On savagery and war

The Islamic State group and the wholesale violence in Iraq and Syria.

Members of an Iraqi Shiite militia celebrate after they retook 35 towns from the Islamic State group [EPA]

There’s something terribly hypocritical or perhaps ignorant about the West’s sudden outrage at the actions of the Islamic State group, which has prompted condemnations, bombings and threats of greater military intervention.

The group’s videotaping and dissemination of the killing of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff is certainly savage; just as its abuse of the religious minorities of Mesopotamia is outrageous.

But Western governments, who for long turned their backs on the plight of Iraqis and Syrians, have decided to act only after the Islamic State group’s takeover of Mosul and its strategic advance towards the Kurdistan Region.

It was the Islamic State group’s quick expansion over vast territories of Iraq and Syria – not its countless acts of savagery – that moved the conversation about its threat from the West’s dinning room into its “Situation Room”.

It was the Islamic State group’s quick expansion over vast territories of Iraq and Syria – not its countless acts of savagery – that moved the conversation about its threat from the West’s dinning room into its ‘Situation Room’.


Where was that horrified indignation when violence touched every community; or when it took the lives of 7,665 Iraqi civilians in the first six months of this year alone?

When millions of Iraqis slept hungry, thousands of women kidnapped in daylight, children shot on their way to school? When checkpoints, home raids, detentions, militia attacks, and secret terror prison, all multiplied? Or when more than a hundred thousand Syrian civilians were killed? When more than two thousand Palestinians were killed and a hundred thousand displaced?

More importantly, where was the outrage when Russia supported Bashar al-Assad’s killing machine, the United States supported Nouri al-Maliki’s (and Benjamin Netanyahu’s) tactics and Iran supported both in their terrorising “wars on terror”?

The gift of Islamic State

The Islamic State is the gift that keeps on giving. Lacking any coherent agenda or governing strategy beyond a few cliches from a past era, it’s been mostly helpful to its enemies. In other words, as one keen Iraq observer put it to me, “ISIS is at your service”.

There’s no better alibi for fear-mongering politicians and generals. Its black-fitted, long bearded, knife wielding, Kalashnikov-holding men have already spooked the Western public into compliance.

The Islamic State group provides the US with the ability to wash away its past sins in Iraq and the excuse to intervene once again at the request of its government as the saviour or Iraq’s minorities.

It grants Iran and Hezbollah the ammunition to justify their own military interference in Syria and Iraq, just as the Islamic State group’s Sunni fundamentalism reinforces their sectarian approach to the conflicts from Lebanon to Afghanistan through Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

It’s empowering authoritarian Arab regimes that dismiss the Arab uprisings of 2011 as no more than a conspiracy instigated by Islamists of all walks of life from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda.

It offers ammunition to the warmongers in the East and West to continue their military buildups and inciting war.

It empowers the “liberal interventionists”, who seek greater “humanitarian military intervention” – alas, a contradiction in terms.

And it’s even helping out the likes of the Assad and Maliki regimes to cash in on the fear and indignation even when it is their policies and actions that have contributed to the rise of the Islamic State in the first place.

If the Islamic State group didn’t exist, these cynical dictators and their international backers would’ve had to invent it. Well, perhaps they did, albeit indirectly.

Tale of two prisons

The rise and proliferation of the Islamic State group and other violent jihadists, can be traced, among others, to two major prisons: the infamous Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the no-less-infamous Sidnaya prison in Syria that are run by their notorious security and intelligence services.

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These are known as “terror prisons” where torturing suspects has been the norm for many years, and where the inhumane treatment was sure to either break them or radicalise prisoners. Human Rights organisations and testimony by former prisoners paint a picture of humiliation and sadism using every imagined and unimaginable method by interrogators.

Thousands of militants have been radicalised or further radicalised in these and Syrian, Iraqi and other known and unknown Arab prisons and detention centres consecrated for the repression of terror suspects and political dissidents. Those who survived the abuse in these prisons were bound to lose part of their humanity.

And so it should not be a surprise that when more than 500 vengeful diehard militants escaped after the Islamic State group’s attack on Abu Ghraib prison last July, they were willing to do anything and everything for their cause.  

The prison break came against the backdrop of rising violence in Iraq. Almost 600 people were killed in attacks across Iraq that very same month, according to the violence monitoring group Iraq Body Count.

The same thing happened in Syria, albeit with the direct complicity of the regime. During the early months of the Syrian uprising that began in March 2011, as loyal Assad forces were arresting tens of thousands of Syrian students, liberal activists and human rights advocates, the Assad regime released jihadists from the country’s prisons in order to undermine the revolution.

Like a self-fulfilled prophesy, Maliki and Assad’s fight against dissidents turned into a “war on terror” as jihadists mushroomed like never before in Iraq and Syria. The intention being to demonise all the opposition as terrorist fundamentalists and justifying all violent means against them. 

The Islamic State group and other jihadists have all too pragmatically concentrated most of their attacks on those whom they called apostates and traitors among the Sunni opposition, leaving the regimes free to use the worst imaginable violence against their own detractors.

Where was the horrified indignation then?

Retail and wholesale savagery

The Islamic State group has generally refrained from killing their hostages. Its latest criminal beheadings were the exception to the rule. The group preferred instead to trade them for large sums of money, which was then used to buy weapons and influence to expand their power base and eventually carry out more repression.

Their horrifying methods are meant to do just that: horrify. Using the latest information technology and the Western public’s appetite for scandal and outrage, they disseminate images of their medieval or even pre Islamic acts to intimidate and terrorise their people near and far.

And yet their horrors are miniscule in comparison with the dictators of proximity. These dictators & co. might play tennis, shop online or put on shiny Wall Street ties, but the savagery of their regimes has proven far more terrifying and bloody. The bombardment of entire communities using the most devastating bombs doesn’t exactly produce clean or honourable deaths.

The same goes for the presumably indignant elites in the West whose wars; invasions and occupations have led to millions of casualties in the region and beyond.

The fact that these are carried out by the latest in modern weaponry doesn’t make them any less savage than murdering with knives. The killings and maiming by drones, F-15s, Tornados, Mirages or Migs, to kill is no more clinical, no less frightening but far more harmful and painful to their victims.

As Washington begins a new wave of bombings against the Islamic State group in Iraq, and asks Arab regimes for support against the new common enemy, it’s worth remembering that the people of the region have been victimised by more and worse than the Islamic State.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.