“The war in Iraq has helped bring together these two as yet separate strands – Arab nationalism and militant Islam – in the Arab and Muslim world. That, in turn, will widen the gulf between the Christian West and Muslim countries, a gulf that will, as French President Jacques Chirac warned, be catastrophic. “It would end the international coalition against terrorism,” he said in a TV interview, “and the first victors will be those who want a clash of civilisations, cultures and religions.” Alas, Chirac’s words went unheeded. Now Westerners – especially Americans and Britons – must prepare to reap the whirlwind sown by George Bush and Tony Blair. By invading Iraq despite the opposition expressed by Muslim and Arab allies of the West, the US and British governments have opened a Pandora’s box which will now be hard to close.” – Dilip Hiro, 2003 (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2003/apr/01/foreignpolicy.iraq)
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
The reaction and proposed responses of the West to the utter sadism wrought upon Paris last week have the capacity to drag global civilisation to the brink of collapse by engorging the nihilistic purveyor of chaos that is ISIS. The aim of this essay is to demonstrate that ISIS owes its existence to a range of social, political, economic and psychological problems brought about by Western military action in the Muslim world. Indeed, no proper understanding of the explosive rise of ISIS can ignore the West’s involvement in its genesis, and no amount of further military action will liberate the people of the region from the blood-soaked turmoil amid which they continue to suffer.
The world is in the midst of a refugee crisis unprecedented in magnitude; there are 59.5 million forcibly displaced individuals worldwide, and 19.5 million refugees. A quarter of all refugees are estimated by the UN to be Syrian, and the overall number is at the highest since records began.1 As with all the seeds of crisis sown in the Middle East in the previous two decades, the West is granted its spoils at a point long past efflorescence: Syria, the current hotbed of displacement, was forced to accommodate one million Iraqi civilians at the turn of the last decade as a result of the West’s illegal invasion of its neighbour. Millions too were forced to flee during the disastrous 2011 intervention in Libya. The vast majority of refugees in the region have been accommodated in neighbouring countries, to the point that the entire eastern Mediterranean now resembles a perpetual feedback loop of desperate and fleeing peoples. The region’s ability to offer safe haven has, however, been subjected to quickly diminishing returns, as the bloody sectarian divisions which have fractured the affected countries continue to widen and are exploited by ever-bloodier factions, no better characterised than by the so-called Islamic State.
The rise of ISIS was in a sense foretold by commentators prior to the Iraq invasion, which was described in 2003 by Dilip Hiro as “[the opening of a] Pandora’s Box which will now be hard to close”. In more concrete terms, the mushrooming expansion of ISIS was predicted with uncharacteristic prescience in a United States intelligence report from August 2012, when ISIS was operating partially under the banner of ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ (referred to as AQI in the document):
“Events are taking a clear sectarian direction…The Salafist, The Muslim Brotherhood and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria… the deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation…[it] creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy… ISIS could also declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.”2
In addition to correctly predicting the falls of both Mosul and Ramadi, of crucial significance here is that the U.S. had full knowledge that the Syrian resistance was dominated by extreme forces long before it pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid3 and arms4 to the rebels. According to Seumas Milne, the U.S. government was “prepared to countenance the creation of some sort of “Islamic state”—despite the “grave danger” to Iraq’s unity—as a Sunni buffer to weaken Syria”.5
That U.S. aid to Syrian rebels was of indirect benefit to ISIS is beyond dispute. That the prominence of ISIS was assured by hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of funding and arms from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait—U.S. client states all—is similarly undeniable.6 Ought not any rational response to ISIS begin with sanctioning the sources of ISIS funding?
The imperial architecture that birthed ISIS is so immediately evident that when brought to attention, it can only be responded to by the elected and media classes with shrill denunciations of character and baseless accusations of harbouring terrorist sympathies. Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn has discovered this in recent days, thanks to his affiliation with Stop the War coalition, a pacifist non-profit group which dared a few days ago to make the uncontroversial observation that the attacks on Paris are not indistinct from France’s foreign policy in Syria and Iraq, which has of course laid waste to the lives of many innocent civilians.
However, unlike wealthy Western nations, which have sustained just a handful of terror attacks in the last 15 years and are able to respond to them effectively, the Middle East has been made to suffer decades of sanguinary imperial influence on its soil. The countries targeted by the U.S. and Nato over the years do not possess the robust economies or infrastructure necessary to withstand the unabating devastation visited upon them by the most powerful national actor in the history of humankind. Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan are all failed states.
Prior to the 2003 invasion, Iraq alone was subjected to over a decade of U.S.-led sanctions famously described by Assistant Secretary-General of the UN’s Iraq Humanitarian Program Dennis Halliday in his resignation speech as “genocidal”. The sanctions killed hundreds of thousands of children and decreased living standards by as much as 90%, before the war in Iraq killed up to one million people, displaced many more, destroyed public infrastructure and instituted a corrupt, Shia-led puppet government which didn’t even pretend to conceal the umbra of U.S. influence within which its every move was prescribed.
Indeed, the invasion and occupation of Iraq stoked the flames of sectarian conflict that have long existed in the region. Drawing influence from its policy of 1980s covert warfare in Latin America, one of the ways in which the U.S. capitalised on this was by funding Shia-led death squads against Sunni communities.
In an illuminating piece published recently in The Nation, Lydia Wilson documents her experiences interviewing imprisoned ISIS members in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, including the testimony of one such individual, who, explaining his motivations, said:
The Americans came…[t]hey took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.7
Wilson then goes on to quote Doug Stone, a retired American general who had accompanied her on the trip and who confirmed that this was the “number-one” complaint of prisoners who had been detained during the occupation. Evaluating her interviewees, Wilson notes:
These boys came of age under the disastrous American occupation after 2003, in the chaotic and violent Arab part of Iraq, ruled by the viciously sectarian Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki. Growing up Sunni Arab was no fun. A later interviewee described his life growing up under American occupation: He couldn’t go out, he didn’t have a life, and he specifically mentioned that he didn’t have girlfriends. An Islamic State fighter’s biggest resentment was the lack of an adolescence.
There is a depressingly common theme here: angry young men who lost fathers at a young age, and who are alienated in every aspect of their lives, living under a highly corrupt government which does not possess even a semblance of legitimate moral authority.
Corruption in Iraq extends to the point of sheer absurdity; for instance, senior army officers were found in 2014 to have fabricated the existence of 50,000 soldiers so as to pocket the resulting government salary.8 ISIS is rabidly anti-corruption, going as far as to crucify high-ranking members found guilty of the sin. It has established a profitable racket of extortion, kidnapping and oil sales, the returns from which have been invested in the provision of public services and the restoration of destroyed infrastructure.9 It is also able to offer reasonable pay to communities blighted for a generation by unemployment and poverty. These are not acts of genuine charity, but instead represent a twisted neo-Fordist approach to gaining total subservience through the offer of a speck of dignity to a comprehensively humiliated people.
ISIS does not demand the scholastic rigour which has characterised prior Islamic extremist groups, and its membership is widely ignorant of the Qur’an and Sharia law. It relies instead on the profound but crude sense of injustice felt by its target audience, alienated adolescent boys.
ISIS is famous for its sophisticated online network and various propaganda outlets—used in efforts to recruit members from Western countries—which promise adventure and a sense of belonging to disenchanted youngsters who are treated as though alien in their own countries, as the homelands of their parents or grandparents are ravaged by Western bombs.
ISIS capitalises on the division of Muslims from non-Muslims in Western countries; indeed, this is a centrepiece of its propaganda. Murtaza Hussein, writing in the Intercept, evaluates ISIS’s “chilling rationale” for the Charlie Hebdo attacks, as set out in its magazine Dabiq:
“The attack had “further [brought] division to the world,” the group said, boasting that it had polarized society and “eliminated the grayzone,” representing coexistence between religious groups. As a result, it said, Muslims living in the West would soon no longer be welcome in their own societies. Treated with increasing suspicion, distrust and hostility by their fellow citizens as a result of the deadly shooting, Western Muslims would soon be forced to “either apostatize … or [migrate] to the Islamic State, and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens,” the group stated, while threatening of more attacks to come.”10
The recent attacks in Paris, then, were not an attack on ‘Western values’ or on ‘freedom’, as our elected officials would have it. Rather, their twin objectives were to provoke further Western military action in the Middle East and inspire a bitter anti-Muslim backlash among Western populations. ISIS knows that such reactions, inevitable as they are, will act as its two biggest tools of recruitment. It must be said, then, that it would appear that ISIS is succeeding in achieving its intended goals: the French government wasted no time in closing France’s borders, and immediately escalated its campaign of air strikes on Syria. Refugee camps have been burned, and numerous reports of an increase in attacks on mosques and Muslims in Western nations come at a time when global Islamophobia is already at an all-time high.11 True to form, the Daily Mail recently published a cartoon uncannily similar to one published in the 1930s which demonised Jewish refugees.
Of course, the West is morally obliged to accommodate the vast numbers of refugees who are displaced as a result of its actions. Nevertheless, a majority of U.S. governors have declared that Syrian refugees are not welcome in their communities. Such declarations, if carried into effect, would constitute contraventions of federal law. But they also overlook the fact that the majority of individuals involved in the Paris attacks were European nationals. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz advocates allowing entrance only to those refugees who can prove that they are Christians. But in further humiliating individuals who have risked life and limb in their hundreds of thousands to flee their beloved homelands, a dangerous game is played, one which, as we have demonstrated, is exploited pitilessly by ISIS.
Marco Rubio, another prospective presidential nominee, stated that the attacks by ISIS on Western soil exemplify a “clash of civilizations”. Comments such as these are demented and incendiary; after all, ISIS does not currently pose any sort of threat to Western civilisation, which is doing a perfectly good job of destroying itself. The British government, for example, will seize the opportunity provided by these attacks to pass its draconian Investigatory Powers Bill, which essentially suspends the democratic right to privacy. Moreover, it will almost certainly now secure its long sought-after parliamentary majority for military action in Syria, which will simply create in even greater volume the death, despair and instability that ISIS requires for its metastasis.
The only direct existential threat ISIS currently poses is to the civilisation of the regions which it controls. One aspect of this threat is the merciless destruction of significant cultural heritage sites. In this much, ISIS has clearly learnt the methods of the area’s former colonial overlords, namely that a necessary factor of population control is to debase any sense of culture or history, which in turn is a necessary factor in individual conscience and critical thought.