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ISIS a US proxy?

Janes intel­li­gence, the pres­ti­gious global secu­rity firm released new data recently that high­lighted the num­ber of oper­a­tions con­ducted by ISIS and the Bashar al-Assad regime. It found around 64% of ver­i­fi­able ISIS attacks in Syria this year (Novem­ber 21 2013 – Novem­ber 21 2014) tar­geted other rebel groups. Just 13% of ISIS attacks dur­ing the same period tar­geted al-Assad’s forces. It also found al-Assad’s coun­tert­er­ror­ism oper­a­tions, more than two-thirds of which were airstrikes, skewed heav­ily towards groups whose names were not ISIS. Of 982 coun­tert­er­ror­ism oper­a­tions for the year, just 6% directly tar­geted ISIS.[1] ISIS actions ever since its emer­gence has led to much sus­pi­cion of coor­di­na­tion between them and the Syr­ian regime. At RO we con­tinue to receive numer­ous ques­tions on the pos­si­bil­ity of ISIS being a US proxy and the sus­pi­cion of col­lu­sion between ISIS and the al-Assad regime. Due to this we thought it would be a good time to analyse such claims, espe­cially now that empir­i­cal evi­dence exists of ISIS and al-Assad’s forces mainly avoid­ing each other.

The ori­gin of ISIS is rather murky and is prob­a­bly the rea­son many have sus­pi­cions over them. All of the senior lead­ers of ISIS were gath­ered in Camp Bucca in 2004 in the midst of the insur­gency against coali­tion troops dur­ing the Iraq war. The UK’s guardian con­ducted an exclu­sive and lengthy insight into ISIS on 11 Decem­ber 2014 and inter­viewed senior ISIS com­man­ders. ISIS com­man­der, Abu Ahmed con­firmed the US-run prison pro­vided an extra­or­di­nary oppor­tu­nity. “We could never have all got together like this in Bagh­dad, or any­where else. It would have been impos­si­bly dan­ger­ous. Here, we were not only safe, but we were only a few hun­dred metres away from the entire al-Qaida lead­er­ship.”[2] Abu Ahmed explained how Camp Bucca was organ­ised. Most of Baghdadi’s fel­low pris­on­ers – some 24,000 men, were divided into 24 camps. The prison was run along strictly hier­ar­chi­cal lines, down to a Teletubbies-like uni­form colour scheme which allowed jail­ers and cap­tives alike to recog­nise each detainee’s place in the peck­ing order. As ISIS ram­paged through the region, it has been led by men who spent time in US deten­tion cen­tres dur­ing the Amer­i­can occu­pa­tion of Iraq. Accord­ing to Hisham al-Hashimi, the Baghdad-based ana­lyst, the Iraqi gov­ern­ment esti­mates that 17 of the 25 most impor­tant Islamic State lead­ers run­ning the war in Iraq and Syria spent time in US pris­ons between 2004 and 2011.[3]

By Decem­ber 2004, Bagh­dadi was deemed by his jail­ers to pose no fur­ther risk and his release was autho­rised. “He was respected very much by the US army,” Abu Ahmed said. “If he wanted to visit peo­ple in another camp he could, but we couldn’t.[4] Effec­tively in prison, all of ISIS’s princes were meet­ing reg­u­larly. The most impor­tant peo­ple in Bucca were those who had been close to Zar­qawi. But the ques­tion remains how ISIS shifted from a a gang in prison to the worlds pre­mier mil­i­tant organ­i­sa­tion? This is where Sad­dam Hussain’s Ba’athists came into the equa­tion, who lost every­thing when Sad­dam was ousted. By 2008 meet­ings between those who would form ISIS and the Ba’athists became fre­quent. In the Guardian insight Abu Ahmed, a senior com­man­der of ISIS con­firmed: “these meet­ings had become far more fre­quent – and many of them were tak­ing place in Syria.”[5] Bashar al-Assad has a long his­tory of arm­ing and sup­port­ing Jihadi groups, for its own strate­gic inter­ests. In May 2006, the US Depart­ment of Defence quar­terly report, titled “Mea­sur­ing Sta­bil­ity and Secu­rity in Iraq,” out­lined: “…. Syria con­tin­ues to pro­vide safe haven, bor­der tran­sit, and lim­ited logis­ti­cal sup­port to some Iraqi insur­gents, espe­cially for­mer Saddam-era Iraqi Baath Party ele­ments. Syria also per­mits for­mer regime ele­ments to engage in orga­ni­za­tional activ­i­ties, such that Syria has emerged as an impor­tant orga­ni­za­tional and coor­di­na­tion hub for ele­ments of the for­mer Iraqi regime. Although Syr­ian secu­rity and intel­li­gence ser­vices con­tinue to detain and deport Iraq-bound fight­ers, Syria remains the pri­mary for­eign fighter gate­way into Iraq…”[6]

There is more damn­ing evi­dence of Syr­ian regime-ISIS col­lu­sion. The Guardian inter­viewed Major Gen­eral Hus­sein Ali Kamal, the direc­tor of intel­li­gence in Iraq, reg­u­larly, until his death in early 2014. One of his duties was to secure Bagh­dad against ter­ror attacks. Kamal, who was diag­nosed with can­cer in 2012 and died ear­lier this year, autho­rised the Guardian jour­nal­ist to pub­lish details of their con­ver­sa­tions. The Guardian jour­nal­ist con­firmed when he first met Kamal in 2009, he was por­ing over tran­scripts of record­ings that had been made at two secret meet­ings in Zabadani, near Dam­as­cus, in the spring of 2009. Kemal con­firmed in his inter­view with the Guardian that Iraqi jihadists, Syr­ian offi­cials and Ba’athists from both coun­tries from Iraq and Syria were brought together: “We had a source in the room wear­ing a wire at the meet­ing in Zabadani. He is the most sen­si­tive source we have ever had. As far as we know, this is the first time there has been a strate­gic level meet­ing between all of these groups. It marks a new point in his­tory.”[7] In March 2010, Iraqi forces, arrested an ISIS leader named Munaf Abdul Rahim al-Rawi, who was revealed to be one of the group’s main com­man­ders in Bagh­dad, and one of the very few peo­ple who had access to the group’s then leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Iraq’s three main intel­li­gence bod­ies, con­spired to get a lis­ten­ing device and GPS loca­tion tracker in a flower box deliv­ered to Abu Omar’s hide­out. Abu Omar’s hide­out had no inter­net con­nec­tions or tele­phone lines – all impor­tant mes­sages were car­ried in and out by only three men. One of them was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The deaths of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri vacated posi­tions that were quickly filled by the alumni of Camp Bucca – whose upper ech­e­lons had begun prepar­ing for this moment since their time in  jail in south­ern Iraq. “For us it was an acad­emy,” Abu Ahmed said, “but for them” – the senior lead­ers – “it was a man­age­ment school. There wasn’t a void at all, because so many peo­ple had been men­tored in prison.[8]

ISIS rise to infamy was its con­quest of Mosul. Mosul, Iraq’s largest city after Bagh­dad is the provin­cial cap­i­tal and boasts a pop­u­la­tion of around 1.8 mil­lion. The maths was sim­ple. The Iraqi army had 250,000 troops, its enemy, ISIS, had some­where around 1,500. The Iraqi army had tanks, planes, and Amer­i­can train­ing. ISIS had never fielded a tank or a plane. In Mosul two army divi­sions were sta­tioned in Mosul. This was around 30,000 troops, there were also 10,000 fed­eral police, 30,000 local police and likely, some Iran­ian Quds Force offi­cers. The ques­tion is how a force 15 times larger than the 1,500 indi­vid­u­als ISIS could muster defeated?  Iraqi army offi­cials were aware of an impend­ing attack by ISIS. Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Mahdi Gharawi, the oper­a­tional com­man­der of Nin­eveh province, of which Mosul is the cap­i­tal, con­firmed in mul­ti­ple inter­views that in late May 2014, Iraqi secu­rity forces arrested seven mem­bers of ISIS in Mosul and learned the group planned an offen­sive on the city in early June. Gharawi, asked Prime Min­is­ter Nuri al-Maliki’s most trusted com­man­ders for rein­force­ments. Senior offi­cers scoffed at the request.[9]

The attack on Mosul began on 6 June 2014, ISIS attacked Mosul from the north­west in con­voys of pickup trucks. Bat­tles inside the city pro­ceeded for 3 days until sol­diers deserted and fled.  There are how­ever many sol­diers and secu­rity per­son­nel, who in inter­views con­firmed, they did not desert — they were ordered to with­draw.  Amir al-Saadi, a sol­dier from one of the Iraqi Army’s divi­sions in Mosul out­lined what hap­pened: “The army with­drew from Mosul and that with­drawal is the respon­si­bil­ity of the senior com­man­ders. The offi­cer in charge was sit­ting in his office when I came in with some other sol­diers. He told us he had received orders to with­draw from the city as quickly as pos­si­ble. When he said that, we really thought he was jok­ing. But he wasn’t. So we went out and told the oth­ers about the orders. That was when we started leav­ing the base, after chang­ing out of our uni­forms into civil­ian clothes.”[10] Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Mahdi Gharawi con­firmed only three peo­ple could have given the final order: Aboud Qan­bar, at the time the defence ministry’s deputy chief of staff; Ali Ghaidan, then com­man­der of the ground forces; or Maliki him­self, who per­son­ally directed his most senior offi­cers from Bagh­dad. The secret of who decided to aban­don Mosul, Gharawi says, lies with these three men. Gharawi says a deci­sion by Ghaidan and Qan­bar to leave Mosul’s west­ern bank sparked mass deser­tions as sol­diers assumed their com­man­ders had fled.  All the evi­dence points towards Mosul not being deserted, but orders being received by sol­diers to leave the city, but also to leave their equip­ment behind. Malaki, since he emerged as Iraq’s pre­mier, con­sol­i­dated and cen­tralised all the key min­istries and depart­ments into his per­sonal office, there­fore the deci­sion to aban­don the city could only have come from Malaki him­self. This would weaken his stand­ing con­sid­er­ably in Iraq and espe­cially from his Shi’ah sup­port base. He would only have done this if the pres­sure came from the US, as no-one had so much influ­ence to force Malaki into a deci­sion such as this. ISIS has frac­tured the insur­gency in Syria through its actions since its announce­ment of a so-called “Caliphate”. The weapons and equip­ment and money attained from Mosul were the cat­a­lyst for this.

ISIS’s actions ever since it announced its “Caliphate” has caused a frac­ture in rebel unity. This is because the ISIS state is pred­i­cated on an exclu­sion­ary method of gov­er­nance. ISIS main­tains social con­trol by elim­i­nat­ing all resis­tance. Many reports com­ing out from Mosul and in Syria are of descent being dealt with through pun­ish­ments, includ­ing death. Bagh­dadi said the fol­low­ing about the Shi’ah: “Al Qaeda wants to forge links with the Shi­ites. They think the Shi­ites are their broth­ers even though they make tak­fir on all the sahabah and they believe the Quran is cor­rupted. Yet al Qaeda wants to forge links with them. When Isis takes a town either you leave shism or die. Isis can­not take jizya from them. They are a newly invented reli­gion so no jizya can be taken from them.” Imple­ment­ing Islam includes their under­stand­ing of the creed and as a result many have been accused of apos­tasy for tak­ing dif­fer­ent posi­tions to them. Based on this, courts have been set up and any oppo­si­tion to ISIS rule or ver­dicts has been viewed as rebel­lion and has seen indi­vid­u­als and groups pun­ished with exe­cu­tion. When all the rebel groups were fight­ing the al-Assad regime and launch­ing attacks on Dam­as­cus, ISIS focused on con­quer­ing ter­ri­tory, rather than fight­ing the al-Assad regime.

Many have long sus­pected col­lu­sion between al-Assad and ISIS. Analy­sis of the JTIC data­base on a regional level showed that there were 238 coun­tert­er­ror­ism oper­a­tions in Aleppo for the year through Nov. 21 — but just 14 of those tar­geted ISIS. In the ISIS strong­hold of Raqqa, there were 22 coun­tert­er­ror­ism oper­a­tions but just half tar­geted ISIS. ISIS have spent most of the last few months fight­ing in Kaboni, which has very lit­tle strate­gic value and has zero al-Assad regime pres­ence, rather than fac­ing off in Aleppo which is under intense regime attack. Yusuf Abu Abdul­lah, one of the lead­ers of the Al-Mujaheddin Army in Aleppo, said when his fight­ers have attacked regime bases, they have come under sep­a­rate attacks from ISIS. That’s forced them to with­draw and bat­tle ISIS instead of Assad’s forces. Al-Assad’s air force not tar­get­ing the large camps oper­ated by ISIS in sev­eral parts of the coun­try, has been con­stantly pointed out by those on the receiv­ing end of air attacks[11] and many defec­tors from the al-Assad army have pointed out sev­eral field com­man­ders of ISIS were for­mer mil­i­tary or intel­li­gence offi­cers of the Syr­ian army. Oil and gas sales between ISIS and the al-Assad regime has also been a reg­u­lar occurrence.[12]

The US incur­sion back into Iraq and then to Syria has been very dubi­ous. ISIS started from Iraq and has been con­stantly stream­ing across the Iraq-Syria bor­der, they have been mov­ing sup­plies in con­voys of trucks but have not been tar­geted by the US. The US gave ISIS cover when it con­ducted strikes in Syria against a new dubi­ous group known asKho­rasan,’ which offi­cials say was plot­ting an immi­nent attack on US soil. Bizarrely, the his­tory of the Kho­rasan was vir­tu­ally non-existent, and US offi­cials never men­tioned the group until the week before the strikes began in Syria. Esti­mated at 50 fight­ers, the group sud­denly became a huge pre­text for mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion, even though an air sor­tie on Sep­tem­ber 23rd 2014 report­edly killed 30 of them.[13] Andrew McCarthy, a for­mer US fed­eral ter­ror­ism pros­e­cu­tor high­lighted in the National Review mag­a­zine: “You haven’t heard of the Kho­rasan group because there isn’t one. It is a name the admin­is­tra­tion came up with cal­cu­lat­ing that Kho­rasan had suf­fi­cient con­nec­tion to jihadist lore [so] that no one would call the Pres­i­dent on it.”[14] Harakat Hazm high­lighted the airstrikes were a sig­nif­i­cant US effort to destroy Jab­hut al-Nusra, and a minus­cule effort to destroy ISIS, and no effort at all to destroy al-Assad. This is very sig­nif­i­cant as Harakat Hazm, which is allied with the CIA-backed Free Syr­ian Army, was one of the first rebel groups to receive US anti-tank mis­siles. That effec­tively makes it one of America’s most trusted sup­posed allies in the Syr­ian conflict.

The US has attempted to thwart the upris­ing in Syria from the very first day it began. Whilst it was able to divert the other upris­ings in the wider Arab spring, it has failed to do so in Syria where the peo­ple have main­tained their Islamic ori­en­ta­tion in almost apoc­a­lyp­tic con­di­tions. Unable to cob­ble together a loyal oppo­si­tion, US pris­on­ers went on to estab­lish ISIS which has achieved much more than the US was able to ever achieve. ISIS pri­or­ity in Syria has been their con­quest of ter­ri­tory rather than fight­ing the al-Assad regime, which has weak­ened the rebel oppo­si­tion against al-Assad. Dur­ing this period al-Assad has been sit­ting back and watch­ing the rebels fight amongst each other in the north of Syria and launch­ing strikes when the oppor­tu­nity arises against a weak­ened rebel front. There is only one entity that has ben­e­fited from the rise of ISIS and what they have achieved and that is the US who was strug­gling in thwart­ing the upris­ing in Syria.

 

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/syria-isis-have-been-ignoring-each-other-battlefield-data-suggests-n264551

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/11/-sp-isis-the-inside-story

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/11/-sp-isis-the-inside-story

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/11/-sp-isis-the-inside-story

[5] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/11/-sp-isis-the-inside-story

[6] http://www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/Master%20%20Mar08%20-%20final%20signed.pdf

[7] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/11/-sp-isis-the-inside-story

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/11/-sp-isis-the-inside-story

[9] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/14/us-mideast-crisis-gharawi-special-report-idUSKCN0I30Z820141014

[10] http://www.niqash.org/articles/?id=3461

[11] http://www.channel4.com/news/is-assad-isis-rebel-forces-iraq-syria

[12] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10585391/Syrias-Assad-accused-of-boosting-al-Qaeda-with-secret-oil-deals.html

[13] http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/09/23/is-the-khorasan-group-as-dangerous-as-the-white-house-claims

[14] http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/syrian-airstrikes-does-the-us-have-the-foggiest-idea-of-who-their-enemy-is-9763439.html