty when the marines left. This exposes a truth that many refuse to acknowledge. Fixing countries isn't easy. The "civil society" that we in the West take for granted, cannot just be conjured up. The harmonious relationships that enable some democracies to work, are not a given. Those relationships often require a lot of bad habits to be changed. This is not easy. Just check a history book.
Iraq, and most of the countries in the Middle East, are broken. They have been for a long time. We in the West have generally ignored it, because there were no workable solutions that were easily available. Then came the latest wave of Islamic terrorism. This got worse, until September 11, 2001, and then the prospect of mass murder in our own backyard became a reality. But at that point, the West became divided over the solution. Do we keep treating the terrorists as a police problem, and wait them out? That is known to work. But the threat of even deadlier terrorist attacks made more dramatic moves attractive to many, especially in the United States. That resulted in Iraq, confronting the Arab problems up close and personal and it wasn’t pretty. But unless the Arab problems are solved, the ugly aftereffects will still be there, and so will the threat of mass murder on the street where you live. The war on terror, and the war in Iraq, are all part of a struggle within Islam. Do we keep on with the same pattern of rebellion and repression, or do we try developing a civil society. Until the Iraqis decided what kind of country they wanted to live in, the war went on.
The anarchy that followed the American conquest of Baghdad was quickly accepted for what it was, spontaneous revenge against the Sunni Arab dictatorship and the thieves that ran it. Things settled down for a while, until the Sunni Arabs began the terror campaign to drive the Americans out, intimidate the Shia Arabs, and regain control of the country. These were all high-risk undertakings, and all failed. But not until trying four years of terror, and over 100,000 dead Iraqis, did most Sunni Arabs admit defeat.
The Sunni Arab terror campaign was, admittedly, an attempt to trigger a civil war between Sunni minority and Shia (who were 60 percent of the population, plus another 20 percent who were Kurds and other minorities). The U.S. persuaded the Shia to remain relatively calm, at least until early 2006. Then, in February, 2006, Sunni terrorists bombed a major Shia shrine at Samarra. This enraged the Shia, and many Shia formed death squads that proceeded to murder any Sunni they could get their hands on. This resulted, over the next year, in most of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs fleeing their homes. Over 30 percent of the Sunni Arabs fled the country. The Sunni Plan B turned out to be a bad idea. But many of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs were caught up in the Islamic radicalism thing and kept the faith.
Meanwhile, the coalition helped Iraq build new security forces. The pre-2003 military and police had been disbanded. That's because the Saddam era security forces personnel were run by people loyal to Saddam and the Sunni Arab minority. Before Saddam was ousted the active duty army consisted of about 250,000 troops. Some 40 percent of these were the elite Republican Guard. Nearly all the army officers, and most of the NCOs, were Sunni Arabs. In the Republican Guard, everyone was Sunni Arab, as this outfit was, in effect, Saddam's "royal guard" and his main defense against a revolt by the army. The other 150,000 troops were mainly Sunni and Shia draftees, although there were Kurd and other minorities (Turks, and several Christian groups). At the time of the invasion, about 100,000 reservists (men who had done their conscript service recently) had been recalled to active duty. There were another 600,000 or so reservists who could have been called up. But many of these were Shia Arabs, and Saddam didn't want to see lots of armed Shia, in uniform or not.
Unless you wanted an Iraqi security force led by Sunni Arabs, many of dubious loyalty to a democratic Iraq, you had to disband the Saddam era security forces. The army and police force had to be rebuilt. After two years of enormous effort, a new force was created. This was not easy, for the old Iraqi army was widely considered (based on performance alone) to be one of the most inept in the world. Despite spending over a hundred billion dollars on it, Saddam was never able to build a force that could fight effectively. Without the widespread use of chemical weapons in the 1980s, Iraq would have been overrun by an army of poorly equipped Iranian amateurs. The main problem was that the old Iraqi army was designed more for political, than combat, reliability. That's the main reason it was disbanded shortly after Iraq was conquered in 2003.
Saddam's army did have some troops who could fight effectively. That was the Republican Guard, a force of about 100,000 troops selected mainly for loyalty, but also given lots of training to make them effective fighters. Saddam wanted effective troops, but only wanted them if they would be loyal to him. That meant there were very few Iraqis he could find for such a force. But the Republican Guard experience did prove that with the right training and equipment, you could turn Iraqis into effective soldiers.
Elections were held in 2005, and the new government was dominated by Shia Arabs. By 2006, about half the Sunni Arabs were gone. The country was now about ten percent Sunni Arab, 65 percent Shia Arab, and most of the remainder were Kurds. The Sunni Arabs were faced with extermination and that led to one last terror offensive in late 2007 and early 2008. This went badly for the Sunni Arabs. By the mid-2007 most Sunni Arabs had had it with the terrorism, and the Americans were able to cut deals with most of the Sunni Arab tribes, and recruited another 70,000 Sunni Arabs for local defense forces. These turned on the Sunni Arab terrorists in their midst. By January, 2009 only about 300 Iraqis a month died from the violence. That was 90 percent reduction compared to a year earlier. By the end of 2007, the Sunni Arab rebellion was broken, and the U.S. commander said that U.S. troop could start going home and all were gone by the end of 2011.
There remained some major problems, mainly massive corruption, and incompetence in the government. Except for Israel and Turkey, there are no working democracies in the region. It's all bullies and police state politics. Many Iraqis realize that the old ways have not served them well. But building an effective government is not easy, even with everyone saying corruption is a bad thing and must be eliminated. There was no guarantee that this "war on corruption" would work (and it didn’t) but warnings that things would remain bad if you do nothing were ignored by elected politicians. The Arab world is a mess because of the corruption and the newly elected Shia leaders saw it as their turn to get rich.
The war in Iraq did serious damage to al Qaeda. The primary cause has been Moslems killed as a side effect of attacks on infidel (non-Moslem) troops, Iraqi security forces and non-Sunnis. Al Qaeda played down the impact of this, calling the Moslem victims "involuntary martyrs." But that's a minority opinion. Most Moslems, and many other Islamic terrorists see this as a surefire way to turn the Moslem population against the Islamic radicals. That's what happened earlier in Algeria, Afghanistan, Egypt and many other places. It's really got nothing to do with religion. The phenomenon hits non-Islamic terrorists as well (like the Irish IRA and the Basque ETA).
Cultivating A Neo-Caliphate
The senior al Qaeda leadership saw the problem, and tried to convince the "Al Qaeda In Iraq" leadership (dominated by former Baath members) to cool it. That didn't work. As early as 2004, some Sunni Arabs were turning on al Qaeda because of the "involuntary martyrs" problem. The many dead Shia Arab civilians led to a major terror campaign by the Shia majority. They controlled the government, had the Americans covering their backs, and soon half the Sunni Arab population were refugees.
Meanwhile, the "Al Qaeda In Iraq" leadership was out of control. Most of these guys were really out there, at least in terms of fanaticism and extremism. And they still had their Baath era technical and managerial skills. This turned out to be a particularly dangerous combination that led to their first attempt to establish the "Islamic State of Iraq" in late 2006. This was an act of bravado, and touted as the first step in the re-establishment of the caliphate (a global Islamic state, ruled over by God's representative on earth, the caliph.) The caliphate has been a fiction for over a thousand years. Early on, the Islamic world was split by ethnic and national differences, and the first caliphate fell apart after a few centuries. Various rulers have claimed the title over the centuries, but since 1924, when the Turks gave it up (after four centuries), no one of any stature has taken it up. So when al Qaeda "elected" a nobody as the emir of the "Islamic State of Iraq", and talked about this being the foundation of the new caliphate, even many pro-al Qaeda Moslems were aghast.
When al Qaeda could not, in 2007, exercise any real control over the parts of Iraq they claimed as part of the new Islamic State, it was the last straw. The key supporters, battered by increasingly effective American and Iraqi attacks, dropped their support for al Qaeda, and the terrorist organization got stomped to bits by the "surge offensive" of 2008. The final insult was delivered by the former Iraqi Sunni Arab allies, who quickly switched sides, and sometimes even worked with the Americans (more so than the Shia dominated Iraqi security forces) to hunt down and kill al Qaeda operators.
There were still a lot of Moslems who believed in al Qaeda, and professed to be members. But there was no real organization left to join. Al Qaeda had become a concept, one that included using murder and terror to persuade people to follow you. Not a winning strategy, but it has been popular among Moslems since the founding of the religion. Many Moslems deny this, despite the abundant historical evidence to the contrary. But the true believers are willing to die to bring back the good old days. Over 30,000 of them died in Iraq, and al Qaeda's poll numbers plummeted throughout the Moslem world. Al Qaeda is kept alive by the Internet and headline-starved mass media.
But when the Arab Spring uprisings came along in 2011, mainly as a protest against corrupt and dictatorial rulers, al Qaeda and the surviving Iraqi al Qaeda group both saw an opportunity. This quickly led to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Levant was the term for ancient Syria, which included modern Syria plus Lebanon and parts of Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. The Baath Socialist Party that ruled Syria and the one that Saddam dominated in Iraq used to be one party. But about the same time Saddam Hussein took over in Iraq a Shia Arab minority in Syria (the Assads) took over in Syria. When Saddam invaded Iran in 1980 the Baath Party was forever divided as the Syrian branch sided with Shia Iran.
ISIL meant to establish the Iraq based caliphate again and they did so in 2014. The ISIL leadership may have been delusional but many of them were men who had worked for Saddam as government officials or wealthy businessmen and managers. They knew how to run a country and, more importantly, set up industrial enterprises to build military equipment, especially weapons and ammunition.
The Bomb Builders
Islamic terrorists who know how to build bombs and other weapons had already become a major target for counter-terror operations. Until ISIL came along the bomb builders were relatively rare. Far more people are willing to plant the bomb, or set it off than had the skills to build them. As the Israelis learned between 2000 and 2005, if you want to stop terrorist bombers, concentrate on the bomb builders and the people who manage the process. The Palestinians didn't have too many bomb builders to begin with, and they were often highly educated, or simply bright, individuals who applied their skills to the dangerous task of building bombs. In Iraq is was different. Thousands of Iraqis obtained bomb making skills, often from Russian instructors, during the 1980s war with Iran. In that conflict, roadside bombs and booby traps were a favorite weapon against the aggressive Iranians. After Iraq's invasion of Iran in 1980, the Iranians soon recovered, and were on the offensive for the next seven years. The Iraqis had a hard time stopping the enraged Iranians, who eventually agreed to a ceasefire in 1988. The thousands of Iranians lost to the Iraqi roadside bombs and booby traps played a role in the decision to stop the war. The Iraqi veterans who built those bombs were disproportionately Sunni Arabs. Saddam did not want Kurds or Shia Arabs knowing how to build these battlefield weapons that could also be used by anti-Saddam terrorists. Those bomb making skills went unused through the 1990s, but in 2003, there was again demand. And the demand grew as Baath Party and al Qaeda money was spent to try and regain Sunni Arab control of Iraq.
Iran noted the Iraqi use of improvised bombs during the 1980s, and established their own bomb making schools. There, Hezbollah bomb makers from Lebanon were trained to build bombs, for be use against Israeli troops. That bomb making knowledge was shared with Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas, and Shia Arab Islamic terrorists in southern Iraq. As in Iraq, the roadside bomb is becoming major industry in some areas of Afghanistan. In 2007, about a thousand of these bombs were built and placed in Afghanistan (mainly in the south). That doubled to 2,000 in 2008. That number of bombs built kept increasing. The building, placing and detonating of these bombs was subcontracted to dozens of teams that specialized in those tasks. The chief proponent of the roadside bomb are the Taliban and al Qaeda groups. Taliban was well financed by the drug gangs while in Iraq the al Qaeda groups had hidden away a lot of cash and still had financial backers among wealth Sunni Arabs in Persian Gulf oil states. It was the cash, to make bomb making and placing a lucrative profession that made the roadside bomb campaign possible in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan.
Roadside bombs were defeated in Iraq by going after the teams that financed, built and planned where the devices would be placed. Equipping the troops with vehicles more resistant to bomb damage, and constantly scouting the roads for emplaced bombs, or several men placing one, helped limit the damage. By 2007, it took six IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) to kill one U.S. soldier or marine while four years earlier one IED was all that needed. The same pattern emerged in Afghanistan. The countermeasures to these weapons have been formidable, and this has forced the terrorists to place more and more bombs, at greater expense, and to employ them more effectively.
ISIL leaders learned from their mistakes and recent (2007-8) failures and that made them formidable, for a while at least. ISIL leadership not only had a lot of Saddam era technical and other experts but also access to the large number of Sunni Arabs in Iraq who had technical skills useful for making all manner of weapons. It was the Iraqi Sunni Arabs who knew how to operate a machine tool, a plastic injection machine or build molds for new devices. These Iraqis new how to handle industrial chemicals for all sorts of useful purposes. There were also electrical, electronic, communications and computer experts. ISIL came along as the smart phone was becoming available to everyone. With a smart phone and an internet connection ISIL personnel could access technical documents for reference or to help train new technicians and apprentices. ISIL was responsible for creating and placing on Internet more “how to” documents. While ISIL had a lot of skill people they were not the first to make improvised weapons. It was the Internet that made it possible for a lot of this informal weapons building knowledge to be made public and widely available. It soon became clear that home-made bombs, mortars, landmines, firearms and even explosives (using widely available fertilizer and fuel oil) have been around a lot longer than al Qaeda or even the oil boom that made it possible for so many Sunni Arabs to get university level training in science and engineering and develop knowledge of legal and illegal (smugglers) distributors of weapons and weapons components or raw materials.
The Israelis and Americans were the first to work out ways to detect and disrupt or destroy these weapons manufacturing and distribution networks. This includes paying attention to the basics. For example finding and disabling bombs does not stop the bombs from being made and placed. To do that you had to find out who, and where, the bombs were made, and destroy the technicians who put the explosive devices together. Other skilled members of the team were also high-value targets, especially the people who handle the money. This is more of a detective's job. Israelis did this first when the Palestinians rejected a peace deal in 2000 and began a major terror campaign against Israel. It took Israel five years to develop countermeasures and shut the Palestinian terrorists down. That knowledge was used by the American in Iraq and Afghanistan to address a wider Islamic terror effort.
In Iraq, several successful techniques were developed to destroy the bomb teams. One was using aircraft with ground scanning radar (especially the JSTARS) to find out where teams that planted a bomb returned to. Otherwise, you drop a bomb or missile on the placement team, and eliminate them and the bomb. Electronic eavesdropping also picks up useful information, as does cultivating informants in the towns and villages. The problem with informants is that the bomb builders stay away from areas where there are a lot of hostile locals. But the bomb builders and users had to move and communicate and Israel and the Americans developed ways to monitor that
The enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan uses these bombs because IEDs have been the most successful terrorist weapons for injuring American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, about half of American and NATO casualties are caused by these weapons. Getting these bombs made and placed has become a major enterprise for the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The main problem with this is that you cannot win a war with IEDs. In Iraq and Afghanistan the enemy concentrated on using IEDs. There's a very good reason for this, building and placing an IED is much less likely to get you killed, than having a shootout with American troops. The terrorists will still attack with rifles and RPGs, and still get killed in large numbers when they do so, but the word is out that this approach is basically suicidal. So a great deal of effort, and resources, has gone into building more, and better, IEDs. Thus the increase in the number of IEDs used. The only downside to this is that an increasing number of IEDs doesn't hurt foreign troops. Most fail to hurt anyone. Instead, they are discovered and destroyed, or dismantled by an American and NATO forensics team, in order to help in the search for the groups that specialize in building IEDs.
That raises another important issue; IEDs are big business. Most of the Iraqis and Afghans making and placing these bombs are not doing it for free. They get paid, and the bomb building industry generates over a million dollars a year in revenues for those involved in the IED business. For an impoverished Iraqi or Afghan, this is one of the few good employment opportunities available. Moreover, the experience in Iraq led to the creation of many snazzy instructional DVDs and videos for wannabe bomb makers. Excellent graphics, and, unfortunately for Afghans, everything is in Arabic. Some of these have been translated into Afghan languages, but that ran into the problem of illiteracy (which is much higher in Afghanistan, especially among the pro-Taliban tribes.) This has created a new target for Afghan police and foreign troops; the few Afghans who have acquired the skills needed to build the bombs. It's been discovered that every time you kill or capture one of these guys, there is less IED activity in the area, or the bombs are of lower quality, and more prone to failure, or going off while being assembled or placed.
The organizations that provide the money for bomb building, and help with obtaining materials (there's a black market for everything in Afghanistan, everything), are also evolving. They have to, as the managers of the IED campaign have become prime suspects, and much sought after by U.S. troops and Afghan police. But you don't hear much about this in the media, for the simple reason that American intelligence does not want to let on how much it knows and how close it is getting to the IED kingpins. That's very much a war in the shadows, and one that extends into neighboring countries. A number of the IED gangs have been destroyed, or severely damaged. But while attempts are made to decapitate the IED campaign, work continues at the grassroots level to detect, disable and destroy those that are placed.
Actually, the biggest victims of IEDs are Moslems (mainly Afghans and Iraqis), especially civilians. The terrorists must go to great lengths to place IEDs in populated areas, where all the structures and clutter along the roads leaves more hiding places. But the locals are not keen on having a large bomb go off in their neighborhood. The Islamic terrorists often don't give the locals much choice. After all, the Islamic terrorists know how to terrorize, and they usually start with uncooperative Moslems living around them. IEDs placed in rural areas are much easier to spot by the Americans, and all their UAVs, electronic gadgets and sharp eyed soldiers. The one big advantage the Islamic terrorists have is the shortage of roads, especially paved ones, in some areas, especially Afghanistan and rural parts of Iraq and Syria. It's much easier to plant an IED in a dirt road.
The key technologies for finding and destroying the bomb making teams are more intelligence aircraft (manned and UAVs), as well as more intelligence troops to carry out the detective aspect of all this. That's why so many intel units have been created and sent to new hotspots. Personnel with experience in taking down Iraqi or Afghan bomb builders are particularly valuable anywhere.
Since 2004 the U.S. spent over ten billion dollars to develop new technologies for thwarting roadside bombs. This is revolutionizing warfare, because the electronic devices, sensors and reconnaissance systems developed have many other uses in combat. So while the IEDs are useless as a war-winning weapon, the countermeasures are very valuable, and the impact of this new tech will be highly visible in any future wars. This was particularly the case after 2014 when the ISIL industrial infrastructure had to be taken down. It was, but analyzing captured weapons, collecting information on smuggling and financial networks and attacking weak points. It worked, even though much of this battle was not clearly visible to the general public or even many journalists.