So, this week, al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) took over Mosul by storm and is on its way to Baghdad. We are told that the group is the next generation of al-Qaeda, a new and improved version of it, and that it will not be taking any prisoners, beheading its way into Iraq’s capital throughout a Mother of All Battles that will make the sacking of Rome look like a picnic. Is that not a simplistic narrative that fuels conflict escalation?
Most media outlets and pundits are missing the most important story behind the recent take-over of Mosul, which is connection between the social movements that had been present in Sunni parts of Iraq, and the popular support that ISIS is presently benefiting from. Should ISIS not benefit from conscious popular support; there is no way that they would have captured so much territory in so little time. More importantly, most experts would rather not incriminate the international community, nor its enabler the United Nations, for their standing idly by as sectarianism crept into Iraqi life since the botched democratization process that was initiated by the 2005 electoral cycle. No one cares to remember for instance that despite being invited repeatedly to visit the Occupy Fallujah demonstration site since December 2012, UN chief in Iraq Nikolai Mladenov preferred to echo Maliki’s terrorism hate narrative against Iraqi Sunnis instead of doing his job and not siding with one party to the detriment of the other. Even as Maliki initiated his disastrous Anbar campaign to curb Occupy Fallujah’s political demands in late December 2013, Mladenov kept using the word “terrorism” when referring to the Fallujah leadership. He now keeps issuing statements of concern for local displaced populations, too little too late.
Once again, it all started in Fallujah, in December 2012. After the arbitrary arrest of several Sunni politicians and prominent figures on terrorism charges, within a context of relative deprivation and perceived government harassment, Occupy Fallujah was born with three simple political demands: an end of all talks of federalism, an enforcement of equal opportunities for Sunnis and Shi’ias, and a resignation of Prime Minister Maliki. In any healthy political system, those demands would have been labeled as political, but in Fallujah, they were called terrorism. As a response, Maliki sent troops to try and take Fallujah, and after many unsuccessful attempts; he sent barrel bombs instead, just like his neighbor Bashar al Assad on Aleppo, clearly committing crimes against humanity in the process. All throughout the process, the Fallujah tribes and military council made a deal with ISIS, upon realization that they needed help to keep the government at bay. Scores of ISIS militants came to the area and kept weakening the resolve and potency of the Iraqi army, whose special forces and regular troops lost a heavy amount of men while trying to enter Fallujah. Amongst desertions en masse came the decoy attack on Samarra last week, paving the way for an overtaking of Mosul.
Today, the Occupy Fallujah demand for an end of talks of federalism bares a heavy connotation. Peoples and tribes in Fallujah, Mosul, or Tikrit, prefer a de facto ISIS-engineered federalism to the sectarian Maliki government. This is an incredible compromise on their part. They feel so utterly abandoned by the international community and so victimized by the government, that they have resorted to the lesser evil, which to them is ISIS. This notion of the lesser evil is crucial, because given the proportion of former Baathists in cities like Mosul, it will be much more difficult for ISIS to administer the city like they do in Raqqa, Syria. They will have to mitigate their actions, or face the same fate as the Islamic State in Iraq in 2008, hence the importance of the Slow Insurgency features that they have been developing in the past few years. They are now very cautious about how they are being perceived among the population.
There was the Slow Food movement, meet ISIS: the Slow Insurgency. After the defeats of their ancestor the Islamic State of Iraq, which lost hearts and minds through centralized tactical errors lacking local legitimacy, slow insurgency features amount to recruiting leadership locally, keeping operations decentralized, and most importantly, focusing on local population support, providing state-like services such as schools, healthcare, etc. In terms of popular support, blunders such as killing a person for wearing the wrong pair of pants are no longer practiced, and whoever will be denounced to them will be given the chance of what is considered a fair trial. In addition to this, Iraqi security services are being bought and penetrated through locally based relationships. Self-sufficiency becomes the core of operations, and as a communications kept to a bare minimum; the potential chances for getting caught are significantly reduced.
So if one misses these points, it might be easy to talk about a Jihadist Spring, and resort to calling them an al-Qaeda/ISI offshoot, yet it is plain wrong at this point. Sure, dinosaurs were on this planet before us, but does this mean that they are our ancestors? Al-Qaeda's beef is with the West, while ISIS is mainly concerned with Shi'ites and what they see as the malevolent hand of Iran in Iraqi governmental affairs. There are currently foreigners (US, Germans and others) being kept inside a power plant somewhere in Iraq. Al Qaeda could have made a show of killing them on camera. Yet they are still alive, and independent political brokers have secured their release. In this particular case, ISIS is keen on showing good will towards foreigners. It might let them go just to differentiate itself from al-Qaeda. This is an illustration of the paradigm difference that does not make ISIS in any way related to al-Qaeda, whose mission and vision is being jealously guarded by their leader Ayman Zawahiri, behaving like an old childless uncle who does not want to let go of the family inheritance.
Syria is of course an important element in relation to the momentum that ISIS has gained over the past year, yet it is not the whole story. Even though the ISIS ‘hashtag’ on social media Twitter is #SykesPicotOver, referring to the French and British artificial carving of the Middle East in 1916, the situation is very different in Iraq: it is unlikely that ISIS will face strong Iraqi army attempts to regain control over Mosul. The blitz aura that has been asserted to ISIS in relation to its quick overtaking of Mosul is as much an ISIS victory as it represents the complete impotence of the Iraqi army since the withdrawal of US troops in 2011. Since then, the army has been an empty vessel, lacking technology, human intelligence, riddled by corruption at all levels, badly trained, marred by massive desertions since the beginning of the Anbar campaign, and lacking any sense of initiative in face of adversity. More importantly, there has never been any motivation for young Shi’a conscripts to defend any territory that they do not associate with religiously. From this perspective, it seems that Maliki’s sectarianism has come back to bite him, since it has made his army utterly unmotivated to serve Iraqi national interests.
The impending ‘sack’ of Baghdad will bear many surprises. There is no doubt that media pundits and Iraq self-appointed experts will surf on the ISIS/al-Qaeda 2.0 wave, yet the greatest achievement of ISIS may be behind it, the end of Sykes Picot borders as we know them. As George W. Bush put it in his trivial jumpsuit over the coast of California, this is definitely “Mission Accomplished” for a slow, meticulous and ghostly ISIS.
Traveling from Tikrit to Fallujah through the desert, July 2013