To What Extent Did The United States Foreign Policy In Iraq Influence The Emergence And Growth Of ISIS?

The Islamic state has its origin in Tawhid wa Al-Jihad, an extremist group set up in 2002 by the Late Musab Al- Zarqawi. It became a major force against the United States following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Al-Zarqawi and his group in 2003 pledged alliance to Osama Bin laden and transformed into Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) thus joining a world-wide network of terrorists against the United States and its coalition partners. The late Abu Mussab Al-Zarqawi bore “a fierce hatred for Shiite derived from his Wahhabi-style Puritanism”.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq adopted very extreme tactics in its attack at U.S and Shia targets creating a chain reaction of ethnic violent in Iraq between the Shias and Sunnis. As a Sunni group, Al Qaeda in Iraq was against the ousting of the Saddam Hussein led Sunni minority government. The fear was that the political situation in Iraq after the 2003 invasion favoured the Shia majority who had been severely repressed by the Saddam government.

The unstable situation in Iraq occasioned by the 2003 invasion, gave rise to extremist groups like AQI and made Iraq their fortress. Following the invasion, law and order broke down because there was no police and army to maintain peace. Kidnappings, killings, looting and carjacking were carried out openly without any intervention by coalition soldiers who were over-whelmed by the unexpected situation. Crimes like carjacking, murder and kidnapping were nearly unheard of during the years of Saddam’s repressive police state. The assertion is that, “the United States successfully dismantled Saddam’s government but completely failed to bring a sense of law and order to the nation of Iraq”.
“With Saddam gone, the Iraqi state disintegrated and its personnel varnished into the heat and dust. Iraq’s first experience of freedom was chaos and violence”. The coming of the Americans marked an end to the certainty of political terror and at the same time brought “new, less certain fears”.
Fareed Zakaria explains the Iraqi situation after the invasion not in isolation but examines the general situation in the middle East and concludes that when a regime is get rid of, it turns out there is no state and civil society under it. He posits that what the people of the affected states are grasping for are their “inscriptive identities: Shia, Sunni, Kurd, Arab, Druze”. This analogy explains the mess Iraq has become. The ethnic rivalry in Iraq offers a fertile ground for terrorist uprising and expansion with its attendance consequences on national cohesion. It is this situation that Al-Qaeda in Iraq explored to the fullest, later giving birth to the Islamic state (IS).

Following the death of Al-Zarqawi in a United States led attack, AQI transformed into the Islamic state in Iraq (ISI). According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), ISIS was steadily weakened by the US troop surge and the creation of sahwa (awakening) councils by Sunni Arab tribes-men who rejected its brutality.
Abu Bakr-al-Baghdadi became the leader of the group in 2010 and reformed ISI’s mode of operation, creating the right atmosphere for the recruitment of more extremist elements. By 2013, the grouped converted into an Islamic army, positioned for statehood. ISIS became a very deadly force, coordinating bomb attacks and assassinations in Iraq. The group in December 2011 went on rampage in Baghdad killings scores of Iraqis in retaliation for the death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin laden. U.S President Barak Obama in his Sept 2014 speech at the UN describes ISIS brutality:
As an international community, we must meet this challenge with a focus on four areas. First, the terrorist group known as ISIL must be degraded and ultimately destroyed. This group has terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and Syria. Mothers, sisters, daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. Bodies have been dumped in mass graves. Religious minorities have been starved to death. In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the conscience of the world.

When the revolt against the Assad regime in Syria grew in 2011, ISIS entered the fray, joining forces with other militant groups in Syria in attempts to oust the government. Many of the ISIS members initially fought under the platform of Al-Nusra front, an Al-Qaeda platform in Syria. In 2013, Al-Baghdadi decided to merge the al-Nusra front with ISI under a new appellation, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The leaders of Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda rejected the move, but fighters loyal to Baghdadi broke away from al-Nusra, and made serious incursion into Syria, making it the strongest fighting force against the Assad government. The open confrontation with Al-Qaeda’s leadership redefined terrorism in the Middle East and at the same time lifted ISIS to the top of the struggle against the West. It has been said that “although the 2003 war in Iraq might have led to the formation of the jihadi group, the chaos in Syria provided it the space to metastasize”. With ISIS successes in Syria, in June 2014 it launched a massive military campaign on Iraq and overran the northern city of Mosul, it then advanced southwards toward Baghdad after which it announced the establishment of global caliphate with Al-Baghdadi as the caliph. Baghdadi requires Muslims around the world to obey his rule. He calls on his followers to “conquer Rome and Spain”, put the banner of Allah on the White House” and also occupy Xinjian within a couple of years.

There is strong opposition from Arab countries against the mission of ISIS. Militant groups like Al-Qaeda abhors the group brutal tactics and have expressed open opinions which confirm the division in the Islamic terrorism world. According to Abdel-Rahman Al Shami, a spokesman for the Army of Islam, Al-Baghdadi gangs are living in a fantasy world. “They are delusional. They want to establish a state but they don’t have the element for it”. Al Shami is of the view that a state cannot be established through looting, sabotage and bombing. He further describes ISIS declaration of a caliphate over the world as a “Psychological warfare” bound to turn the people of the Middle East against the Islamic state.
In its response to the declaration of a caliphate, the Iraqi government called ISIS a terrorist group that should be fought. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al- Moussani reminded the world that it “bears a big and ethical responsibility to fight those terrorists who made Iraq and Syria their battle field”. The prominent Sunni Muslim scholar Yousef al-Qaradawi denounced Al-Baghdadis proclamation stating that “the declaration issued by the Islamic State is void under sharia and has dangerous consequences for Iraqi Sunnis and the conflict in Syria”. According to him the declaration, and the nomination of al-Baghdadi as caliph, by a group known for its atrocities and radical views” fail to meet the strict conditions dictated by Sharia law” and that the title of caliph can “only be given by the entire Muslim nation” not by a single group. McCants views the idea of an Islamic state as having one fatal flaw. He posits that the group’s physical incarnation makes it vulnerable to attack.

Since the formation of ISIS, the United States and its Arab partners have launched a spate of massive air bombardments against the group killing many of its members in the process. According to a report of the British Guardian, Bakr al-Baghdadi was seriously injured in an air strike by the US-led coalition war planes in March 2015. In May 2015, the paper further reported that Al-Baghdadi suffered spinal cord injury from the March attack and may never be able to fully resume direct command of ISIS.
Since taking the reins of the group in 2010, Baghdadi has transformed it from a local branch of Al-Qaeda into an independent transnational military force, positioning himself as perhaps the pre-eminent figure in the global Jihadi community.


Despite the onslaught against the group, a BBC report says it controls about 40,000sq km of Iraq and Syria. The territory includes Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah and Tal Afar in Iraq, and Ragga in Syria. ISIS implements a strict interpretation of Sharia with the BBC reporting that eight million people are believed to be living under the group controls. ISIS is a ruthless killing machine, taking Sunni contempt for Shias to its logical and bloody extreme. It kills foreigners without mercy. In 2014, it beheaded U.S journalists- James Foley and Steven Sotloff, sending a strong message to the United States to halt its air strikes against its positions in Iraq or face more brutalization of its citizens.

ISIS uses latest technology in its course to dominate the Arab world. It uses the social media to recruit new membership and have high caliber weapons, some of them captured from Iraqi soldiers who abandoned their bases when it invaded Mosul and other parts of Iraq’s territory. ISIS has access to wide variety of small arms and heavy weapon including machine guns, rocket launchers, anti-air- craft guns and portable surface to-air missile systems.
The extremist group has been accused of operating with the support of some countries and individuals in the Arab world. In 2014, Iraq Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of directly supporting the group. But Keating explaining the basis of Maliki’s acquisition concludes that it is not likely to be in favour of Saudi Arabia in particular to back ISIS because of the blow back effect which the geopolitical situation in Iraq could unleash. Hauslohner taking into cognizance the chain reaction effect the ISIS conflict is capable of instigating, points at the increasingly uncomfortable position of the Persian Gulf States that have backed Syria’s predominantly Sunni insurrection.

Saudi Arabia is in this league of state backers of Sunni uprising in Syria. The goal was to remove the Assad led Alawite dominated government, but the Islamist fighters took advantage of the support to create a terrorist network bent on executing its policy of expansionism. The United States in this regard should take the blame for encouraging Sunni States support against the Assad government without clearly measuring the fallout. Obama acknowledges the sorry situation the Sunni-Shia divide has imposed on the Middle East in his 2014 UN speech:

“It is time to acknowledge the destruction wrought by proxy wars and terror campaigns between Sunni and Shia across the Middle East. And it is time that political, civic and religious leaders reject sectarian strife. So let’s be clear: This is a fight that no one is winning. A brutal civil war in Syria has already killed nearly 200,000 people, displaced millions. Iraq has come perilously close to plunging back into the abyss. The conflict has created a fertile recruiting ground for terrorists who inevitably export this violence”.

The Syria uprising and the position of America towards it, encouraged the growth of ISIS and further expanded the gap between the Sunnis and the Shiites (Shias) in the Arab World. Though Hauslohner absolves Saudi Arabia and Kuwait from any support towards the ISIS massacre in Iraq, he however posits that Saudi citizens, and other Sunnis from Kuwait, Qatar have quietly funneled vast sums of money to help swell the ranks of ISIS and other jihadist groups in the Arab world. In blaming the Nouri Al-Maliki government of providing the nourishing ground for ISIS expansion. Saudi Arabia, deflects from an issue they’d rather not discuss – the role of wealthy funders in the gulf in helping ISIS rise to prominence. “Saudi trained sheiks are responsible for the reeducation of new recruits for ISIS through daily religious lectures”. As things unfold in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran, both leaders of the Sunni and Shiites divide respectively, must reexamine their foreign policy in the region vis-à-vis the position of the United States and the west or the conflagration will continue, perhaps consuming the monarchical and dictatorial regimes behind the chaotic nature of the region.

Besides the usual support ISIS enjoys from contributions in the Arab world, it also exploits the oil resources in the territory it has conscripted. The group also levy taxes on the people within its territory and is it also involved in kidnapping for ramsome. ISIS is involved in smuggling and robbery. The group has been described as a “diversified criminal business”.
From the resources captured, ISIS can survive without support from Sunni groups in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar for example. By reason of the partnership that these countries have with the United States, ISIS now see Saudi as an enemy that must be dealt with. Al-Baghdadi has called for attack on Saudi Arabia which he describes as “the head of the snake”. He has also ask his followers to attack Gulf States who have joined the U.S led coalition against it. He describes their activities as “treacherous”. The jihadi team has promised to break the borders of Jordan and Lebanon and to “free Palestine”. The resilience and resourcefulness of ISIS leads to the conclusion that regional cards seem to be stacked against Saudi Arabia. He advises Riyadh to apply foresight, statecraft and above all, introspection if it were to come out successful against ISIS. The point is that, any success that Saudi will be able to muster is largely dependent on the actions of the United States in Iraq and Syria.

A lot went wrong when the United States ousted the Saddam regime in 2003. International relations scholar blame the lapses on the U.S failure to recognize the cultural and political behaviour of Iraq and prepare a post war plan. The U.S has been blamed for turning liberation into occupation, allowing local uncertainty to turn into insurgency and civil war.16 Allin and Simon blame George Bush for the faulty intelligence that dragged the US into Iraq. They also identified blunders of strategy, diplomacy, military planning and post conflict preparation for the wreck that Iraq has become. Al-Marashi and Al-Khalili identify two major reasons for US failure in Iraq. Firstly, they blame the U.S soldiers for sometimes indiscriminate killing of Iraqis in their effort to maintain peace. This act turned the citizens against the invaders. Some of the relations of those killed would later take up arm against the U.S. The second mistake was the disbanding of Iraqi police and Army leaving a vacuum that is yet to be properly filled. In the face of the chaos in Iraq. The “collapse of that state (Iraq) would be a humiliating defeat” of Washington. Robert Gate, a former Defense Secretary of the United State gives a firsthand account of the situation in Iraq after a visit:

“All in all, it was a depressing visit. I returned believing that one more major miscalculation had be added to the bill of particulars against the decision to go to war. We had simply had no idea how broken Iraq was before the war economically, socially, culturally, politically, in its infrastructure, the education system, you name it. Decades of rule by Saddam, who didn’t give a damn about the Iraqi people; the eight-year-long war with Iran, the destruction we wreaked during the Gulf War, twelve years of harsh sanctions – all these meant we had virtually no foundation to build upon in trying to restart the economy, much less create a democratic Iraqi government responsive to the needs of its people. We were going to insist that our partner, the first democratically elected government in Iraq’s four thousand year history, resolve in a year or so the enormous and fundamental political problems facing the country? That was a fantasy.”

Gate posits:

“However, I was stunned by what I saw as amazing bungling after the initial military success, including failing to stop the looting of Baghdad, disbanding the Iraqi army, and implementing a draconian de-Baathification policy (Saddam ran the Baath party) that seemed to ignore every lesson from the post 1945 de-nazification of Germany. I was equally surprised that, after Vietnam, the U.S. Army seen to have forgotten as quickly as possible how to wage counter insurgency warfar”.

In the final analysis, the United States to a large extent is to blame for the creation and growth of ISIS.

By Edmund Obilo


Written by PH

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