Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)
Scourge of Syria
In January 2013, the Sunni MP Dr Alaa Makki was in Washington DC and paid a visit to his friends in the US state department. Makki, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the biggest Sunni party in Iraq, had two disturbing warnings for the Americans. He said, ‘I went to the state department and they became angry. I told them, “You’ve spent billions, like $20 billion at that time, on the Iraqi army but there is no military doctrine in the Iraqi army at all,” and they became angry at that time, but it was the truth.’1 With the resurgence of sectarian violence and killing by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, all that stood between Iraq and disaster was its corrupted and highly dysfunctional police and army.
Makki’s second warning concerned Islamic State of Iraq and was even more chilling. He said:
It was at the time of the beginning of the Sunni demonstrations and the reappearance of the Anbar tribes. I read the situation and I warned the United States about the danger posed by Da’esh,2 as we call ISIS [ISI]. I told the US, ‘The Sunnis are now losing everything, and there’s no promising future for them, and this could mean a return for Da’esh.’
Also I could see the danger from the civil war in Syria. I could guess, both as an Iraqi and a Sunni, that there could be a transfer of this danger to Iraq. And that is what happened later on.3
By April 2013, as Iraq threatened to descend into chaos, Baghdadi had turned his attention again to Syria. After all, the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and most of his ruling elite were from a sect of the hated Shia known as Alawites. However, Baghdadi was no more interested in the Syrians’ fight for freedom than he was in the Iraqi Sunnis’ desire for equality and fairness. Baghdadi would exploit both these natural aspirations for human dignity in his hunger for power and territory. In fact he would soon enslave Iraqis and Syrians by the millions and kill them by the many thousands. As ever, Baghdadi was obsessed about how these two conflagrations either side of the border could flame together and burn out the first territories for his new Islamic empire.
In mid-2011, as Syria descended rapidly from public protests – violently suppressed – into all-out civil war, Baghdadi dispatched a tiny team of jihadis across the border with the instruction that they should secrete themselves at first discreetly among the myriad opposition groups opposing Assad.4 Heading the team was a young Syrian jihadi with the nom de guerre of Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, or ‘Golani’ – apparently taking his name from the Golan Heights, an area of the Syrian border mostly occupied by Israel since the Six Day War of 1967. Jawlani established a group of fighters called Jabhat al-Nusra ash-Sham, or Nusra for short. The full name means ‘the Support Front for the People of the Levant’; for jihadists the Levant comprises Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, including Israel, as well as Jordan and even Egypt. Understandably in the heat of battle, the jihadi comrades of Nusra quickly felt they had become an independent fighting force, separate from ISI and Baghdadi, and that’s the way it wanted to keep things. The ensuing conflict between Baghdadi and Nusra would have huge consequences.
Nusra first came to prominence in the civil war in Syria with a series of devastating suicide bombings. The first attack was a lethal suicide bombing in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on 27 April 2012, which killed eleven people and injured another twenty-eight. Following the bombing, Nusra issued a rather strange statement entitled ‘A Martyrdom-seeking Operation against a Gathering of Security Elements in the Midan Neighbourhood’ and added rather perfunctorily, ‘[The] martyrdom seeking operation was carried out by the hero Abu Omar al-Shami.’5
With his experience of fighting with ISI in Iraq, Jawlani moulded his Nusra in Syria and he quickly rose to prominence among the hundreds of militia leaders then battling Assad. Nusra enjoyed a regular supply of arms, funding and fighters from foreign donors and ISI. Nusra was ferocious in its assaults on Assad’s army and allies, but in the territories it controlled the group tried to avoid the brutal executions and atrocities that made ISI feared and hated wherever it set up camp.6 In some ways, outside observers thought Nusra ‘more subtle and insidious’.7 Unlike ISI, and the Iraqis, Nusra had been partially successful in portraying a humanitarian face to many Syrian people, carrying out polio vaccination programmes, for example, in territories under its control, and dealing with corruption or arbitrating in disputes between other parties.
A Syrian security analyst based in Washington spoke to me on condition of anonymity. He wanted to protect his family and friends still in Syria. He said:
For the most part, at least so far, civilian casualties do mean something to Nusra. It doesn’t want to be hated…It doesn’t necessarily want to rule [territory] in spite of the Syrian people as much as ISIS did. ISIS was obvious – they said ‘This is what we’re doing; anyone who stands in our way, whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim, we are going to exterminate them’, and that has been very clear. It has not distinguished between Muslim and non-Muslim. In fact the number of Muslims ISIS have attacked has far exceeded the number of non-Muslims.8
Among the estimated 1,600 rebel groups in Syria,9 Nusra was most effective at carrying out high-profile and high-casualty attacks. The group boasted that it carried out most of the suicide bombings in Syria,10 but it also did something that Baghdadi and ISIS craved – it took territory. Finally, in March 2013, after more than a year of hard fighting and dying, Nusra took part in the dramatic conquest of the first city to fall to the rebels, Raqqa, and occupied it soon afterwards.11 Raqqa was the key to control of much of northern Syria and the city would become the capital of Baghdadi’s caliphate the following year. Jawlani was not just taking the fight to the enemy in Syria; he was taking cities too.
On hearing of the fall of Raqqa, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided to travel to Syria and bring Jawlani and Nusra back under his personal control. To do this, he planned to dissolve both Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq, merge the two groups and declare a new Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, confusingly also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL – the Levant can also include Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and even Egypt). So much for the best-laid plans of men and jihadis! It seems clear that Baghdadi was becoming paranoid about the success of the brutal and charismatic Jawlani. There is strong evidence to believe in Abu Bakr’s paranoia thanks to the source ‘Wikibaghdady’, who US intelligence believes is close to the IS leadership.12 Wikibaghdady revealed that Baghdadi travelled to Syria in mid-March 2013, just days after the fall of Raqqa, to announce the new Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Haji Bakr, Baghdadi’s master strategist, had already taken up residence in a house in the town of Tal Rifaat. It was here that the ‘Lord of the Shadows’, as he became known, started to sketch out the structure of the future Islamic State security apparatus, according to documents later discovered at the house and given to Der Spiegel magazine.13
Wikibaghdady revealed how Baghdadi was becoming concerned about Jawlani’s success, adding, ‘Al-Nusra started growing with the leadership of Abu Mohammed Jawlani and he became even more popular. Fighters from the Gulf, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, and Europe began joining al-Nusra Front. This scared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi because members of al-Nusra Front didn’t have any loyalty towards him.’14
Baghdadi was in charge of the ‘big picture’, which meant creating a caliphate with as large an army as he could muster under his own banner and through effective management of savagery. On 9 April 2013, Baghdadi announced the abolition of both ISI and Nusra and the creation of ISIS, without even consulting Jawlani or Nusra beforehand. Apparently Jawlani had declined invitations to attend any meetings convened by Baghdadi to discuss the merger because he was concerned, justifiably, about being assassinated.15
On 10 April, the day after Baghdadi’s announcement of the merger, Jawlani issued a furious statement to reject the proclamation, claiming to have learned of Baghdadi’s speech only through the media. Jawlani complained about not being ‘consulted’ and said, ‘The banner of the [Nusra] Front will remain as it is without any change despite our appreciation for the banner of the State [Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq] and who carries it and who sacrificed his blood from our brothers under its banner.’ Furthermore, Jawlani pledged his allegiance not to Baghdadi but to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man who had succeeded the slain Osama bin Laden to the leadership of al-Qaeda.16
Before turning deadly, the dispute quickly became a public fiasco with Zawahiri then issuing a haughty rebuke to both Jawlani and Baghdadi, saying ‘the proponents of Jihad’ were all ‘dismayed by the dispute that occurred on the media between our beloved brothers’.17 However, it was clear that Zawahiri sided with Jawlani by declaring the abolition of Abu Bakr’s shiny new ISIS. In his own words the al-Qaeda boss decreed, ‘the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is to be dissolved’ and ordered that Nusra and ISI carry on as before, separately and presumably without wanting to kill each other. To add insult to injury Zawahiri pompously announced that Baghdadi’s position as ‘emir’ of ISI should be reviewed a year hence.18 All Zawahiri did was to make clear his own impotence when it came to the jihad. As far as ISIS was concerned, its fighters had been in the field for a decade in Iraq and now Syria while the old warhorses of al-Qaeda Central had been cowering in safe houses and bunkers boasting of past glories.
A few days after Zawahiri’s announcement, Baghdadi publicly repudiated the al-Qaeda leader in a statement asserting that ‘the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant will remain as long as we have a vein pumping or an eye blinking. It remains and we will not compromise nor give it up.’19 Baghdadi refused to dissolve ISIS or leave Syria. His decision would lead to war with Nusra and other rebel groups.
According to Wikibaghdady, Baghdadi then issued an ultimatum to Jawlani and his Nusra commanders saying ‘they could either change their loyalty or they were going to be killed’. Baghdadi and his military commander, the former brigadier Haji Bakr, quickly assembled a security team to seize control of the warehouses containing Nusra’s weapons and ‘create[d] an assassination team to kill all the leaders of al-Nusra Front, starting with Jawlani and then the rest. The plan was to find out all their movements and then murder them using car bombs.’20 Those plans came to nothing; Jawlani was too smart and kept one step ahead of Baghdadi. ISIS would remain in Syria and before long the two groups would be at war with each other.
An early glimpse into the character of Baghdadi in Syria comes again from Wikibaghdady, who recalled an order from the head of ISIS to ‘execute everyone in the prisons in Aleppo and not leave any single person alive’.21Disturbingly for Baghdadi, he was now shedding fighters who were leaving him to join Nusra. He asked how many fighters he had at that time and was told only 1,757, mostly from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Algeria. Wikibaghdady adds, ‘He also found out that most fighters who left him would go to al-Nusra Front.’ Baghdadi was determined not only to staunch the exodus of men to Nusra but to increase his own fighting strength and so he began to improve his propaganda to attract more jihadis to his black flag.22
Clearly Baghdadi felt threatened by Nusra on all fronts and yet, at this apparent nadir in his fortunes, he was only a year away from standing in the Great Mosque of Mosul declaring himself head of a caliphate stretching more than four hundred miles from west to east. Before that, rivers of blood would flow, many enemies would be slaughtered and towns and cities won and lost in a day during the course of a multi-front war on both sides of the Iraqi–Syrian border. Over the next year, Baghdadi and the professional ex-army officers who surrounded him would orchestrate this confusing, sprawling, hideous conflict relentlessly, through a combination of underground terror cells and their fanatical, well-trained jihadi battalions.
Some believe Baghdadi’s successes in Syria were also the result of western policy towards the regime of Bashar al-Assad, particularly the tough sanctions aimed at the Syrian military. Peter Ford was the UK Ambassador to Damascus between 2003 and 2006 and has maintained a close interest in events there. He told me, ‘We should have expected this [ISIS success in Syria] when we hamstrung the Syrian army at every opportunity. This was the only force capable of defeating ISIS. But we hamstrung it in several ways through sanctions basically on supplies to Syria, by restricting things like the flow of jet fuel and by generally weakening the Syrian economy.’
‘I think by the all the actions we took that were designed to weaken the government militarily in response to the uprising, we paved the way for ISIS to supersede the weaker opposition groups. We continued to back these weaker groups even when we suspected that arms we were supplying them were being passed on to ISIS or were simply being grabbed by ISIS.’23
Baghdadi’s determination to seize territory in the war-torn lands of Syria soon brought him into conflict with a plethora of other opposition groups. The view taken by other groups, including Nusra, was that questions of permanent state building and governance should wait until Assad’s defeat.24 Baghdadi wanted to destroy the main jihadi competition before launching his military campaign to seize territory for the caliphate. In a deliberate campaign, he embarked on a series of assassinations of other rebel leaders. Many rebel groups would soon look on ISIS and Assad as the common enemy. Haji Bakr provided Baghdadi with the intelligence and the lethal organization he needed to kill his jihadi competitors and seize territory in Syria.
ISIS murdered senior commanders with the Western-backed rebels, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), including Kamal Hamami, a member of the FSA’s supreme military council, and Brigadier General Ahmed Moshai’el.25 Hamami was considered particularly important because of his authority and Western links, both critical factors at a time when the FSA was desperate for arms from the West.26 Other rebel commanders were assassinated, including the entire leadership of the moderate Ghurabaa al-Sham Brigade near the city of Idlib, all forced to kneel on the ground and dispatched by ISIS assassins with a shot in the back of the head. ISIS also targeted the important Ahrar al-Sham Militia, torturing and murdering one of its most senior commanders, a physician called Dr Hussein al-Suleiman. His mutilated corpse was discovered with an ear cut off and teeth knocked out.27
One of the more bizarre ISIS executions was its ‘accidental’ beheading late in 2013 of a commander of Ahrar al-Sham. ISIS put out a press statement asking for ‘understanding and forgiveness’ for decapitating the commander, one Muhammad Fares, and then holding up his head to a crowd in Aleppo. Rather implausibly, ISIS claimed it wrongly mistook this important leader of the Sunni Ahrar al-Sham for a Shia militiaman fighting for Assad. The ISIS spokesman at that time, a Mr Omar al-Qahtani, said ‘the appropriate judicial authorities’ would investigate the ‘incident’.28 It is peculiar perhaps that a few months later ISIS failed to apologize when it assassinated the actual leader of the very same Ahrar al-Sham group or when, a few months after that, it murdered the leader who succeeded him along with most of his senior commanders.29
Tales of classic ISIS savagery and tyranny emerged everywhere throughout Syria following the declaration of ISIS. In an initially bloodless move in early autumn 2013, Baghdadi occupied the city of Raqqa after Nusra fighters left the place and travelled thirty-four miles west to the town of al-Tabqa. Soon ISIS subjected Raqqa to a predictable reign of terror, the same cracked template of a caliphate as that inflicted on the people of Kurdistan in the early 2000s and on the people of Anbar a few years later. As in other places in Syria, ISIS planted itself in Raqqa by first opening a ‘Dawah’ office, dawah meaning ‘invitation’ or ‘summons’. It often refers to the preaching and spreading of Islam, but for ISIS the Dawah office was the headquarters for its fighters and the start of its insidious takeover of Raqqa.30 Working from lists drawn up apparently by Haji Bakr, ISIS began to eliminate any potential opposition, starting with the kidnapping of the human rights activist and director of the city council, Abdullah al-Khalil, in May 2013.31 Khalil was never seen again. Many others followed him. At first, many people spoke out against the cruelty and extremism of ISIS but they were dealt with in the customary way. Activists and city council officials were targeted for abduction and torture.
Thanks to its ruthlessness and growing wealth, ISIS managed gradually to exert total control over Raqqa and its population of around 220,000. It took control of vital public services and transportation, as well as the production and distribution of bread. It added to its funds by demanding zakat, or taxes, from people.32 As well as running protection rackets to extort money from businesses in the city, it imposed strict dress codes on women, and segregated girls from boys in Raqqa’s schools and colleges. Christians were routinely persecuted.
On 17 October 2013, the group was confident enough to hold a public meeting in Raqqa. Two well-respected local men spoke up and accused the group of committing crimes; naturally they were murdered within days and in public places.33 Raqqa was the first proper ISIS foothold in Syria and provided a crucial base for the group and later its capital as it established its caliphate.
Azad Heyder, a Syrian Kurd, once headed the Syrian rebels’ organization in Sweden and feels his fellow countrymen have only themselves to blame. He told me he despaired once he heard that ISIS had joined the rebels.
The thing is it is not just ISIS; we brought ISIS inside Syria. We brought in ISIS, we the Syrian opposition, which was based on Qatar, Saudi [Arabia] and Turkey. We brought them in and helped them. The Muslim Brotherhood helped them. They got money from Qatar to Saudi. ISIS is like a cancer, when it comes to your body, you can’t control it. They thought they would control ISIS, get rid of Assad and take the power.
I told someone from the Muslim Brotherhood in Sweden, ‘This will be suicide for you and for all Syria and for me.’ They said, ‘After six months, when we’ve got rid of Assad, we will take them out of Syria.’34
Across the border in Iraq, the Sunni protests, particularly in the heartlands of Anbar, were also escalating. Demonstrators and police had started to die. Nouri al-Maliki was becoming increasingly alarmed at some of the protest camps set up by Sunnis and was convinced that terrorists, particularly Baghdadi, were behind them.
One Sunni protest camp had been established at Hawija, a town to the south-west of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. It proved to be the powder keg that would intensify the demonstrations and help lead to thousands more deaths in resurgent ISIS bombings and shootings during 2013. On 19 April 2013, a police officer was killed when Sunni protestors advanced on one of the town’s checkpoints; they then refused to hand over the culprits. The government suspected the involvement of Sunni insurgents, the so-called Naqshbandi Order35 headed by Saddam’s former deputy president, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who was then still at large.36 The camp was placed under siege and as the situation continued to worsen, it was clear an armed assault by the Iraq military was imminent.
In the early hours of Tuesday 23 April 2013, the day of the anticipated attack, the human rights activist and former Sunni MP Dr Nada al-Jabouri became increasingly disturbed not only about the potential bloodshed but also about the long-term consequences of any armed assault. She was desperate to get the attack called off or at least postponed to allow for further talks. At around 2 a.m., she went to the Baghdad home of the country’s acting defence minister, Saadoun al-Dulaimi. Jabouri told me, ‘I said to al-Dulaimi’s guards, “I’m not going to leave if you don’t wake him. I have to talk to him.” They woke the minister and I asked him not to shoot. But it was no use. Within three hours they started shooting the people in Hawija.’37
The assault started at 5 a.m. when security forces supported by four helicopters stormed the Hawija camp. The raid left at least fifty-three dead and dozens more injured, and sparked off more violence across the country.38 Jabouri said, ‘Al-Dulaimi said he didn’t give the order and Nouri al-Maliki said he was sleeping [at the time]. Everyone came up with a different story. But we knew then that it was a disaster and the real trouble would start.’39 Following the assault, two Sunni government ministers resigned in protest and the main Anbari cities of Fallujah and Ramadi witnessed huge demonstrations.40 Within three days of Hawija, approximately 170 people had been killed and Nouri al-Maliki was warning of a return to a ‘sectarian civil war’.41 By then his failure to integrate Sunni Arabs into a political system that they felt genuinely represented them was all too clear.
By the summer of 2013, Baghdadi was strong enough to orchestrate a mass breakout of an estimated five hundred of his jihadis from two jails near Baghdad, including the notorious Abu Ghraib. Most of the escapees, well trained in the dark arts of savagery, had been sentenced to death and after their escape they were put to immediate use.42
In October and November 2013 it was clear that Baghdadi’s cells of assassins and bombers were making a strong comeback, particularly in the Iraqi capital, where they were intensifying their attacks against the Shia. In 2012, more than 4,600 civilians had reportedly died violently in Iraq, a figure too horrendous to comprehend for people who live in peaceful democracies but still very low by Iraq’s abysmal post-invasion standards.43 By the end of 2013, the official death toll would more than double to over 9,700.44
By the beginning of 2014, ISIS had grown in numbers, cash and confidence, so much so that on 31 March it decided to publish a second glossy annual report itemizing its many shootings and bombings with ghoulish obsessiveness. By this time, ISIS had grown certain of military success in Syria and Iraq. In his report, called Al-Naba (‘The Report’), Baghdadi boasted of conducting 1,083 assassinations in 2013, double the number of targeted killings of 2012. Whereas he had conducted only 330 car bombings during 2012, his cells detonated 537 so-called ‘vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices’ (VBIEDs) during 2013. Oddly, knife murders were way down from a total of forty-eight in 2012 to precisely zero in 2013;45 clearly the ‘accidental’ beheading by knife of the unfortunate Muhammad Fares in Aleppo in November 2013 did not count.
It was also clear to everyone in Baghdad towards the end of 2013 that ISIS was gaining strength in Anbar and that huge parts of the province had become no-go areas for reporters like me, along with the vast majority of humanity who were considered kuffar. Even then, few people I spoke to in Baghdad during those weeks predicted the calamity ahead, or appreciated the deep rot in the Iraqi military that would help bring it about. However, as the bombs went off all around us in Baghdad there was growing concern at the coming together of the two conflicts, which, after all, were separated only by a line in the sand, that most vulnerable of delineations.46 Events would continue to play out to the advantage of ISIS.
On 21 December 2013, ISIS assassinated the commander of the Iraqi army’s 7th division, Major General Muhammad al-Karawi,47 the brigade commander who had led the highly controversial raid on the Sunni protest camp at Hawija in northern Iraq earlier that year.48 It was an astonishing coup for ISIS that impressed many Sunnis. Nouri al-Maliki was furious about the death of a loyal commander and decided to liquidate another long-standing Sunni protest camp at Ramadi, the city where the Awakening against ISI had first succeeded in late 2006. Maliki was convinced that Baghdadi was involved in the year-long protest at Ramadi, and that as many as thirty-six ISIS leaders were quartered there.49 He described the camp as ‘an al-Qaeda headquarters’.50 As Saad al-Muttalibi, the prime minister’s close adviser, told me:
It’s important to remember and stress that these demonstrations were broken up by the local police – not the Iraqi army. Secondly it is clear that these demonstrations became the breeding ground for ISIS. We have the actual videos of people at these demonstrations shouting out ‘We are al-Qaeda and we cut heads, and we do this and we do that.’ There’s no way any country which respects its citizens would allow ISIS to shout out its accomplishments in front of the cameras. There were protests which used ISIS as a tool against the federal government.
However, I spoke to senior Sunni spokesmen and MPs who insist the protests were genuine and heartfelt against a deeply sectarian and divisive government.
Maliki ordered a raid on the Ramadi camp to arrest the protest organizer, the Sunni MP Ahmed al-Alwani, another prominent member of the Iraqiya cross-party and non-sectarian alliance, on ‘terrorism charges’; as a result Alwani’s brother and sister as well as five of his guards were killed.51 There were allegations that Alwani was tortured. He was later sentenced to death for his alleged murder of two soldiers.52
The raid was followed by more violence and demonstrations; more than forty Iraqi Sunni MPs submitted their resignations in protest.53 To help placate the angry Sunni clans, Iraqi troops were ordered to withdraw from Anbar cities. ISIS gunmen moved in immediately after the soldiers had departed.54
Coming of the caliphate
By January 2014, ISIS was fighting Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in Raqqa as well as battling against the Iraqi army in Anbar. Its ferocity was thanks mainly to the expertise of the ex-military officers fighting for it as well as alongside, particularly in the shape of the Naqshbandi Order under the command of Saddam’s former vice-president, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Baghdadi’s recruiting drive for more fighters had been successful. In November 2013, a group of mainly Russian-speaking Chechen jihadis called Jaish al-Muhajireen wa Ansar (‘the Army of Emigrants and Helpers’) swore an oath of allegiance to Baghdadi.55 A grateful Baghdadi rewarded the group’s leader, Omar al-Chechen, also known as Omar al-Shishani, by making him a wali or ISIS governor for a swathe of Syria including the Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia areas.56
In addition to the foreign fighters, ISIS was also strengthened enormously by some Syrian tribes pledging allegiance to Baghdadi, particularly in the north, in areas such as Aleppo and Raqqa.57 Possibly through coercion, the Afadila tribe was one that swore allegiance to ISIS, helping to cement its control over these strategically important Syrian territories.
Over the next five months of fierce fighting, Baghdadi would conquer a strip of territory stretching approximately 280 miles eastwards from Raqqa, first seizing the strategically vital border town of al-Qaim and the surrounding land, almost the whole way to Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul, before making his astonishing assault on the city itself.
On 14 January 2014, ISIS raised its black flag over government buildings in Fallujah, just fifty miles or so west of Baghdad, and declared an ‘Islamic State’.58 It also took effective control over parts of the Anbari capital of Ramadi,59 before withdrawing. By mid-January, ISIS managed to defeat Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham and then consolidate its hold on its capital, Raqqa. Control of two important cities provided ISIS with a powerful recruiting sergeant as well as a strategically vital base in Syria and Iraq. But for some keen Iraq watchers back in Washington, it was the fall of Fallujah that caused the most alarm. James Jeffrey, the former US Ambassador to Iraq and a critic of Obama’s Middle East strategy, said, ‘I was surprised about Fallujah. That to me was the warning sign and I was talking to people in the [Obama] administration about how we were going to respond to this. From what I heard, the administration did nothing except hold a few meetings. I knew what this smelled like. It smelled like what bureaucracy does when it has no leadership or when the leader says one thing and it’s clear he wants something else.’60
In late February 2014 came the final break with al-Qaeda’s central command. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had named as his official Syria intermediary Abu Khali al-Suri (real name Muhammad Bahaiah), a senior leader of Ahrar al-Sham, the jihadi group often targeted by Baghdadi, and one-time confidant of Osama bin Laden. On 22 February 2014,61 two ISIS suicide bombers killed Suri in Aleppo.62 Zawahiri had looked to Suri to mediate between the warring jihadist factions and his killing demonstrated Zawahiri’s weakness in the face of ISIS and his total eclipse as leader of the jihad.
By now Zawahiri had given up on ISIS and ‘expelled’ it, but from what? That is not entirely certain. ISIS’s loose affiliation with al-Qaeda was over long before. Zawahiri impotently declared something that had been regarded as a reality in jihadi circles for years – that al-Qaeda ‘has no links to the ISIS group. We were not informed about its creation, nor consulted.’ He added, ‘Nor is al-Qaeda responsible for its actions and behaviours.’63 Pointedly Zawahiri referred to some sort of jihadi ‘code of honour’ ‘that we don’t hasten to create states/emirates without consulting scholars, leaders, mujahidin and then enforcing it on people’, and he added for good measure that true jihadis should always distance themselves from ‘any behaviour that will result in oppressing a mujahid or a Muslim OR a non-Muslim’. The war started by ISIS on fellow jihadis had been ‘a catastrophe’ for the jihad in Syria, stressed Zawahiri.64
By February 2014, ISIS had an estimated fighting force of ten thousand,65 and more recruits were joining by the day from among the disaffected Sunni youth and tribes or from abroad. By now the lethal effectiveness of the Jihadi-Ba’ath war machine was evident, with ISIS suicide bombers often providing the shock troops in many an assault and Saddam’s ex-soldiers and spies providing the tactical and security expertise needed to capture and hold towns and territory. By mid-March 2014, the scale of the humanitarian disaster caused by the ISIS campaign was becoming clear. At least 300,000 people from Anbar were recognized as ‘internally displaced’, making a total of 2.1 million internally displaced persons or IDPs in Iraq,66 many living in heartbreaking conditions in temporary camps around Baghdad.67
Worse was to come in June 2014, in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, where the rancid mix of Shia–Sunni sectarianism and rampant corruption in the army would bring about a calamity, shock the world and, at last, alert it to the menace posed by ISIS. Instead of protecting Mosul against a sinister and deadly threat, the officers and soldiers of the 2nd division of the Iraqi army simply evaporated.
As with much of the Iraqi army, the 2nd division had been already been hollowed out by embezzlement and greed long before ISIS turned up to threaten its men with extinction. Officers, who had often bought their commissions,68had been keeping hold of the money deducted from the pay of serving troops that was supposed to be spent on their food. Soldiers were becoming increasingly disgruntled about this obvious theft and having to buy their own food. Higher-ranking officers kept absent men on the payroll – so-called phantom soldiers – in return for a portion of the salaries they were paid.69 Furthermore, Mosul had long been a stronghold for ISIS going back to the days of Zarqawi and Abu Omar; their suicide bombers and gunmen often targeted senior army officers and police in the city. The city had also provided the group with its last refuge when it faced annihilation during the Surge and the Awakening. ISIS spread rumours that the families of Sunni soldiers would be targeted if they fought, and the soldiers themselves were not confident of being protected by the army.70 One former Iraqi officer in Mosul said later that his soldiers would often refuse to follow orders during fighting.71
There were also serious problems with the man appointed by Nouri al-Maliki as the overall military commander for Mosul – none other than Lieutenant General Mahdi Gharawi. Gharawi had of course been the man put in charge of the notorious Site 4 detention centre in Baghdad, where 1,400 mainly Sunni detainees had been subjected to terrible abuse and torture, some allegedly at the hands of Gharawi personally.
In 2011, Maliki had made what turned out to be the fateful appointment of Gharawi as military commander not only of Mosul, but also for the whole of the surrounding northern province of Nineveh. This had not gone down well with the area’s predominantly Sunni population, as it proved. Many residents considered the mainly Shia-run Iraqi army as an occupying force.72 Gharawi’s men were often accused of human rights abuses and occasionally extrajudicial killing.
In one incident, in June 2013, a year before Mosul fell, the respected Human Rights Watch organization reported that members of the 3rd police division, under Gharawi’s overall command, ‘executed’ four men and a boy near the village of East Mustantiq, and demanded an inquiry.73 After Mosul fell, Maliki would fire Gharawi and charge him with dereliction of duty. History may well have been different had Maliki not protected him from possible justice some seven or so years earlier.
The fall of Mosul took everyone by surprise, not least ISIS. Hoping only to take and hold a neighbourhood for a few hours, the jihadis found little resistance when they entered the city at dawn on 6 June 2014. On paper the first line of defence, the 6th brigade of the 3rd division, was 2,500 strong. In reality there were just 500 poorly armed troops, an investigation by the news agency Reuters later discovered.74 Hardly surprisingly, few of the ‘phantom soldiers’ signed up for duty. There were supposed to be 25,000 soldiers and police guarding Mosul. At best there were just 10,000 disillusioned and scared troops up against determined jihadis. What followed next was a complete fiasco.
Sensing a crisis, both ISIS and the Naqshbandi Army of the red-headed old Saddam warhorse Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri mobilized swiftly and descended on the beleaguered and poorly defended city; around two thousand ISIS fighters swarmed into Mosul over the next few days. Hundreds more from ISIS terrorist cells already secreted in the city had been activated and apparently many people in Sunni neighbourhoods, who despised Gharawi’s men, started supporting the group. On 8 June 2014, around four hundred ISIS troops made a determined and ultimately decisive assault on the centre of the city.
After Mosul fell to ISIS on 10 June 2014 there was much vitriol about who gave the final order to capitulate and go home, but Gharawi insisted that the collapse was brought about by the decision by two of his superiors to leave an important position on Mosul’s west bank during the heat of battle in full view of Iraqi troops. Apparently, the troops assumed wrongly that both of these senior commanders, lieutenant generals Aboud Qanbar (deputy chief of staff) and Ali Ghaidan (commander of the ground forces), were in full flight and this sparked many desertions.75 Even some local police joined ISIS and fought their old comrades.
The final straw, according to Gharawi later, came when Qanbar and Ghaidan stripped him of his men and fourteen vehicles and moved to a new HQ on the eastern edge of Mosul, before ordering him to evacuate himself and his staff and then abandoning the city altogether.76 Again more soldiers thought their commanders had disappeared and deserted in ever greater droves. Asil Nujaifi, the Sunni provincial governor for the Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, would later blame Nouri al-Maliki for the fall of the city, claiming the Iraqi prime minister ‘never listened’ to repeated warnings about ISIS.77
As for Maliki, he in turn blamed Governor Nujaifi for the loss of Mosul. Maliki’s close adviser Saad al-Muttalibi said he had met with Maliki after the fall of Mosul and both men held a post-mortem into the catastrophe. According to Muttalibi, Maliki said he had evidence in the form of telegrams and the minutes of a meeting held in Mosul that revealed that a decision had been taken by local officials in Mosul not to oppose ISIS when the group entered the city. Muttalibi said:
Mr Maliki had a copy of the minutes of a meeting held in Mosul by the governor of Mosul and Mr Asil Nujaifi very clearly said in the meeting, ‘There will be changes; people are coming; we have ordered the local police not to get involved and advised the others not to be involved and we have a new plan.’ So there seems to have been a local decision to allow ISIS to enter Mosul, using ISIS as a tool.78
According to Muttalibi, Maliki believed this was a plot hatched between Mosul and the Kurds, allowing the Kurds to occupy cities such as Kirkuk in northern Iraq in response to the ISIS threat. Kirkuk is described as ‘disputed territory’ because the Kurds believe it should be a part of Kurdistan, and not in the rest of Iraq.
Muttalibi also alleges that sixty percent of the troops were Kurds and the rest were mainly local people. ‘They also claim they got orders to go home from their officers,’ he said. ‘It does indicate that something was planned in advance, and that is what Mr Maliki told me himself.’ The Kurdish Peshmerga troops did occupy Kirkuk in response to the ISIS threat but the alleged plot may have been the product of an apparently paranoid prime minister known to suspect conspiracies everywhere.
Following the fall of Mosul, the jihadis committed a number of massacres. They stormed the city’s Badush prison and separated out the Shia and Sunni prisoners. An estimated 480 Shia men were then lined up and executed. A few prisoners managed to survive by hiding underneath the bodies.79 In the days that followed, IS slaughtered hundreds of the policemen and soldiers who had laid down their guns and refused to fight them.80
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could not have imagined in his wildest dreams that he would proclaim himself caliph from the minbar of the greatest mosque in Iraq’s second biggest city on 4 July 2014. The imam of the mosque, Muhammad al-Mansuri, had courageously refused to pledge allegiance to IS two days after the group had taken Mosul so al-Baghdadi had ordered his immediate ‘execution’.81 The IS leader had been fortunate in his enemies. In just six months, he had carved out a caliphate stretching more than four-hundred miles from northern Syria to within sixty miles of the Iranian border and held an essentially captive population of more than six million people. His fighters were on the march. This was just the beginning.
I asked the Iraqi Sunni MP Dr Alaa Makki about what happened in Mosul and the failure of the Iraqi troops. After all, he had warned the US about the state of the army earlier that year. He had a medical analogy: ‘I am a consultant haematologist,’ he said. ‘People come to me and say they have gone down with a strong influenza virus. I tell them it is not the strength of the flu virus at all, it is the weak immunity that you have.’82
The disaster had many causes. The terrible ceaseless war in Syria was a canker that had rotted outwards across into Iraq as it had into other neighbouring countries like Jordan and Lebanon. It had given ISIS the kick-start it desperately needed. Baghdadi deserves credit too for his relentless campaign of conquest and mayhem. Many blamed Gharawi or Maliki; others blamed the US for withdrawing its troops too early and the West generally for losing interest in Iraq. However, for the previous decade, Iraq, its government, military and people had been engulfed by tides of corruption and sectarianism, aided and abetted by Zarqawi and the ruthless men who followed him, but these chronic blights were also of the Iraqis’ own making. In the final analysis the fall of Mosul and the creation of the caliphate are defeats that Iraq also inflicted on itself.