The Rise of ISIS: Its Power Explained Through the Political Dynamics in the Middle-East

anticapitalistes google images
Anticapitalistes/Google Images (CC BY-SA)

Anticapitalistes/Google Images (CC BY-SA)

By Kari van der Ploeg –  

ISIS’ rapid rise of power was accompanied by a severe social media campaign. They confronted the world with gruesome videos of executions of not only westerners, but also Arabs and Muslims. Many people have started wondering why ISIS is killing its fellow Muslims. ISIS emerged as a result of a vacuum of desperation amongst Sunni Muslims. Since the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003, Sunni Muslims have started to feel insecure, paranoid and under siege. After the Arab Spring, events have made these feelings escalate and lead to violent revolt. Sunnis have felt powerless after losing control in Iraq and are now suffering atrocities at the hands of the government in Syria. The rise of ISIS functions as a clear reaction to these events.

The capitalization of ISIS is directly linked to recent events in Iraq and Syria. The revolution in Syria has nurtured hope for a political comeback among Sunnis in Iraq. Hope was however crushed when, in December 2012, bodyguards of the moderate Sunni Minister of Finance Rafi al-Issawi were arrested by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government. Feeling excluded and persecuted, peaceful protests emerged in Baghdad and Sunni provinces in northern and central Iraq. Protesters demanded an end to political, civil and economic discrimination against the Sunni community, which had started after the invasion of Iraq by the United States. Soon, protesters realized that Maliki was only offering cosmetic changes, shunning direct negotiations and failing to provide safety measures in Sunni dominated areas. Distrust against the government empowered radical factions. When the Iraqi government attacked a Sunni peace camp at Hawijah, killing fifty people and injuring 110, relations escalated and factions polarized along sectarian lines.

Peaceful protest became violent insurgence. As the government consequently performed ill-planned counteroffensives, shelling Sunni areas and forcing half a million people out of the Anbar region where food became more and more scarce, they have made the Sunni population more susceptible for ISIS’ rule. Corruption and patronage based on party, family or community under Maliki’s government, only contributed more to the marginalization of Sunni Arabs.

The hostility of Sunnis against Maliki and his government has enabled ISIS to gain momentum among Iraq’s Sunni population. The power became divided between the formal political power and Sunni insurgents, refusing to be discriminated. ISIS used these divisions in Iraqi society to rise fiercely and with great speed. Taking over Sunni areas, they were careful not to alienate the local population. Fighters were warned to behave moderately towards the Sunni population. As ISIS spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said:

“Accept repentance [to those who have fought alongside the government army] and recantations from those who are sincere, and do not bother those who do not bother you, and forgive your Sunni folk and be gentle with your tribes”

Notwithstanding ISIS brutalities, the Iraqi population currently favors ISIS over its own government. Feeling belittled, demonized and increasingly subject to a central government crackdown, many Sunni Arabs have concluded that their only realistic option is to fight the Shia hegemony, according to the International Crisis Group.

Knowing how things escalated in Iraq explains a tendency among Sunnis to turn to extreme measures. However, it does not explain why Sunni Muslims are so afraid of Shiites and why fighting Shia Muslims specifically is the only way to win back their rights. To find an answer to this question, we have to look at the power dynamics in the region which are inextricably linked to the apocalyptic prophecies of both Shia and Sunni Islam.

According to the prophecies as mentioned in the hadith, Judgement Day will come when the final battle has taken place in Dabiq between the Muslims and the Roman Empire  (i.e. the West). The members of the Islamic State believes they are fulfilling this prophecy. According to the, ‘the Mahdi’ will return when the battle in Dabiq has taken place. Sunni and Shia prophecies differ in their perception of ‘the Mahdi’. Sunnis believe him to be the prophet Muhammed’s successor, who is yet to come into existence. For Shia Muslims, the Mahdi has been born as Muhammed al-Mahdi, also known as the Twelfth Imam or the Hidden Imam, but disappeared. At the end of days he will come out of hiding and bring justice and victory over those who oppose the sharia. Iran uses the prophecy of al-Mahdi as a legitimization for their expansionist behavior. Iran’s rulers are still communicating a dream of reinstating the old Persian Kingdom, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from the Balkan in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. By claiming that they have to control this area in order for al-Mahdi to return, they legitimize their actions.

The conflict about dominance over the area between Sunni and Shia groups is used by ISIS to motivate their fighters. The backing of Alawi President Bashar al-Assad in Syria by Iran and Hezbollah confirm ISIS’ anti-Shia conspiracy. ISIS claims that Shia Muslims want to control the whole area and want to convert everyone to Shia Islam. Close relations between Syria and Iran have led to a spur of Shiism in Syria, which makes Syrian Sunnis believe that the government is promoting conversion of Syrians to Shi’ism and shift the country’s demographic balance. This believe is fueled by a growing number of Shia Hawzas and Husseiniyats, which are seminaries where Shia clerics are trained. The establishment of a lot of Shia oriented cultural and financial institutions confirm Sunni fears of the take-over of Shi’ism. The true extent of these allegations is still unclear, but what is certain is that Al Assad’s government is continuously endorsing both the Lebanese and Iranian Shia parties.

Counterbalancing and deterring Shia domination is used as a justification by ISIS for its brutal violence. Its recruits, which are not seldom highly educated, join for this reason. They see it as the only group that is effectively fighting anti-Sunni groups and governments. Frustrations and insecurities have led to the scapegoating and blaming of other groups for their hardship.  Nouri al-Maliki’s system of patronage refusal for compromise has showed that an autocratic, sectarian government only fuels a jihadi problem, rather than diminishing it by repression. Should the Assad regime continue to behave in a similar manner, and should credible Sunni alternatives fail to establish themselves, ISIS will have an opening to maintain their stronghold and become more difficult to defeat.

The enemy’s enemy is a friend: turning a blind eye to the atrocities of the Assad regime

Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr (CC BY/SA)
Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

By Koen Kluessien -

Palmyra, once a hub of Greek, Roman and Persian cultures and an important center of the ancient world, has now become known for the bloodbath perpetrated by the Islamic State and the possible destruction of its historical artifacts. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Islamic State has already executed 217 men, women, and children of Palmyra since 16 May. Although it is important that these atrocities do not go unnoticed, this international attention for the events in Palmyra is exemplary for the media reporting and international politics since the rise of ISIS. Namely, Palmyra (or Tadmor in Arabic) is for many Syrians not only known for its historic landmarks, it is also symbol of the cruelty of the regime of the Assad family that has been oppressing the Syrians for decades. While the international community has been focusing on the bearded killers of the Islamic State who post their cruelties on Youtube, the West seems to have forgotten about the well-shaved President who is still massacring its people in the hidden confinement of Syrian prisons.

Recently, a video surfaced of Syrians in Palmyra taking the street and holding a peaceful protest in which they waved flags and danced to express their hope for change. This video was recorded four years ago. The protesters took to the streets to protest against the cruelties of their own president Bashar al-Assad. The city was home to an infamous prison initiated by his father President Hafez Assad and used for executions and complete massacres in the 80s and 90s. A 1996 Human Rights Watch study reported of a 1980 massacre in which a total of 500 prisoners were killed in one day. On paper the prison was closed when Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad, assumed power in 2001. However, the prison was soon re-opened to imprison the vast amount of dissidents. In 2001 Amnesty International reported the detainees were ‘completely isolated from the outside world’ in a place which seemed to ‘inflict the maximum suffering, humiliation and fear on prisoners’ through excruciating torture tactics.

The same demonstrators who took the streets against the oppression of Assad are now hiding in their basements awaiting another airstrike by the government or another massacre perpetrated by the Islamic State. In the meantime, the international community seems to have turned a blind eye to the waves of atrocities the Assad regime is still committing. In August 2012, President Obama stated that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a clear ‘red line’ for action by the United States. One year later, 1,500 Syrian men, women, and children were murdered in the infamous sarin gas attacks, perpetrated by the Assad regime. Accountability for this massacre came in the form of a UN directive for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Although the regime agreed to destroy the existing stockpiles, the use of chemical weapons has only increased. On April 16, 2015, the United Nations Security Council heard firsthand accounts of doctors from Idlib in northwestern Syria who had treated the most recent victims of Assad’s barrel bombs, many of which contained chlorine gas.

Samantha Power, US ambassador to the United Nations stated she would take every step possible to hold the perpetrators accountable for this attack. If the UN would take action, this would be the first time since 2013 that Assad is punished for his use of chemical weapons. With the international community still hesitant to intervene in these crimes, Assad clearly does not see any reason to stop his attacks and the use of chemical weapons. According to Jett Goldsmith, investigative reporter for Bellingcat, there have been at least six more sarin or chlorine gas attacks from December 2012 to March 2015. While the method of gas attacks is becoming even more deadly, it seems  hypocritical to have a US-led coalition intervention against the positions of the Islamic State while the Assad regime is still dropping barrel bombs on civilians.

Bashar al-Assad’s cruelties seem to go far beyond the atrocities his father committed. As an Amnesty International report on human rights violations in the Syrian city of Aleppo stated: ‘These violations amount to war crimes and in the case of those committed by the Syrian government are so systematic and widespread that they constitute crimes against humanity’. However, the international community is still holding on to its appeasement politics of ‘the enemy’s enemy is a friend’. This reasoning may be a result of the simplistic idea that the Islamisation of the conflict in Syria is growing. Ironically, the one-sided Western military operations are creating conditions that may push some Syrians into the hands of the same extremists the coalition is fighting. There are still many Syrians fighting the Assad regime with the same principles as when they started the protests during the Arab Spring. However, both the US-led coalition and the Western media have been ignoring their voices, creating a feeling of hopelessness that is favorable for extremists such as the Islamic State. As a man who calls himself Aby Ayman stated in an interview with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: ‘I can see the appeal of Isis. As much as I don’t like them, I can see that they are leading some Sunni communities towards a dignity that no government will give them.’

The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State is currently not choosing for a lesser evil, but for a different evil. Resulting in a desperate situation for the Syrian people. As a Syrian cynically stated in an interview with Business Insider, there is not much hope for help from the West: ‘Obama can cover the whole world in red lines. Who cares? We are dying here. And Ban Ki Moon? He is ‘worried’ all the time. Ban Ki Moon is worried, Obama is drawing red lines, everybody is talking and nobody is doing anything.’ If Western countries genuinely want to battle the extremist movements, they will have to listen more to the needs of the civilian population instead of their own pragmatic reasoning.

The Future of Israel: The Impediments of the Upcoming Elections

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu

Photo: Israel/Flickr (CC-BY)

By Laurien Vastenhout –

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, Benjamin Netanyahu encouraged European Jews to settle in Israel. Not only because he considered it to be their sole homeland but also because, due to increasing anti-semitism in Europe, the country provides the only safe haven to Jews. Despite the fact that European governments are most likely still better able to protect their Jewish citizens against (terrorist) attacks than the Israeli government, Jews are currently emigrating from Europe. The expectations are that around 10.000 Jews will emigrate from France this year. Benjamin – ‘Bibi’ – already anticipated on these immigrant Jews and unsurprisingly reasoned that more space was needed to house them. In doing so, he is indirectly justifying Israel’s expansion policies. Last January, the Israeli government published bids for the building of 450 new housing units in West Bank settlements, deepening Palestinian anger and eliciting criticism from the Unites States government which called the move illegitimate, counterproductive and likely to worsen Israel’s isolation. With the elections of the Knesset coming up, Netanyahu’s actions and decisions are increasingly scrutinised. What exactly is Bibi’s standpoint, for example vis-a-vis a two-state solution? What are his future perspectives for the country and does he still have the support of the citizens of Israel?

In his speech given at the University of Bar-Ilan in June 2009, Netanyahu made several concessions concerning the withdrawal from Palestinian territory. “In my vision of peace”, he stated, “in this small land of ours, two people live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect.” Two and a half months before the speech, Netanyahu took the oath of office as the Prime Minister of Israel, pledging to establish a national unity government. These commitments do not really correspond to Bibi’s recent expansion policies and he seems to rather unsteady in his approach to the two-state solution. Recent investigation reports have indicated that there have been several instances over the past years in which Netanyahu was willing to make concessions in order to further a two-state solution. Apparently, there has been a moment Netanyahu agreed to conduct negotiations – in which the Unites States, the United nations, the European Union and Russia were involved – on the basis of Israel’s pre-Six-Day War 1967 borders. The West bank, The Gaza Strip and East-Jerusalem would then become independent Palestinian territories. This would also include territory swaps between Israel and Palestinian territories in order to account for the Jewish settlements in the West bank and in the Eastern part of Jerusalem. The first talks were made in 2011. In 2013 and the beginning of 2014, additional attempts were made to settle the territory issue.

On January, 6 of this year, Netanyahu indicated that the Palestinians have made the speech Bar-Ilan speech meaningless by pursuing unilateral action in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In addition, the Likud party wrote in a published statement last Sunday that, in light of the situation the Middle East is currently confronted with, any evacuated territory would fall either into the hands of Islamic extremism, or terror organisations supported by Iran. As a result, the party officials argued, no concession or withdrawals will be made. With the national elections coming closer, Netanyahu makes a clear move to the political right. It is a strategically important move as recent polls in which respondents were asked how they characterise themselves politically, indicated that only 8 percent of the Israeli Jews said they considered themselves left-wing, while 35 percent indicated they sympathised with the political right. By making this strong and clear turn to the right, Netanyahu most likely hopes to win the majority of the right-wing voters for his cause.

Netanyahu’s move to the right clearly stems from tactical motives. In fact, everything Netanyahu says should be placed in the context of a particular moment and location – these recent statements are characteristic of his continuous movement from left to right. For a long time, it seemed as if this tactic was fruitful as it appeased several parties involved. However, with only three more days to go until the election day Netanyahu’s chameleonic attitude seems to be taking its toll. A universal fatigue of his changeable policies can be identified among the Israeli citizens. However, what are the alternatives? Although the current tendency seems to be that anyone but Netanyahu would suffice, the alternatives are plenty and the Israelis are divided.

For example, on the right one can choose between Naftali Bennett, Moshe Kahlon and Avigdor Liebermann. On the centre, there is the Yesh Atid party on the left the Zionist Union and Meretz.  In addition, there are some orthodox parties. As the situation in the Middle East is rather unsteady, many Israeli citizens want a rightist leader as recent polls have indicated. Thus, although the interest in Netanyahu may be fading, this does not mean that Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor party and co-founder of the new center-left Zionist Union and currently mentioned as Netanyahu’s strongest opponent, will win. Besides, the expectation is that up to eleven parties are expected to gain at least one seat in the next Knesset, leading to ungovernable situation.  For example, if Netanyahu’s Likud wants to form a right-wing government, it most likely will have to cooperate with many different other parties – e.g. Habayit Hayehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu – in order to establish a majority in the Knesset. The same goes for Isaac Herzog; in fact his situation is even worse as he will have to cooperate with ultra-Orthodox parties in order to become prime minister. Even for some the leaders of parties belonging to the same side of the political spectrum, it will become rather difficult to cooperate – Lieberman, Netanyahu and Kahlon are everything but on friendly terms with one another.

Thus, whereas the current government has lasted for quite a few years, it is questionable whether the government after the election will be viable in the first place. In addition, as it has become clear that a cooperation between at least four or five different parties is necessary in order to establish a majority in the Knesset, there will most likely be a dysfunctional government after the elections. Therefore, the perspectives are dreary and, to complicate things further, external factors are playing a prominent role as well. United States officials, for example, have already indicated that whoever will become Prime-Minister of Israel, they expect him to be in favour of a two-state solution. With his recent claims that Jews are no longer safe in Europe and that they shall come to Israel, simultaneously justifying his settlements policy, Benjamin Netanyahu is increasingly isolating Israel from the rest of the world which is further expanded by his continuous tendency to underline that the country is threatened by many sides (Iran, IS, the Palestinians). This will make it difficult to improve the relation with the United States.

Although the most recent polls have indicated that the Likud party is four seats behind its centre-left rival the Zionist Union, it will be no surprise if Netanyahu wins again: overall, his ‘allies’ on the right are likely to win the most seats. In case the Zionist Union is able to establish a majority, it will become an unworkable situation as it has to cooperate with ultra-orthodox parties. Thus, it is unlikely that a more leftist government will govern the country after the elections. In order to give the Zionist Union a chance, the entire political system has to change. For example by reducing the number of parties, or by establishing a system which makes it easier for the party that has received the largest number of votes to form a well-functioning government. It seems unlikely, however, that these kind of fundamental changes will become reality for Israel´s political system in the short term.

Think beyond our desire ‘to do good’: Humanitarian aid during the Sudanese Civil War

European Commission DG ECHO

 

European Commission DG ECHO

Photo: ECHO/Flickr (CC BY-SA)

 

By Iona Mulder -

The picture that you will see if you click on this link is one of the most illuminating pictures I have ever seen. It was sent to me by my professor Lee Seymour  after I told him that I wanted to write an essay on humanitarian aid during the civil war in Sudan. The picture is ambiguous: it is humorous and very sad at the same time. It shows soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) carrying blue children’s backpacks, which were distributed by UNICEF for the purpose of being used by pupils. Looting of humanitarian aid products was denied by all sides of the Sudan’s civil war. However, as this picture displays, this was not the truth.

Humanitarian aid is a controversial subject. How can we judge those who want to ‘do good’, while ‘doing’ nothing ourselves. Despite this feeling it is important to remain critical about the policy and distribution of humanitarian aid because  the effects are not always the ones that were desired. In addition, some local, national and international humanitarian agencies work with a double agenda to favor their ‘own group’, or have other interests. Especially in conflict situations  where  much is at stake and interests are  conflicting, this is a great risk. To quote Mary Anderson: “When international assistance is given in the context of a violent conflict, it becomes a part of that context and thus also of the conflict.” The purpose of this article is not to be merely critical, but to give insight in the undesired effect humanitarian aid can have.

Two aspects are important in this relation. First of all, how humanitarian organizations, also called NGOs (non-governmental organizations),  deal with the complexity of violent conflicts. Secondly, how humanitarian aid can affect the patterns of violence of a civil war. Similar to my previous article, Sudan will be the example of this subject, as part of a three-part series I will write about this former-nation.

The general policy of NGOs  dealing with the complexity of conflicts can be divided into two groups with different policy principles. The classists are a-political, whereas the group referred to as the “political humanitarians” have a political premises. Most NGOs aspire, contrary to state support, to be impartial and neutral in relation to the conflict parties and aid they provide. However, the exact interpretation of  this principle leads to two different policies. The classists’, of who The Red Cross is the founding father, state that humanitarian action and politics have to be completely isolated from each other. In contrast, ‘ political humanitarians’ argue that this is impossible and/or should not be the objective of humanitarian aid. An organization that is exemplary for this latter point of view is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The difference in practice is that these latter organizations also try to stand up for the interests of victims by political means: creating awareness of crisis situations and systemic human right violations, encourage politicians and states to take action, and report abuse of humanitarian aid. The down-side is that this can antagonize certain political leaders or groups, as a result limiting the access to victims and donors.

In the 1980s Sudan was in the middle of a civil war. Furthermore, a famine was forecasted in the southern region, Darfur, the Nile area, and the Nuba Mountains. To prevent or minimize the consequences of this famine and to take care of the victims of the violence, an ambitious humanitarian operation was launched in April 1989: Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). The primary policy of the operation was the implementation of an apolitical distribution policy. The goal was to transport 120,000 metric tons of emergency aid to the south, in a timeframe of six weeks. Sudan’s government and the SPLA both gave their permission to the UN and the forty-four different NGOs involved to distribute humanitarian aid in areas under their power. Remarkably, the evaluations  about the success of the OLS are diverse. This diverseness can be related to the debate about the objectives of humanitarian aid. The classicists valuation of humanitarian aid is primarily focused on the lives that have been saved; they were generally positive about the results of the  OLS. Political humanitarians, as the MSF, who have evaluated the OLS beyond the objective of saving lives are more critical. They claim that the OLS suffered from much political abuse.

This abuse went beyond the stealing of aid goods by armies and rebel fractions for their own use, which seems “an inescapable” aspect of humanitarian aid during conflict, as Alex de Waal has argued.  However, MSF and others have made the persuasive claim that the specific organization of the OLS increased the possibility of the government and the SPLA to exploit  humanitarian aid. A larger part of the execution of the OLS was the responsibility of the government, the SPLA  and local authorities, instead of humanitarian organizations themselves. These organizations often acted from self-interest as a substitute of humanitarian principles. Moreover, they blocked humanitarian aid to certain areas if they feared that their enemies would also be able to benefit. As a result, the humanitarian aid did not benefited the weakest  but the strongest: the militias or local elites.

After a few years of operation  the government successfully promoted a shift in focus within the OLS program from emergency aid to development assistance. With this money, agriculture companies owned by the northern elite were developed. As part of the development program displaced persons, who fled their homes because of the violence in the South, were incorporated on these companies as cheap laborers. They were paid almost nothing, still these displaced persons stayed because they did not have other options to create an income, as the development assistance was concentrated around the northern cities and most of the other economy was destroyed during the conflict. Arguably, these laborers could be seen as labor-hostages. Hence, it were the northern elites who did profit the most from the development assistance.

As I stated in my last article the destruction of villages and their economic resources was part of the military strategy of both sides of the  Sudanese civil war.  Reasons why villages were destroyed were to punish  the supporters  of the  enemy within the conflict, to profit from the plundering or to prevent other parties from obtaining this profit. The presence of humanitarian goods in a village thus increased the vulnerability for military attacks.

Moreover, civilians became target of long-term military strategies to attract humanitarian aid. By undermining the economic infrastructure people become dependent of outside relief, which they could confiscate for their own war economy. Especially large groups of displaced people packed in small areas of refugee camps could attract huge amounts of humanitarian fund. The centralization of humanitarian aid in refugee camps also make it easily obtainable by military groups. In addition, the existence of refugees had some other advantages for the warring groups. To reiterate, the displaced were abused by the  Sudanese government as cheap agriculture laborers. The SPLA did not exploit the refugees in the same structural manner, however, they saw the refugee camps as important recruitment areas for new soldiers, including many child soldiers, due to the fact that Sudanese camps were full of vulnerable unaccompanied minors.  The creation of refugee camps also had a direct link with the military strategy of the government. They placed some refugee camps on strategic places to secure their power over these areas.  The creation of the camps was facilitated by the humanitarian fund of the OLS.

Besides material benefits and military strategies, humanitarian action can also influence the political situation and status of political leaders.  On all level of society can humanitarian aid legitimize the power of leaders and groups. Primarily, humanitarian organizations often have to pay “legitimate” payments to local leaders or groups, in that way recognizing their power over the area.  Secondly, because humanitarian aid can fill gaps of social services, such as water, food and education provisions, community leaders will  not be held accountable by  the population for their omission to provide these services.  Thus alienating leaders of the society.

This was the case in Sudan as well. In the words of Alex de Waal, “at key moments, humanitarian aid has been used to defuse the political implications of famine, finally assisting General Omer al Bashir [president of Sudan] to emerge politically strengthened from the 1990-91 disaster.” The close cooperation between the NGOs and the government gave the impression that the government was willing to work on a solution for the famine, drawing a veil over the fact that it was the policy of the government and their unwillingness to prevent the famine that caused it in the first place.

In sum the humanitarian program in Sudan (the OSL) has saved many lives on short-term. However, in the long run it has contributed to the war economy in various ways and has legitimized the power of political leaders when their politics failed to take care of the population. It seems therefore that the following politically associated questions are important to be answered by NGOs and donors before they take humanitarian action; is the population extra vulnerable because of the presence of humanitarian aid? Are those who have the power of distribution reliable to bring the goods to those in need, without other interests? Is the aid not legitimizing the power of politicians, palliating their mistakes and alienating them from their population?  The ethical implications of the mistakes of the OLS are not that it is better not to provide any humanitarian aid at all, but that, especially in continuing conflict situations, the politics and military context has to be taken into account to avoid undesired consequences that can make the population extra vulnerable. We should think beyond our desire ‘to do good’.

 

 

Unholy Alliances: Radicalisation in US Detention Facilities

Photo: Wisconsin National Guard/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)
Photo: Wisconsin National Guard/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

Photo: Wisconsin National Guard/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

By Kari van der Ploeg -

The Islamic State (IS) is known for its religious fundamentalism. Remarkably, its leadership consists of many men with moderate religious backgrounds. Several of its highest deputies served as officials for Saddam Hussein’s army. As Hussein’s Ba’ath Party was secular by background, this raises questions on how these men evolved from moderate military leaders to religious fundamentalists. It is said that IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi met most of his deputies during his imprisonment at Camp Bucca. Camp Bucca was a detention facility maintained by the United States military since April 2003. In total, 80.000 detainees passed through these centres. Backgrounds included both Sunni and Shia extremists, as well as ordinary criminals. Al-Baghdadi was held in this US maintained detention facility in Southern Iraq since 2004. Testimonies claim that both al-Baghdadi as well as his deputies were known as moderate Muslims before their detention, but radicalised during their time in prison.

Al-Baghdadi used to be known as a modest and withdrawn man that did not hold any radical views on the Islamic faith before he was detained. Members of his local mosque in Tobchi, Baghdad, remember him as a quiet and polite student that was good at soccer rather than being an extremist jihadi. During his time at Camp Bucca, he was not remembered as one of the radical detainees either. Army Colonel Kenneth King, former commanding officer at Camp Bucca, stated in an interview with the Daily Beast: “I’m not surprised it was someone who spent time at Camp Bucca, but I’m a little surprised it was him. He was a bad dude, but he wasn’t the worst of the worst.” Al-Baghdadi remained on the background until Al-Qaida’s shura council, a religious consultative assembly, elected him as leader of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010.

The Islamic State of Iraq was a caliphate (a political order in which everyone lives under religious, political and military Muslim rule), proclaimed by Al-Qaida around 2006. Under the leadership of Al-Baghdadi the group grew significantly. The group pursued a borderless worldwide caliphate. So when the conflict in Syria started, Al-Baghdadi moved his group to the border with Syria. Syria’s branch of Al-Qaida, ‘Jabhat Al-Nusra’, pleaded the ISI to stay out of the conflict and leave it to them, which placed the two groups against each other. After its infiltration of Syria, ISI became known as ISIL or ISIS. On 24 June 2014 it took its current name: ‘Islamic State’ (IS).

When Al-Baghdadi became head of ISI he immediately eliminated all disloyal leaders, surrounding himself with men he most knew and trusted. The most notorious of these men are Fadel Ahmad Abdullah al-Hayali, IS deputy to Iraq, and Abu Ali al-Anbari, IS deputy to Syria. Both were high officials in Hussein’s army and used to practice moderate forms of Islam. Both of them, he met at Camp Bucca.

Details about al-Baghdadi’s stay at Camp Bucca remain vague. Sources give contradictory periods of his imprisonment. It is established that his detention started in 2004, but it is not certain when he was released. The US Defense Department claims he was released after ten months, whereas other sources claim he was detained until 2006. It is however confirmed by several sources that his deputies al-Anbari and al-Hayali were in Camp Bucca at the same time, as well as men that now possess high positions within the IS.

According to previously mentioned Col. Kenneth King, the environment among detainees at Camp Bucca was very hostile. Its population was a mixture between Sunni and Shia militants who had to be kept separated at all times. Prisoners were constantly looking for opportunities to start fighting. They looked for routines, patterns and opportunities while fashioning homemade weapons from junk they found on the ground.  The problem of overcrowding fueled the hostile atmosphere as it enhanced the scarcity of recourses, especially after a great number of transfers from Abu Ghraib to Camp Bucca took place. Another factor that contributed to this atmosphere was a sense of uncertainty among prisoners about their status. Prisoners did not have information whether there was a process in place to review their cases. These insecurities gave rise to a sense of unease and a susceptibility to extreme ideals.

Jihadi inmates, who were part of al-Qaida, played into these sentiments by indoctrinating, threatening and intimidating their fellow detainees. Adel Jasim Mohammed, a former inmate, stated in an interview with Al-Jazeera that they gave classes on chalkboard on how to build and use explosives and how to become suicide bombers. Chaos and vulnerability provided extremists with the opportunity to instill their ideologies upon others.

Other reasons for members of the Sunni oriented Ba’ath party to join the IS was their frustration with local politics towards Iraq’s Shia population. Sunni members were angry about loss of land to Shia Iraqi’s. There also was a lot of discontent among Sunni’s about Iraq’s policy in favoring Shia Muslims. After the US invasion in 2003 Sunnis were barred from government positions and Shias were gaining a lot of political dominance. Again, these sentiments of insecurity and vulnerability were used by jihadists to spark ideological motivations among their recruits. The IS for instance propagates their quest for territory as an existential fight for Sunni-Muslims worldwide. They purposely operate close to Shia divisions to maintain the ideological framework of their fighters.

We see that extremist groups were well aware of the insecurities that occupied their recruits. They efficiently played into these sentiments by indoctrinating them with their ideals, providing them with a reason to fight.