The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify—by Allah’s permission—until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.
Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, 11 September 2004
Little about the Islamic State can be understood without going back to 2003: the US invasion of Iraq. Flickr/Pingnews.com. Some rights reserved.
When IS demolished the Iraqi-Syrian borders and swept into Iraq in early June of 2014, it was still operating under the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But less than three weeks on 29 June later it got rid of its last two significant letters and was transformed to only IS—the Islamic State, without any geographical or national references.
‘ISIL’, ‘ISIS’ or just ‘IS’ represents a significant evolution of names, from those deriving their symbolic power from Quranic words and the history of Islam to mere geographical references to Arab states. This evolution suggests a certain confusion as to how the group has viewed itself—between posing as armed, radical jihadists and acting as a jihadist state with its own territories, sharia laws and revenues.
The story of what is today known as IS began with a long journey from Afghanistan to Iran, then later to Iraq, by a young Jordanian full of jihadi dreams. He was regarded by the former US secretary of state, Colin Powell, in his presentation to the National Security Council on 5 February 2003, as the link between Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda.
Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, whose real name was Ahmed Fadhil al-Khalaylah, formed Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad ( the Monotheism and Jihad Group) in the 1990s in Afghanistan. At the end of 2002, Zarqawi moved to Iraq and joined Ansar al-Islam in the Kurdish area. After the 2003 US invasion he moved south to Baghdad.
In May 2004 he formed a group under the same name, Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which began a meandering journey towards establishing a new model of a state: a jihadist state. The group was not a branch of al-Qaeda until October of the same year, when al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden. al-Zarqawi was named the amir of al-Qaeda in Iraq by bin Laden, and his group became an official branch of the global jihadist network, operating under the name Tanzeem al-Qaeda fi Bilad al-Rafidaeen (al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq).
The group retained the al-Qaeda brand for about a year and a half, during which it explored the Iraqi insurgency landscape and built a powerful network of ties with the main insurgent actors: Sunni extremist groups plus former officers of Saddam’s regime, Baathists and Sunni tribe leaders. All were mainly operating in the Sunni-dominated, western parts of Iraq. In January 2006 the Mujahdeen Shura Council was declared as an umbrella organization and co-ordinating body for nine Sunni extremist groups, with al-Qaeda exerting the most influence.
On 7 June 2006, while al-Zarqawi was attending a meeting in Baquba, north-east of Baghdad, he was killed in a targeted American airstrike.
In October, Hilf al-Mutaybeen (Alliance of the Perfumed Ones) was declared, including another few Sunni insurgent groups in addition to the Mujahdeen Shura Council. But the most significant step in this convoluted history, beyond alliances, pacts and militant networks, was declaring an ‘Islamic state’ on 15 October in the westof Iraq, at the height of the Iraqi civil war, under the name al-Dawla al-Islamyia fi al-Iraq–the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
al-Dawla was established after all the jJihadist groups operating within the Shura Council dissolved themselves and pledged allegiance to Abu Omar al- Baghdadi, the new Amir ul-Mu’minin (leader of the ISI), who was killed in 2010. The organization’s leadership was then succeeded taken by another Baghdad–the Bucca prison graduate, jihadist and current self-declared caliphate, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, the Islamic State's self-declared caliph, about whom very little is still known. Flickr/Theirry Ehrmann. Some rights reserved.
Born in 1971 in Samara, a city about 70km north of Baghdad, Ibrahim al-Samarrai remained the murkiest of jihadist leaders, with only two obscure photographs in circulation until he appeared giving a Friday sermon in Mosul on 5 July 2014. al-Baghdadi was arrested in Fallujah in Feburary 2004 and detained in Camp Bucca, which turned into an ideal academy for pumping out hard-core jihadists. He was released in December of that same year. Most of the group’s top commanders and many of al-Baghdadi’s high deputies are Bucca graduates.
This shadowy character, about whom very little is still known, would create the most notorious and brutal group—Da’aish, the derogatory Arabic term for IS. In October 2011 the US State Department designated him a "Global Terrorist".
In August 2011, a few months after the beginning of the Syrian uprising, al-Baghdadi sent his Syrian representative and ‘soldier’ Abu Muhammad al-Golani across the border, with the blessing of al-Qaeda’s central command, to establish the Syrian version of the group under the name Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahal-asham (the Support Front for the People of Sham). This started military operations at the end of 2011 and was announced formally in January 2012. The main goal of the group was to bring down the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad and establish an Islamic state.
On 9 April 2013, the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Baathist state in Iraq, al-Baghdadi declared the birth of a new state. In an audiotape released online, he said al-Nusra was an extension of ISI and part of it. By declaring the merger between al-Nusra and ISI, and adding the letter L to its name, al-Baghdadi annexed Syria and all of the Levant to his Islamic state and the name was officially changed to ISIL.
At the end of June 2014, after ISIL had secured control of large territories in both Iraq and Syria, just when it was getting closer to achieving its strategic goal as suggested by its long name; all of a sudden it dropped the last two words to declare itself as the Islamic (or Caliphate) State.
April 2003: awakening identities
Little about the group or the Islamic State will be explicable and understandable without looking back at 2003 and the US-led invasion of Iraq. April 2003 was the birth of a whole new political phase in Middle East in regard to the awakening of narrow identities, especially sectarian identities. Overthrowing Saddam meant the collapse of a state that had been led for 35 years by a strange mixture of totalitarian Baathist ideology with a flavor of Sunni sectarianism. Sunnis have always viewed themselves as the political masters of Iraq, and their loss of power for the first time since the creation of Iraq in 1921, as well as in the region as a whole, was a loss too heavy to be accepted.
If April 2003 was the liberation month for the Iraqis, then it was Shia who displayed that liberation, as they were the first people amongst Iraqis to exercise their freedom openly–for the first time in more than a quarter century. Less than two weeks after American troops captured Baghdad and toppled Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square, masses of Iraqis left their houses and marched south, indifferent to the troops watching in bewilderment. This strange scene went almost unnoticed, unread and unanalyzed, and was eventually dismissed. But the liberation month coincided with the annual service of al-Arba’in, the commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein, one of the Shias’ holiest imams. The mourning rituals had been banned by the previous regime.
All over Baghdad and southern Iraq hundreds of thousands of people carrying green and black flags, some with written banners, and chanting religious songs took to the roads to the holy city of Karbala, where the shrines of Imam Hussein, the prophet’s grandson, and some other Shia imams are located. That journey, taken on foot, by a great mass of Shia (millions, according to a member of Karbala’s governing council), was the very first demonstrated parade of freedom in the post-Saddam Iraq. This symbolic pilgrimage represented a clear indication of what the future of Iraq would look like—Shia domination.
The rise of the Shia in post-2003 Iraq worried many neighbouring Sunni countries but the most worried were Iraqi Sunnis, especially after the disbanding of the army and the de-Baathification law, which led to the removal of most high ranking Baathist officials, banned from employment in the new government. Sunnis have always viewed themselves as the political masters of Iraq, and their loss of power for the first time since the creation of Iraq in 1921, as well as in the region as a whole, was a loss too heavy to be accepted. Most did not ascribe any legitimacy to the new rulers.
The sense of alienation and exclusion grew stronger amongst the Sunni population in the western provinces. From the beginning, Sunnis rejected the new political reality, refusing to take part in the political process, and boycotting the first democratic election in January 2005. Soon after 2003 former regime loyalists and tribesmen launched an insurgency. And the launching point was Fallujah, known as the city of minarets. That’s when and where al-Qaeda in Iraq stepped in, not to build alliances but to dominate the insurgency. That in 2006 and 2007 al-Qaeda, a terrorist—and to some extent foreign—group, was able rapidly to win the hearts and minds of most of the Sunni population and occupy a large swathe of Anbar province, especially Fallujah and the Sunni triangle, , was not due mainly to its Islamic ideology or military power but its perfect exploitation of the growing sense of victimhood within the Sunni community.
Although it extensively used anti-American resistance discourse, most of the insurgency operations did not target coalition forces or American occupiers as much crowded Shia markets, schools and neighborhoods. All the alliances that have been formed since 2004 between Sunnis–especially old Baath loyalists, former Saddam’s officers and some tribesmen–and al-Qaeda and later ISI, was based entirely on one crucial element–the rejection of the Shia government in Baghdad. Essentially, what has happened since 2003 can be defined as a major sectarian-identity war.
Whoever has read the Abbottabad letters and documents, which consists of 17 electronic, declassified documents captured during the US raid on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011, knows well that bin Laden was worried about al-Qaeda’s image, and that he along with his senior officials knew that the reputation of his organization had been damaged within the Islamic world. In Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, al-Qaeda was gradually turning into a terrorist franchise business, with many groups operating under its license and using its jihadist trademark without any ties to its central command or obedience to its orders. And one of the groups that contributed to a distortion of an already shaky image was the Islamic State of Iraq.
But bin Laden was not fully aware that al-Zarqawi was building a powerful legacy, becoming more influential amongst a new jihadist generation–especially in Iraq. With recent events, he has especially proved his legacy is far deadlier than bin Laden’s. After pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda, al-Zarqawi (and later ISI followed in his footsteps), started to take the organization to a new level of extreme brutality, especially against Shia and Christians, by setting new hudud (Islamic punishment laws) and finding ways to transform terror to a new fiqh, (jurisprudence).
One of the Abbottabad letters (SOCOM-2012-0000004 Trans), written to bin Laden by the American Adam Yahiye Gadahn, believed to be his cultural interpreter and media advisor as well as supervisor of the As-Sahab Foundation for Islamic Media, compares ISI policies with those of the former US president George W. Bush, asking:
Isn’t this policy of (Islamic State of Iraq) exactly the same policy of Bush that rebuffed Europe and wise men of the world? Bush said either with us or with terrorists and did not leave any space for neutrality. This group in Iraq is telling the Christians either with us or with al-Maliki government and no space for neutrality, or either you pay the ‘Jizya’ (non-believer’s tax) to our fictitious state that cannot defend itself and has no chance of defending you or we will eliminate you [the original translation says we will destroy your goods.] Is this the justice we are talking about?
This letter was written in early 2011, after the infamous attack on the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in October 2010 in Baghdad and many other attacks on Christians there and in Mosul. And it asks whether the “al-Qaeda organization declares its discontent with this behavior and other behaviors being carried out by the so called Islamic State of Iraq”. Christians were however not the only victims of the horrifying ‘cleansing’ waged by al-Dawla: Yazidis, Mandaeans and other religious minorities were also targets but the Shia remained the most tempting.
Paroxysm of violence
After 2003 the Shia offered a perfect combination of the two images most abhorrent to ISI: religiously apostate and politically traitorous, collaborating with the American occupation. Rejecting Shia dominance in the new Iraq was the primary commonality around which the group built alliances with Iraqi Sunni factions.
The Shia had not governed an Arab state for centuries: the last Shia Arab seat of power was the Fatimid Caliphate from 909 to 1171 AD. The post-Saddam period represented a highly significant moment for all Shia; it meant political control over the land of Iraq, with its two holiest cities, Najaf and Karbala, core symbols of Shia religious narratives. Meanwhile, Sunnis could not acknowledge the political loss of Baghdad.
In its early stages the insurgency mostly targeted American troops. But with the involvement of al-Qaeda in 2004 and its increased sway, Shia more and more became the focus. The targets gradually expanded to include Shia holy sites and ordinary civilians in crowded markets and dense neighbourhoods. After 2003 the Shia offered a perfect combination of the two images most abhorrent to ISI: religiously apostate and politically traitorous, collaborating with the American occupation.
After the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samara–one of the holiest Shia sites–and with the declaration of ISI later that year, a full-scale, psychopathic civil war broke out in Baghdad and most of the mixed areas of Iraq. Both sides visited vengeance on each other’s populations, targeting hospitals, schools, mosques, funerals and so on.
At the height of the civil war between 2006 and 2008 Baghdad went through the most horrifying atrocities, committed by both sides, with ISI especially never hesitating to film most of its operations—particularly the beheadings and other executions—to amplify the impact of the terror felt by Shia audiences. The cleansing sectarian campaigns led to dramatic changes in the demographic shape of Baghdad, engendering devastating social divisions.
All non-Sunni citizens in this dawlah (state) were targets of ISI, especially those who were regarded as kufar (non-believers). Yazidis, considered by ISI devil-worshippers and heretics, were targeted more than once. In a single operation led by ISI in 2007 several truck bombs destroyed two Yazidi villages, killing around 800 people and wounding more than 1,500.
Gadahn’s letter to bin Laden goes beyond a declaration of discontent, understanding that the only way to reform al-Qaeda’s image was for the organization to “declare the cutoff of its organizational ties with that organization [ISI]”. Otherwise, he wrote, “its reputation will be damaged more and more as a result of the acts and statements of this group”.
But the declaration of cutting off ties with self-declared Islamic State of Iraq did not take place until three years later.