Killing the caliphate - Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)

Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)


Killing the caliphate


Islamic State never left Baghdad in peace, not even while the group was on its death rampages around Syria and northern Iraq. By 2015, the terror campaign begun by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had entered its twelfth year and still the Iraqi capital was not part of the caliphate, and neither did that seem remotely possible. Baghdad had long become the forgotten front in the life and death struggle against the jihadis. By then, IS had become a cloying miasma in the Iraqi capital, one that had the power to turn - in a flash - the most humdrum domestic street scene into one of horror and tragedy. Those people who could not take the stress left Baghdad. Those who remained, and an estimated seven million did, voluntarily or simply because they could not leave, grew fatalistic and decided to get on with their lives as normally as possible. Most people have felt under a sentence of death from Islamic State to a lesser or greater extent. Reprieve comes when they are back at home with the front door shut securely behind them. Dawn brings a deadly new day, back out on death row.

Rarely if ever was there an opportunity to glimpse the human faces behind the slaughter. The IS bombers either died deliberately in their explosions, or if they detonated them from a distance they vanished. My close encounter with the jihadis came, of all places, at one of Baghdad’s principal morgues, in October 2014. I had gone there to interview the people whose grim task it is to identify the victims of the bombings, often working from mere fragments of human flesh and bone.

We had arrived at the morgue when suddenly a truck stopped nearby and several armed men emerged. In the back of the vehicle were half a dozen prisoners in orange pyjama-type outfits, blindfolded and with their hands secured behind their backs by plastic ties. Their custodians were from the much-feared Shia militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, the so-called League of the Righteous. The captives were then frogmarched into the morgue and forced to kneel outside the DNA testing labs. If the suspicions held about these men were true, they were the faces of IS terror in Baghdad.

Doctors at the morgue’s labs then had the opportunity to take DNA from the suspects to see if it matched any of the explosive material found at the scene. In many ways it was heartening because the Iraqis were evidently trying to get to the bottom of the many terror outrages taking place. It showed they had not been overwhelmed by IS horror. I spoke to one young doctor, Sana, who worked in the DNA labs. She had not become inured to the horror despite her work. The fear had wormed its way inside her too.

‘We know what these [bombs] do. They can turn people into smithereens and little pink clouds. We are only too well aware.’ She explained how the fear worked and how people in Baghdad dealt with it: ‘It is alive in the subconscious of your brain, but there’s also a part of your brain that tells you have to continue and keep living. You can’t just hide in your home because there’s a car bomb that can go off.

‘You expect a car bomb to go off in any street. What’s stopping it from going off in this street or that street? It’s quite at random all the time. So, you just shut those feelings off. You just tell yourself “I’m not going to die today. Perhaps I’m going to die some other day, but not today.”’1

The city’s emergency services are often the first on the scene of a bombing and sometimes secondary devices await them. We visited a fire crew in downtown Baghdad in late 2014, only to find that they were attending a suicide bombing at a mosque we had passed only moments after the explosion. The men returned an hour later, seemingly unperturbed and unflustered and ready to talk about their work. An IS bomber in a suicide vest had walked into the mosque and blown himself up killing people attending midday prayers. ‘I wouldn’t even feed his body to the dogs,’ said one of the firemen. He spoke quietly; no histrionics, but rather a genuine anger when I asked what he thought about the jihadi who had carried out the attack. The bomber’s remains and those of his victims were all taken to the morgue for DNA testing and identification. One of the paramedics insisted on showing me the blood-spattered interior of his ambulance.

Thanks to IS, every attempt to live life normally is an act of courage in Baghdad. The victims at the Shia mosque, the Husseiniyat al-Khayrat in the Sinak area of the capital, were just leaving the building when they were attacked. Eleven people were killed and a further twenty-six injured.2 The previous day had seen another attack on a Shia mosque, this time killing twenty-two.3

People in Baghdad seem to have an almost intense desire to obliterate any signs of an IS attack, an instinct as strong as the IS desire to annihilate them. I have visited shops, car salesrooms and hotels a few hours after an IS bombing to find the clear-up already under way.

One night in late 2014, we heard an enormous explosion. An IS suicide bomber had exploded his truck bomb on the road in front of a hotel in central Baghdad killing guests and people eating in restaurants nearby. Within half an hour, security sources had estimated the death toll at around thirty. By the time we arrived on the scene the following morning, the clean-up had started. A road gang was fixing the enormous hole in the road left by the suicide bomber. Others were clearing away the debris, the rubble and broken glass. While all this was going on, hotel guests were checking out and nonchalantly wheeling their suitcases from what was left of the hotel’s reception. Clearly they had stayed in the rooms at the back, while a number of guests at the front had died. The hotel’s owner took the time to talk to me with his mobile phone glued to his ear, no doubt waiting to get through to his insurers while at the same time barking instructions at the workers clearing up the mess. ‘Da’esh [Islamic State] obviously,’ he said very matter-of-factly when I asked him who he blamed for the bombing.

After the fall of Mosul a powerful international coalition had formed in support of the Iraqi army and militias. The fightback by land and air against IS was critical, but almost as important would be the economic and propaganda battles to come. In the counter-offensive, the coalition would attempt to degrade IS financially as well as militarily; their opponent is widely believed to be the richest-ever terrorist organization.

In October 2014 Islamic State was still trying to attack towards Baghdad from the north near Samarra and from the west at the strategically important city of Amiriyah, once the temporary caliphate capital of Islamic State of Iraq, but it seemed increasingly unlikely they would march into the capital and we could not find anyone in Baghdad who felt under threat from the IS army. By then the group had also met fierce opposition in the battle for Kobani, the Syrian Kurd city in the north of Syria on the Turkish border.

At one stage, in early November 2014, IS controlled more than half of this strategically important town, and its capture would have given the group control along an important stretch of the border with Turkey, as well as a direct link to its positions in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa. On 3 November 2014, IS posted a new propaganda video of a British hostage, the photojournalist John Cantlie, in Kobani. In the film, Cantlie, clearly placed by IS under immense personal duress, claimed that most of Kobani had fallen under the control of IS. He presented the film in the manner of a TV war reporter, ‘The battle for Kobani is coming to an end,’ Cantlie said, clearly reading from an IS script. ‘The Mujahidin are just mopping up now, street-to-street and building-to-building. You can occasionally hear sporadic gunfire in the background as a result of those operations. But contrary to what the Western media would have you believe, it is not an all-out battle here now; it is nearly over.’4

Fast forward nearly three months later to 26 January 2015, and the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) announced that IS had been driven out of the city of Kobani altogether.5 It had been an extremely important victory, supported by air strikes by the US-led coalition and won with great sacrifice by the Syrian Kurds, along with their brother Kurds from Iraqi Kurdistan and elements of the Free Syrian Army. The four-month battle had cost more than 1,300 lives6 and turned an estimated 180,000 Syrian Kurds into refugees, most of them displaced to Turkey.7

The hawks and their quarry

Early 2015 would see further defeats for IS, but the group would also make important gains. At the end of March 2015, the Iraqis recaptured the city of Tikrit, a necessary prelude to the all-important advance on Mosul. During the battle, the militias killed Saddam’s old deputy, Izzat al-Douri, who had played such an important supporting role alongside Baghdadi in the taking of Mosul.

The coalition had also taken out important IS leaders and came close to killing the caliph himself. The ‘Hawks Cell’, a specialist Iraqi anti-terrorism unit dedicated to targeting and killing the IS leadership,8 carried out an air strike in the al-Baaj area of Nineveh near the village of Umm al-Rous. On 18 March 2015, according to an exclusive report in the Guardian (some sources say February 2015),9 three men died in the attack.10 Baghdadi was badly wounded in his back and leg, according to well-placed intelligence sources.

On 23 April 2015, security sources in Iraq confirmed that Abu Ala al-Afri, Islamic State’s Head of the Shura Council, had been appointed as ‘emir’ of IS to fulfil many of Baghdadi’s duties.11 Little is known about Afri other than that he was born in 1955 and he is a former physics teacher from the Alchkhlar tribe in Fadel village, near the city of Tal Afar, around forty miles west of Mosul.12 He was apparently a founder member along with Baghdadi of the Mujahidin Shura Council established by Zarqawi as the successor group to al-Qaeda in Iraq.13

The title ‘emir’ is below that of caliph, and the sources added that Afri, whose real name is Abdul Rahman Mustafa Mohammed, would be a sort of ‘acting caliph’ while Baghdadi recovered. No sooner had Afri’s appointment been announced than the Iraqis claimed he had been killed in a US-led coalition air strike on a mosque near the Iraqi city of Tal Afar. But the ‘kill’ could not be verified.14 It was understood that al-Baghdadi would still retain personal command of IS ‘military operations’.15

The group’s history is littered with examples of false claims of its leaders being killed or injured. Baghdadi had been the subject of such reports in November 2014 when speculation mounted that he had been killed near Mosul in a US-led air strike on a convoy of at least ten vehicles.16 The self-proclaimed caliph’s close companion, Abu Suja (real name Auf Abdulrahman Elefery), was killed in the strike17 along with twenty others,18 but Baghdadi survived.

The appointment of a temporary emir was at last confirmation that the coalition had clearly come close to killing the IS boss, and it indicated that he may have been severely incapacitated. In May 2015, the Guardian reported that Baghdadi had suffered serious spinal damage in the air strike and was being treated by two doctors from Mosul.19 The outside world had no sight of Baghdadi in the nine months from the time of his dramatic appearance in Mosul to the news of Afri’s promotion to IS emir. In May 2015, IS released an audio message from Baghdadi in which he referenced recent events in Yemen and implored his jihadis to continue fighting, saying, ‘your Lord has made jihad for the cause of Allah obligatory upon you and has commanded you to fight His enemies so that He may forgive your sins, raise you in the rank, take from among you martyrs, purify the believers and destroy the disbelievers.’20

According to my information, the Iraqis and other coalition forces have come close to killing or capturing Baghdadi on at least four separate occasions, including three times during the course of 2014. Baghdadi’s near misses from drones and fighters may explain his particularly horrific treatment of the Jordanian pilot Kasasbeh, although the man needed few excuses for his cruelty towards his many enemies and the Kuffar.

In late 2014, I interviewed General Saad Maan from the Iraqi interior ministry about the Iraqis’ repeated attempts to capture or kill al-Baghdadi. Maan was adamant that the Iraqis had also almost captured the IS leader in March or April of 2014: ‘Six months mago we almost reached him. We killed one of his drivers and captured the others. Our troops were only one hour away from capturing him but he succeeded in running away.’

I also asked the general about his claims in July 2014 that al-Baghdadi had been killed in an air strike in Qaim shortly before the IS leader’s appearance in Mosul.21 Again Maan defended his claims and asserted that Baghdadi had been injured in the strike and that the evidence is there in the video of his speech in Mosul. ‘There was an airstrike and some of al-Baghdadi’s colleagues and assistants were killed. As for Baghdadi, he was injured and if you notice when you look at the footage of his declaration in the mosque in Mosul, he was hardly able to move.’ Maan seemed to be right. Watching the start of the footage, Baghdadi moves very stiffly and strangely as he ascends the steps of the minbar. Of course, he may have just pulled a muscle stepping out of the shower, or it could confirm Maan’s claims. When I asked the rather obvious reporter’s question, ‘Is it the government’s aim to kill Baghdadi?’ the general chuckled and looked at me as if I had taken leave of my senses, responding only: ‘It is the aim of humanity.’22 The odds are against Baghdadi making old bones, as they proved to be in the cases of Zarqawi, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, Douri, Haji Bakr and many others besides.

Islamic State will of course find a replacement for its caliph, but experts say his loss would be devastating to the group. Following speculation about his death in November 2014, Professor Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics told me:

Everything about the jihadi movement is about legitimacy, about legitimation and about theology. You have to use theology even to legitimize your actions. You cannot just kill for the sake of killing. Think of how much Osama bin Laden went to great lengths to try to rationalize his killing of Americans in the eyes of Muslims. He called it defensive jihad, even though it was not defensive jihad.

In Islam the institution of jihad has so many rules and regulations. You have to have a legitimation. ISIS is the opposite. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s strategy has been to rely on military action, on savagery, on deliverance and on victory. Victory basically convinces the Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] that “I am the Caliph.” He has not nourished any ideas and that is why if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed this would represent truly a shattering blow both psychologically and also in terms of leadership.23

Professor Gerges was dismissive of some of the possible alternatives to al-Baghdadi. ‘His death would leave a huge vacuum,’ he added. ‘Abu Mohammed al-Adnani [IS media chief] for example is a psychopath. He is not a person that could lead ISIS as a movement in the next one or two years, given the existential threat facing ISIS in this particular moment of its history.’

Al-Sadoun Street is one Baghdad’s best-known thoroughfares and dotted along its length are many shops selling wheelchairs and aids for disabled people. I stopped to talk to some of the shop owners who explained that many of their customers were people who survived a bombing, maimed and badly injured in some way. It is an ill wind that doesn’t blow someone some good. Although the shops had benefitted from Islamic State’s campaign of violence, they had been badly affected in other ways. IS controlled territory north of the capital, making it impossible to import the Chinese-made wheelchairs by land. Instead, all the wheelchairs had to come by sea via the crucial Iraqi port of Basra. The shop owners were complaining bitterly that they had to pay much more for their wheelchairs and that it was hurting their businesses.

The same story could be heard elsewhere. Communications between northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country were severely disrupted thanks to the caliphate. To avoid IS and its lethal checkpoints, many lorries had to travel via Iran. The prices of everything from food to fuel were rocketing in Baghdad. This life and death struggle for Iraq was not just about territory. It was an economic war as well. IS attempted to take control of key oil installations in Iraq as it had in Syria, to help fund its expansion. In July 2014, IS had taken the large al-Oar oilfield in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Az Zor.24 Across the border into Iraq, there was an all-important battle over Iraq’s biggest oil refinery at Baiji, north of Baghdad. IS was said to be in control of most of the refinery but at the time of writing both city and refinery are hotly contested. In mid-June 2014 the jihadis had taken the refinery25 but the Iraqis carried on fighting, determined to push them out of this vital facility. Iraq’s budget was based on oil but IS occupation had played havoc with production, not least because it controlled the main pipeline from the northern city of Kirkuk to Turkey. Output was down from the required 3.4 million barrels a day to 2.3, and this was at a time of falling oil prices.26

The man charged with saving Iraq from going bankrupt, as well as waging economic war on the apparently super-rich jihadis an hour’s drive up the road from Baghdad, was an affable Kurd called Hoshyar Zebari. Zebari was Iraq’s finance minister and deputy prime minister. Like most of Iraq’s senior politicians he was based within the comparatively secure confines of Baghdad’s green zone, which is where he received me. For years, Zebari was the government’s foreign minister, helped by his accentless and flawless English honed by years studying at Essex University.

He was convinced that IS was trying to destroy Iraq, not only militarily, but economically. ‘You just have to look at their tactics,’ said Zebari. ‘They are trying to deprive Iraq of some of its key strategic assets, the oil refineries, the oil pipes and some of the industries and factories Iraq or state companies have in those areas under their control.’

He added, ‘It has impacted every aspect of life, including oil, industry, agriculture and even payment of salaries for all these civil servants for whom the government is responsible to pay. Also there is the cost of maintaining security to face this existential threat by IS to the whole state of Iraq.’27

Zebari also talked about the caliphate’s own economy, increasingly based on oil, and he revealed how IS was selling oil to the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

ISIS was selling oil to the Syrian authorities in Syria. They were smuggling oil to Iraq and to Turkey and different parts of the region through a web and a network of smugglers. There has been a focus to dry up these resources to attack these oil fields by airstrikes. It is a battle and a serious challenge to deny ISIS its financial resources.

This is a multi-faceted confrontation. It is not only military. It’s about the hearts and minds of people. It is ideological and theological and economic, and of course it’s military and security.

In mid May 2015, not long after Tikrit was recaptured, Iraq and its coalition allies suffered a series of serious setbacks. After a blistering offensive, including a series of suicide bombings, IS took control of Ramadi from superior numbers of Iraqi troops which abandoned the city, provoking serious US questioning of Iraq’s willingness to fight.28

Across the border in Syria, Islamic State found itself getting richer the more territory it took. Some observers believed that the IS capture of the Palmyra gas fields would force President Assad to essentially fund the very organization trying to destroy his country by having to purchase electricity from it. Peter Ford, the former UK Ambassador to Syria, and a critic of Western policy towards the country, told me, ‘I think that [possibility] is very plausible and again we only had ourselves to blame by preventing the Syrian government from taking action, such as repairing its generators for one thing. We are making it possible for Assad to do nothing else but buy electricity from IS and possibly even oil to prevent his government from collapsing. Given the choice Syria would much rather do things legitimately on the open market and not be forced to cut its own throat.’29

‘Islamic State in Regent Street’

Shoppers and tourists wandering around the West End of London quickly get used to people thrusting leaflets and pamphlets into their hands, offering everything from cut-price golf clubs to membership of some religious cult. On 13 August 2014 a group of men set up a stall in Regent Street handing out leaflets inviting the recipients to travel to the new caliphate. ‘O Ummah of Muhammad!’ the leaflet said, ‘Congratulations and good tidings. The Khilafah has been re-established. The dawn of a new era has begun.’30

The police and the Crown Prosecution Service failed to see the funny side, although no joke was intended, and two British men were charged with soliciting support for Islamic State, a proscribed terrorist organization.31 This was not some Baghdadi outreach team but yet another stunt courtesy of a minuscule group of London-based Islamist extremists who attract far more newspaper headlines than followers. The men were associates of Anjem Choudary, a British Muslim who is habitually described in the British press as a ‘firebrand cleric’32 or a ‘hate preacher’.33 If he is not a man with a voracious appetite for self-publicity then he is clearly doing something wrong.

I met Choudary in a baklava shop in east London to ask him why he wanted to take his family to live in the caliphate and why he was unable to do so. The answer to the second question was straightforward. The British security services had confiscated his passport, and on the last raid had even removed the air rifle he used for apparently harmless recreation in the back garden.

For Choudary, Baghdadi’s caliphate embodied some wonderful Islamic idyll. ‘I have friends who are in Syria and Iraq and they are living the life of luxury and they are so happy. They’re getting free food and accommodation. They are getting salaries. Gas, electricity and water are being given free of charge. They feel secure. There’s no one cheating in the market and there’s no bribery or usury. This is the society we dream about.’ Choudary was not interested in hearing any criticism of the ‘caliph’ and his caliphate. He denied being involved in the Regent Street stunt but he defended the distribution of the leaflets. I asked him about the footage of all the massacres and murders posted by IS on the internet. ‘Actually I don’t look at them and I don’t watch the videos,’ said Choudary. ‘They’re not doing it in my name; they’re doing it in God’s name. I don’t look at those videos for the simple reason that people get arrested for less than that these days, for downloading videos, and so the only information I get is from the Western media and I don’t believe the Western media.’34

So far the British government has banned at least eight of the Islamist organisations involving Choudary, although he stresses, ‘I’m engaged in an ideological and political struggle. We don’t have any military camps here and I’m not training anyone for jihad, and I haven’t been arrested even once for any terrorism related offence.’ Choudary blithely admits knowing Michael Adebolajo, the man convicted along with Michael Adebowale for the murder of British soldier Drummer Lee Rigby in London in 2013. The two men ran Rigby down in a car and then hacked him to death with knives and a cleaver. Choudary said, ‘He’s an absolutely wonderful guy. He’s the kind of person you’d marry your daughter to. He’s such a nice person with such a nice personality.’ Choudary insisted he parted company with Adebolajo when it came to extending the jihad to the UK but I was struck by his use of the present tense to describe someone who was in jail for butchering an innocent young man in broad daylight.

Choudary is widely regarded in the British Muslim community and elsewhere as an absurd and misguided figure, but despite that his desire to travel to Syria with his wife and five children still baffled many people. The removal of his passport was seen almost as a well-intentioned gesture to protect Choudary from himself. In 2013, I met a group of young men in an impoverished district in Tunis who wanted to go to Syria and fight with the jihadis. It was understandable in some ways because clearly uppermost in their minds was a desire to escape a life of grinding poverty and long-term unemployment. What has been more difficult to understand is why people with apparently good prospects in Britain would want to be part of Islamic State.

Jihadi John and others

A trickle of British Muslims has made it to the caliphate. Hardly a month goes by in the UK without another story of individual British Muslims or a handful of them either making it to Syria or being arrested in Turkey before they could cross the border. In February 2015, two young British Muslim girls, academically bright and popular, made it into Syria via Turkey. Kadiza Sultan, who was sixteen, and Shamina Begum, fifteen, travelled there with a third girl from Germany who has not been named for legal reasons. Their families did not know about their plans and were devastated when they found out where the girls had gone. It is a common reaction of families who have lost loved ones to Baghdadi. At that time British authorities believed that up to five hundred or so young Britons had made it to the caliphate.35 However, a British security source believed the figure was nearer two thousand. He added that the UK authorities do not know for sure because until 2015 they did not count people leaving the country, only those arriving.36

Mohammed Emwazi is the best-known Briton to have made it to Syria. He gained worldwide notoriety as ‘Jihadi John’ when he appeared in a number of videos in late 2014 beheading Western hostages, including the reporters James Foley and Steve Sotloff and the aid workers Peter Kassig, and David Haines and Alan Henning.

Henning, a taxi driver from Salford, was working as a volunteer when he was captured by the jihadis in Syria. Before his murder by Emwazi, many had campaigned for clemency from IS, including none other than Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, who wrote an open letter:

The issue is to defend Islam and Jihad from being deformed… This British man came to Syria as a volunteer with a humanitarian organization that’s run by Muslims. Those Muslims promised him safety and they should be respected. He also entered Syria with the permission of the Syrians who also gave him safety. Is it reasonable that his reward is kidnapping and beheading?!! He came to assist Muslims in need and for this alone, he should be received with thanks and gratitude, not with beheading and injustice which Allah does not approve of.37

A British organization called CAGE had also campaigned for the safety and release of Alan Henning. CAGE is a London-based advocacy group with what it describes as ‘an Islamic focus’. It campaigns against state policies designed as part of the ‘war on terror’. As such CAGE seeks to help those it sees as the victims of the ‘war’, including people who feel harassed by the security services as well former detainees. Its director, Moazzam Begg, is a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay who was released without charge in 2005 by President George W. Bush, apparently despite the protestations of the CIA and the FBI.38

I met Cerie Bullivant, a film-maker and journalist who is Begg’s friend as well as being a senior figure at CAGE. Years earlier Bullivant himself fell foul of British security services when he tried to travel to Syria apparently to learn Arabic. He was placed under a control order that resulted in him having an electronic tag and having to sign in each day at a police station. After breaking the control orders several times, Bullivant ended up in Belmarsh prison in south-east London for six months before his eventual release without charge.39 Bullivant struck me as a sincere and articulate man who genuinely felt the security services often did more harm than good when dealing with individuals they suspected of possible terrorist sympathies and associations. He told me how CAGE made strenuous efforts to get Henning released through contacts in Syria and how they were deeply shocked by his murder at the hands of Jihadi John.

By a horrible coincidence, CAGE had also tried to help Henning’s killer, Emwazi, in the years before he joined IS. Bullivant claimed that Emwazi’s life had been ruined by his interaction with the British security services, who had allegedly tried to hire him as a spy. CAGE has alleged that when Emwazi refused to cooperate it resulted in him being harassed, in two engagements being destroyed and in him being unable to travel. ‘[But] it’s no excuse for the terrible things Emwazi has done which I completely condemn,’ said Bullivant emphatically.

CAGE caused a media storm as a result of the press conference the group held in February 2015 after Emwazi’s identity was revealed by the Washington Post. During the press conference, Bullivant’s colleague at CAGE, Asim Qureshi, described Emwazi as ‘an extremely kind, gentle, beautiful young man’.40 Qureshi had last spoken to Emwazi three years previously in January 2012 in London when CAGE was trying to help the young Londoner over his entanglements with the security services. ‘Look, the press conference could have been handled better,’ said Bullivant.

From my point of view, Asim to this day still finds it difficult to reconcile the Emwazi he knew with the guy in the videos [‘Jihadi John’]. He could see how it was possible when certain things were pointed out. I think Asim’s really disconnected the two people and that came across in the press conference. That’s because he really liked Emwazi and he’s spoken about that. He thought he was a really nice person and a good guy, and he’s got a complete disconnect that he can’t put together the person he knew with the guy in the video. He can see how in the way he speaks and so on that it could be him but can’t see how it would be him. Even Emwazi’s family are in denial that it is him. My personal belief is that it is clearly is him.

Bullivant told me that he believed young Muslims went to Syria because they genuinely felt under threat in the West, mainly due to Islamophobia. ‘In Islam we call it Hijrah, the flight to safety. It takes its name after the Prophet Muhammad’s own flight to sanctuary from Mecca to Medina. It is not to justify people going to Syria, just to help explain it.’

He said some Britons had gone to Syria and had not found Hijrah. Instead they had recoiled from what they found there and have tried to come home. However, they know that there is a high chance of being arrested and jailed for a long time if they do return to the UK. At the time of writing, according to Bullivant, CAGE is in contact with forty Britons who are hiding in Turkey afraid to return to their own country. Some British Muslims go to Syria and are horrified at what they find and that it is not the land of milk and honey described by Anjem Choudary. They get across the border to Turkey but feel marooned there, worried about returning to the UK in case they arrested. ‘It’s a terrible position to be in,’ said Bullivant.


It seems increasingly unlikely that Islamic State will confine its terror to its caliphate and surrounding region. It has already threatened to visit its terror on the West. On 8 April 2015, IS started a campaign accompanied by a video on social media with the hashtag #WeWillBurnUSAgain, threatening America with a repeat of the 9/11 attacks.41 In fact, through the British hostage John Cantlie, Islamic State threatened the US with an attack that would dwarf 9/11. In the group’s glossy periodic magazine, Dabiq, in late May 2015, Cantlie speculated how IS would ‘purchase a nuclear device through weapons dealers with links to corrupt officials in the region, which would then be smuggled into the US via Libya, Nigeria and finally Mexico.’ ‘And if not a nuke, then what about a few thousand tons of ammonium nitrate explosive?’ The Brit added, ‘The Islamic State make [sic] no secret of the fact they have every intention of attacking America on its home soil…They’ll be looking to do something big, something that would make any past operation look like a squirrel shoot…’ Cantlie added in his article, doubtlessly approved and probably scripted in advance by Adnani, ‘it will only be a question of time before the Islamic State reaches the Western world.’42 Other countries face similar threats, and that is why Iraqi politicians say that their war is a Western concern too. It is indeed. Both the US and the UK are involved with air strikes, military advice and no doubt with secret intelligence help.

Hoshyar Zebari believed IS must be defeated in Iraq, and that it will collapse upon losing Mosul: ‘ISIS needs be defeated in Iraq. The fall of ISIS would be in Mosul. Not Raqqa in my view. It was in Mosul where the Iraqi army collapsed and it was in Mosul where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate, and it would be in Mosul where the announcement of victory would be made.’43

However, few people predict the imminent end of Islamic State. If Baghdadi dies, there will be another Baghdadi to take his place. The leading American Middle East scholar Professor John Esposito told me:

Even if you take out ISIS another group is going to come along. Unless you change the conditions in the region, another group is going to come along. When people talk about Western governments addressing this problem, they reduce it too much to the ideology and theology, and then they say “Let’s get some Muslim religious guys to sign up to a new project, and then let’s use drones.”

But that’s not gong to work unless we address the problems in the region, issues such as governance. The governments are getting stricter in the region. Authoritarian governments are becoming even more so. Tougher with their own people. You have to address the underlying conditions. Otherwise all you are doing is putting a lid on the pressure cooker. In the end the pressure’s going to blow.44

Some observers believe that the strategy of the US-led coalition of combating IS is not working. Former US Ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, said America had to decide on whether to contain IS or destroy IS:

IS is not containable in my view. Time is not on our side. This is a really dangerous moment, and I would have been saying this four or five years ago but at least we always had a policy of keeping a lid on things. But no longer it seems.

The real danger would be a cataclysmic Shia-Sunni war in the region and the collapse of whole states, including Iraq and possibly Lebanon and Jordan. All of those things could lead to Sunni and Shia turning to the biggest thing with the most guns, and for the Sunnis that could be Islamic State, and for the Shia, that would be Iran.45

Dr David Kilcullen, the counter-insurgency expert who helped nearly destroy Islamic State of Iraq back in 2007, has a grim prognosis for the future. He said:

If we don’t defeat ISIS there are two dangerous things that can happen. The first thing is that you will have a state that starts to gobble up other states in the region and that will have real destabilizing effects. The other is more counter-­intuitive. Unless we defeat these guys on the ground in Iraq and Syria, saying “let’s just pull up the drawbridge and protect our societies and just leave them [ISIS] alone” is tantamount to saying “let’s turn the UK or the US into a police state,” because you would really have to do that to protect yourself against these guys. There’s the cliché from Vietnam that we had to fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here. Here there’s a nuance to that which says “we need to fight them over there so we don’t have to destroy our societies to make our societies safe.”

Dabiq is the name of Islamic State’s glossy periodical, but it is also the name of a town in the Aleppo province in Syria. For Islamic State it is the equivalent of Armageddon, the place where the last epic battle will take place between Muslims and Christians. IS propaganda often yearns for this final conflagration and it has certainly already brought destruction and insecurity to much of the region. The group may end up destroying itself or being destroyed by its many enemies. However, whatever happens, its virulent ideology looks likely to survive in a Middle East now riven by sectarian division, injustice, war and authoritarianism. For Kilcullen, how we’ve dealt with Islamic State has been a failure of the collective imagination, the failure to predict what might happen if too little was done to bring security, justice, human dignity and peace to a deeply troubled region. ‘ISIS may eventually be destroyed,’ says David Kilcullen, ‘but don’t imagine something worse cannot come along to take its place.’

The masters of savagery: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi appears in a video message, circa 2005

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State’s ‘Caliph’, addresses Muslims in Mosul, 2014.

The devastation left behind by a car bombing on al-Mutanabbi Street which killed thirty-eight people, 5 March 2007. Baghdad’s booksellers’ district had been a place where all groups of Iraqi society were welcome.

IS gunmen massacre more than 1,500 unarmed men, most of them Shia military cadets - Tikrit, June 2014.

Shia militia recruits train to use guns in the fight against IS … even though they don’t have any - Najaf, July 2014.

When they took Mosul in the summer of 2014, IS destroyed six important Shia mosques across the Nineveh province.

In a museum in Mosul, IS men destroy precious artefacts from Iraq’s ancient history.

An ambulance man returns from the scene of an IS suicide bombing in Baghdad, late 2014. Around ten people died when an IS bomber attacked a Shia mosque during morning prayers.

The wheelchair salesmen of al-Sadoun Street, Baghdad, do a good trade thanks to bombings but have to import their wheelchairs through Basra because of IS.

A boy watches the video of al-Kasasbeh being burned alive as it plays on giant screens erected by IS in Raqqa, Syria.

Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, moments before he was burned to death by IS in early 2015.

IS instil fear - a Christian is crucified, a gay man is thrown from a rooftop, a woman is led to where she will be stoned to death, a ‘lion cub’ appears to execute two Russian spies.

Two Christian boys at a refugee camp in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 2015. Since the American-led invasion of 2003, violence has displaced over three million people in Iraq.

An Anbar sheikh at the same refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, March 2015. He says even five-year-olds can fight IS.