Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment, 6-13 June

Iraq: The al Qae’da Schism and the Political Re-orienting of Iraq:  From ‘bin Ladenism’ to ‘Zarqawi-ism’

Let us be clear at the outset: What we are witnessing now in Iraq (and which has been present as a distinct orientation in Syria since at least 2002/3) is not al Qae’da. In one sense, one might say that western efforts against al Qae’da (bin Ladenism) have had some effect: Indeed ‘bin Ladenism’ largely has been eclipsed.  But not by ‘moderate’ Islam (that is an orientation deep into retrenchment). No, al Qae’da has been by-passed and replaced in the Sunni Arab world by a new movement that has formally severed itself from bin Ladenism – and has turned against it.  In short, the withering of al Qae’da paradoxically has turned out to be something of a ‘Pyrrhic’ achievement.  Al Qae’da has been by-passed certainly, but by something more extreme, more violent, and infinitely more dangerous.

To understand the nature of this shift, we should recall the circumstances in which al Qae’da emerged.  It arose out of a ‘myth’.  It arose out of the (mistaken) conviction by the Afghan mujahidin that they had been instrumental in bringing about the implosion of a global superpower ­- the USSR.  Al Qae’da simply was the articulation of an ‘idea’ that if the USSR was vulnerable to implosion through provocatively poking it in the eye until the superpower’s overreaction brought about its military and economic overreach – then America was just as vulnerable to this form of attack too.

Bin Laden (and more correctly Abdallah Azzam’s) insight was that the West’s greatest ‘asset’ – globalization – could be turned back upon itself, to devour its own ethos and values – through global acts of outrage that would force America into global overreach, and into perverting its own principles in the attempt to swat a gnat. (See Faisal Devji’s Landscapes of Jihad for bin Laden’s explicit articulation of these aims).  From the outset, ‘bin Ladenism’ (an imprecise attribution) was about imploding the ‘far enemy’ (as opposed to fighting ‘near’ enemies), and was opposed to sectarianism.  It was ‘broad tent’.  Bin Laden even appropriated and reinterpreted Sufi symbolism to increase the movement’s appeal.  It was, in short, an utopian revolutionary project, whose leaders largely came from the urban, educated elite.

Recall too, that the western political elite was rather pleased with the success of this ‘firing-up’ of radical Sunni Islam, managed and stage-directed by their ally, Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and which had helped ‘bring down’ the USSR, in a sweet revenge for Viet Nam.  This “jewel” of an achievement had followed an earlier co-production, in which Sunni Islam had been mobilised to combat Ba’athism, Nasserism and socialism in the decades earlier.  These acclaimed “successes” of working with Saudi Arabia to mobilise Sunni Islam in the western interest, also provided a dividend for the Saudis:  The latter had long sought to reduce the multiplicity of voices in Islam down to a single voice, to impose a unitary authority (over interpretation of the Qur’an and therefore of that single voice), and to have one figurehead leading Islam.

Zarqawi-ism, however, emerged from quite different circumstances.  It arose from out of an aggrieved, resentful underclass in the suburbs of Amman: the impoverished countryside displaced into a crushing industrial ghetto on the city’s outskirts.  After 2003, Zarqawi in Iraq fed into the much wider sense of Sunni usurpation and grievance. In the wake of the American occupation, the Sunni unceremonious ousting from power, the humiliation of Saddam’s botched execution, the disbanding of a proud Army which believed that it had had a prior agreement with the US military command and would be accorded some respect for their decision not to contest the American invasion, all these grievances bit deeply. And Zarqawi focused the resentment of his foot-soldiers onto the ‘usurpers’:  onto Iran, onto the Shi’i who were displacing the Sunnah in power, who were filling the positions in the security services, and who ultimately were to prevail in the ‘war’ of the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad.

Zarqawi-ism essentially was a narrow, aggrieved, bigoted, intolerant, self-righteous perception onto the world.

Unlike ‘bin Ladenism’, this was a movement fuelled by grievance, resentment and a desire for revenge. Usama bin Laden was always suspicious of his Jordanian protege even before Sept. 11, 2001, and sought to keep him at arm’s length.  Bin Laden exiled Zarqawi for a time to western Afghanistan because he distrusted his loyalty and his extreme sectarian violence against Iraq’s Shiites. Although he did  value Zarqawi’s ‘efficiency’ once the Iraq war started.

Many of those who joined Zarqawi in the fight against America’s occupation came from Syria (perhaps as many as 10,000 ­- and mostly from villages in the Sunni belt stretching from Tripoli in Lebanon to the countryside adjacent to Homs and Hamma, as well as from the north.

As the war abated, many of these fighters filtered back to their homes in Syria.  Subsequently, al-Baghdadi, was to disclose publicly that it had been as early as 2003 that al-Qae’da began to set up a clandestine movement in Syria that would serve as al Qae’da in Iraq’s logistics and military support and supply line.  This clandestine front was called Jabhat al-Nasra.  It was avowed by Ayman Zawahiri last year as al Qae’da’s official representative in Syria, following a bout of bitter bitter conflict with ISIS.  Al-Baghdadi, and many ISIS commanders then severed from al-Qae’da, whom they accused of following an erroneous doctrinal path.

It is precisely this doctrinal divergence that both explains why ISIS is not al-Qae’da, and which gives sense to what has been happening in Syria, what presently is occurring in Iraq, and which clarifies why the emergence of this movement is truly radical.  Recall that that Saudi Arabian figures (not necessarily officials) historically have seen an advantage in using Salafist jihadi groups for their own (Saudi, as well as western ends, (as in Afghanistan and in Iraq). Al-Qae’da was not essentially at direct odds with Salafist Islamic doctrine, or Saudi aims, as understood within the kingdom.

But ISIS is. While the Gulf countries are now worried of the “strong chance that the chaos will find its way to the borders of the GCC”, one jihadi source who spoke to a leading independent Lebanese newspaper, Al-Akhbar, said that Baghdadi (the leader of ISIL) received “encouraging signals from a regional agency in a friendly Sunni Muslim country to enter Syria, and promises of financial support toward this goal.” Although the source stopped short of naming that country, when asked whether it was Saudi Arabia or Qatar, he replied, “It is one of these two”.”

This new doctrine that has by-passed the bin Ladenist ‘idea’, essentially amounts to revisionist history: this reading of history insists that the Islamic State did not emerge from the actions of the Quresh (The Prophet’s tribe), nor from the Caliph, or nor from the ‘rightly-guided’ first communities ­ nor even from the military victories of Salahidin. Rather, the state emerged from the actions of many small bands of ‘fighting scholars’ fighting for justice in the name of Islam.  These groups were often led by a scholar/Imam who interpreted the Qur’an to its members, and acted as their source of textual authority.  At the point that these groups finally coalesced together, it was then, and only then, that an Islamic State came into being.

ISIS is not a ‘movement’.  It sees itself as the embryonic Islamic State taking shape.  In this vision, they are ‘undoing’ the nation-state and all the divisions and frontiers bequeathed by Sykes and Picot; they are ‘cleansing’ Islam of all its heresies and innovations. purifying it with ‘fire’, as it were.  And they are seeding the nascent State. Baghdadi does not accept military cooperation – except with those factions that have given allegiance to him – and he believes that ISIS preachers alone have scriptural authority of interpretation ­ following the tradition of the historic ‘fighting scholars’.  In addition, he demands that all the spoils of war and revenues to go ISIS.

How could it be otherwise: as Jamal Khashoggi, the former spokesman of Prince Turki Al-Faisal, posing the question “why ISIL does not unite with other Islamic factions?” writes, “the answer is very simple: ISIS is the ‘State’, so how can a state unite with organizations? Moreover, ISIS believes that these organizations should remain under the umbrella of the ‘state’, pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “Amir al-Mumineen” or the commander of believers, and staying obedient and submissive in times of fortune and adversity”.

It is not hard to understand why Khashoggi should be so scathing about ISIS.  Saudi legitimacy rests on three pillars: lineage from the Quresh; control of the mosque and possession of scriptural authority in respect to interpretation (Wahabbi uelama and al-Azhar University in Cairo). ISIS’ revisionist history strips the Saudis of all three pillars.

ISIL has made big gains through its involvement in Syria, recruiting thousands of jihadists — estimates suggest that nearly 65% of al-Nusra fighters defected to ISIS. Entire battalions are reported to have joined ISIS, on occasion.  The group was also able to seize weapons (overrunning the major arms warehouses of General Idris’ Free Syria Army in December 2013), and to secure very lucrative sources of funding by controlling oil fields. ISIS currently controls many oil fields and is battling for control for more fields still.  According to al-Nusra sources, one oil well south of Raqqa in eastern Syria brings in up to $1.3 million per day, while other fields in and around Raqqa like Zamla, al-Tabaqa, and Kuniko bring in $500,000 per day.

It is this activity in Syria that has served as the platform for the strike into Iraq – ‘taking’ the symbolic city of Mosul, the second largest city of Iraq with two million inhabitants, as well as replenishing the movement with cash and weapons before it moves on towards Baghdad.

The American site Stratfor, known for its US official links, notes that “this success [by ISIS] undoubtedly has much to do with local forces and tribes who have either facilitated ISIL or elected not to fight the group’s incursion into Mosul. In a city of almost 2 million, had ISIL received no local sympathy, it would have been unable to rout the Iraqi forces in the area with only 1,000 to 2,000 fighters. Social media contains several reports of local Sunnis welcoming ISIL forces, and even of local fighters supporting ISIL in attacks against government positions”.

Stratfor is right — but what it does not say is that the groundwork for such a move into Mosul was laid a long time ago – during the Iraq war. What Stratfor is saying (that the ISIL entry into the city had been prepared in advance) if true, requires much preparation. Some reports suggest it has been two years in the making.

Early on in the Iraq war, the Sunnah found themselves under a two pronged attack. On the one hand, America was pitting its entire efforts towards fighting the Sunni insurgency. The Sunnis were isolated and suffering. And on the other hand, they were losing other ‘war’ – ­ the war of the sectarian cleansing in Baghdad.

The solution offered by the Tribal leaders was to offer America a deal. They would curtail the attacks on American troops (using their influence with their fellow tribesmen who supported the resistance), and in return the Tribal leaders would receive funding and weapons: hence the so-called ‘Awakening Councils’.  Ostensibly, the weapons were supposed to be used to confront al Qae’da, which in reality meant mostly stopping the deeply unpopular foreign jihadi crazies who were disrupting Iraqi society, whilst the anger and sense of grievance amongst the Iraqi young tribesmen of the resistance was to be folded back into the Sunni community as a whole.

The Awakening Councils in effect ended the conflict between the Sunnis and the American military -­ in the wider interest of acquiring the means (money and weapons) by which the Sunni community might defend itself from the Shi’i government in Baghdad – and its militias.  In short, there was a much wider community of interest within the Sunni sphere than might have been apparent from the (theatre) of the Awakening Councils’ ostensible siding with America versus the jihadists.  It was during the era of the ‘Councils’ that the infrastructure ­ the networks of shared interests and shared resentments – for the ‘takeover’ in Mosul was laid.

What is significant in the Mosul ‘takeover’ is that it appears that other diverse strands to Iraqi Sunni society are prepared to facilitate a radical group such as ISIL (i.e. reports of local forces supporting and even fighting alongside ISIS).  We have seen not dissimilar alliances forming in Tripoli in Lebanon and in Syria — there are precedents.  Press reports that the ISIL’s ‘push’ was well prepared suggest that this may be the start of the long expected final chapter to the Iraqi civil conflict:  the all-out war for the future of Iraq.

We would hazard the guess that these other strands to Iraqi society would never have entered such a ‘Faustian pact’, unless they were pretty sure that they had some control over the process, and perceived a common end in a shared antipathy towards the government of Baghdad.  (History however, is littered by those who thought they could use the Salafists – only to find it was they, finally, who were used by the Salafists.)  An operation on this scale (if this is what it is) — the political re-orienting of Iraq — also requires substantial resources, beyond the scope of raiding banks in the passing: that is to say, a State ready to support the makeover of Iraq.  Finally, we should recall that Sunnis are the clear minority in Iraq, representing only some 20% of the population.


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