Genuine terrorists require little amplification of their acts. These acts are designed to create a certain emotional response. A beheading here, a burning there – ghastly repetitions of old acts, as old as The Rack or the Judas Chair. It takes little imagination to picture the pain. The terrorist conducts the act in public, on YouTube at least, in order to sow terror. That is the point of the act.
The "Islamic State" (IS, formerly ISIS) has been in the spotlight for its barbarism, most recently for the killing – by fire – of the Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kassasbeh. Prior to that, IS attained notoriety for its beheadings. Less well known are its violent acts against homosexuals, who have been thrown off buildings to their death. All of this seems to be authorized by Abu Bakr Naji’s 2004 Idarat al-Tawahush ('Management of Savagery'), a textbook apparently of the IS. It seeks religious authority, but also historical validation. The time of the "Islamic State" is largely the waning days of the Crusades, when the Franks began to withdraw after the fall of Acre in 1291. Victory, to the jihadi, seems at hand.
One of the most obvious questions raised is why the IS is barbaric. The demand made to Muslims that they condemn acts by the "Islamic State" suggests that there is a view that this is somehow authorized by Islam. Certainly, the IS seeks to find legitimacy in Islam – as it would. But this does not mean that it is Islam that authorizes such brutality. If a murderer seeks justification in a fantasy, it should not allow one to believe that the fault of murder lies in the fantasy.
The list of atrocities committed against Iraq is long.
If the motivation for these acts is not in Islam, then perhaps they might be found in other traditions? One of the most gruesome videos is associated with the killing of the aid worker Peter Abdulrahman Kassig, the fifth western hostage to be killed by the IS. Kassig’s death comes in the last minutes of a fifteen-minute video. The rest of the video has nothing to do with Kassig. It is a diatribe against the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and then the aftermath, namely – in the terms of the "Islamic State" – the handing over of Iraq to the Shia, the nusayri, as the video calls them. Here lie two additional explanations of the extreme violence of the IS and it is worthwhile to take them in sequence.
The US occupation of Iraq
The list of atrocities committed against Iraq is long. In 1991, the US bombardment of Iraq was fiery and terrifying. When Iraqi troops withdrew on the run from Kuwait, US aircraft bombed them along Highway 80, the 'Highway of Death'. At least a thousand soldiers died along the road. The 24th Division 1st Brigade of the US army investigated two incidents in 1991, one of which resulted in the death of perhaps three hundred and fifty already-surrendered Iraqi soldiers.
That war morphed into a brutal sanctions regime, whose destructive impact on Iraqi society has not been fully gauged. UN officials in charge of humanitarian relief during the sanctions regime – Denis Halliday and Hans Christof von Sponeck – resigned from their posts in disgust.
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The Stakes Have Never Been Higher.
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The 2003 invasion once more resulted in fiery bombing runs that wrecked Iraq’s infrastructure and destroyed its cities. When the insurgency against the US occupation began, the US reaction was swift and ruthless – Fallujah was twice razed (the Imam of the Grand Mosque of Fallujah, Sheikh Jamal Shakur, was arrested by the US forces; they also incarcerated his family). Of course there was the humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, including the suppressed video (according to Seymour Hersh) of the sexual brutality against children in the prison.
There was the use of armed force that leaked into the massacre of civilians, most clearly documented for the 2006 attack in Ishaqi. Where are the families of Turkiya Majeed Ali, Faiz Hratt Khalaf, Sumaya Abdul Kazzaq Khuther, Iqtisad Hameed Mehdi, Hawraa (age 5), Asma Yousif Maarouf (age 5), Usama Yousif Maarouf (age 3), Aisha (age 3), Husam (age five months)? What damage did this killing of innocents by a US strike do to their wider family? How many of them have now drifted into the "Islamic State" – or to its Baathist allies?
Hatred of the Shia
There was no al-Qaeda in Iraq before the US occupation in 2003. What existed there were small, barren sections that had been inspired by Bin Laden but had no network, no influence, and no ability to do anything. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia emerged as a parasite on the US occupation. It was led by a Jordanian militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There was little room for him in Iraq. What opened the space was the destruction of Fallujah. Fighters in that city would openly proclaim later that they alone had defended "the city of mosques".
No longer were the older Sunni groups (such as the Islamic Party) able to claim their allegiance – new formations, such as al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad and Jaish Muhammad, emerged. They certainly went after the US troops (and the United Nations). But their real target became the Shia institutions – a mosque here, a Hawza there. The sentiment that grew out of the ashes of Fallujah and Ramadi was that the US had destroyed Iraq and handed over the keys to the Shia community. No attempt by Muqtada al-Sadr to bridge the divides through a revived Iraqi nationalism could succeed.
It was not for nothing that Zarqawi would routinely refer to the salafi traditions that he shared with the Saudis, even once enigmatically talking about the Saudis as his funders (“While it was the poor citizens of Iraq who financed this struggle, I have the support of the richest people on earth”). The anti-Shia tendency was so toxic that Osama Bin Laden found it a bit too much. He would rebuke Zarqawi for it.
The history of this sectarianism does not go back to the ancient past, however, but to more recent developments. In 1962, the Saudis, the Moroccans and the Pakistanis worked to develop the World Muslim League (Rabita al-Alam al-Islami). The institutional heft of the World Muslim League, financed by the Saudis, would provide the basis for a deeply intolerant strand of thought and practice to develop from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia. Routinely the leadership would declare people to be apostates (a fate meted out to the Ahmediyyas in Pakistan), and would provide license for their killing. This toxic strand was born in the Cold War fear of Arab nationalism and communism. It festered through the Afghan jihad and then moulted in the aftermath of the US destruction of the Iraqi state in 2003.
Barbarians are produced, often by their betters. This "Islamic State" is the detritus of the wars that ran from Afghanistan to Libya, from Chechnya to Yemen. It is easy to plumb the depths of its history, harder to know how to combat it. Will the weapons that laid the conditions for the group’s emergence (bombings, civilian deaths) also provide deliverance from it?