Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)
The forgotten caliph
Zarqawi had proved to be the world’s most dangerous man long before the bombing at Samarra. In 2006, he still remained at large despite the $25 million reward1 and a determined manhunt to catch him. In 2005, he was very nearly captured by the British; he escaped thanks to a spectacular piece of bungling. The fiasco would remain a secret until the emergence of a confidential cable five years later.
On 17 March 2005, British military intelligence in Iraq learned that Zarqawi was travelling along Route 6 from Amarah in south-eastern Iraq towards the southern city of Basra. At 2.45 p.m., according to the secret military cable, G3 passed this hot titbit on to Danish coalition troops stationed along the route but not before dispatching a Lynx helicopter to take a closer look. Within minutes, the chopper crew spotted ‘a suspect vehicle’ which had stopped by the road some seven miles south of the nondescript desert town of al-Qurnah. The Lynx hovered over ‘the target area’ for fifteen minutes before running low on fuel. As extraordinary as it sounds, the helicopter had to return to base to refuel, leaving the ‘area of interest’ unobserved for between twenty and thirty minutes, more than enough time for Zarqawi to make his getaway.2
Troops arrived from a reserve company of the UK’s Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and established an ‘inner and outer cordon’ around the area where the car was last seen, followed by a search lasting seven hours or so. Two buildings, including a Shia mosque, were found to contain only civilians and the hunt was abandoned around 10.15 p.m. Iraq’s grisly bird of prey had flown.
Zarqawi had become so deadly that he could kill without even lifting a finger. On 31 August 2005, around a million Shia pilgrims were marching through Baghdad on their way to the al-Kadhimiya mosque, the scene of Zarqawi’s horrific attack the previous year.3 Earlier that day seven people had died in a mortar attack by a group of Sunni insurgents, so many pilgrims were already fearful.4 Later that day someone in the massed crowds cried out that they had seen a suicide bomber. In the ensuing panic on the al-Aaimmah bridge around one thousand people died, either drowned in the Tigris or trampled to death.5
Zarqawi’s terror was no longer confined to Iraq. In April 2004, Jordanian authorities had unearthed an astonishing plot that would have dwarfed the death toll of the 9/11 attacks. Zarqawi and his followers planned to launch a series of chemical weapon attacks against the Jordanian capital, Amman. If the plot had succeeded security officials believe it would have created a toxic gas cloud with a mile radius across the city, killing an estimated eighty thousand people and wounding twice as many again.6 Jordan’s special forces raided the hideout of Zarqawi’s cell and discovered explosives and twenty tons of toxic chemicals, including sulphuric acid and cyanide salts. The ringleader, Azmi al-Jayyousi, admitted reporting directly to Zarqawi.7 On conviction seven men were sentenced to death8 and three including Zarqawi were charged in absentia.
The BBC’s Baghdad correspondent Caroline Hawley was caught up in another Zarqawi atrocity, again in Jordan. She had stopped over briefly in Amman on her way back to Baghdad when Zarqawi’s suicide bombers struck three hotels in the Jordanian capital, including her own, the Hyatt, on 9 November 2005. There was a terrible twist at the Radisson SAS Hotel when a husband and wife suicide team attacked a wedding party while it was in full swing. The wife bomber, Sajida Atrous al-Rishawi, failed to detonate her suicide belt but her husband, Ali Hussein al-Shamari, managed to explode his bomb, killing thirty-eight wedding guests including the fathers of the bride and groom. The dead numbered 59 and the injured 115. Hawley said:
I was just in the Hyatt, which was down the road from the Radisson, and eating dinner and we suddenly heard this huge explosion and we saw this giant fireball coming down the Hyatt’s spiral staircase. The bomber had blown himself up on the ground floor about sixty yards from us. There was shattered glass in the restaurant and a few people were bloodied and ran out.
We went back inside because we knew there had been a bomb and that’s when we saw this vision from Hell with a waiter who had just been killed being brought out on a tablecloth and bodies everywhere.9
Rishawi was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. For nearly a decade she languished on death row hoping to get her sentence overturned on appeal. In early 2015 Rishawi would again make the news when Islamic State demanded her release by Jordan after its capture of the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, suggesting an exchange might be possible. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi then decreed that Kasasbeh be put in a cage and burned to death. IS posted a video on the web showing the highly orchestrated murder on 3 February 2015, and the Jordanians hanged Rishawi the following morning.10
From time to time, there were reports that Zarqawi had been injured or killed.11 Any doubts about whether he was dead or alive were dispelled in April 2006 when a thirty-four-minute tape was released by the US showing the Jordanian in a number of heroic poses, either stooped over maps with his commanders or shooting an array of assault rifles. In one scene mocked by a US military spokesman during a press conference,12 Zarqawi is seen having a problem clearing a jam in an M249 machine gun.
Killing or catching Zarqawi was always going to be difficult because he behaved like the hunted man he was, constantly on the move between safe houses. He and his men did not use mobile phones, knowing that the US could easily trace them. Instead they used satellite phones, which are much more difficult to track.
Eventually hubris and cumulative intelligence cost Zarqawi his life in June 2006; the April videotape had helped identify his likely whereabouts but the critical information came from one of the Jordanian’s closest lieutenants. Finally, Zarqawi was betrayed.
At the end of May 2006, Iraqi forces raided a house and arrested three senior Zarqawi men in Baghdad’s northern Adhamiya district.13 One of the men, Kassim al-Ani, was a senior Zarqawi aide and one of the most wanted men in Iraq. It seems clear that it was Ani who provided the key piece of intelligence – the identity of Zarqawi’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi.
US military intelligence began trailing Abdul-Rahman with a remotely controlled aircraft,14 hoping he would lead them to their quarry. He did. Eventually he drove to an isolated house in a grove lined by date palms on the outskirts of Hibhib, a village thirty-five miles to the north of Baghdad. The drone filmed Abdul-Rahman being greeted by a man dressed all in black, later described by a US general as Zarqawi’s ‘signature look, the Johnny Cash look’.15 Half a dozen commandos from the US Delta force hid among the palms and waited, and watched the house. In the early evening, Zarqawi along with his family and friends sat down for their dinner. As dusk approached, the leader of the small reconnaissance unit attached to the Delta team started to fret that the ever-elusive Zarqawi might suddenly leave, and so he radioed his superiors to request an air strike.16
In the early evening of 7 June 2006, two American F-16 fighters took off. At 6.12 p.m., the first jet struck the house with a 500-pound laser-guided bomb; the second dropped a satellite-guided bomb, ‘to ensure the target set was serviced appropriately,’ an air force general helpfully explained later.17
When US troops arrived at the flattened building twenty-three minutes later they found the bodies of two men, apparently including that of Abdul-Rahman, three women including Zarqawi’s second wife Israa, who was just sixteen, and their eighteen-month-old baby, named Abdul Rahman after the group’s spiritual adviser.18 Zarqawi had survived, but with massive internal injuries, particularly to his lungs.19 The US would later release the autopsy report to refute allegations reported by two media outlets that Zarqawi had been taken out of the ambulance by US troops who then beat and stomped him to death.20
‘He obviously had some kind of visual recognition of who they were because he attempted to roll off the stretcher, as I am told, and get away, realizing it was US military,’ the US military spokesman, Major General William Caldwell, told a news conference.21 Zarqawi was declared dead fifty-two minutes after the strike. No one received the $25 million reward.22
Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the death at a news conference and the news was greeted by celebratory shouts and joyful cries to the Prophet Muhammad of ‘peace be upon him’.23 In truth there was little to celebrate. The killing and ethnic violence would continue and deteriorate much further over the next eighteen months. For his followers Zarqawi was going to be a very hard act to follow, but they were determined to carry on his deadly legacy.
Islamic State of Iraq is declared
Zarqawi was dead but he had already made important structural changes to his organization to ensure its survival by trying to incorporate other jihadi groups. This would involve another name change and one that would further dilute the influence of al-Qaeda. On 15 January 2006, Zarqawi announced the formation of the Mujahidin Shura Council (MSC); effectively this was a merger between his al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) organization and five other small groups of jihadi militants. In his audio message Zarqawi said the merger was important for those Sunnis who ‘have chosen the path of jihad and war against the infidels of all different kinds to unite for the sake of the victory of Allah’.24
The name change and merger gave a strong indication that the Jordanian wanted to subjugate other insurgency groups to his will. Ominously one of the more obscure groups was called Jaish Ahlu al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah, or Army of the Sunni People.25 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the future ‘caliph’ of Islamic State, was the ‘emir’ of the Army of the Sunni People. As would emerge later, Baghdadi and Zarqawi were probably already long-time friends as well as jihad associates. Three other groups refused to join the MSC because they opposed Zarqawi’s total war on the Shia and the way it was harming ‘the image of the jihad’.26
One jihadi group, the Islamic Army in Iraq (Jaysh al-Islam), spoke out against Zarqawi’s brutal tactics and the endless slaughter of innocent bystanders. A spokesman for the group stated, ‘We work against the US occupation without hurting innocents…If al-Qaeda [AQI] is against the ideology behind the insurgency, it’s time to force them out of our country. We will kill the militants to show how far we will go to save the lives of innocent people.’27 In October 2005, a bloody battle had been waged between Zarqawi and the Islamic Army in Iraq in the al-Taji district of northern Baghdad.28
In death, Zarqawi had bequeathed Iraq a ruinous civil war and a dark and dangerous future. There would be no ‘Zarqawiism’ to speak of and little to remember him by other than the grim dispatches from the interior ministry or the morgues, and a few hate-filled tracts promising more death and misery for the Shia and other kuffar. However, he had established the ground rules for his murderous organization for years to come. Zarqawi’s ‘methods’ could best be summed up in the words of a Chinese colonel, Qiao Lang: ‘the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules with nothing forbidden’.29 The Jordanian’s successors believed that nothing, no height of cruelty or depth of depravity, should be excluded in pursuit of the caliphate.
Four days after Zarqawi’s death, the MSC announced it was still very much in business by posting an Internet video showing the beheading of three Shia men – allegedly death squad members. There was also a message from the man who would replace Zarqawi, one Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, not to be confused – as so many people have done and still do – with ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In his first speech in the usual grandiloquent ‘jihadese’ language beloved of Zarqawi, Abu Omar, his successor, said, ‘As for you the slaves of the Cross [coalition forces], the grandsons of bin al-Alqami [Shia] and every infidel of the Sunnis, we can’t wait to sever your necks with our swords.’30
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi would be in charge for the next four years, but he remains a hazy and enigmatic figure, despite all the massacres committed in his name. That includes his chemical warfare, using women with Down’s syndrome as suicide bombers, and the second-bloodiest terrorist attack in history after 9/11 – his bombing of the Yazidi minority in August 2007. Despite his murderous campaign, he still remained an enigma at best. Abu Omar was so obscure that the Iraqis falsely claimed to have arrested him three times in the course of one week in early March 2007.31 Two months later, the Iraqis claimed to have killed Abu Omar during fighting in the town of Dhuluiya north of Baghdad.32 In April 2009, the Iraqis said they had captured him for the fourth time, but yet again this proved to be false.33 Yet to Islamic State and its caliph, Abu Omar is revered as a ‘mountainous man’ and latterly the ‘founder of our state’.34
Naturally, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was yet another nom de guerre, so who was he really? The answer came in May 2008 from the police chief of Haditha, a farming town in the huge western province of Anbar. Colonel Fareq al-Je’eify identified Abu Omar as one Hamid Dawood Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi, or Hamid al-Zawi for short. Zawi was a former security officer with the General Security Directorate (the Amn al-Aameh) under Saddam. The colonel based this on confessions he had obtained from a number of Abu Omar’s fighters he had arrested in Haditha.
In an interview with the Arab TV station Al Arabiya, Colonel al-Je’eify said of Zawi/Abu Omar, ‘He was an officer in the security services and was dismissed from the army because of his extremism.’35 Following his dismissal, Abu Omar worked as an oil heater repairman in Haqlaniyah, an Anbari town on the river Euphrates. He also worked as a taxi driver in Baghdad.36 The police colonel’s important discovery received little publicity at the time, and appears not to have been taken seriously by the US military. Presumably this was because in July 2007, an American brigadier general called Kevin Bergner had confidently assured the world’s media that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was in fact a fictitious character played by an actor called Abu Abdullah al-Naima.37 In fact, Abu Omar would often be referred to as ‘the fictitious leader’ even as he continued to release audiotapes of his various speeches and pronouncements.38
Peter Mansoor, a senior counter-insurgency strategist for the US military at this time, said, ‘Baghdadi was somebody that we were after for a long time and at one point we thought we had killed him. At another point, we had a detainee tell us “It’s basically a fiction, a fictional character that serves as a fictional figurehead”. And we believed that for a period of time.’
We can be sure that Abu Omar really was Hamed al-Zawi because Colonel Je’eify also supplied a photo of him to Al Arabiya. It shows a balding round-faced man aged in his forties (he was believed to have been born in 1959 or perhaps even earlier) with a moustache and short beard. It is a complete match with the face in the photos taken and displayed in 2010 by the Iraqi government of Abu Omar’s corpse following his violent death. The colonel’s revelation about the dismissal of Abu Omar begs the question as to whether he fell foul of the de-Ba’athification purge. We may never know. Certainly his dismissal brought about a drastic change to his circumstances. Abu Omar’s wife Jassem revealed later that theirs had been an arranged marriage and not perhaps a contented one. In an interview for the Guardian’s correspondent Martin Chulov she later said, ‘Since I got married I have had a very hard life. All my life has been evasion and hardship.’ As for Abu Omar, ‘he did not listen to anyone including his own wife,’ Jassem said. ‘He did his own thing. All I did was raise children and prepare food.’39 Jassem was being too modest. She was later found guilty of controlling the group’s cash and suicide vests and sentenced to life in prison.40
Islamic State considers Abu Omar al-Baghdadi to be a key ‘founding father’ because, on 15 October 2006, there was yet another name change for the group. In a move that stunned and alarmed many jihadis, Abu Omar announced the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Furthermore the former oil heater repairman was introduced as the Amir al-Mu’minin, meaning ‘Prince of the Faithful’ or even ‘Commander of the Faithful’. He was no longer just plain Abu Omar al-Baghdadi; he was now Abu Omar al-Husseini al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi.
Abu Omar’s demand to be known by the title ‘Prince of the Faithful’ was probably the most alarming and astonishing declaration because for all intents and purposes it meant he was declaring himself caliph of his new Islamic State of Iraq. According to Bernard Lewis, one of the world’s leading experts on the language of Islam, ‘the title Amir al-Mu’minin, is said to have been introduced by the Caliph Umar [second caliph, 634–44 ce]. It soon became the standard and most common title of the Caliphs, and the one which for the longest period remained an exclusive caliphal prerogative, long after most other titles had been adopted by all kinds of lesser rulers.’41
In addition, by adding the name al-Qurayshi, Abu Omar was claiming to be descended from Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh, which much of Islamic tradition demands as an essential requirement to be caliph. Islamic State’s Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has also claimed both the title of Amir al-Mu’minin and Qurayshi roots.
This extraordinary announcement was not lost on many of ‘the faithful’ including prolific jihadi writer Attiyet Allah, who suggested that Abu Omar had surely gone too far. Allah wrote:
It probably would have been better to call him ‘Emir’ without adding ‘of the Faithful’ so that the evident reference would be to ‘Emir’ of this ‘State’, because the term ‘Commander of the Faithful’ gives the illusion that he is the Grand Imam, and gives the impression that our brothers may consider him so! And it has been accepted as a tradition among Muslims…that the title is synonymous with the ‘Grand Imam’ who is also the Caliph.
And if it were to be added to that that he – may Allah preserve and aid him – is a Qurayshite…then the illusion is strengthened.42
Illusion perhaps, but it was the illusion that would-be caliph Abu Omar was desperate to maintain as he claimed leadership of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, the Ummah.
‘My beloved Ummah,’ declared Abu Omar in his inaugural address on 22 December 2006, ‘your men are determined to establish for Islam its state, where they will adjudicate according to its law, and follow its authority and gather its soldiers, and they have shed their blood for that after sacrificing their wealth, they are divorced from every desire, they have suffered much in yearning for that death that will bring either victory or martyrdom.’
Eventually, there would be an Islamic state stretching from China to Spain, he confirmed, as he then issued his extraordinary ‘your Islamic State needs you’ type of appeal: ‘Initially we call upon officers of the former Iraqi army and that is from the rank of lieutenant to major to join the army of the Islamic State on condition that the applicant must know, at a minimum, three sections of the Holy Koran by rote and must pass an ideological examination by a clerical commission that exists in every region to make sure he is not beholden to the idolatry of the Ba’ath.’43 This appeal to Saddam’s former officers would reap long-term rewards; they would join ISI and help turn it into a more effective military machine. The group already knew their worth. Many former soldiers and security officials had already joined it either before or during their incarceration along with many of the jihadis in US prison camps. Their expertise would become more evident in 2014 when the group demonstrated real military professionalism during its conquest of huge swathes of Syria and Iraq.
Abu Omar also ordered the US military to depart Iraq immediately and leave all its valuable equipment behind: ‘The withdrawal must be via troop transport trucks and passenger planes whereby each soldier is allowed to carry his own weapon only.’ He added, ‘They must not withdraw any of the heavy military equipment and the military bases must be handed over to the Mujahidin of the Islamic State and the duration of the withdrawal may not exceed a month.’44
For those who delved deeper, the announcement by Abu Omar was not just the outpouring of a deranged killer with ludicrous ideas above his station. There was a clear triumphalist tone. The declaration of an Islamic State of Iraq exposed a raw and terrifying reality for the Americans. Just a few months after the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the US had realized it was losing the war and ISI had realized it was winning it. While the Shia militia continued with their horrifying counter-offensive of murder, torture and ethnic cleansing, the jihadis of ISI had all but cowed into submission the largely Sunni population of Iraq’s vast western Anbar province, a mainly desert area making up a third of the country’s land mass and with a population of around 1.25 million people. This was the reason for Abu Omar’s vainglorious decree of an Islamic State of Iraq, a fact that was dramatically recognized by the US military itself, which now realized it was on the brink of defeat.
Just a few weeks previously in late November 2006, not long before Abu Omar’s valedictory decrees and announcements, this spectre of humiliating defeat was starkly revealed to the US and the world in a secret report that had been written by a US Marine Corps intelligence officer called Colonel Peter Devlin. Devlin’s report, dated 21 August 2006,45 exposed the extent of the nascent caliphate established by ISI in Anbar. Devlin, the US military intelligence chief for Anbar,46 concluded that the strength of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and ISI had become so dominant in western Iraq that US and Iraqi troops were no ‘longer capable of defeating the insurgency in Anbar’ and that ‘nearly all government institutions from the village to provincial level have disintegrated or have been thoroughly corrupted and infiltrated’ by ISI. ISI was growing rich thanks to the millions of dollars provided by its illicit trade in oil. ISI had brought about ‘the near complete collapse of social order’ and had consequently become ‘an integral part of the social fabric of western Iraq’.47 For ISI, conflict was always about seizing territory and holding it for its caliphate.
Aside from being ninety-five percent Sunni, Anbar was also very important strategically. This vast territory encompasses much of Iraq’s western territory and stretches out from Baghdad to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Cities include Fallujah and Ramadi. Overwhelmingly the population is made up of Sunni tribespeople. Control of this territory was always critical for the group from the days of Zarqawi and Abu Omar up to 2014 when it provided a launch pad and base for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s blitzkrieg.
In his speech, Abu Omar announced his new cabinet for ISI. There would be ten ministries to govern the Anbar towns and territories, just the beginning of a new caliphate – including one for public relations, naturally. With no hint of irony, a Professor Abu Abdel-Jabbar al-Janabi would be ‘minister of public security’ while the ‘ministry of martyrs’ and prisoners’ affairs’ went to a minor tribal sheikh whose main income came from smuggling.48 There were other ministries for oil and agriculture and fish resources.
The all-important new ‘minister for war’ was ‘Sheikh’ Abu al-Muhajir, mainly known as ‘Abu Ayyub al-Masri’. ‘Masri’ had acted as temporary leader following the death of Zarqawi. He was known to have one wife, Hasna Ali Yeyhe Hussein, and they would have three children.49 Hussein’s involvement in the activities of ISI would send her to the gallows later.50 Masri was skinny with a gaunt face, almost ferrety features, and in one of the few photos we have of him he is wearing the traditional Arab dishdasha headdress and robe.
Back in the US, the Pentagon considered Masri to be the real leader of ISI, particularly as Abu Omar was believed not to exist.51 The US believed Masri had met Zarqawi in Afghanistan and US intelligence experts described him as an expert in explosives, specializing in ‘vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices’ (VBIEDs) or car bombs for short. US officials said Masri worked the ‘rat line’ down the river Euphrates, supplying suicide bombers via Syria probably from his base in Fallujah.52 Like Zarqawi, Masri was another foreigner, this time from Egypt. The jihadis believed that an Iraqi should be the face of ISI. That is why Abu Omar would be the ideal emir of the group, leaving military strategy to Masri.
In his declaration of himself as Muhammad’s heir, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi had referred to Osama bin Laden by the much lesser title of sheikh. Zarqawi’s death had cancelled the oath of allegiance or bay’ah that the Jordanian had made to al-Qaeda in 2004 and it was not renewed by his successor. Abu Omar instead demanded bay’ah from others.53 The al-Qaeda–Zarqawi ‘alliance’ had long been a grisly and troubled marriage of convenience thanks to Zarqawi’s extremism and extraordinary violence. ‘Al-Qaeda Central’ had made its feelings clear that the slaughtering of the Shia and beheading of hostages was doing untold harm to the jihad and ultimately the caliphate, as bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, had explained in 2005 in his highly critical letter to Zarqawi.54
Osama bin Laden had never claimed to be Leader of the Faithful or Amir al-Mu’minin. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a jihadist non-entity by comparison, had put himself level with the spiritual Leader of the Faithful of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Mullah Omar, placing his organization at the head of jihad. Abu Omar’s claim to Qurayshi lineage also ensured he trumped Mullah Omar who had never claimed it for himself.
Naturally, the ‘decision’ appears to have been made without consulting bin Laden or anyone else at ‘al-Qaeda Central’55 and should be seen as the real break between the two groups. In his July 2005 letter, Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda had urged Zarqawi to establish an ‘emirate’ in territory he could hold and only after the US had been expelled. But there were still thousands of American troops in Iraq. Many jihadis, both outside and within the group, considered the ISI declaration premature and unwise. ISI would still be strongly identified as ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’ but the truth is that the group would be a source of angst and embarrassment for bin Laden for years to come, as letters from his home in Pakistan would later reveal.56
For example, not long after Abu Omar’s speech, an unnamed leading al-Qaeda member of Egyptian origin wrote a letter to a legal scholar called Hafiz Sultan. The writer clearly knew both Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and his ‘minister of war’ Masri and was desperately worried about the ‘political mistakes’ the ISI pair were making as they went about the jihad. ‘They are extremists,’ he wrote, adding that Abu Omar’s speech was ‘repulsive and lacks wisdom’.57Abu Omar’s declaration also upset other jihadi rebel groups in Iraq which had already grown tired of ISI excesses and believed the announcement of ISI a step too far.
Towards the end of 2006, an authoritative survey published by the Lancet, the prestigious UK-based medical journal, estimated that more than 600,000 people had been killed in Iraq since the start of the 2003 US-led invasion, a staggering number way in excess of official figures that were already shocking. Based on an actual survey of households in Iraq, the Lancet estimated that more than a half of victims, around 336,000 people, had been shot dead and around 78,000 had been killed by car bombs, a particular speciality of Zarqawi’s.58 The report helped foster the widespread suspicion in Iraq that has persisted for years that there has been a consistent underreporting of casualty figures. By the time the Lancet report came out, in October 2006, the killing had reached unprecedented levels. Nearly three thousand were killed that month, almost two and half times the numbers killed in the previous October.59The killing would persist at this level for months to come.
Sensing that savagery was achieving the necessary conditions for the caliphate, ISI launched a series of devastating attacks from the beginning of 2007. Again the Shia were the main targets. An ISI suicide bomber detonated his huge lorry bomb in the crowded outdoor market in the mainly Shia area of Sadriyah in central Baghdad. At least 135 people died.60 In March, ISI suicide bombers killed more than a hundred Shia pilgrims in Karbala.
In the last years of Saddam’s rule, the Sunni tribes of Anbar had been increasingly granted enormous privileges and powers. Sheikhs received judicial and internal security powers as well as the right to collect tax on behalf of the central government. However, many sheikhs abused their powers by seeking extra revenues through smuggling, corruption and bribes.61 After Saddam’s fall the tribes of Anbar, like most Sunnis, also felt marginalized; the occupation resulted in a huge loss of status for them and so initially some sheikhs were willing to work with Zarqawi and Abu Omar and allowed their men to live among them. The sheikhs of Anbar swiftly realized they had made a cataclysmic mistake by making an accommodation with ISI.
In his inaugural speech to a bemused world in December 2006, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi claimed support for his Islamic State from seventy percent of Anbar tribes, who he stated had made an ‘alliance’ with the jihadis. This was, according to Abu Omar, ‘the surest fruit and the greatest harvest’, and he proclaimed, ‘The Shari’ah is beginning to be implemented in most of the areas of that blessed state and by demand of our people themselves. We have appointed jurists to arbitrate disputes and settle feuds…we have also appointed workers to gather zakat [taxes] and alms in most areas of the Islamic State.’62
As ever, the jihadis liked to portray their regime as a model of Islamic rule guided by Sharia and beloved by the people they ruled, and as ever the reality was horribly different. In fact, it was the usual highly sinister and dysfunctional tyranny where they were allowed to plunder and butcher whoever they wanted. Abu Omar exerted a terrifying authority over the tribes and dealt viciously with any opposition. Increasingly, the tribes found the jihadis, often foreign fighters, intolerant and cruel, as well as being bad for business.
David Kilcullen was chief strategic adviser on counter-insurgency to the US state department at this time and would later work with the Anbari tribes in the fight against ISI. He told me, ‘There were many, many examples of al-Qaeda [ISI] basically enforcing this incredibly brutal set of requirements on the community. It was also business, because they were also muscling in on a bunch of the illicit smuggling deals that the tribes were doing and that was putting the tribes out of business.’63
It was in Anbar, the Sunni heartlands at the supposed heart of the promised caliphate, where Zarqawi and Abu Omar committed some of their most atrocious crimes as they began to build their bloody empire. It was in Anbar where at last people would rise up against the jihadis and help drive them to the edge of extinction.