Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi imposed their will on the Sunni tribes of Anbar through a combination of forced marriages, targeted assassination and acts of unspeakable barbarism. Four times the tribes rose up against them and four times they were crushed. It would take a fifth revolt in tandem with a determined military campaign by US troops to virtually eradicate Islamic State of Iraq.
Before terrorizing the population of Anbar, Zarqawi and Abu Omar had destroyed what little law and order remained there by attacking and eliminating the police in the areas under their control. Policemen were threatened with death unless they resigned and joined them. Those who refused were hunted down and killed. During its campaign to subjugate Anbar, ISI detonated a petrol tanker outside a police station, killing or burning everybody inside. The jihadis heard that one man who had survived with severe burns was being treated at home because his family were too afraid to take him to the local hospital, which the jihadis controlled. Abu Omar’s men came for the man, tied rocks to his legs and threw him in the river Euphrates.1
Abu Omar’s fighters forced families to provide them with food and shelter and imposed their extremely restricted version of Islam on their hosts. People were banned from smoking or drinking and in some areas, according to one report, the jihadis prohibited the sale of cucumbers and tomatoes together in a single purchase in case the combination resembled a man’s sexual organs.2
They also robbed banks and before long they brought economic and social disaster as well as terror to Anbar. In the provincial capital, Ramadi, ISI issued fatwas closing factories, schools and universities. The government was no longer paying salaries; even employees of those banks that had not been robbed were not getting paid.3
It was all very similar to the regime imposed in Iraqi Kurdistan by Zarqawi and the Ansar al-Islam group back in 20024 and that imposed more than a decade later by Islamic State within its caliphate. The tribes quickly grew to hate Zarqawi and his fighters. Finally, in the spring of 2005, all-out fighting broke out around the Anbari city of Qaim on the Syrian border. The Albu Mahal tribe, based around Qaim, deeply resented the jihadis’ attempt to take over their lucrative smuggling trade5 and the terror they used to subjugate people in those territories. ‘It was a disaster when al-Qaeda entered our country, killing and executing Iraqis,’ the Albu Mahal’s principal, Sheikh Sabah al-Aziz, said later. ‘Whatever the Tatars did against humanity, al-Qaeda did it worse, worse than anyone that you can think of.’6 In one incident, ISI publicly beheaded four members of the Salman tribe from Qaim but would not let the families collect the corpses. Finally, after ten days, the jihadis relented but not before sabotaging the bodies with TNT. When the relatives arrived at dawn to collect the badly decomposing bodies, ISI detonated the explosives, killing another eight people and injuring many others.7
Serious trouble for Zarqawi and his successors began in Anbar when he tried to assert control over the tribal sheikhs by insisting their daughters marry jihadis. In one case a sheikh refused to marry off his daughters to them and so he was killed. The sheikh’s people rose up against Zarqawi and this time he reacted in a spectacularly gruesome way: his men abducted the young son of a prominent sheikh, butchered him, cooked the body and served it to his father.
Dr David Kilcullen heard the story when he was in Iraq as the chief strategist on counter-insurgency for the US state department. He told me:
One of the stories circulating about this particular incident was that basically they had invited him [the sheikh] to a meal; they took his twelve- or thirteen-year-old son away and brought him baked him in a pot and then fed the dead child to the father…It may sound far fetched but it doesn’t mean they didn’t do it. They crucified kids in Raqqa; there’s plenty of good photographic evidence of that.8
The child-cooking story may sound implausible, almost like an urban myth, even though Zarqawi and his successors have killed many thousands of children since 2003 and have often actively targeted them. As Kilcullen said, there is overwhelming evidence that Islamic State crucified and even beheaded children in the territories under its control.9 Kilcullen’s story is not without precedent, however. Weeks after he told it to me, the Sun, the UK tabloid newspaper, reported claims by a British man called Yasir Abdulla who took part in the fight against Islamic State. He claimed to have met a Kurdish woman whose son was captured by the jihadis in Mosul in northern Iraq, and subsequently murdered and chopped up. They served up the victim’s remains with rice to the unsuspecting mother and she consumed some of it unknowingly.10
I also tracked down evidence in two contemporaneous reports of another horrendous episode during ISI’s terrifying assault on Christian neighbourhoods in Baghdad, which reached the height of its ferocity during 2006, including the bombing of twelve churches and the murder of dozens of priests and children.11 In October 2006, a toddler was abducted and a ransom demanded. The parents, Assyrian Christians, could or would not pay the ransom. Eventually, the child was returned to them, beheaded, roasted and served on a mound of rice.12
David Kilcullen said, ‘I also heard about the practices of killing children and then dropping the bodies off in front of the parents and doing it in a way that was extraordinarily gruesome. One of the things they would do was to cut the top off the kid’s skull and put an electric drill into the brain. It was very clear from some of the injuries you saw that people had been tortured very horribly before they were killed.’13
Following the gruesome child murder, the Albu Mahal tribe formed the Hamza Battalion to fight the jihadis. They were supported by the Albu Nimr tribe but even with the backing of US marines, the Hamza Battalion failed to defeat Zarqawi. Furthermore the predominantly Shia government was hostile to the Hamza forces of the Abu Mahal tribe, declaring that such vigilantes had no place in Iraq. By September 2005, the Hamza brigade was overwhelmed but a further military assault by the US managed to push Zarqawi’s forces off. US marines and Iraqi army personnel stayed behind to provide security, but three other uprisings against the jihadis elsewhere were brutally crushed.
Zarqawi and co. noticed that the sheikhs were beginning to cooperate with the US and therefore began to assassinate them, or as an internal AQI note revealed at the time, ‘to cut the heads of Sheikhs of infidelity’.14 With money from its extortion rackets and the revenue from its smuggling operations, AQI also had the financial resources it needed to control the sheikhs and Anbar.
It took an illiterate but charismatic sheikh to start the fightback in earnest. Sheikh Sattar al-Rishawi of the small Albu Risha tribe was an unabashed smuggler and highway robber, and he began fighting with AQI when it killed his father and two of his brothers15 and moved in on his own illicit businesses. Rishawi lacked the strength to see off the jihadis so he formed an alliance with other tribes including the Albu Nimr to form the Anbar Salvation Council. This would become known as ‘the Awakening’.
David Kilcullen, who played a key role in rewriting the US military textbook on counter-insurgency, thought the tribes had concluded they had to act against ISI before it was too late. He said:
The tribes were brave but they were also desperate. It was the bravery of desperation. They realized that they didn’t have a lot of other choices and that they were going to be slaughtered otherwise. Al-Qaeda [ISI] made themselves more of an enemy to northern Anbar than the coalition. That was their greatest strategic failure – that people saw them as more threatening and were willing to turn against them.16
The beginning of the Awakening coincided with the Americans’ increasing desperation over the situation in Iraq. The stark intelligence assessment in 2006 by Marine Colonel Peter Devlin had revealed the extent of ISI’s dominance of large areas of Anbar.17 ‘If anything the consequences of defeat in Iraq would be worse than in Vietnam,’ President George W. Bush wrote about this time in office. ‘We would leave al-Qaeda with a safe haven in a country with vast oil reserves.’18 By the end of 2006, the war had cost the US $400 billion, and rising, as well as the lives of 2,900 Americans. A final bill of $2 trillion looked probable.19
The Americans had been agonizing for months during 2006 about how to deal with the bloody quagmire that was Iraq. In the wake of the Samarra bombing, the US Congress asked two former public officials, James Baker and Lee Hamilton, to head an inquiry into the chaos and come up with a plan to resolve it; the inquiry known as the Iraq Study Group reported back in December 2006. The main conundrum that needed solving was troop numbers. The group’s report described Iraq’s situation as ‘grave and deteriorating’ and concluded there were not enough US soldiers to stop the violence.20 However, it recommended that no additional troops should be sent and urged the Bush administration to start withdrawing combat troops by early 2008.21 In presenting the report, Hamilton, one of its principal authors, said, ‘No course of action is guaranteed to stop a slide into chaos.’22
In January 2007, President George W. Bush rejected the report’s recommendation on troop numbers and instead decided on an opposite strategy, a ‘surge’ of 21,000 additional troops that would take the war to ISI in Anbar and anywhere else it considered was part of its caliphate in Iraq. ‘A struggle that will determine the direction of the global war on terror’ is how Bush put it at the time.23
Kilcullen said it was Bush’s realization that he faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of ISI that changed everything, followed quickly by the replacement of his controversial defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. He said, ‘We were struggling to find our way; Bush was disengaged. It was when he fired Rumsfeld and took the management of the war into his own hands, and issued the plan for the Surge and gave that speech on 10 January 2007 when he laid out the plan – that’s when things started to turn around.’24
Awake and surge
The Americans had started to support the Awakening revolt against ISI before the arrival of the extra Surge troops. Eventually, there would be nearly 29,000 extra troops – some five brigades in all. They provided security for the Awakening sheikhs’ meetings and provided military support for the first battle with ISI in November 2006.
It would not take long before Abu Omar and his jihadists provoked the Awakening to begin in earnest. On 25 November 2006, ISI sent fighters to kill an uncooperative sheikh – Jassim Suwaydawi of the Albu Soda tribe – in the Sufiyah district of the Anbari provincial capital, Ramadi. Accompanied by sixteen members of his family and the US infantry, the sheikh managed to fight off ISI and kill sixty-three terrorists. Furious, ISI turned against the local community, killing men, women and children. The US responded with artillery and support and eventually a defeated ISI retired hurt. Afterwards, for good measure, ISI abducted two of the victorious sheikh’s sisters, tethered them to the back of a car and dragged them to their deaths.25 Within two months every tribe in eastern Ramadi had risen up against ISI and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi,26 and the uprising spread to other parts of Anbar through the first half of 2007.
I interviewed Peter R. Mansoor, one of the architects of the Surge. A historian and a soldier, Mansoor had originally opposed the war but had nevertheless served with distinction as brigade tank commander in Iraq for two years following the invasion. A colonel, he would return to Iraq in 2007 as the right-hand man, the executive officer, to the brilliant four-star general David Petraeus, who would lead the Surge. Mansoor also played a key role in the strategy to beat Abu Omar and ISI.
In late 2006, Mansoor had been a leading player in a specially convened conclave of senior colonels that had been tasked by the US joint chiefs of staff with finding a way to beat ISI. The so-called ‘council of colonels’ concluded that more troops were needed and that more Sunnis had to be brought into the political process and, crucially, into the security forces.27 Mansoor argued that the Awakening was struggling and was going nowhere without the support of extra US troops promised in the Surge, adding:
The Awakening really began in late summer of 2006 but it was really confined to Ramadi and it hadn’t even taken over all of Ramadi when the Surge began.
I scratch my head at the folks who say, ‘Well the Surge didn’t do anything because the Awakening did everything.’ They don’t see how the two intertwined. Without the support of General Petraeus the Awakening stays in Ramadi. He put his full weight behind the Awakening and that’s when commanders reached out and tried to find sheikhs they could make deals with and the Awakening then had legs to grow and expand dramatically. The two were synergetic in their effects.28
General Petraeus sensed something extraordinary was happening and he was determined to take advantage and back it to the hilt with military support and money. He soon created reconciliation teams to seek out tribal leaders and recruit their tribesmen into armed neighbourhood watch organizations eventually called Sons of Iraq.29 Petraeus’s plan was to eventually incorporate the Sunni volunteers into the Iraqi police force. He would pay them from the US military’s cash fund.30 As a senior adviser to Petraeus in Iraq, David Kilcullen too had strongly advocated the strategy of working with the Awakening:
These sheikhs in Anbar weren’t Jeffersonian democrats; a lot of these guys were basically gangsters who were used to things being a certain way and were not used to coming under state authority and to them it was actually quite a big deal to work with any government. So they saw their own community being systematically destroyed and decided the only thing to do to save the community was to ally with us, who they hated; they even hated us during the Awakening, but they saw us as the lesser of two evils.31
By the end of 2007, there were 73,000 Sons of Iraq on the payroll, a source of angst for senior Shia politicians running the government, who began to fear the emergence of this Sunni army.32 The vetting process included taking fingerprints, biometric scans and photographs.33 Tragically, as would become apparent, Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, always deeply suspicious and fearful of the Awakening and the Sons of Iraq, would obtain this information later and use it against recruits to destroy the Awakening movement.
By March 2007, ISI had launched chemical warfare on the Sunni cities and towns it once terrorized at will. On 16 March, ISI suicide bombers detonated three truck bombs containing chlorine gas in Ramadi, Fallujah and Amiriyah. Surprisingly only two people died, both policemen – but around 350 people suffered from the effects of chlorine poisoning.34 Eventually, ISI overcame the initial technical difficulties involved with chemical warfare and demonstrated its deadly new prowess with a chlorine attack on a market in the village of Abu Sayda, north of Baghdad, in which thirty-two people died.35
The gas attacks deeply worried the perpetrators of 9/11 and sundry other massacres back at al-Qaeda Central, as was revealed by a letter later discovered at the home of Osama bin Laden by the US. On 28 March 2007, an Egyptian, whose identity is not known, wrote a letter to a senior scholar respected by al-Qaeda, known as Brother Adnan Hafiz Sultan, expressing deep anxiety about the use of chlorine by ISI in its chemical war. At this stage, ISI was lying to bin Laden about its use. The Egyptian said further in his letter to ‘Brother Adnan’ that he had warned Abu Omar al-Baghdadi against the use of chlorine, saying, ‘The gas could be difficult to control and might harm some people, which could tarnish our image, alienate people from us and so on.’ He added with undeserved relief, ‘Like we say, “it’s not our business,” or “we have enough problems,” God help us. They [ISI] have put it on hold for now, but the best thing could be [for] you, brother “Adnan” to examine this issue with your experts.’36
ISI launched a ferocious chlorine attack on the very day the Egyptian wrote his letter of reassurance to the al-Qaeda leadership. This time the suicide attack was on the government centre at the heart of Fallujah. No deaths were reported but numerous Iraqi soldiers and policemen suffered from poisoning. Chlorine gas would be used time and again by the group. In September 2014, it was confirmed that Islamic State had gassed to death three hundred soldiers using chlorine at Saqlawiyah, north of Fallujah.37
A cache of ISI documents dating from this time was discovered in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar and revealed much not only about how the group operated but also revealed a great deal about the foreign fighters who were coming across into Iraq from neighbouring Syria. Of the 576 fighters that listed their nationality, 41% were from Saudi Arabia, with Libya as the next most represented country. Syria, Yemen and Algeria made up 19.2%.38 The vast majority of recruits were in their twenties with some as young as sixteen.39 ISI asked the recruits to bring money and fill in forms detailing the tasks they would undertake in Iraq. Of the 376 fighters who wanted at that stage to stipulate those tasks, an 56.4% – 212 young men – volunteered to be suicide bombers.40 The organization’s suicide battalion was known as al-Barra bin Malik, and was led by one Abu Dajana al-Ansari. The foreign Arab volunteers made up the majority of its high-turnover membership but by 2006, the real influx of Iraqi volunteers had begun.41
In early 2007, experts based in the US state department estimated ISI strength at around 1,000 fighters,42 a very small number when compared to the 30,000–40,000 that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Islamic State were said to command by 2014. Despite this relatively small number of jihadis, ISI was still able to project enormous violence and terror and almost bring the US superpower to the brink of apparent defeat.
The big idea behind the Surge was for US troops to ‘live among the people’ to provide security and services instead of being outside the population in their big secure military bases.43 This meant setting up more than a hundred small outposts and joint security stations, three quarters of them in the most crucial sectors of Baghdad. The capital had suffered much of the worst violence, including a five-car bomb attack in November 2006 in the huge predominantly Shia slum Sadr City that had left more than 160 dead.44 By June 2007, the US had established sixty-eight small forts across the capital45 and was systematically targeting areas where the violence was worst. Once a neighbourhood was secure, essential services would then be provided to the local people there. This often led to fierce fighting with ISI as well as some Shia militia determined not to cede territory to the Americans. In a raid on an ISI safe house, the Americans found important computer files and crucially a hand-drawn sketch by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the group’s military leader.46 It revealed how he had broken Baghdad down into ISI’s own specified sectors with each area under the control of a different leader. The drawing also revealed the organization’s so-called support ‘belts’ around the Iraqi capital, providing the terrorists with sanctuary and places to make car bombs.47
As General Petraeus’s right-hand man and executive officer, Peter Mansoor also helped to devise the strategy to take on the ISI car bombers. He said, ‘The best way is to find the car bomb factories and to shut them down. As the Surge progressed, we had pretty good intelligence especially in the Baghdad belts where these cars were being produced and then injected into Baghdad. And inside Baghdad itself we would find the machine shops and so on.’48
Effectively expelled from Ramadi, Fallujah and most of Anbar by the spring of 2007, ISI moved the capital of its crumbling caliphate to Amiriyah,49 the run-down, predominantly Sunni city west of Baghdad where it was already firmly entrenched. Mansoor said, ‘We knew all along that the jihadists wanted a caliphate; I knew that as early as 2003 when I was there as a brigade commander. So they kept moving their capital of the caliphate around as we kept destroying their control over various areas. At one point it was Fallujah, then Ramadi and then it was Baqubah.’50
The Sunnis of Amiriyah were terrified of the Shia militia but many had come to despise ISI. They were sickened by the sight of elderly Christians being dragged off to their deaths and the ISI habit of dumping the booby-trapped corpses of their victims in the rubbish. Dogs ate the body of a ten-year-old boy, who had been beheaded, because people were too afraid to collect him.51
Even Amiriyah would eventually enjoy relative calm under the protection of US troops and local recruits because by the summer of 2007 ISI was also being chased out of Baghdad and surrounding areas. The Americans took credit for this although some leading commentators would later pin the reduction in violence on the brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing of Sunni or mixed neighbourhoods by the Shia militias.52
Through the spring and summer of 2007, two major US Surge offensives were well under way against ISI. Operation Phantom Thunder was the largest coordinated military operation since the 2003 invasion. Led by Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the operation took the fight to ISI in Abu Omar al-Baghdadi’s so-called ‘belts’ around Baghdad and throughout central Iraq. The overarching objective was to prevent Abu Omar’s terrorists in the provinces feeding the violence in the Iraqi capital.53 A separate mission, Operation Arrowhead Ripper, formed part of the offensive. More than ten thousand US and Iraqi troops inflicted a decisive defeat on ISI in the group’s stronghold of Baqubah in the Diyala province north of Baghdad. The troops then destroyed ISI positions north-east of Baqubah along the Diyala River valley.54 A letter found at Osama bin Laden’s house in 2011 revealed the concern of some leading jihadis about the scale of the assault on ISI. Written by an unknown Egyptian jihadi to a scholar respected by bin Laden, the note said ‘the fighting against them is very fierce in every respect,’ said one letter addressed to ‘Dear Brother Adnan’. ‘We ask God to give them strength and to deliver them and make them victorious over the ungodly and unjust.’55
In June 2007, Abu Omar tried to rekindle the sectarian flames of hatred by launching another successful bombing attack on the wrecked shrine in Samarra, this time destroying the remaining minarets. A unit of provincial policemen from the Salahadin emergency response unit, charged with guarding the shrine, were promptly arrested on suspicion of carrying out the bombing, and the US imposed a curfew to limit opportunities for further violence.56
The Surge also took the war to the ISI media cells to kill ‘the message’ as well as the men. The main job of the cells was to film attacks on coalition forces and Iraqi troops and then post the grisly scenes as propaganda on the web. The US went out of its way to smash as many of these units as possible.57 Peter Mansoor said:
We focused intently on destroying their capacity to produce propaganda. We targeted and killed most of their media cells, for the lack of a better term; there were about half a dozen of them. That was one of the priorities for our intelligence – to figure out who were the people who were distributing the propaganda and then deciding ‘Let’s go and get them’.
There was also an information war fought in all the various means of distribution, including the Internet. I just can’t go any further into it than that but let’s just say we paid attention to all the various ways propaganda can be distributed and people can be recruited. There was a holistic campaign to win the information war.58
As a result, ISI’s propaganda output was significantly affected. Its media arm, al-Furqan, released 111 videos in 2007; between January and September 2008, only 34 videos were released,59 and, as became apparent, some of those were fake.
By 13 August 2007, 6,702 suspects had been detained and 1,196 terrorists had been killed. Some 382 ‘high value targets’ had also been killed or captured.60 ISI had been engulfed in a perfect storm of its own making. Further military offensives over the next year would almost eliminate the threat of ISI but despite this crisis, the group was still able to pull off some terror spectaculars.
On the morning of 14 August 2007, ISI suicide bombers attacked the villages of Qataniya and Adnaniya in Kurd-controlled north-western Iraq on the Syrian border. Four ISI suicide bombers used three cars and a petrol tanker packed with a total of around two tons of explosives. At least 500 people were killed and another 375 injured in the blasts, which levelled whole swathes of the two villages, leaving entire families buried under the rubble.61 The final toll cannot be stated with certainty but it has been estimated at around 800. As of 2015, it was the second-deadliest terrorist attack in history, after 9/11.
The people in the villages were the ultimate kuffar as far as ISI was concerned; they were mainly Yazidis, one of the region’s oldest peoples both ethnically and religiously. ISI considered Yazidis ‘devil worshippers’ because they believe that God has placed the world principally under the care of the ‘Peacock Angel’, Melek Taus, an archangel identified by ISI as ‘Shaitan’ or Satan because he refused to bow down to Adam. Along with the Shia and the Christians, the Yazidis were another target of the genocidal bloodlust of ISI and would remain so for ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during his murderous onslaught against them in August 2014. Abu Omar’s man in the area, one Abu Muhammad al-Afri, the ISI ‘emir’ in the northern city of Mosul, had planned the atrocity. Within three weeks of the attack on 3 September 2007, Afri was reportedly killed in a US air strike,62 testimony to General Petraeus’s growing military confidence.
ISI also stepped up its assassination campaign against the tribal leaders of the Awakening who had driven them from Anbar, the caliphate’s heart. On 25 June 2007, an ISI suicide bomber managed to launch a deadly attack on the Melia Hotel located on the west bank of the river Tigris in the Baghdad district of al-Mansour where the tribal sheikhs of the Anbar Salvation Council were meeting. Twelve people died including four important Sunni sheikhs.63Within three months, on 13 September 2007, ISI scored a pyrrhic victory by killing the man who started the uprising, Sheikh Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi.64 After eleven attempts on his life, ISI finally killed Rishawi along with three of his guards on 13 September 2007 with an improvised explosive device planted near his home.65 He was succeeded by his brother Sheikh Ahmad al-Rishawi, who said later of ISI, ‘The organization concentrated on my brother, peace be upon him. They conducted twelve suicide attacks against him. The twelfth operation finally hit him exactly a year after the inception conference.’66 The Awakening continued.
From January 2008, the US launched Operation Phantom Phoenix, aimed at destroying what was left of ISI in Iraq. Another 900 terrorists were killed and 2,500 more captured.67 Increasingly ISI seeped northwards into Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and managed to survive the onslaught over the following years. The success of both the Surge and the Awakening told in the diminishing death tolls. In the first half of 2007, around 2,500 to 3,000 were being killed each month in Iraq; by 2010, the numbers were around a tenth of that.68 Although encouraging, the figures showed ISI was still killing; it had not quite been finished off.
On 1 February 2008, ISI sent two women with Down’s syndrome they had abducted earlier into Baghdad’s popular al-Ghazl pet market, strapped into suicide vests filled with dynamite and ball bearings. At 10.20 a.m., as the market filled with families looking for a cat or a dog, or hoping to buy birdseed, ISI used a mobile phone to remotely detonate the vest worn by the first woman, killing approximately forty-six people.69 She had been well known by the predominantly Shia people living in this part of south-east Baghdad as ‘the crazy lady’ who used to sell ice cream in the market.70 Twenty minutes later, ISI detonated the second bomb strapped to the other woman with Down’s syndrome. A total of ninety-one people were killed in the twin bombings and hundreds were injured. It was three years to the day since Amar Ahmed Mohammed, the nineteen-year-old with Down’s syndrome, had died after Zarqawi’s men had turned him into a human bomb to attack a polling station. Other children had also been used by ISI for attacks. One boy captured by Iraq police in September 2007 told how he had been forced to murder people and even how he was told to assist in the beheadings of victims by grabbing tight hold of their feet. He revealed how he had been brainwashed and repeatedly sodomized by the terrorists.71
The Surge had made people feel increasingly confident but the awful truth about the pet market bombing was that it reminded everyone that ISI was prepared to stoop to any tactic to inflict as much damage and kill as many people as possible, as long as it possessed the capability. It would always pose a threat, unless it was completely eradicated. The Surge and the Awakening helped to improve security dramatically in Iraq and both initiatives in tandem came tantalizingly close to destroying ISI.
The pet market bombing and the use of two defenceless women with Down’s syndrome to carry it out was also a sign of how desperate the group had become. The Surge had dramatically reduced the number of foreign fighters getting into Iraq, from an estimated 80–110 each month from February to June 2007 to only 12–15 each month between January and August 2008.72
In September 2008, strong documentary evidence emerged of the impending demise of Islamic State of Iraq.73 Coalition forces intercepted a series of communications between Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy leader of al-Qaeda Central, and ‘Caliph’ Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and ISI military leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri. The letters were discovered on the corpse of a senior ISI leader called Abu Nizar (real name Ali Hamid Ardeny al-Essawi). Nizar died after pulling a gun at an Iraqi military checkpoint, never the wisest of moves. The letters tell a story of dismay and disarray within ISI as it became overwhelmed by both the Surge and the Awakening.
It is clear the blame game for the disaster had already begun within ISI. In the most revealing letter, there is particular criticism of Masri by an ISI Sharia ‘Judge’ Abu Suleiman al-Otaibi, a Saudi national and the former ‘head of the legal system’ of ISI. In late 2007, an embittered and disheartened Otaibi had travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to complain in person to the leaders of al-Qaeda Central about the parlous state of ISI and what he saw as mismanagement of the group as well as the poor and paranoid ‘military’ leadership of Masri. At this stage, Otaibi appears to have been using al-Qaeda as a kind of father confessor rather than an organization with any real say in the affairs of ISI. Afterwards, a letter from al-Qaeda Central dated 25 January 2008, probably written by Zawahiri and certainly with his knowledge,74 was sent to Abu Omar and Masri detailing Otaibi’s serious criticisms of incompetence, mismanagement and dishonesty at ISI.
Otaibi had made the sensational accusation that the group’s dishonesty extended to the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq itself because Masri and Abu Omar had grossly exaggerated the support they had from the Sunni tribes: ‘He [Otaibi] considers the declaration of the [Islamic] State, in the manner with which it was declared and informed, to have been a mistake, and that there was exaggeration (to a degree which could be called lying) in what was said in terms of the presence and support for it among the heads of the tribes.’75 Otaibi clearly recognized the damage the declaration had done to ISI’s already deteriorating relationship with the Sunni tribes and how far it had gone in sparking the Awakening. Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri must have interpreted the declaration of ISI in October 2006 as a hugely significant slight on their authority and a usurpation of their role at the head of the global jihad. Perhaps they relished Otaibi’s criticisms of the upstart organization and saw them as a rare opportunity to exert some control at long last over a deeply demoralized and errant ISI.
Masri is criticized for being ‘too weak to handle this great responsibility, and…occasionally display[ing] a weakness when facing certain decisions’. Furthermore, he was ‘almost absent from the details of what goes on in the battlefield’ and ‘totally isolated, barely seeing or seen by anyone, except a very select few’. ISI was also fraudulently using for propaganda purposes old archival fighting footage from the days of the Tawid al-Jihad, Zarqawi’s first group, and passing it off as ‘though it was new operations’. Otaibi said that this was ‘fraud and a concealment of the truth’.76
The letters convinced many people that ISI had been defeated, and was in a state of ‘irreparable deterioration’. An ISI operative captured in August 2008 had revealed that the group was in severe financial difficulties and that its biggest concern was ‘where to sleep at night without being arrested’.77 However, General Petraeus was not convinced ISI had been totally defeated, telling the influential Long War Journal blog in September 2008, ‘No one here is doing victory dances in the end zone. [ISI] remains lethal and dangerous.’
So why didn’t the US finish off ISI when it was so clearly on its last legs? According to James Franklin Jeffrey, the US Ambassador to Iraq for almost two years from August 2010, it was down to a lack of resources and commitment from Washington. Jeffrey, also a former senior White House security official between two diplomatic tours of Iraq, told me, ‘In 2010 and 2011 we were doing everything we could do to finish off al-Qaeda [ISI]. That was our priority. But they were dug in around West Mosul and it was very difficult. They were using suicide bombers against us and they ran all kinds of criminal gangs there to raise funds and keep going. That was the citadel of their movement and we never had the operational freedom to take them on there.’ Jeffrey, a critic of the Obama White House’s long term anti-IS strategy added, ‘We had plans to go after them but in the end the plans didn’t materialize because we didn’t keep our troops on and secondly, through misadventure as much with the US government as with the Iraqi government, the complex decisions, actions and budgets that would allowed us to continue the counter terrorism action inside Iraq didn’t happen.’78
Architects of the Surge also believe the job was never finished. ISI had been pushed to the edge of oblivion but not into it. Peter Mansoor, who left the army shortly after the Surge, said, ‘If you don’t get rid of all the cancer cells and if the environment is such that it is conducive to the cells then multiplying, in other words you stop the chemotherapy, then the cancer can come back, and that is an excellent parallel to what’s happened with ISIS.’79