Making Political Points Instead of Strategic Choices
This essay is the first of a four-part series on The Weichert Report’s strategy to defeat the Islamic State
It has become a mind numbing cliche today in America (and throughout the West) to accuse either Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama of having created the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (it depends on your political preference and your level of knowledge on the subject). For opponents of President Bush, they point to the fact that had the United States never invaded Iraq in the first place, then Saddam Hussein would have remained in power to keep the ethno-religious sectarian divisions within Iraq from boiling over, as they ultimately ended up doing in the last decade. For those who view President Obama as a feckless leader, they assert that it is Obama who allowed for the Islamic State to have been created. They believe that had President Obama not precipitously withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq during his first term, had a U.S. force been allowed to stay-behind in Iraq indefinitely, then Iraq’s central government might have been strong enough to resist following the self-destructive course that it ultimate did. According to this narrative, Iraq might have also been strong enough to have resisted the invasion of the Islamic State from neighboring war-torn Syria. As a would-be historian, I find this debate to be fascinating.
As a pragmatist, I tend to think that, while both men are at fault for different reasons, the real fault lies with President George H.W. Bush, for not having allowed American forces to take Baghdad when it had the force strength to do so at the end of Desert Storm in 1991. Some blame should also be saved for President Bill Clinton, who essentially punted on the Iraq issue (except when it was politically necessary to bomb an easy target, as he did in 1998 during the Lewinsky Scandal), allowing the problem to perpetuate and worsen, rather than dealing with it head on. Again, though, the question of real fault is an interesting debate. It is one, however, that will be touched upon in far greater detail in another article that I have written on the subject.
However, as a strategist who is inclined to deal with America’s problems as they are today, this debate is tiring and allows for both sides to duck out on answering the most important question of our foreign policy today. That is, what do we do about the Islamic State? The answer, I believe, is that yes, Iraq still matters to U.S. foreign policy and that the United States needs to intervene militarily on Iraq’s behalf to prevent the black flag of IS from waving over the entire region, but also to stem the rising green wave of Iran’s Mahdist government.
The Green Wave & the Black Flag
Understanding the current dynamic at play in the Middle East today requires any observer to keep in mind that, fundamentally, the Middle East is quite dissimilar from the Western world. I am not merely referring to the Middle East’s geography and people being different, I am talking about the fact the region’s politics are deeply informed by religious, ethnic, and familial histories today of the kind that the West has not had to contend with for several centuries. For America’s policy to work in Iraq, we must understand that, although the Middle East does operate within the nation-state international system initially created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, it also insists upon remaining outside of it. The real drivers of Middle East politics are cultural. Therefore, Iraq must be viewed within the context of the larger Sunni-Shiite struggle for primacy within the Islamic world.
When Muhammad’s armies swept across the Middle East, converting as many souls as it could to Islam, and either subjugating or killing the rest, it was a unified force. All Muslims marched under Muhammad’s Islamic banner. However, when Muhammad passed at the ripe age of 60 (depending on your source), there was a debate over who should succeed him. The question of succession was predicated on whether royal inheritance or a council of Islamic jurists should dictate the succession. Ultimately, those who believed the former would align with Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s son by marriage, cousin by blood, and brother by Islamic fellowship, would become known as the Shiites (meaning “followers of Ali”). Whereas those who believed that Muhammad’s successor should have been decided by a council of Islamic elders, a Shura, have become known to history as Sunnis. This disagreement split the Umma (Muslim community) that Muhammad had spent his life building, and continues to plague the Muslim world today. Eventually, Ali was made Caliph–albeit briefly.
The Sunnis, meanwhile, would do their part in exacerbating the divide between the two groups. After assassinating Ali as he prayed at night in his palace in his beloved Kufa (a city in modern day Iraq, just south of Baghdad), the war for succession that followed was terrifying and brutal–encompassing Ali’s two sons. This war of succession eventuated with the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D.
From Kufa, Shiism would eventually expand and encompass the ancient polity of Persia (today known as Iran), as well as surrounding environs, like Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, the Sunnis claimed the rest of the Caliphate that surrounded these lands. Soon, the Sunni governor of Syria, Mu’awiyah, would become Caliph. He would create the Umayyad dynasty. Ali’s family accepted this, if only to keep the disparate Caliphate united under Islam. Yet, it was assumed that upon Mu’awiyah’s passing, power would once again pass to Ali’s family. However, this was not to be.
Shortly before his death, Mu’awiyah appointed his son, Yazid, as successor in the role of Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. This offended Ali’s son, Hosein, and precipitated another succession crisis. As Hosein and 72 members of his family and closest followers returned to Kufa from their pilgrimage to Mecca, they were surrounded by 1,000 Umayyad troops and forbidden from passing to Kufa. Initially cooperative, Hosein and his party agreed, and allowed themselves to be escorted by the massive army to nearby Karbala. However, soon an additional 3,000 Umayyad soldiers joined the already-1,000-strong Umayyad force, with orders to force Hosein and his followers to swear allegiance to the new Caliph, Yazid I. Of course, Hosein refused, believing that he was the one, true heir of Muhammad, and therefore his only worthy successor. When he refused, the Umayyad army surrounded his encampment and demanded, once more, that he submit to Yazid’s rule. Hosein once again, refused. He begged his 72 companions to leave, as the quarrel was between he and the Umayyad army, not them. Yet, all 72 of his companions refused to depart his side. A battle ensued involving the gallant defense of the 72 against the army of thousands. All of Hosein’s companions were eventually killed. Hosein had one biological relative who survived this slaughter, due to his being taken ill before the battle, however, all other members of Hosein’s party perished in the battle. Most Shiites believe that Hosein was the last survivor of the battle. He was found by the Umayyad commander, clutching the dead body of his infant son. Ultimately, the Umayyad commander would behead Hosein and return it to Yazid.
Upon the severed head’s arrival in Kufa, Yazid’s deputy is believed to have slapped Hosein’s disembodied face–one final insult from the Sunnis to the Shiites. It is also believed that a Kufa resident, upon witnessing the deputy’s visceral reaction to the arrival of Hosein’s head in his presence, chastised the deputy for striking the face of a man who was once kissed by the Prophet Muhammad himself. Each year thereafter, through to the present, Shiites share a day of mourning–the Ashura–in remembrance of this heinous event in their early history. Indeed, this event, more than any other, has played into Shia Islam’s collective sense of guilt, grief, and betrayal. The Battle of Karbala and its aftermath has heavily informed the Shiite worldview since this period onward.
Most Shia today believe that the Hosein’s refusal to submit to Ali was born out of the fact that he was a direct heir of Muhammad. As such, they believe that he had been tasked with the holiest of missions: to purify Islam. Under the Umayyad dynasty, the Islamic Caliphate had expanded exponentially. It had come to incorporate new territories with populations possessed of alien rituals, beliefs, and practices. Compromises on the part of the ruling Arab tribes had to be made in order to more efficiently incorporate these conquered peoples into their growing Islamic empire. However, in so doing, these Umayyad leaders compromised pure Islam. For instance, it was a known fact that at the Umayyad royal court, drinking of wine was permitted. Other previously forbidden practices from the pre-Islamic, Byzantine and Persian past also worked their way into the upper echelons of the Umayyad court, offending purists like Hosein and his followers. This, more than anything, is why Shiites believe Hosein refused to submit to Yazid’s rule. He found Yazid a corruptible, contemptible apostate. He believed that the Umayyad’s were a usurper dynasty, and that the Caliphate should be led by the purer council of Imams that had been sidelined during the succession crises that dominated the first four Caliphs.
The Shiites would soon find themselves a minority population within a larger Islamic Caliphate, dominated by Sunni Muslims of varying ethnicities. Their sense of grievance and persecution would become exacerbated through a succession of Sunni Caliphs that had nominal rule over their lands. However, there would be Shiite dynasties that would come to rule the Caliphate over time.
From this point onward, Sunni and Shia Islam would develop independent of–yet at odds with–each other. Soon Shiism would come to be divided between three subgroups, each making a significant contribution into forming the Shia Islam as practiced in Iran today. The Zaidis, Ismailis, and Mahdis, or Twelvers, constituted the three prime subgroups. As you will see, this last group is probably the most important of the three subgroups of Shia Islam, as they are not only the largest Shiite group, but they have also had a profound effect in shaping the current government of Iran.
By the sixth century, A.D., an Islamic scholar had arisen to become the sixth Imam in Iran. His name was Ja’far al-Sadiq, one of Muhammad’s great-great-grandsons. He imparted a radical notion onto the Shiite religion. Whereas the Zaidis had insisted that only the direct heir of Muhammad could be the true Caliph, al-Sadiq argued that Imams should have a greater exalted role in the spiritual leadership of Muslims. This belief became known as the Imamiyyah school of Shiism. This group also maintained that any direct, male descendant of Ali and Fatimah was the true successor, the true Imam, of Muhammad–regardless of whether that descendant was a recognized Caliph or not. This view claims that there is always an Imam of each age, who will justly guide the community. In this view, Ali was the first true Imam, as he was a direct relative of Muhammad. Ali’s male descendants, then, are also the true Imams of their pending ages.
After Ja’far’s death, there was a further schism within the Shiite faith that ultimately resulted in the formation of the Twelver, or Mahdī belief. The importance of the Imams in Shiite religion, coupled with Shia Islam’s looser interpretation of Islam, as well as their sense of belonging to an oppressed religious minority within the larger Sunni-dominated Islamic Caliphate, meant that Shia Islam was constantly going through different iterations, or evolutions, of itself. Upon Ja’far’s death in 765 A.D., Shia Islam was yet again plagued with a divisive succession crisis. For some Shiites, they sought to follow Ja’far’s son Musa, and still more sought to follow Ja’far’s other son, Ismail. Indeed, those who sought to follow Ismail became known as the Ismailis, or the “sevener” sect of Shia Islam, since they had come to believe that Ismail was the seventh great Imam to lead their people. The Ismaili branch of Shia Islam would go on to significantly influence the worldview of the Fatimid rulers of Egypt, as well as be the source of the infamous Assassins.
Meanwhile, Musa’s branch would become the source of the Mahdī, or “twelver,” branch of Shia Islam.
Later on, in the ninth century, by the time of the eleventh Imam’s reign, there would be yet another crisis to dominate the Imamate of Shia Islam. The eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari, was born to Ali al-Hadi, the tenth Imam of Shia Islam, and a man who was suspected of treason by the ruling Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil. Due to this, al-Hadi, the tenth Imam, was kept under house arrest in the Abbasid garrison town of Sāmarrā, in present day Iraq. There, he was wedded to a slave girl who bore him Hasan al-Askari, the eleventh Imam. Al-Askari was raised under house arrest. Since he was a virtual prisoner of the Abbasid dynasty, all that al-Askari could do was to read and learn the Qur’an. He learned it well and became a noted Islamic scholar at a very early age. At the ripe age of 22, his father died, and al-Askari became the eleventh Imam of Shia Islam. Many Shia, especially those descended from the group that supported Musa’s succession to the Imamate over Ismail’s several centuries before, had come to believe that the eleventh Imam would father the twelfth, and final, Imam who would reestablish the rightful rule of Allah on Earth. They called this twelfth and final Imam the Mahdī, or messiah.
The rule of the Abbasid dynasty was particularly contentious. Most Muslims in the region viewed the Abbasids as little more than puppets of the Ottoman Turks. The Abbasids were seen as feckless, corrupt, and oppressive of their fellow Muslims. The Shiites, in particular, were the target of the Abbasid’s scorn and wrath. Al-Askari, as a prisoner of the Abbasid dynasty, was subjected to their scorn the most. He was moved from Sāmarrā to the Abbasid capital in Baghdad, where he remained a prisoner until his death at the youthful age of 28.
Meanwhile, the Abbasid rulers were growing increasingly despondent over the level of popularity that Shia Islam in general was gaining across the Caliphate. They understood that many Shiites believed that al-Askari was going to bring into the world the promised, messianic, leader of Shia Islam. This Shiite Mahdī, whether real or imagined, would become a direct threat to the Abbasid’s rule over the Caliphate. Thus, the Abbasid rulers decided to deal a final fatal blow against their Shiite antagonists. Since al-Askari lived under Abbasid custody and had no known heirs, they assassinated al-Askari. This lent itself to the growing sense of grievance and resentment that the Shiites had felt toward the Sunnis since the Battle of Karbala. This move on the part of the Abbasids did not break Shia Islam as they hoped it would. Rather, it allowed them to craft an alternative explanation for how the Mahdī would come to them.
This group had come to believe that, in fact, al-Askari had a son, but that the son was hidden away–or “occluded”–from the world. It is up to the followers of Shia Islam to pave the way for his return. Once the Mahdī returns, they believe, he will create an Islamic utopia on Earth, right all wrongs, and create eternal peace for all Mankind (who submit to the will of Allah). This is what is known as the Mahdīst branch of Shia Islam.
With this in mind, and given all that has been discussed thus far regarding Shiite history, it should come as no surprise that present-day Iran would be dominated by a Shiite variant of Islamism that was largely predicated toward the Mahdīst view. The Shiite’s historical sense of guilt, oppression, and belief that theirs is the truest form of Islam, coupled with the fact that the Shiites came to inhabit the ancient polity of Persia, a formerly great empire with its own rich history, are powerful reasons for the continuation of the regime begun by the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini. The previous injection of the notion that the Imams were of divine-like status, nearly equal to Muhammad and his descendants, into Shia Islam by Ja’far al-Sadiq provided the justification for the rise of the Grand Ayatollah and his Mullah Council that would dominate Iran from 1979 onward.
The Iranians had been ruled for some time by the secular, autocratic, pro-Western Pahlavi Dynasty. In keeping with the pre-Islamic leadership of Persia, the rule of the Shahs offended most traditional Shiites on both religious and moral grounds. Religiously, they opposed the Shahs rule for its secularism, its ostentatious wealth, and its friendship with the West. Morally, they rightfully opposed the authoritarianism of the Shah, as represented by its oppressive secret police, lawless arrests of opposition, and the way that the Shah zealously held onto absolute power for himself and his selected cronies.
Iran of the twentieth century had been a hotbed of revolutionary activities. It was a geostrategic asset in the ongoing Cold War, because of its proximity to the Soviet Union’s borders, its presence on the Strait of Hormuz–a vital international oil chokepoint through which a major portion of world’s oil supply must pass–and it sat atop a proverbial motherlode of oil. The Communists of the Soviet Union and the Capitalists of the West both vied for control over Iran. The point of greatest contention between the Iranians and the West was over the 1953 coup d’état in Iran.
With the rise of Shāh Reza in 1941, during which time a joint force of British and Soviet Union troops occupied Iran, in order to prevent Nazi expansion into the vital oil-rich region (as well as to use as a vital transit point for much-needed supplies from the West to the besieged Soviet Union), Shāh Reza indicated that his would be a constitutional monarchy. During the early years of the twentieth century, Iran had experimented with a constitutional monarchy. It was dissolved by Shāh Reza’s father who became an autocrat. His son sought to distance his new regime from his father’s old one. Thus, many famous figures came about to involve themselves in government. Notably among them, people like Mohammad Mosaddegh, a Socialist democrat and founder of the National Front Party, that was also nominally aligned with the Communist Tudeh Party. The Tudeh Party would become so popular in Iran, that a majority of Iranian intellectuals and artists during this period would reorient themselves toward the Tudeh Party and its socialist agenda. Thus, popular culture in Iran at this period became exceedingly pro-Communist. Plus, the British and Soviets were wildly unpopular in Iran not only due to their occupation of the country (which persisted even after the Second World War concluded), but also for historical purposes.
In 1942, American troops were brought in to help with the occupation of Iran alongside the British and Soviet troops. Despite the introduction of the U.S. troops, Americans and the U.S. were viewed far more favorably by the Iranians than either the British or the Soviets. Due to this, the Shāh routinely espoused his love of America and his belief that Iran and America are similar: both were birthed in anticolonial revolution–against none other than the hated British. This served to effectively tie the Shāh’s rule to the United States, thereby boosting his popularity among the Iranians, as the Iranians were more pro-American than anything else during this period.
During the period of constitutional monarchy, Mosaddegh rose to become Prime Minister. However, his reign immediately brought unwanted international consternation: he nationalized the country’s oil company, which was a joint-Iranian-British venture, called the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). However, when it was discovered that the British government made nearly twice the amount of money that the Iranian government did off of taxes from the AIOC’s oil imports to England, popular opinion soured to the concept of the joint venture. Thus, Mosaddegh sought to remedy this sentiment by nationalizing the entire endeavor and taking all of the company’s profits for the weak Iranian government. Ultimately, this did not sit well with the British who encouraged their American allies that this was the beginnings of a Communist coup in Iran. Nationalizing Iran’s oil supplies also gave the pro-Communist government of General Nasser in Egypt a similar idea of nationalizing the Suez Canal–prompting the Suez Canal Crisis. Needless to say, the Western states were fearful of a Communist wave washing across the vital Middle East.
Therefore a joint-British and American intelligence operation, under the command of CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of former American President Theodore Roosevelt, took shape. The mission was simple: remove Mosaddegh and replace him with the rabidly pro-Western monarchist, General Zaheidi. Mosaddegh had temporarily resigned as Prime Minister after the Shāh refused to allow him to appoint his own Minister of War. However, after his resignation, sharp protests engulfed the country and the Shāh reinstated Mosaddegh as Prime Minister. Although the Americans and British knew full well that his time in the PM slot could not last. Therefore, the coup went about and went completely off-the-rails. However, it achieved the desired result: Mosaddegh was out and the preferred puppet was in. Plus, the Shāh’s position was reaffirmed by the installing of Zaheidi. Unlike Zaheidi, Mosaddegh had spent much of his time as PM trying to curb the powers of the Shāh.
The Islamists in the country had generally supported the Shāh, seeing him as the lesser of two evils. Whereas they disliked his modernization plans, they loathed the secular liberalism of the National Front and Tudeh Parties. They feared that under the Socialists’ control, the government would swing wildly to the Left and forever diminish the role of Islam in the public life. Thus, they nominally supported the Anglo-American-backed coup. However, that support was tepid and the Islamists were just getting started.
After the coup, the Americans became as hated by most Iranians as the British. The Shāh closed any hope for a democratic future in Iran and tightened his authoritarian grasp on the country–loosing his dreaded secret police, the SAVAK, upon all who would dare oppose him. Meanwhile, the Iranian government did get a better deal out the Anglo-Iran Oil Company–receiving 50% of the revenues from the company. Also, the U.S. got a cut of the proceeds, as recompense for its involvement in the coup–40% of the oil revenues. Plus, the U.S. had clearly displaced the British in the region as the dominant power and the Shāh benefited mightily from his increased interaction with the U.S. From 1953-1963, for instance, the Iranians received $500 million of military aid from America.
Iran, specifically its capital of Tehran, had become a chimera, much like neighboring Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. Its leaders were Westernized and were intent on bringing the material benefits of a Western lifestyle to the country. The people who lived in the northern portion of Tehran took on existences that mirrored their counterparts in the liberal West: Cadillacs became ubiquitous on the streets, women dressed far less conservatively than at any other time, school attendance skyrocketed, the benefits of increased industry came, a vibrant Middle-Class was created as a result, and life was generally unlike anything experienced in a Muslim state before.
Yet, this existence, while the normative for many of Iran’s elites in the northern part of Tehran, was not the norm for the poorer, far more populated southern part of the city. It was from these poorer, hugely populated regions that Islamism had its greatest influence. Shiite clerics were the most-trusted public figures in these communities. Poverty rates were extreme. Illiteracy was high. These areas had been virtually untouched by the benefits conferred upon the cities and the autocratic, mostly secular government of the Shāh. The increased presence of American and British forces operating–however covertly–in Iran also incensed these populations, as the old Shiite notion of being victimized by stronger foreign forces was at play. From 1957 onwards, Islamism was a force on the rise in Iran. Indeed, as a portend of things to come in the greater Middle East in decades to come, the rise of religious extremism was closely linked to the increase in central autocracy and a major explosion in population density.
Writing in 1957, a British diplomat visiting a southern section of Tehran (far less frequented by foreigners, and therefore, a world away from their posh setup in the north of the city) would observe of the poorer south:
“Here [in the south] the mullahs preach every evening to packed audiences. Most of the sermons are revivalist stuff of a high emotional and low intellectual standard. But certain well known preachers attract the intelligentsia of the town with reasoned historical exposés of considerable merit . . . . The Tehran that we saw on the tenth of Muharram [i.e. Ashura] is a different world, centuries and civilisations apart from the gawdy superficial botch of cadillacs, hotels, antique shops, villas, tourists, and diplomats, where we run our daily round…but it is not only poverty, ignorance, and dirt that distinguish the old south from the parvenu north. The slums have a compact self-conscious unity that communal sense that is totally lacking in the smart districts of chlorinated water, macadamed roads and (fitful) street lighting. The bourgeois does not know his neighbor: the slum-dweller is intensely conscious of his. And in the slums the spurious blessings of Pepsi Cola civilisation have not yet destroyed the old way of life, where every man’s comfort and security depend on the spontaneous, un-policed observation of a traditional code. Down in the southern part of the city manners and morals are better and stricter than in the villas of Tajrish: an inquiry to a neighbor, a pass at another man’s wife, a brutality to a child evoke spontaneous retribution without benefit of bar or bench.”
The rise of Islamism was just shaping up at this point. But, as you can see, there is a recurrent theme not just in Shiism, but a common theme in Sunni Islam as well: the true faith has been sullied by corrupt leaders and malicious invaders. In order for Muhammad’s followers to ensure their place in Heaven, a cleansing, a purification, of their own society must occur. Purification as preached by these religious leaders is never easy. Indeed, it is usually quite caustic. But, as they believe–and convince others to believe–it is necessary if the soul of the people is to be saved.
Enter Ruhollah Khomeini.
Khomeini is an interesting figure. Hailing from a family of seyyed, or those who are direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, Khomeini would prove himself to be a dynamic and resource man from a very early age. After becoming an orphan at early age, Khomeini resolved to pay close attention in his studies and excel at them. In 1936, at a very young age, he became a motjahead, at which time he began his career as a prolific teacher and writer. Despite being a rather orthodox Shiite, Khomeini was possessed of the rather unorthodox love of poetry and erfan (mysticism).
Probably most important for his development into the man who would lead the Iranian Revolution in 1979 was his time as a student of Mirza Mohammad Ali Shahabadi, an expert in mysticism. However, despite Mirza’s love of mysticism, he was staunchly opposed to the Shah’s rule. This opposition to the Shah deeply influenced Khomeini and would resonate throughout the rest of his life.
By 1961, Khomeini was made an ayatollah of the Mahdī sect of Shiism, and was extremely popular in Iran for his teachings on ethics. Many of his students regarded him as their marja, or the person they wished to emulate in their religious and philosophical lives. Beginning in 1963, Khomeini’s road to revolution would begin in perpetuity. During this point, Mosaddegh was under house arrest by the Shāh’s forces and therefore not a serious threat to Khomeini’s political machinations. Like Mosaddegh, he opposed the rule of the Shāh, yet unlike Mosaddegh, Khomeini was viscerally opposed to any form of constitutional government. Like most clerics, he believed that any manmade rule of law that attempted to supersede the divine law of Sharia, as expressed in the Qur’an and its attendant Hadith, was unacceptable for a Muslim society to follow. However, Khomeini intuitively understood the need to triangulate opposition to the Shāh towards his cause. Therefore, rather than speak on his opposition to both the Shāh and constitutional government, he chose to focus on the former. Khomeini insisted on recognizing key issues that the disparate opposition groups of Iran were passionate about, and made them his own–never really talking about the details of his own political designs for the country (which was, quite definitely, an Islamist government based on Sharia).
In a sense, Khomeini was merely living out the practice of taqiyyah, or dissimulation, as outlined in the Qur’an. Indeed, this is how most Shiites believed that al-Askari, the tragic eleventh Imam of Shia Islam who lived in permanent captivity under the Abbasid dynasty, survived for as long as he did. Khomeini was keeping his enemies off-balance by appearing to be everything to anyone who was opposed to the Shāh–whether it be the Socialists, the Nationalists, or the Communists. He would become the face of legitimate resistance to the Shāh’s dynasty.
From 1964 until the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Khomeini lived in exile. The Shāh’s forces were cracking down on all forms of dissent and ruthlessly crushing its political opposition. Thus, Khomeini would build the base of his support from the disenfranchised youth (whose population density was far larger than any other demographic group in Iran, again, a portend of things to come) and fellow Iranian expatriate intellectuals. From his foreign perch, Khomeini would sit outside of Iran’s gruesome politics. The man who so eloquently taught ethics, who made a political career out of supporting every popular notion of the various Iranian opposition groups–while somehow believing in nothing unpopular–and who did not have his hands drenched in the blood of fellow Iranians (not yet, at least) the way that the corrupt Shāh did, was seen as a savior for the Iranians.
During Khomeini’s absence from Iranian politics, the Shāh’s economic reform program took off in perpetuity. Land distribution, a key pillar of his economic agenda, became his government’s primary focus. Yet, it was his land reform program that would ultimately ruin him. The land reform failed, upending the age-old landlord system that had dominated Iran’s rural areas, sending the peasant masses to migrate to the capital, Tehran, in search of new jobs and economic opportunity. Upon arriving in the metropolis, these peasants generally settled in the poorer, more religiously conservative southern section of the city. There, they fell under the spell of the Mahdīst teachings of the clerics, who continued to preach their radical views while espousing their opposition to the Shāh.
Although the Shāh’s land reform program had produced mixed-results, the country’s industrialization projects had gone decidedly better. The masses of Iranians fleeing the countryside for jobs in Tehran were able to find work, for the most part. During this period, until around 1977, the general economy expanded as never before. Money from Western corporations poured into the economy, which were used to further develop its oil resources–the key source of income for the country, particularly during the OPEC Embargo–to further grow its economy. Unfortunately, despite the prevalence of jobs in the newly industrialized economy, the people found that the pay was barely at subsistence level. Resentment grew. What’s more, by 1977, the economy entered into a tailspin, as resources bottlenecked and the government created dislocations through incompetent economic policies. The people most affected were the youth (ages 16-35, most of whom had gone to college) and the rural poor who had come to inhabit the southern sections of Tehran. These groups became dissatisfied with the economic conditions, disheartened with the prevalence of Western culture in Iran (there were about 800,000 Americans living quite ostentatiously in Iran at the time), resented the newfound freedom that women enjoyed, and loathed the increasingly repressive tactics of the Shāh’s government. These would compound into the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that ushered the Grand Ayatollah and his fellow Mahdīsts into power.
In a pattern that would be eerily similar to what happened in the Arab world during the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, the youth bulge of Iran formed the backbone of the Revolution. These people were initially dissatisfied economically and had come to resent the autocratic, secular repression of their government. These grievances coalesced into a massively popular–and extremely violent–uprising that eventuated in the ushering in of rabidly Islamist political parties into power. These parties, when elevated into power through democratic means, then eschewed the principles of democracy, and shut down the very same democratic process that they had entered power through.
Ultimately, the Shāh would flee Iran with his possessions and family. He would seek political asylum in the United States and would find permanent refuge, eventually, in Egypt. While he was temporarily in the U.S., under the claim that he was in need of serious medical treatment that only the United States could provide, the Iranians demanded that the U.S. return him to Iran for trial. The Carter Administration, which had made the respect of human rights a key pillar of its foreign policy, initially (and strangely) supported the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s bid to usurp the Shāh during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, was caught in a pickle. While President Carter certainly disliked the Shāh’s practices, he understood that the Shāh had been a stalwart American ally. What’s more, there were powerful forces behind-the-scenes, both inside and outside of the U.S. government, calling for the Shāh’s asylum to be granted. Carter, realizing the negative implications for American foreign policy should he decide not to offer America’s protection for one of its most stalwart allies, allowed the Shāh and his family into the U.S. He further indicated that under no circumstances would he agree to the Iranian protester’s demands.
Immediately thereafter, the crowds in Tehran got so worked up over Carter’s decision, that a group of students laid siege to the American embassy in Tehran. They managed to invade the embassy, take much of the U.S. embassy staff hostage, and staged mock executions, and generally tormented their prisoners for over 400 days. In the meanwhile, the Carter Administration dithered on responding to the Iranian hostage takers and, when it finally tried to take action, it ended up engaging in a total fiasco with its Desert One rescue attempt. It is likely that the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the subsequent humiliation of the unsuccessful military rescue operation precipitated Carter’s political downfall more than anything else.
After the rise of Ronald Reagan as U.S. President in 1980, the hostage crisis was ultimately resolved. However, the threat that the newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran posed to the U.S. remained. The Ayatollah engaged in gruesome bloodletting of all of those whom he believed opposed him. Former regime people, intellectuals, even those secular political groups that had aligned with him during the Revolution, all became suspect. The Ayatollah was going to institute his vision for an Islamic Republic. However, such a government would be a contradiction in terms. It would not be a democratic body as you or I understand it today. It would be something entirely different. The state and Mahdī-Shia Islam would become one. Therefore, while the people would have a say in voting for their political leaders, the candidates for office would be chosen–and ultimately elected–by the Ayatollah and his Mullah Council. Every candidate elected, therefore, was, on some level, a proxy of the millenarian orthodoxy that the Ayatollah sought to implement throughout the country.
At its core, the Mahdīst Revolution of 1979 (let’s call it what it really was), was predicated on an apocalyptic religious interpretation, it was tied to Iranian populism, and formed on anti-American, anti-British, and antisemitic lines. Also, its position as the center of what was once Persia, on top of its predominantly Shiite population, meant that Iranian foreign policy would be expansionary–seeking to increase Iranian regional influence through its diaspora throughout the greater Middle East–as well as exclusionary (again, it hated Jews, Westerners, Sunnis, and any other religious group).
From the 1980s until the present, Iran would insert itself into a litany of regional conflicts. It would prop up the terror organizations of Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which were aimed at annihilating the Jewish state of Israel. It would attack Western oil tankers during the Tanker War with the United States in 1984. Iran would deploy hit squads around the world to assassinate intellectuals and political figures that it disapproved of (as it tried to do with Salman Rushdie over his critical publication on Islam, The Satanic Verses). The Iranians would go on to bomb Jewish temples in places as far away as Buenos Aires. Indeed, in an attempt to undermine the United States, Iran would cultivate connections with Latin American strongmen who were also opposed to the United States, as well as support Latin American terrorist groups, such as FARC in Colombia. Indeed, the connections that were forged during this time have led to a bizarre–and potent, all things considering–Iranian influence over Latin America. Throughout most of its existence, it would engage in the worst practices of a police state: it jailed its political enemies, it antagonized its neighbors, it attempted to rebuild the old Persian Empire, except with a Mahdīst face, and it generally acted as a major force of destabilization and terror.
“Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” Are common rallying cries of the Mahdīst government there. These calls are heard in Mosques, television, and radio. These two slogans are probably the best summation of Iranian foreign policy. Throw in “Death to Sunnis!” and you’ve got yourself the trifecta for the current Iranian regime. The Iranian goals are simple: to create for itself a sphere-of-influence in the Middle East that counteracts what it perceives as the pernicious influence of Western powers. It seeks to bring to heel all other non-Shiite groups of the Middle East. Lastly, I believe, the leaders of Iran seek to avenge themselves upon the Sunnis for what they believe to be centuries of humiliation and injustice. This is to say nothing of the fact that most Shiites believe that theirs–not the Sunnis–is the only true interpretation of Islam. This is doubly true for the rabidly literalist Mahdīs who populate the power structure of Iran today.
After Khomeini’s death in 1989, the Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei succeeded him. Since then, Khamenei has become both the second-longest ruling autocrat in the Middle East, as well as the second-longest serving Iranian leader in history. He took part in the earliest phases of the Iranian Revolution and was, with the help of his good friend and the current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, became the first deputy defense minister of the revolutionary government. While many today question his commitment to the more extreme elements of Mahdīsm, don’t be fooled: this was the man who selected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the most rabid Mahdīst Iranian leader to date, and he selected current President Rouhani as well. While people assume Rouhani to be a reformer, there is little evidence of this, since he was handpicked by Khamenei.
In the 1970s cult classic, Return to the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to the popular Charlton Heston classic, Planet of the Apes, a band of mutated humans has survived the nuclear war that befell humanity and the subsequent rise of the warlike apes, by hiding in the old subway tunnels of New York City. This small band of humans has a modest level of technological advancement and have created an entire civilization based on the worship of a nuclear bomb which they acquired several centuries before the events of the film. These humans feel surrounded and outnumbered by the warlike apes, and are not sanguine about their ability to survive the harsh realities of the world that exists around and above them in their cloistered existence in the subways of old New York City. As such, this culture of humans has become obsessed with their own security and came to view the nuclear weapon they obtained not as a source of ultimate destruction–suicide–but as a point of salvation. It may seem unlikely, but given the prevalence of Mahdīst millenarian eschatology in Iran’s government, could this also be how Iran views its potential nuclear arsenal?
Khamenei, like his predecessor, is a Mahdīst, who also claims to be a seyyid. He is desperately committed to the core principles of the Mahdīst political movement. During the 2009 Iranian Democratic Protests it was he who ordered the bloody crackdowns. It is from him that the drive for nuclear weapons emanates. He has designs for incorporating Iraq into his sphere of influence, following the American exit there, and he aims to increase Iranian control over the Shiite populations in what’s known as the Levant. Furthermore, he has been an ardent supporter of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and is a principle ally in his genocidal war to remain in power, against the best wishes of the Syrian people.
“Iran so far has followed the letter of the [nuclear] agreement, but the spirit of the of the agreement involves Iran also sending signals to the world community and businesses that it is not going to be engaging in a range of provocative actions that are going to scare businesses off. When they [Iran] launch ballistic missiles with slogans calling for the destruction of Israel, that makes business nervous.”
This is the man and the radical government that the Obama Administration chose to make a nuclear deal with in 2015. Believing that reform was possible, the Obama Administration wrongly committed the United States towards a deal that would remove all sanctions upon the regime, increase Western business contacts with that regime–thereby empowering it–and it would ease pressure long enough for Iranian scientists to conceivably create their own nuclear arsenal. While many in the Obama Administration have come to believe that the Iranians want to deal fairly, there have already been reports of them reneging on key aspects of the deal. What’s more, as the U.S. has indicated its intention to stand down on the Iranian issue as a sign of cooler heads prevailing, the Iranians have increased their military operations throughout the region–supporting Shia-related rebel factions in Sunni-dominated Bahrain and Yemen, and encouraging the worst parochial tendencies of the predominantly Shiite central Iraqi government.
“The beautiful cry of ‘Death to America!’ unites our nation.”
– President Hassan Rouhani of Iran in a statement to Iranians following the Obama Administration’s negotiation of the ill-advised Iranian nuclear agreement in 2015. Rouhani is considered to be a moderate by most American officials. Do we want someone like that with their hand on a nuclear launch button?
The Iranians are intending to build an anti-American sphere of influence across the Shiite diaspora in the Middle East. They plan on using nuclear arms in order to do so, either as a deterrent or, very likely, as a means of inducing a greater war that would bring about the return of the Mahdī. Regardless of whether the leadership really believes this, the fact is that they are not an actor that the U.S. has any business dealing with. It is within this context, that we begin to see one side of what I believe to be the source of ongoing hostilities in Iraq, but generally, the entire region: Mahdīst-Shia Islam. (For more on this issue see my recent article, No, the Islamic State Is Not On the Run.)
During the 1990s until today, the calls for Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons arsenal became deafening. Many had assumed that this was in response to the hostile presence of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq along its border, as well as the presence of U.S.-backed Sunni sheikdoms surrounding it. Also, the fact that Israel is purported to possess its own nuclear arsenal (albeit a modest one) has only induced their strategists into suggesting that they, too, should have nuclear arms. All of these concerns are certainly factors in Iran’s strategic aims today. Nothing is more paramount than its desire to implement the Mahdīst vision for saving Islam and the world.
Therefore, Iran views the acquisition of nuclear weapons as a religious imperative. As such, any attempt to negotiate with the regime will only lead to the development of an Iranian nuclear arsenal. Armed with nuclear weapons, the Iranians know full-well that the fate that befell Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi would never befall them. Therefore, they would keep the destructive power of the American and allied militaries at bay. This would, in turn, allow for them to execute their fantastical foreign policy of driving out the Jews from Israel, subjugating and/or converting the Sunnis, and establishing Iran as the head of a new Islamic Caliphate. A Caliphate, unlike the majority throughout history, explicitly centered on Mahdī-Shia Islam.
Such a regime, then, that views terrorism as morally justifiable, that sent countless millions of young boys and men into the slaughter against Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980, that views nuclear arms as a way of religious liberation, and that massacres its own people for even hinting at democratic reform is unlikely to be possessed of prudence and responsibility on the international stage. A nuclear-armed Iran is a direct threat to not only American interests, but also to the safety and stability of the world.
This is the green wave of Mahdī-Shia Islam that has washed over a large portion of the Middle East and threatens it still further.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the other half of the source of conflict–the black flag of Sunni-Wahhābīsm.
The Islamic State, on the other hand, represents a very specific and puritanical version of Sunni Islam, known as Wahhābīsm. This version, or so its founder believed, was the version that the first three generations of Muslims practiced–known as Salafi. All Wahhābīsts are, therefore, Salafists as well.
Founded in 1744 from Najd (present day Saudi Arabia), Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, launched a brutal campaign of religious and ethnic cleansing across the Arabian peninsula. Al-Wahhāb had come to believe that Islam had become corrupted by the heretical practices of the Shiites in Persia and the Hindus of neighboring Indian. Al-Wahhāb had also become convinced that the influence of Sufism on Islam had significantly corrupted the faith that he loved so dearly, and contaminated the once pure land of Arabia. Thus, not only was Wahhabism centered on the commitment to a puritanical revivalism of Islam, but it was also deeply tethered to the land of Arabia itself.
The Arabian desert is the land from whence Muhammad and his first followers originated. It is the land of Mecca. It is possibly the holiest place in the entire Islamic religion. And, according to al-Wahhāb, it had become overrun by heretics and mystics who defiled the holiest of lands, Arabia, and desecrated the greatest of faiths, Islam–pure Islam, as defined by al-Wahhāb.
At this point in time, Arabia was part of the Ottoman Empire. As I elaborated in my previous post, “The Truth About the Terror In Turkey,” the Ottoman Empire had assumed the mantle as the premiere Islamic empire from the 14th century until the end of the First World War, when it was dissolved by the victorious European powers, and its Middle Eastern territories were dispersed among the Europeans–namely the British and French Empires. Yet, for many centuries before the Ottoman Empire’s penultimate end with the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, it had been in steep decline. For nearly two centuries, the Ottoman Empire was known in the halls of power in Europe as the “sick man of Europe.” The European empires did whatever they could prior to WWI to keep the Ottoman Empire intact, because it was generally believed that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire would be more dangerous to global stability than it would be beneficial to the European powers. Indeed, on top of Persians and Indians, another ethnic group that al-Wahhāb raged against were the Turks. These non-Arabic groups, al-Wahhāb believed, were clouding the real teachings of Islam with the introduction of their own foreign concepts of worshipping Allah.
With the blessing, then, of the local amir from the ruling House of Su’ud (an early branch of what we would know today as the House of Saud, the royal family of present-day Saudi Arabia), al-Wahhāb led his followers in a murderous campaign across the Arabian desert, with the objective of cleansing the white sands of Arabia from the pernicious influences of foreigners and mystics. Following the amir’s guidance, the Saudi ruling members enthusiastically embraced Wahhābīsm, and used it as a method for unifying the Arabian peninsula under their rule. Indeed, the First Saudi State, was inextricably bound to the religiosity of Wahhābīsm, drawing legitimacy, unity, and power from this radical version of Sunni Islam.
In 1804 and 1806, this Saudi-Wahhābīst army had swept across Arabia and taken the holiest cities in all of Islam: Mecca and Medina. To the horror of the vast majority of Muslims in the region, the Saudi-Wahhābīst force began to brutally exterminate all of those Muslims that they deemed unworthy, in an attempt to fulfill al-Wahhāb’s goal of cleansing Arabia from foreign influences. This force would also take aim at Ottoman-controlled Iraq and harbored ambitions to launch assaults into Syria.
Ultimately, however–and despite the agonizingly long, slow decline of the Ottoman Empire–a joint force of Ottomans and Egyptians moved in from Egypt and crushed the marauding Saudi-Wahhābīsm force. The force of primarily Egyptians, laid siege to Diriyah (part of modern day Riyadh) until the ruling Saudi amir, Abdullah bin Saud, surrendered. In winter of 1818, Abdullah bin Saud surrendered to Pasha whereby he was promptly sent to Istanbul. Upon his arrival to the Ottoman capital, Abdullah Saud was paraded before the Ottoman Sultan and beheaded. As the Ottoman Sultan severed Abdullah bin Saud’s head from his body, so too was he severing the ruling line of the House of Saud. After three generations, because of their alliance with the Wahhābīs, the ruling Sauds of the First Saudi State would be vanquished. Their position would not be filled until 1824, when Abdullah’s first cousin, Turki bin Abdullah bin Muhammad, would arise and create the Second Saudi State in Najd, which lasted until 1891.
“Although the Wahhābī state collapsed and the full Wahhābī doctrine found new converts in the Middle East, the religious revivalism that it brought influenced Muslims in many lands and helped infuse them with a new militancy in the impending struggle against European invaders.”
– Dr. Bernard Lewis
With the beheading of Abdullah Saud and the destruction of his armies by Pasha of Egypt, this signaled the formal end of the Wahhābīst movement. However, informally, the ideas and values that Wahhāb espoused would go on to influence future generations all of the way through to modern times. Indeed, from the initial House of Saud-Wahhābīst partnership, Wahhābīsm would spread across the entirety of the Islamic world. It would influence the popular Islamic resistance movements of Ahmad Brelwī of northern India against the British (although he was killed in combat, his ideals became prevalent during the infamous Indian Mutiny of 1857), Shamil of Dagestan (who famously fought the Russians during the Crimean War years), and ‘Abd al-Qādir of Algeria (who was resisting what he perceived as French imperialism in North Africa). All three of these men and their groups, Shamil and Brelwī were of the Naqshabandī order and ‘Abd al-Qādir was of the Qādirī order, formed the next generation, the next iteration, in a long line of iterations of Jihadists. These three movements would all be squelched by the European powers and their homelands incorporated into the larger, conquering empires.
There was a brief lull from 1858 onward, when Wahhābīsm was spread not through the sword, but by word. As the populations that followed Wahhābīsm had to become used to being members of larger empires that opposed their interpretation of Islam, the Wahhābīsts kept their ideology alive through education and collaboration with the imperial powers. During this period, Wahhābī thinkers, such as the Young Ottomans in the Ottoman Empire (1860-70), inspired by Namik Kemal to bring democracy to the Ottoman Empire, as well as Ali Suavi all began making calls for the establishment of a pan-Islamic empire. Thus, the first iterations of modern-day Islamism, the ideology of Jihadism, which plagues the world today can be traced to this point in history. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the first growth spurt of a democratic, pan-Islamic empire, based on Wahhābīsm that would directly to the 9/11 Attacks and now, today, the scourge of the Islamic State of Iraq an Al Sham.
By the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire will have fallen. In a further bout of humiliation, the Islamic world would become directly ruled by European colonial empires, as exemplified by the Sykes-Picot Agreement that proposed the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire’s former Middle East territories into new territories to be administered by the British and French Empires. After the Second World War, when the Europeans could no longer maintain their empires, they receded, but the political orders they had crafted there remained.
In this morass, competing antagonisms of Arab Socialists and Islamists would arise in the context of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Soon, thinkers like the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb would be writing their tracts outlining the political objectives of the Islamist movement and their opposition to the West. From Qutb’s thoughts would come the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the flagship Islamist terror organization from whence al Qaeda would ultimately spring.
By the mid- twentieth century, the Wahhābī doctrine had spread not only throughout most of the Middle East, but also throughout much of the Islamic world in South Asia and Africa. What’s more, the House of Saud had become immensely wealthy and powerful in Saudi Arabia, following the discovery of oil in their land. The Saudis became a symbol of the crisis at the heart of the Islamic world: how does a Muslim state benefit from modernization whilst adhering to the principles of Islam? Because of the perceived sullying of the holy Arabian lands by foreigners and their beliefs, Wahhābīsts in Najd once again let loose a holy fury upon the unsuspecting peoples of the Arabian desert. Though the House of Saud had become wealthy and powerful, thanks to their relationship with the West, the Wahhābīsts believed that the House of Saud was leading their people astray. They insisted a return to Sharia law, as espoused by the Qur’an. They had come to view the House of Saud, not as their ally, as their original founder, al-Wahhāb had viewed them in 1744, rather, they had come to view the House of Saud as band of apostates. As such, according to their literal interpretation of the Qur’an, the Saudi apostates had to be killed, along with their followers, and pure Islamic teaching restored to the people of Saudi Arabia. Once that was done, then the newly reinvigorated Islam of Wahhābis would drive the foreign devils from the land of Muhammad.
The Grand Mosque seizure in 1979 would be the result of these Wahhābi agitations. Juhayman al-Otaybi was the son of a prominent Saudi family in Najd, Saudi Arabia (a common theme with most Jihadists, as you’ve seen in my previous works and elsewhere). Otaybi had come to believe that not only had the Saudi royal family become apostates and puppets of the Christian Crusaders and Zionists in the West, but so too had the prominent religious leaders who held sway over most of Islam.
As a student, Otaybi had studied under the great Wahhābi leader and Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz. Ibn Baz was prolific and beloved by most Saudis. He supported a strict interpretation of Islam, criticized the Western concept of the nation-state, and would later be the primary conduit for financial and religious support for the Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War of 1980. However, even for a fundamentalist like Ibn Baz, his student, Otaybi, was too much. The two had a falling out. The Grand Mufti most certainly agreed with much of Otaybi’s criticism, however, he mostly seemed to have disagreed with Otaybi’s extremist methods. Within this context, Otaybi led a group of approximately 400 Wahhābīsts in seizing the Masjid al-Hāram, the oldest Mosque surrounding Mecca and the holiest Mosque in all of Islam. The siege ended in two weeks, with the Saudi forces having to call upon French special forces to assist in resolving the crisis.
1979 is an important year for Islamism in the world. It was not only the year that marked the full return of Wahhābīsm to its militant roots, but it also marked the year that the Iranian Revolution occurred under the banner of an extremist interpretation of Shia Islam. The Saudi royal family, fearing that the Wahhābī elements of their population would soon emulate their Shiite cousins in Iran, chose to meet with the leaders of the Wahhābīst movement. As Steve Koll documents, during this meeting, it is believed that the House of Saud made a deal with the leaders of the Wahhābī community in Saudi Arabia. So long as the Wahhābīsts promised not to conduct anymore attacks within Saudi Arabia, the House of Saud would not only institute certain aspects of Sharia Law, but they would also divert some of the state’s wealth into exporting Jihad. The Wahhābī leaders giddily agreed. It is from within this pact, as well as the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, coupled with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that we are presented with the birth of the Mujahideen, the precursor organization to al Qaeda.
During the 1980s, the Wahhābī doctrines were exported to Afghanistan to facilitate a proper resistance to the Soviet invasion of that country. The United States and many other Western states would come to be primary supporters of this group of most young, devout, Saudi Arabian men. These men took to the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia’s calls for Jihad against the atheistic Soviet Union invading Afghanistan. For the Afghans, they were fighting for freedom. However, the introduction of these mostly foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Islamic world, devout followers of the Wahhābī doctrine of Islam, changed the nature of the resistance to the Soviet invasion. This, coupled with American support of the Mujahideen, led to the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan. Yet, the foreign fighters, again mostly young Saudis, saw the last Soviet tanks retreating back into the USSR, they believed that it was Allah, not the United States, that had allowed for their great victory.
Once the fighting ended, the Saudi Jihadists had discovered that the Saudi royal government had denied them the right of return to their homes in Saudi Arabia. For the Wahhābīsts in Saudi Arabia, the Soviet-Afghan War was a chance to spread their radical interpretation of Islam. For the besieged Saudi government, it was a chance to deport a core contingent of young men who would have otherwise gone the way of Otaybi–spending their youthful energies and religious fervor in a bloody quest to topple the Saudi monarchy. Therefore, the young Saudi fighters maintained the organization that they had built to fight the Soviets. They were angry. They were left to writhe in the wastes of Afghanistan’s undeveloped society. They resolved to continue their Jihad not only against the rival Afghan factions, but also against what they viewed as the apostates in their old homelands and throughout the Middle East, as well as the Jews of Israel, and the Christians in America and Europe, who supported them.
From here, Usama Bin Laden, the scion of a wealthy Saudi family would arise and create a new organization from the old Mujahideen, known as al Qaeda (or, “The Base”). This movement, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, would be a vanguard movement–or, a movement designed to spur other devout Muslims to action. It would be on the forefront of a militant Islamic revival across the Islamic world. It would be a militant group engaged in armed struggle against the kufar, and its goal would be the establishment of a pan-Islamic Caliphate with Usama Bin Laden as its titular head.
Throughout the 1990s, Bin Laden’s movement would become hardened by years in the Afghanistan mountains and the subsequent civil war that consumed the country. Also, al Qaeda would stridently work to export its ideology to all corners of Islam, and would become a recipient of much of the Bin Laden family’s wealth as well as the support of many Wahhābīsts back home in Saudi Arabia, not only mere followers of the movement, but also elements from within the Saudi royal family itself.
During this period, Bin Laden would hone his critiques of the West. This was most evident in his 1996 and 1998 Fatwas, or declaration of war, against the United States. In that statement, he listed his many grievances against the U.S. Among them, it was the presence of U.S. military forces on the Arabian peninsula as well as America’s support for Israel. However, it was not only those issues that compelled Bin Laden to lead al Qaeda into war.
Based on his Fatwa, Bin Laden supported a litany of terrorist attacks against the West, Muslim apostates, and the United States. Al Qaeda was supposedly involved in the downing of an American Black Hawk helicopter during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 (the infamous Black Hawk Down situation), he would be behind the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, al Qaeda would conduct operations against the American embassy in Kenya, attacks in Saudi Arabia, he would foment an alliance with Omar el-Bashir’s murderous Sudanese regime, bomb the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000, and of course, be responsible for the repellent 9/11 Attacks.
Al Qaeda’s method of expansion was very interesting and much unlike the Islamic State’s current model of expansion. Al Qaeda grew its organization and expanded its influence less by directly conquering territory in a form of organic, bottoms-up nation-building, rather, they tended to identify similar Jihadist groups operating throughout the world, and essentially franchised their brand and operations out to those groups. Therefore, al Qaeda soon found common cause with Somalia’s Al Shabaab terror network, Lashkar-e-Taiba operating in the disputed Kashmir region of the Indian subcontinent, and Abu Sayyaf of the Philippines (as well as countless others). Al Qaeda, then, was much more of a Ramora on the body of the shark that is Global Jihad. This is quite dissimilar from the Islamic State, as will be elaborated upon shortly.
When U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan which deposed al Qaeda’s allies, the Taliban, and broke the back of al Qaeda, Bin Laden was able to escape into neighboring Pakistan during the Battle of Tora Bora with scores of his cadre. While in Pakistan, al Qaeda and the Taliban both found a new lease on life, operating the ungovernable space bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan–what’s known to Pakistani authorities as the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). As would be discovered in 2011, however, Bin Laden managed to not only escape his partial encirclement by CIA-backed Afghan fighters in Tora Bora, but he also went on to call Abbottabad his home.
Abbottabad is a particularly important example of Jihadists existing where we least expect them (but should not be surprised that they emanate from these places). Abbottabad is named after a British military officer who journeyed there in the 19th century during Britain’s Great Game against the Russian Empire. It was named after him following his murder by local tribesman. The town became a cosmopolitan city under British rule and, then, after the British left, and the city became part of newly independent Sunni-Muslim Pakistan, it became the center of a major military academy. At this academy, most of Pakistan’s officer corps would be trained. And, of course, right up the road from this academy was the home of Usama Bin Laden for almost a decade. Thus, the world realized upon Bin Laden’s death that, had it not been for a persistent, covert, American intelligence operation conducted throughout the U.S.-Jihadist War following 9/11, then it was likely that Bin Laden would have continued living indefinitely, as no one would have assumed he was residing in a posh Pakistani neighborhood, right up the road from their premiere military academy.
While there is no evidence that the Pakistani government was providing support to Bin Laden, it is well known that Pakistan’s military-intelligence unit, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had funded and supported both the Taliban and al Qaeda operating in Afghanistan for years. They did this for primarily two reasons: the Pakistanis were involved in an interminable conflict with neighboring Hindu India and the Pakistanis were looking for “strategic depth,” or room to operate in and maneuver, to lend support to their ongoing efforts to fight India. They saw supporting the ruling Taliban and their al Qaeda allies as an effective means. Al Qaeda was viscerally opposed to Hinduism and several al Qaeda-linked groups, particularly Lashkar-e-Taiba, had conducted devastating attacks against India over the years. Therefore, the ISI saw this as an opportunity to harm Indian interests without having to deal with direct political fallout.
Secondly, Pakistan was imbued with a similar radical, literalist interpretation of Sunni Islam that Bin Laden had believed in. This meant that many of Pakistan’s intelligence, military, and civil servants were extremely devout Islamists, making them natural allies of both the Taliban and al Qaeda. There can be little doubt that al Qaeda and Bin Laden received at least some degree of support and protection from elements of the Pakistani government (in much the same way that elements of the House of Saud supports Jihadist activities abroad).
To conclude this section, a pernicious wave of radical, millenarian religious sects have taken over the politics of the Middle East. They are primarily at war with each other. In conducting their war against each other–Wahhābīsts and Mahdīsts alike–seek to annihilate all others they view as lesser than them. Iraq (as well as Syria) is the place where these two destructive forces have met to do battle. If things persist the way that they are in this ongoing battle, then not only will the American position in the Middle East be vanquished, but so too will the concept stability. With the loss of stability in this geostrategically vital region (thanks to its oil), the petroleum-based international system could implode. The U.S. must stop these apocalyptic movements from escalating their conflict.
In each instance of Wahhābīsm, most Arabs have never ascribed to the practices and beliefs of these groups. While it is true that many may be sympathetic to the Wahhābīsts’ cause, the fact is that most do not support them. Indeed, a majority of the victims of Wahhābīsm are fellow Sunni Muslims. When the initial Wahhābī movement was defeated, it was because the Sunni Arabs appealed to the Ottomans for military assistance in stopping the Wahhābīst advance across the Arabian peninsula. It was Saudis and Pakistanis (along with covert French help) that ended the 1979 Mecca Siege. If the United States shows–truly shows–that is 100% behind the Sunni Arab states in their resistance to the Islamic State, then they will find that the Sunni Arabs are willing to fight as they have never before.
With the Iranians, the fact is that a great many young people are wildly pro-West and live secular lives in secret in modern-day Iran. I believe that the U.S. must rebuff this most recent wave of Mahdīst revanchism in the so-called Shia Crescent, stabilize Iraq and Syria, and remain fully and openly committed to the Middle East. In so doing, this show strength will not only garner the Sunni Arab support in squelching the Islamic State, but so too will it force the Iranians back into the box we had them contained in before the Iraq War of 2003 and before the Obama Administration’s ridiculous nuclear deal. Then, as we keep Iran contained, we let demography determine their destiny. The youth are pro-West and will eventually rise to power in that country. Ultimately, I believe, they will goad the Iranian state away from its Mahdīst impulses of today, and toward a more stable, healthier worldview. But, this will only happen through significant and sustained American engagement in the region.
Therefore, the U.S. must intervene militarily in Iraq.
Iraq: A Clash of Cultures
By the time of the Iraq War of 2003, the Global Jihad movement, global Islamism, had been dealt a series of nearly catastrophic blows. Its signature militant group, al Qaeda, had been shattered and sent running for Pakistan. Its most iconoclast leader, Bin Laden, had disappeared. The ruling Taliban of Afghanistan had been deposed. The Americans were more entrenched in the Muslim world than ever before. Lastly, the Americans were feeling a bit of a proverbial buzz on the heels of their successful efforts against the Taliban in Afghanistan and had opted to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Topple him they did. In just 21 days, a modest force of 150,000 U.S. troops and assorted allies–notably the United Kingdom–entered Baghdad and declared an end to the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. In the face of this stunning victory, it is widely believed that the Iranian leaders who had been strictly intransigent toward America sent a peace offering to the Bush Administration, by way of Switzerland, they were so frightened of America’s potency. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya–a long-time foe of the United States–also relinquished his goal of obtaining nuclear weapons and became a nominal ally of the U.S. Essentially, things were going America’s way. Although Bin Laden had slipped through America’s grasp in 2001 at Tora Bora, the U.S. appeared to be the stronger horse in the Middle East, just the opposite of what Bin Laden had assumed of the Americans.
Yet, the momentum that Iraq generated for America quickly degenerated into a quagmire, as the U.S. had no viable plan for a postwar Iraq. From the Pentagon, an order was issued to American leaders in Iraq at the time to disband the Iraqi army and to de-Baathify the entire country. This did two things: put thousands of military-aged, Sunni men out-of-work, as well as humiliating the honor of those same men by making them feel as though they were a conquered people living in a foreign-occupied land. Secondly, it dispossessed the nascent post-Saddam Iraqi government of countless technocrats and experts that would be vital for building a stable, prosperous, unified Iraq. Once this occurred, coupled with the lack of adequate U.S. forces to bring security to the entire country, the country became a cauldron of sectarian division.
In the north, the Kurds isolated themselves away from the troubles by enhancing the semi-independence that they had been given as early as 1994–they buttressed their burgeoning quasi-state with revenues from their oil exports and the security provided them by their fearsome Peshmerga fighters. Elsewhere, in northwestern Iraq, along the Syrian border, the Sunni Triangle became a hotbed of Jihadist insurgency. The disenfranchised Baathists returned to their homes, without a job and with no hope of providing for their families. Plus, many of these former soldiers knew where Saddam had hidden large caches of weapons that he had planned to use in an insurgency against the American occupation.
To compound matters, the Shiites in southern Iraq, who had long been oppressed and brutalized by Saddam’s Sunni-dominated Baathist government, were galvanized as never before. The Americans seemed intent to handoff postwar governance to a quasi-democratic body that would be dominated by the Shiites, since theirs was the largest population of Iraq. This meant that the Sunnis of Iraq feared that they would become targets of endless Shiite reprisals for the Sunni role in Saddam’s hellish rule. What’s more, the Shiites in the south of Iraq were galvanizing into their own militant groups, notably the Mahdi Army, under the leadership of firebrand Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, with the explicit support and backing of neighboring Iran.
Thus, the United States military soon found itself in an untenable position. It was supporting a wildly ineffective and unpopular government, it had an insufficient amount of troops to bring order to the country, and the American people would not stand for a commitment of a larger force–particularly after President Bush’s utterly absurd “Mission Accomplished” debacle. Lastly, the small U.S. force in Iraq was sandwiched in between two massive populations, the Sunnis of the north, and the Shiites of the south, who were intent on fighting a blood feud that had violently divided them since the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D.!
During this period, in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq, there operated two similar groups: the disaffected former Baathists and the recent arrivals of foreign fighters desiring to wage Jihad. Soon, these groups would form the insurgency against U.S. rule. The most prominent movement was al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a strict Wahhābīst who, for years, had lived in Iraq’s northern region. Zarqawi had a vision for how to wage the Jihad that differed radically from the vision that Bin Laden had committed the parent organization of what’s become known as al Qaeda Prime, operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whereas Bin Laden had embraced the concept of creating a pan-Islamic Caliphate, Zarqawi was much more of a purist. He hated the Shiites almost as much as–if not more than–the Americans. He wanted to get the American occupiers out, to be sure, but he wanted to kill Shiites, whom he viewed as heretics.
Zarqawi hatched a devious plan that would rid him of the Americans and allow him to kill Shiites. Zarqawi was going to stoke a religious civil war between Sunnis and Shiites by bombing the Al-Askari Shrine, or the Shrine of the Golden Dome. Two attacks were conducted, one in 2006 and the other in 2007 which destroyed the golden dome. This sparked terrible violence within Iraq. Zarqawi’s hope was that the ensuing inter communal violence would be so grave, that the Americans and their allies would have no choice but to abandon their occupation of Iraq.
Zarqawi’s assessment of American resolve was wrong.
Ultimately, Zarqawi would killed in an American airstrike in 2007. It has since been rumored that the Americans acted off of an anonymous tip. That tip, it is believed, came from someone closely associated with Bin Lade in al Qaeda Prime. The reason for this betrayal had to do with a deep disagreement between Bin Laden and Zarqawi over the mission of al Qaeda, as well as a degree of resentment on Bin Laden’s part over Zarqawi’s growing popularity. As I pointed out in the preceding section, Bin Laden conceived al Qaeda as a vanguard of pan-Islamic revolution. He did not seek to war with Shiites. Rather, he sought to inspire Jihad all across the Islamic world. Such a Jihad would eventuate in the toppling of apostate governments, such as the ones in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, replace them with a government that superseded the nation-state borders imposed by Europeans, and unify the land in a new pan-Islamic Caliphate. From there, Bin Laden’s new Caliphate would annihilate Israel and deny the Christian Crusaders access to the lands of the Caliphate.
In Bin Laden’s view, Zarqawi’s ceaseless antagonism of the Shiite population of Iraq was having a deleterious impact on the brand of al Qaeda. Essentially, Zarqawi was alienating the Shiite community, which was, in turn, irrevocably damaging the global Jihadist movement. When Zarqawi refused to heel to Bin Laden’s demands, it is believed that either Bin Laden or someone close to his inner circle (possibly Zawahiri), leaked Zarqawi’s whereabouts to the U.S. forces in Iraq. With Zarqawi’s passing, AQI fought on, but in a slightly diminished capacity.
Around this time, political changes started happening back in the United States. The Republican Party got “a-thumpin,'” in the words of then-President Bush during the 2006 Midterm Elections, prompting the President to make a series of changes that would prove instrumental to saving his Iraq policy from abject failure. As a signal that he accepted the results of the 2006 Midterms, President Bush sacked wildly unpopular Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose original war plan for invading Iraq had been used, and blamed by the critics of the war as a key reason for why the Iraq War was going poorly.
Bush then ushered in Robert Gates as Rumsfeld’s replacement. Gates had been a career CIA officer during the Cold War. He had served on the National Security Council and was the CIA Director during the Presidency of George H.W. Bush. After his government service, Gates would go on to become the President of Texas A&M University. Gates was quite dissimilar from his immediate predecessor at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Whereas Rumsfeld was boisterous and brash, Gates was quiet and contemplative.
Unlike his predecessor, Gates was a naturally skeptical man (undoubtedly gleaned through his decades of service as intelligence analyst). Therefore, he was not wedded to the Administration’s original vision of the Iraq War in the same way that Rumsfeld was; Gates was far more flexible. Also, Gates was not as enamored of high technology as Rumsfeld. Gates understood the limits of not only warfare technology, but also of humanity. As such, he demanded a new strategy for stabilizing Iraq and normalizing the conditions there.
Bush further shifted tactics by relieving General William Casey in Iraq and replaced him with the scholar-warrior, General David Petraeus. Petraeus had been the lead architect of the counterinsurgency strategy that had normalized conditions so well in the northern Iraqi city of Ramadi, where he commanded an Airborne Ranger unit there. Petraeus’ theories on counterinsurgency, Cultural Intelligence, and fighting the war in the Human Terrain would become required reading for future military officers and military historians analyzing this period. President Bush also elevated Ryan Crocker to be the Ambassador to Iraq during this period. Together, these people–along with an array of others, both inside and outside of government–crafted the Surge strategy that ultimately stabilized Iraq, and turned the war completely around for the United States.
After years of bloodshed, the Sunni tribes had decided to renounce their war on the U.S., to organize their Sons of Iraq group into becoming an indigenous counterterrorist force, and pushed al Qaeda in Iraq back over the border into Syria, and helped to fundamentally stabilize and secure the country. At the same time, the U.S. made considerable efforts in disarming the Mahdī Army and working al-Sadr into the Iraqi political framework. Of course, there is some skepticism as to how much of a role the U.S. actually played into both of these events. Some scholars assert that the Sunni community realized that the Americans were looking for the exit, that they were tired of the bloodshed, and they saw Petraeus’ new counterinsurgency strategy as the best way of getting the Americans out of Iraq as quickly as possible.
On the Shiite side, a similar calculation may have been made, as al-Sadr and his Iranian backers realized that the quicker the Americans left, the weaker the government they leave behind will be, and the more malleable to Iranian influence a post-American Iraq will be. This is something that the Iranians wanted more than anything, because by extending their influence into the Shiite areas of Iraq, they could expand their sphere of influence into the region, and block future American forays into the Middle East. Plus, they could put significant pressure on their Sunni rivals in the countries surrounding Iran. However, the change of American wartime leadership was significant and should not be understated. I believe that the change in wartime leadership, the embrace of the COIN strategy, was necessary to signaling the differing parties fighting in Iraq that America was now serious, and that they needed to play ball. It worked. The Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds all helped to bring a modicum of needed stability to the country. This allowed for the Americans to create a series of institutions and political programs that would start the heal the war-torn country.
Also, Iraq elected Nouri al-Maliki as the new Prime Minister. Little was known of Maliki, but what was know of him frightened some, both in Iraq and in the United States. He had been a Shiite that was driven from his home during the reign of Saddam Hussein, and had found refuge in neighboring Iran. It was widely believed that he, too, was an Iranian agent. However, President Bush resolved to work closely with his new “partner” in Iraq, as he believed he had no other viable option. During Bush’s final year in office, he would spend a considerable amount of time engaged in personal diplomacy with the new Iraqi leader. At the time, many in Washington feared that Maliki was nothing more than an obstructionist who was bent on accruing as much power as he could, so as to implement a pro-Shiite agenda in Iraq. Bush believed that by befriending the man, by taking Maliki under his wing, essentially, he could help to guide Maliki down a more constructive path.
In all fairness to President Bush, his was a very constructive alliance with Prime Minister Maliki. During the summer of 2008, as the U.S. Presidential election raged back home, the Bush Administration managed to negotiate a reasonable Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the new Iraqi government, that would allow American forces to remain in Iraq until 2011. This was seen as a huge win both for the Bush Administration and the nascent Iraqi republic, which both feared that Bush’s successor would come in and immediately withdrawal American forces, thereby destroying whatever gains had been made in Iraq since the Surge (which Obama had categorically opposed as a Senator).
By 2008, political winds had shifted in the United States yet again, with monumental results. Soon, then-Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) would defeat Republican Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in the election and be elected on a campaign that was decidedly antithetical with that of his Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush. This was particularly true of his foreign policy. Obama had made his political career as a staunch an unapologetic critic of the Iraq War. That criticism catapulted him in the 2008 Democratic Primary, as he used that as a key reason for why he should have won the nomination over his rival, then-Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), who had voted in favor of the Iraq War in 2003. Obama had made a consistent campaign promise to end Bush’s “war of choice” and repurpose America’s efforts into fighting Afghanistan, which he viewed as a “war of necessity.”
As part of President Obama’s view that Iraq was his predecessor’s “war of choice,” he sought to keep his Administration focused on moving beyond the Iraqi quagmire. He essentially placed the Iraq policy on autopilot. He failed to press Prime Minister Maliki for a more open government, he failed to engage in any diplomatic meeting with his counterpart in Iraq for almost a full year after taking office, and he did little to seek an extension of the SOFA that the Bush Administration had negotiated for American forces in its final few months in office. This meant that Maliki was effectively isolated. This caused him to fall upon his worst sectarian inclinations, in an insane bid to maintain his grip on power in Iraq. Maliki knew only the strong arm of dictatorship. With his American allies essentially giving him the brush off, Maliki moved to squelch any potential political opposition to his rule. Thus, the former Sons of Iraq that were used to great effect by the U.S. during the Surge were never reintegrated into the Iraqi government. He then imprisoned elements of the Kurds whom he felt were a threat. Also, when an election was finally held that effectively ousted him from power, he strong-armed the presiding Iraqi judge into allowing him to form a new government, regardless of the fact that he and his Dawa Party lost the Iraqi election. What’s more, the farther away that Obama and the Americans seemed, the closer that Maliki got to neighboring Iran.
Within this context of diminished U.S.-Iraqi relations, particularly among the top two leaders, it should come as no surprise that the Obama Administration failed to come to an amicable agreement on how to further the SOFA beyond 2010. With America being perceived as a force looking for the nearest exit, and the Iranians perceived as having been on the ascendancy in the region, the Iraqi government refused to negotiate for a new SOFA with the U.S.–insisting that any SOFA would remove the legal immunity that American military personnel received while serving Iraq, thereby making them liable for any perceived injustices or wrongs. The Obama Administration correctly surmised that this would be likely be used as a means for aggrieved Iraqis exacting legalized revenge upon innocent and unsuspecting American service members. As such, that was a deal breaker. Thus, the original SOFA of 2008 was followed to the letter, and the Obama Administration removed all U.S. forces when it expired in 2011.
What followed the Obama Administration was incredibly predictable. Soon, the country degenerated into ethno-religious conflict. A weak, central government strove to hold it together, but found that it was increasingly difficult. The sectarian inclinations of leaders in the Iraqi government also dominated the political scene, adding chaos. Furthermore, the Iranians moved to fill the void left by the Americans in Iraq. They began operating in perpetuity in Iraqi territory and assiduously expanding their influence in the country, using it as a pivot from whence to stretch their reach beyond Iraq, and toward other, far off parts of the region.
Down With the Dictator! Vote For Islamists! What’s the Difference?
The real doozie, however, came when the Arab Spring lit the entire Middle East aflame. From Tunisia to Egypt, popular democratic revolts were rising up from the sands, and toppling age-old dictatorships that had persisted since (in some cases) the earliest days of the Cold War. To compound matters, various Islamist parties operating in these countries, all of whom were well-organized and prepared to take advantage of any popular democratic movement, stood the most to gain from these revolutions. Remember, over the centuries, Wahhābīsm had proliferated from Saudi Arabia to all corners of the Islamic world. This trend became especially pronounced during and following the Cold War years. Whereas true democrats in the region had been oppressed and never really well organized, Islamist parties had spent decades secretly generating popular support for their cause, using the age-old familiarity of religious symbols to further their totalitarian political goals. Thus, many Islamists enjoyed electoral success, thereby setting back hopes for actual democracy that had once been harbored by the Bush Administration, and had been espoused by the Obama Administration (though during the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration would confuse the rise of Islamism as the ushering in of democracy for the Middle East).
This escalated into the U.S.-backed toppling of the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi, the deposing of Egyptian strongman (and U.S. ally) Hosni Mubarak, to be replaced by Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi, and the implosion of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. I outline the fallout from these in my article, “No, the Islamic State Is Not On the Run,” but suffice to say, the region literally exploded in an ecstasy of Islamist-backed chaos. For the purposes of this symposium on the strategy to defeat the Islamic State and check growing Iranian influence, we must understand that it was the chaos of the Syrian Civil War that allowed for not only the rise of the Islamic State, but also for the Islamic State’s invasion and subsequent destabilization of neighboring Iraq.
After the Obama Administration had helped to topple two American allies in Egypt and Libya, it strangely refused to intervene in the Syrian Civil War. What began as protests against the unpopular rule of Alawite President Bashar al-Assad (who was also a member of the Baath Party), eventuated in the Syrian strongman, who represents a small fraction of the Syrian population–the Alawites–using military force to crackdown on the protests. Following that, the protesters quickly took up arms, and began a multiparty civil war against not only the Assad Regime, but also the different rebel groups.
Just as Islamist political parties were waiting to step into the void created by the popular protests in places like Egypt, so too were their brother Jihadist groups, such as al Qaeda, Al Nusrah, and others ready and able to enter the Syrian Civil War, in an effort to make Syria into an Islamist state. Within the chaos of the Syrian Civil War, and the breakdown of that society, the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq that had been pushed from Iraq’s Sunni regions into neighboring Syria, found new life (please note, the second part of this symposium will focus almost exclusively on Syria, which is why we will not spend much time addressing it here).
Immediately, the reformed al Qaeda in Iraq elements gained a notoriety for their excessive brutality–a reputation they had similarly earned during the Insurgency Years (2003-2006) in Iraq. However, al Qaeda Prime did not want anything to do with this reconstituted former franchise. So, al Qaeda in Iraq formed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham. Please read my previous post, “No, the Islamic State Is Not On the Run,” for greater elaboration on the meaning of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham. Unlike al Qaeda, which sought to be a vanguard revolutionary movement that would usher in a new, pan-Islamic Caliphate, the Islamic State sought to build and govern an actual Caliphate from the ruins of both Syria and Iraq. What’s more, they desired to engage in a very Wahhābī-style campaign of purification of the various sects of Muslims that they lived beside.
Many have claimed that America created the Islamic State, not just because of the initial invasion of Iraq, but also because of subsequent American policies that was documented above. One such policy that people believe created IS, was the internment policy that the U.S. has had for captured Jihadists. We all know and remember the brutality of the Abu Grahib Scandal, in which U.S. Army Military Police were sexually humiliating captured Iraqis in 2004. However, the U.S. also maintained a base known as Camp Bucca in northern Iraq. At this base, the U.S. housed captured al Qaeda in Iraq members as well as captured former Baathists who were resisting the occupying the American military. Now, as I have detailed (and will continue to do so in the rest of the article), the U.S. role in the creation of the Islamic State is important, yet ancillary. The conflict between Sunni and Shiite predates the formation of the United States by at least 11 centuries! These groups are disposed to warfare against each other, and would have likely found a reason to go to war, absent the United States’ intervention.
Yet, the Camp Bucca example is important because it represents when elements of the professional Baathist military met with elements of the professional Jihadist army that was operating in the Sunni Triangle. While imprisoned, these two groups came to befriend one another, and to feed off of each other. Camp Bucca is now believed to have housed many of the founding members and current senior leaders of the Islamic State.
Indeed, the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and people like Saud Mohsen Hassan became acquainted through their shared imprisonment at Camp Bucca. Hassan (who goes by a litany of nom guerres, such as Fadel al-Hayali and Abu Mutaz) was one of the chief strategists for IS, incorporating his military training with the Jihadist principles. The prevalence of former Baathist soldiers and intelligence officers within the Islamic State’s highest ranks is but one of many reasons for IS’ persistence in battle, even when faced with defeat.
Therefore, while the U.S. is most definitely not responsible for the creation of IS, it did set the conditions for its senior leadership to connect and formulate a devastating organization. It allowed for the fusion of the military discipline and ruthlessness that Saddam’s military and intelligence services embodied to merge with the fanaticism of Wahhābīsm. This is a toxic cocktail that is now plaguing the Middle East, and threatening the stability of American allies.
Within no time, and with little intervention from the Americans, IS would become a force for major regional destabilization. Their goal of creating a new state from Iraq and Syria was a particularly pernicious threat to the Westphalian Nation-State System. What’s more, their invasion of Iraq–to say nothing of the humanitarian disaster they have caused–has effectively rendered all of the blood and treasure that the United States invested there during the Iraq War a waste.
This alone should not be allowed to stand. Consequently, their apparent successes in undoing the American-backed order is only inducing them to greater levels of violence and proliferating their particularly pernicious ideology abroad. The Islamic State needs to get its clock cleaned, and it needs to happen soon, swiftly, and that effort needs to have the full and unequivocal backing of the United States military (please note: the third section of this symposium will address the coalition needed to defeat the Islamic State and, as such, will not be addressed in great detail here).
The longer that the Islamic State is allowed to fester in its newfound state, residing in both Syria and Iraq, the longer that America’s other great foe in the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran, is allowed to expand its influence. Since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, as has been elaborated in the above sections, the Iranians have intensified their influence over Iraq. As primary regional supporters of the Bashar al-Assad Regime, they are spring boarding from gaining influence in Iraq to now influencing Iraq’s neighbor of Syria. Iran already has a presence in Lebanon through its backing of Hezbollah, and it has great pull with the Palestinian Authority, as Hamas is essentially a front for the Iranian government. At the same time, the U.S. has foolishly negotiated a deal with the Iranians that validates their drive to acquire nuclear arms. This, in turn, has sent a shockwave throughout the region, as traditional U.S. partners–Sunni governments like those of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt–scramble to seek new security arrangements under the belief that America is no longer committed to being an active participant in the region. This has also had a cooling effect on relations with Israel, as Iran appears intent on annihilating the Israelis.
American dithering on its fight against the Islamic State has justified Iranian military expansion into both Iraq and Syria. As this has happened, the Obama Administration has bizarrely negotiated a nuclear arms deal that all but guarantees that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons. This has further destabilized the region by threatening traditional allies and, the increased instability has also brought pro-Iran Russia deeper into the region. Again, this is all predicated on the notion that the Islamic State is destabilizing the region, necessitating increased expansion of Iran and, by extension, Russia. Indeed, Iran and Saudi Arabia, for instance, have effectively engaged in proxy wars with each other over revolutions that have swept both Yemen and Bahrain. The Iranians, naturally, support Shiite-related groups in these campaigns and the Saudis support the Sunni groups.
This is an untenable situation, especially with the risk of nuclear escalation (remember, Israel has a nuclear arsenal, Iran is building one, and it is believed that Saudi Arabia may have as many as 19 nuclear weapons on order from Pakistan). As has been detailed in this piece, the historical divisions between Sunnis and Shiites are existential. Any conflict between these two groups–especially involving nuclear arms–will not go the way of the Cold War. Rather than a deterrent toward conflict escalation, as international relations scholars like Kenneth Waltz and John J. Mearshimer claim, the introduction of nuclear arms into this ongoing conflagration will act as an inducement toward it.
Iraq as Belgium?
If America can seriously intervene in Iraq and squelch the Islamic State there, then it can stanch the growing Sunni-Shiite regional war. The U.S. can nurse Iraq back to a more stable place, with a reasonable SOFA that keeps U.S. forces in the country as long as required to stabilize Iraq. In such a scenario, the U.S. aim should be to make Iraq’s role in the Middle East into what the British Empire made Belgium’s role in Europe: a stopgap for conflict. By soundly defeating the Islamic State in Iraq (and pressing it in Syria), the U.S. will buy itself time. It can then formulate a postwar settlement to the Iraq issue that is more amicable to the three major ethno-religious groups in the country. I would argue for a federal, or cantonal, system to emerge that mirrors the Vilayet system that the Ottoman Empire used to such great effect during its reign of many centuries.
In the meantime, the larger presence of American forces in the region, along with serious commitments from the other Arab Sunni states, would help to reduce the increased Iranian influence, and place them back on the defensive. Such a scenario would have a chilling effect on Iranian ambitions, as they would realize that their aims of building a nuclear-armed exclusive sphere-of-influence in the region would not go unanswered. The
introduction of large numbers of American forces with a serious commitment to stay and assist in the post-Islamic State stabilization process, with the real backing of the Arab Sunni states, would prevent an Iranian breakout, and would likely calm the growing internecine tensions between Sunni and Shiite in the region.
This article, I hope, has illustrated to you, the reader, the presence of millenarian eschatology in the two dominant strands of Islam. While these apocalyptic, puritanical visions of Islam are by no means representative of the entire religion, they are a predominant factor. What’s more, the leaders of America’s greatest threats, both in the Sunni and Shiite realms, emanate from these apocalyptic views–the Mahdīst view for the Shiites and the Wahhābīst view for the Sunnis. These groups are intractable with their foes and implacably violent toward each other. If left to their own devices, their blood feud will consume the larger Middle East–and beyond. You might be inclined to say, “so what?” and I completely understand that viewpoint. However, today’s globalized world prevents an isolationist view from being practical. Furthermore, the drive for nuclear weapons among the competing groups means that no conflict in the Islamic world will be contained there.
Lastly, the world still depends on the oil produced from the Middle East. Until a viable alternative can be devised and mass produced, the world will still need to use the vast oil supplies located beneath the warring feet of Wahhābīsts and Mahdīsts. It is in America’s best interest, then, as the guarantor of international security, to ensure that the world has
cheap and easy access to these sources. That means taking a greater role in the Islamic world, supporting secular governments, and advocating for Free Markets wherever possible.
Time is not on America’s side. Every day, the Islamic State grows stronger and threatens to destabilize the entire region. On the other side, the Iranians are giddily building their forces up and expanding their influence, all in order to ostensibly counter the Islamic State threat, but more likely, to avenge themselves upon the Sunnis, as they continue to carry with them the grief over what befell Muhammad’s last, true heir at the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D. America needs to learn that the solution to this conflict is not isolationism, it is not “leading from behind,” and it is not making a deal with Iran at the expense of everyone else in the region. What is needed is an overwhelming display of military might against the Islamic State, backed by a robust–mostly Arab Sunni Muslim–coalition, with the aim of hunting down the Islamic State like the rabid dog it is, and then helping to pick up the pieces in Iraq thereafter. If the U.S. can do this, then it can not only right the mistakes it made beginning in 2003, but it also can help to bring about a much better world.
This is Part 1 of a 4-part symposium on the strategy needed to beat the Islamic State and pushback the Iranians. Please stay tuned for Part 2: “Stabilizing the Situation in Syria.” We at The Weichert Report greatly appreciate your support and value your readership.