Iraq: History repeating

Will the mistakes of the recent past be made again as Iraq and its allies take the fight to ISIL?

World leaders and global organisations have in recent days raced to condemn the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for their lack of Islam. First among them was the US President Barack Obama who called the group “neither Islamic nor a state”.

British Prime Minister David Cameron weighed in after the brutal execution of British aid worker David Haines, calling the group “the embodiment of evil”. A group of British Muslims representing several organisations even went so far as to plead with the prime minister to stop referring to the group as “Islamic State”, instead offering “Unislamic State” as an alternative. This statement was issued just hours before Haines’s death.

Curiously, all of these groups have been silent about previous brutal deaths at the hands of ISIL. I heard no such anger from anyone in officialdom when my dear friend and cameraman Yasser Faisal al Jumali was killed in Syria in December 2013. I heard no condemnation for the eight people beheaded in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last month alone. It seems the only way to galvanise the world to act is when westerner’s die brutal deaths.

There is historical precedent to back that statement up.

It is 2004 and Iraq is aflame with violence. Two men, unknown to each other but who are now forever linked, are in Iraq. Both are helping rebuild after the American occupation. Nick Berg, a freelance American radio tower repairman, and British Civil Engineer Ken Bigley.

Both are beheaded by al-Qaeda, the killing of Berg in response to American atrocities that took place at Abu Ghraib prison.

Their deaths send shockwaves throughout the world. The then US president, George Bush, tells reporters that there is no justification for Berg’s death. House Majority leader Tom Delay goes even further, calling them “terrorists” and “monsters”.

None of them mention Abu Ghraib.

Murderer or freedom fighter?

The outrage is similar when Ken Bigley is killed. The Muslim Council of Great Britain makes great steps to intervene and prevent his killing, but to no avail. ‎His is said to be a response to Iraqi women being held without charge by British forces, a charge the British government denies.

The man behind the group responsible for the beheadings is developing a fearsome reputation. Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi is a Jordanian national who the US accuses of ties with Saddam Hussien before the war, ties that were never proven. After the war his group becomes one of the most feared and quickly picks up support from Iraqi Sunni groups who felt the war in Iraq was turning against them. Between 2004 and his death in 2006 he creates havoc. The US puts a $25m bounty on his head, the same as Osama Bin Laden.

His impact on Iraq cannot be underestimated. A well trained fighter who honed his skills in Afghanistan, he fled to Iraq ‎in 2001. In 2003 he began to build his organisation, then called the party of “Monotheism and Jihad”. He directed his anger toward Iraq’s Shia community. For hims it would rally Sunnis to his cause. It worked and his campaign sent suicide bombers into markets, schools, and mosques in predominantly Shia areas.

In 2004, he caught the attention of Osama Bin Laden and pledged alliance to al-Qaeda. The merger made al-Qaeda a powerful force. It didn’t last long. Zarqawi’s tactics of beheadings and targeting civilians angered al-Qaeda’s number two Ayman al Zawahiri. He wrote a letter critising Zarqawi’s tactics and sent it to the man himself.

Zarqawi ignored the message and by 2006 wanted more power. He styled himself as a spiritual leader, and increasingly relied on a hardline interpretation of sharia for justification.

In Iraq itself, he killed Iraqi sheikhs who stood in his way. Globally he began to lose support of Muslims, who began to see him as a brutal murderer rather than a freedom fighter. Sunnis in Iraq had by this point begun to turn against Zarqawi’s organisation and the US capitalised by funding Sunni “Awakening Councils” to fight the group. In June 2006, the Americans finally hit his hideout and he was killed.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq had lost its leader and the foreign fighters Zarqawi relied on had disappeared. Taking the initiative the US put into place the “surge” in 2007 to finally rout the insurgency, and to train Iraqi forces to take over from them so that they could leave. They finally pulled out in December 2011.

‘We have been here before’

Fast forward to 2014. ISIL are now in the same position. They have developed a fearsome reputation. The international community wants to take action against them. The group’s leader has declared himself Caliph Ibrahim, a title which gives him religious and political power. But, once again, the brutal tactics and beheadings have been criticised by other jihadi groups and many Muslim groups are distancing themselves from ISIL.

There are some differences. The Americans do not want boots on the ground, relying instead on air power. Unlike al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIL has a safe haven in Syria and a political situation it can exploit. ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ knows the appetite to go into Syria is low because ultimately it will help President Bashar al-Assad, and that is not something the US is willing to do. This time around it is going to be a much tougher fight to get rid of the group.

However, the issue with both Zarqawi and with ‘Caliph Ibrahim’s’ organisations is the cult of personality that has developed around them. If the US has learnt anything from history then the lesson it must take away is that by killing the leader you can destroy the group.

But no Western Leader has put forward a strategy to deal with what happens after, and that is where history really comes into play. After Zarqawi died, the US abandoned the very men it relied on to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. Then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, a Shia, ignored and marginalised the Sunni. ‎They lost hope and when Syria disintegrated, the jihadi’s found a cause, and then from the ashes of that fire rose the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Much of al-Qaeda in Iraq rose with it. The tactics, the ideology is familiar. We have been here before.

The only questions are now these: The international community have begun to act, but will they be willing to move beyond just destroying ISIL? Are they able to find political solutions in Iraq and Syria that will stop the rise of another Zarqawi or another ‘Caliph Ibrahim’? Or are the mistakes of the past due to be repeated?