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The Missing Context: ‘Islamic State’ sectarianism is not coincidental 

Middle East
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Consider this comical scene described by Peter Van Buren, a former US diplomat, who was deployed to Iraq on a 12-month assignment in 2009-10:

Van Buren led two Department of State teams assigned with the abstract mission of the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq, which was destroyed in the US-led wars and sanctions. He describes the reconstruction of Iraq as such:

“In practice, that meant paying for schools that would never be completed, setting up pastry shops on streets without water or electricity, and conducting endless propaganda events on Washington-generated themes of the week (‘small business,’ ‘women’s empowerment,’ ‘democracy building.’)”

As for the comical scene: “We even organized awkward soccer matches, where American taxpayer money was used to coerce reluctant Sunni teams into facing off against hesitant Shiite ones in hopes that, somehow, the chaos created by the American invasion could be ameliorated on the playing field.”

Of course, there is nothing funny about it when seen in context. The entire American nation-building experiment was in fact a political swindle engulfed by many horrifying episodes, starting with the dissolving of the country’s army, entire official institutions and the construction of an alternative political class that was essentially sectarian.

Take the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), which was founded in July 2003 as an example. The actual ruler of Iraq was the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed first by General Jay Garner, then by Paul Bremer, who, affectively was the governor of Iraq. The figureheads of the IGC were mostly a conglomerate of pro-US Iraqi individuals with a sinister sectarian past.

This is particularly important, for when Bremer began mutilating Iraqi society as dictated to him from Washington, the IGC was the first real sign of the American vision for Iraq with a sectarian identity. The council was made of 13 Shias, five Sunnis, five Kurds, a Turkmen and an Assyrian.

One would not dwell on the sectarian formation of the US-ruled Iraq if such vulgar sectarianism were embedded in the collective psyche of Iraqi society. But, perhaps surprisingly, this is not the case.

Fanar Haddad, author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity, like other perceptive historians, doesn’t buy into the ‘ancient hatred’ line between Sunnis and Shia. “The roots of sectarian conflict aren’t that deep in Iraq,” he said in a recent interview.

Between the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in 1921 and for over 80 years, “the default setting (In Iraq) was coexistence.” Haddad argues that “Post-2003 Iraq ..identity politics have been the norm rather than an anomaly because they’re part of the system by design.”

That ‘design’ was not put in place arbitrarily. The conventional wisdom was that the US army is better seen as a ‘liberator’ than an invader, where the Shia community was supposedly being liberated from an oppressive Sunni minority. By doing so, those in their name Iraq was ‘liberated’ were armed and empowered to fight the ‘Sunni insurgency’ throughout the country. The ‘Sunni’ discourse, laden with such terminology as the ‘Sunni Triangle’ and ‘Sunni insurgents’ and such, was a defining component of the American media and government perception of the war. In fact, there was no insurgency per se, but an organic Iraqi resistance to the US-led invasion.

The design had in fact served its purposes, but not for long. Iraqis turned against one another, as US troops mostly watched the chaotic scene from behind the well-fortified Green Zone. When it turned out that the US public still found the price of occupation too costly to bear, the US redeployed out of Iraq, leaving behind a broken society. By then, there were no more Shia vs. Sunni awkward football matches, but rather an atrocious conflict that had claimed too many innocent lives to even be able count.

True, the Americans didn’t create Iraqi sectarianism. The latter always brewed beneath the surface. However, sectarianism and other manifestations of identity politics in Iraq were always overpowered by a dominant sense of Iraqi nationalism, which was violently destroyed and ripped apart by US firepower starting March 2003. But what the American truly founded in Iraq was Sunni militancy, a concept that has, till recently been alien to the Middle East.

Being the majority among Muslim societies as a whole, Sunnis rarely identified as such. Generally, minorities tend to ascribe to various group memberships as a form of self-preservation. Majorities feel no such need. Al-Qaeda for example, seldom made such references to being a Sunni group, and its targeting of Shia and others was not part of its original mission. Even its violent references to other groups were made in specific political contexts: they referred to the ‘Crusaders’ when they mentioned US military presence in the region, and to Jews, in reference to Israel. The group used terror to achieve what was essentially political objectives.

But even al-Qaeda identity began changing after the US invasion of Iraq. One could make the argument that the link between the original al-Qaeda and current group known as the Islamic State (IS) is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The Jordanian-born militant was the founder of al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad group, and didn’t join al-Qaeda officially until 2004. A merger had then taken place, resulting in the creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)

While Zarqawi’s move to Iraq had originally targeted the US occupation, the nature of his mission was quickly redefined by the extremely violent sectarian nature of the conflict. He declared ‘war’ on the Shia in 2005, and was killed a few months later at the height of the civil war.

Zarqawi was so violent in his sectarian war to the extent that al-Qaeda leaders were allegedly irritated with him. The core al-Qaeda leadership which imposed itself as the guardians of the Muslim ummah (nation) could have been wary that a sectarian war would fundamentally change the nature of the conflict – a direction they deemed dangerous.

If these dialectics ever existed, they are no longer relevant today. The Syrian civil war was the perfect landscape for sectarian movements to operate, and, in fact, evolve. By then, AQI had merged with the Mujahideen Shura Council resulting in the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), then the Levant (ISIL), which eventually declared a Sunni-centered Caliphate on land it occupied in Syria and, more recently in Iraq. It now simply calls itself the Islamic State (IS).

Sunni militancy (as in groups operating on the central premise of being Sunni) is a particularly unique concept in history. What makes IS an essential sectarian phenomenon with extremely violent consequences is that it was born into an exceptionally sectarian environment, and could only operate within the existing rules.

To destroy sectarian identities prevalent in the Middle East region today, the rules would have to be redesigned, not by Paul Bremer type figures, but through the creation of new political horizons, where fledgling democracies are permitted to operate in safe environments, and where national identities are reanimated to meet the common priorities of the Arab peoples.

While the US-led coalition can indeed inflect much damage on IS and eventually claim some sort of victory, they will ultimately exacerbate the sectarian tension that will spill over to other Middle Eastern nations.

About Ramzy Baroud

Ramzy Baroud is a PhD scholar in People's History at the University of Exeter. He is the Managing Editor of Middle East Eye. Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the founder of His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

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46 Responses

  1. just
    October 16, 2014, 3:06 pm

    “Of course, there is nothing funny about it when seen in context. The entire American nation-building experiment was in fact a political swindle engulfed by many horrifying episodes, starting with the dissolving of the country’s army, entire official institutions and the construction of an alternative political class that was essentially sectarian. ”

    Hallelujah! I love the truth. This article conveys a wealth of it.

    Thank you Dr. Baroud.

    • Krauss
      October 16, 2014, 6:11 pm

      Attacking the shocking mismanagement of America’s post-Iraq activities is easy.

      What is also easy is to portray Iraq’s current sectarianism as somehow a biproduct of the American invasion. Why did Saddam gas the kurds in the early 90s? When secterianism was supposedly gone?

      The Arab world has to reckon with the fact that ISIS is a homegrown phenomenom and blaming America feels good but does not solve anything long-term.

      Yes, America has partly given rise to ISIS due to its actions, but the ideology behind ISIS has been fermenting in the Arab world for decades, the Islamists begun their ascension to power already back in the 60s and 70s and the ideological groundwork was sown many decades before even that.

      But self-criticism is far harder than blaming outside forces. Not that those forces are free of guilt, but I’ve grown tired of reading the same self-excusing apologism from people who should know better.

      • Annie Robbins
        October 17, 2014, 12:10 am

        Why did Saddam gas the kurds in the early 90s? When secterianism was supposedly gone?

        it was at least partially political. according to wiki “Al Anfal” (the name of the campaign) literally means the “spoils (of war)”. it was at the end of the iran/iraq war and the kurds were facilitating iran during the war. “both major Kurdish political parties opted to team with Iran” (samantha power)

        saddam was gassing iranians too.

        the ideology behind ISIS has been fermenting in the Arab world for decades, the Islamists begun their ascension to power already back in the 60s and 70s and the ideological groundwork was sown many decades before even that.

        the islamists?

        I’ve grown tired of reading the same self-excusing apologism from people who should know better.

        who do you claim is self excusing here?

      • Brewer
        October 17, 2014, 2:15 am

        “Why did Saddam gas the kurds in the early 90s?”

        Maybe he didn’t.

        “But the truth is, all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the Halabja story.

        I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency’s senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.
        This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came about in the course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is in northern Iraq not far from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who died had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they were not Iraq’s main target.

        And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas.”

      • Walid
        October 17, 2014, 2:40 am

        Kraus, the first ascension to power goes back to 1740 with Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab entering into a pact with the House of Saud to jointly rule the first Wahhabi Saudi Arabian state. It remained on the back burner all these years, but it was there all the time, simmering. The early 60s and earlier decades you referred to was of the lighter Muslim Brotherhood version that took root with al-Banna in Egypt that was easily snuffed out first by Nasser then a bit later in Syria by Assad Père. For the hardcore Salafi IS kind, you have to go back to 1740 to what eventually became Saudi Arabia.

      • Walid
        October 17, 2014, 2:51 am

        Brewer, The CIA and friends would pin the blame on the Iranians since at the time, Saddam was the good guy that had been unleashed on bad-guys Iran and the US simply looked the other way when the Kurds were hit. Also at the time, there was the buddy-buddy photograph going around of Rumsfeld with Saddam. The US also looked the other way when Saddam first invaded Kuwait as he was supposed to grab only the small border area where the Kuwaitis were slant-digging oil under Iraq’s border. When Saddam got greedy and decided to take all of Kuwait, the US stopped playing along with him.

      • lysias
        October 17, 2014, 11:17 am

        Hasn’t there always been the potential for exteme puritans within Islam? Aren’t the Almoravids and Almohads in Spain and the Maghreb early examples of it?

      • Walid
        October 17, 2014, 3:28 pm

        Yes, lysias, as far as the puritanical Almohad were concerned but still not at all close in wickedness to what IS is today. In its nostalgic yearning to get back to the old glory days of Islamic empire, IS has indicated that the whole of the Iberian peninsula is on its agenda, while Israel is not.

      • Brewer
        October 17, 2014, 10:54 pm

        The NYT article is dated January 31, 2003 and written by Stephen C. Pelletiere. I don’t think he would be disembling at that stage.

    • Mooser
      October 17, 2014, 5:56 pm

      “Attacking the shocking mismanagement of America’s post-Iraq activities is easy.”

      But saying there’s just something wrong with Muslims is hard. And courageous.

  2. Brewer
    October 16, 2014, 3:31 pm


    by Israel Shahak


    The following essay represents, in my opinion, the accurate and detailed plan of the present Zionist regime (of Sharon and Eitan) for the Middle East which is based on the division of the whole area into small states, and the dissolution of all the existing Arab states. I will comment on the military aspect of this plan in a concluding note. Here I want to draw the attention of the readers to several important points:


    1. The idea that all the Arab states should be broken down, by Israel, into small units, occurs again and again in Israeli strategic thinking. For example, Ze’ev Schiff, the military correspondent of Ha’aretz (and probably the most knowledgeable in Israel, on this topic) writes about the “best” that can happen for Israeli interests in Iraq: “The dissolution of Iraq into a Shi’ite state, a Sunni state and the separation of the Kurdish part” (Ha’aretz 6/2/1982). Actually, this aspect of the plan is very old.


    2. The strong connection with Neo-Conservative thought in the USA is very prominent, especially in the author’s notes. But, while lip service is paid to the idea of the “defense of the West” from Soviet power, the real aim of the author, and of the present Israeli establishment is clear: To make an Imperial Israel into a world power. In other words, the aim of Sharon is to deceive the Americans after he has deceived all the rest.


    3. It is obvious that much of the relevant data, both in the notes and in the text, is garbled or omitted, such as the financial help of the U.S. to Israel. Much of it is pure fantasy. But, the plan is not to be regarded as not influential, or as not capable of realization for a short time. The plan follows faithfully the geopolitical ideas current in Germany of 1890-1933, which were swallowed whole by Hitler and the Nazi movement, and determined their aims for East Europe. Those aims, especially the division of the existing states, were carried out in 1939-1941, and only an alliance on the global scale prevented their consolidation for a period of time.


    The notes by the author follow the text. To avoid confusion, I did not add any notes of my own, but have put the substance of them into this foreward and the conclusion at the end. I have, however, emphasized some portions of the text.

    Israel Shahak

    June 13, 1982

    The full text of the Yinon document can be viwed here:

    • just
      October 16, 2014, 4:08 pm

      Thank you.

    • Brewer
      October 17, 2014, 3:40 am

      For those reluctant to follow links here is a snippet from the Yinon document that may resonate with some:

      “Within Israel the distinction between the areas of ’67 and the territories beyond them, those of ’48, has always been meaningless for Arabs and nowadays no longer has any significance for us. The problem should be seen in its entirety without any divisions as of ’67. It should be clear, under any future political situation or military constellation, that the solution of the problem of the indigenous Arabs will come only when they recognize the
      existence of Israel in secure borders up to the Jordan river and beyond it, as our existential need in this difficult epoch, the nuclear epoch which we shall soon enter. It is no longer possible to live with three fourths of the Jewish population on the dense shoreline which is
      so dangerous in a nuclear epoch. ”

      This appears to be Israeli-speak for:
      ” the indigenous (at least he admits they are indigenous) Arabs will only recognize the existence of Israel after we expel them across the Jordan”.

      • bilal a
        October 17, 2014, 5:37 am

        Does not a One State solution Greater Israel , with limited west bank autonomy freezing arab electoral power, achieve the same solution?

        How come Electronic Intifada cant figure that one out.

      • pabelmont
        October 17, 2014, 8:58 am

        This entire essay and its comments speaks of strategy (and sometimes also of actions) which amount, as to USA and Israel, of divide and allow to self-destruct. Not divide and conquer.

        Israel has always had strategic thinkers who put stuff on paper, B-G included, but often (as with plan-D) there is denial that the plan was put into effect, or that the plan dictated or guided military action. These denials are not particularly believable but raise a question: was Yinon (Brewer above, from: Israel Shahak) speaking for Israel or merely floating balloons?

        The USA in Iraq seems to me to have been essentially clueless rather than cleverly maleficent (as to divide and allow to self-destruct). Bush-2: wanted his war; was encouraged to that (or even initially motivated to it) by neocons/Israel; was as stupid as they come and as careless (recall there was no plan for “after”, and recall the trashing of the Iraqi museum of antiquities; was motivated by the immense profit-making revolving-door of [1] have American troops destroy and [2] let American corporations rebuild. None of this was a plan for Iraqi recovery, for democracy, for peace, or for getting USA out. It was a great splash of profit-making amid otherwise cluelessness.

        But Obama is caught in the same web of bad advice and a bad situation. Our current general Islamic-o-phobia requires blaming ISIL rather than blaming ourselves or blaming the so-called Iraqi government. Obama’s possible restraint, currently, may be a sign that he (his advisers) recognize that this mess is not a-gonna get cleaned up easily and we’ve made enough trouble and should keep out.

  3. oldgeezer
    October 16, 2014, 3:49 pm

    I can’t disagree with the article in any way but I don’t think it accounts for the PNAC influence and stated objectives to balkanize parts of the middle east. The litany of PNAC signatories and their employment in positions of influence.

    While it does clearly state a lot of the responsibilities it doesn’t clearly layout what I believe was an intentional outcome. Many many people have lost their possessions, many have lost their lives, even more have lost their livelihood for the worst of reasons.

    But I’ll echo the thank you to Dr. Baroud :)

    • just
      October 16, 2014, 5:05 pm

      The PNAC ‘evildoers’ are another branch of the architects for this terrible present.

      That’s not going to be captured in one article; there will be volumes written about it one day. This article is an opening and beginning.

      • oldgeezer
        October 16, 2014, 7:18 pm

        Agreed. It seems very generation, or two, we spawn some truly evil people. I didn’t respond but Brewer’s post is spot on in my opinion but, yet still, just another part of the puzzle that makes up the full picture.

      • Brewer
        October 17, 2014, 2:06 am

        I too am an old geezer. I grew up in a World that is long gone. Gone so long that it seems like a dream of Elysian fields now. When I woke up one day and realised a massive change had taken place, that the ideas of Justice and Truth I had formerly believed to be immutable had vanished, I too was puzzled.
        It has been a long quest involving masses of reading and research but I can tell you without fear of contradiction that the above post is not ” another part of the puzzle” – it is the key to the puzzle. The only impediment in the way of understanding is our propensity to disbelieve that individual human beings could act in such an evil way. To that I reply, you know the collective can and has. Many times in the past.

  4. Annie Robbins
    October 16, 2014, 4:54 pm

    this is an excellent article and i appreciate it being published here. thank you!

    the only caveat i have is the implication of “Americans didn’t create Iraqi sectarianism.” i believe in a huge way, in 2003, they did. iraq society, especially in baghdad wasn’t set up in a sectarian fashion, it was mixed with mixed neighborhoods families and tribes.

    dividing iraqi society was a strategy from the get go under the guise of getting rid of the baath party, which was made up of all components of society simply because you couldn’t gain employment in any gov subsidized industry (being a socialized country meant most employment) military/education/health without being in the baath party. but the US targeted sunnis and empowered shia (hakim/the badr brigades etc) and facilitated in the death squads targeting sunni (black and decker drill torture) and it took over 2 years to really kick off a civil war there. the intent was to divide iraq and the most challenging was dividing baghdad which they accomplished largely by ethnically cleansing sunnis. so sure, maybe there was some sectarian sentiment in iraq somewhere (example being iran iraq war when shia clerics went to iran) but largely it was ineffective and didn’t hold much sway at all. we basically jump started it in a big big way and could never have positioned ourselves as a ‘moderating force between warring factions’ (which we needed to do to justify our presence there because once saddam was gone we couldn’t be perceived as making war on iraq which is what we were doing, obviously).

    i wrote a little about this here; “In Iraq, and now Syria, US seeks secular outcome by… promoting sectarian division” – See more at: with some really good quotes by Raed Jarrar in a great chris hayes video:

    Raed Jarrar: I’m actually half Sunni and half Shite, we call it Sushis,(laughter). From my personal experience I have never been asked in my entire life until 2003 if was a Sunni or a Shia, I had never seen someone been ask that question.

    Chris Hayes: Growing up in Iraq.

    Raed Jarrar: It was never a (inaudible) identity before 2003, after 2003 it is now. It’s the core component unfortuneately. The system of sectarian and ethnic quarters in the government created a complete different government system and that was introduced in 2003 during the government council, so Iraqis were chosen based on their sectarian and ethnic background for the first time in contemporary history.

    and btw, i caught a LOT of crap on twitter for this article from free syrian army supporters back in 2013. i was inundated with tweets from a leader from their online army. this was a few months prior (as i recall) to nusra joining AQ or ISIL and a lot of denial about the vast majority of the fighting force behind assad’s opposition.

    • Dan Crowther
      October 16, 2014, 5:26 pm

      “this is an excellent article and i appreciate it being published here. thank you! ”


    • Brewer
      October 16, 2014, 5:49 pm

      Yes Annie. During Bush II’s invasion of Iraq, much was made about the Sunni/Shi’ite divide. Being somewhat of a neophyte in those days I asked a Malaysian Muslim friend which sect she belonged to. She didn’t know!
      I then looked into it a little further and found a fellow blogging from Baghdad (before the fall). He said intermarriage was common then went on to describe the construction crew at that moment working on his house – Sunni, Shi’ite, Christian and Kurd all mucking in together, sharing jokes and lunch.
      The whole IS thing is a canard. See my favourite and (in my opinion) the most accurate writer on this topic:

      • Walid
        October 17, 2014, 6:52 am

        “The whole IS thing is a canard.”

        Not that much, Brewer; to say that the Sunni and Shia always got along is somewhat of a stretch. There were exceptions of course where some communities of mixed sects got along, but these were rare. There was a tolerance of the other, but it was never really about love and the tension between them was always there although not discussed or errupted openly. The problem of not accepting the other was mostly from the Sunni side that considered the Shia the riff-raff of the religion and looked upon them accordingly. The Shia were always on the receiving end, reacting to whatever the Sunni threw their way. Now that the Shia numbers due to birth have multiplied extensively and that they are better educated, the tables have been turned in some areas where the Sunni have resorted to violence to get back at them. That opened the door for the likes of IS.

    • oldgeezer
      October 16, 2014, 7:35 pm

      A well said, particularly in relation to the sectarianism in Baghdad. I remember a number of interviews which residents felt the loss of living amongst their friends and neighbours. That the sectarianism wasn’t something they had experienced but was something they were forced into.

      We (the west, generally speaking) have done them so much more than just a disservice. It has truly been a crime against humanity. And while there are promising signals we have still not embarked upon righting the wrongs of the last century, let alone this one.

      I only hope I see some of the perpetrators pay the price for their crimes.

    • Mooser
      October 17, 2014, 6:02 pm

      “and it took over 2 years to really kick off a civil war there.”

      That’s how I remember it, too.

  5. just
    October 16, 2014, 5:22 pm

    It totally was the strategy of ‘the coalition of the willing’ to create this now mythic sectarianism.

    So many places in the ME were secular until we arrived with our shock and awe and billions and coups.

    • bilal a
      October 17, 2014, 5:39 am

      Isnt sectarian code for multicultural , the same divide and conquer they use in europe?

      • Mooser
        October 19, 2014, 1:32 pm

        ” multicultural”

        Are you talking about “multicultural” as setting aside a small amount of resources to investigate intellectually and celebrate the many cultures which go into a nation, within a framework of legal equality, or “multiculturalism” which actually involves segregating and discriminating against or allowing separate administration certain self-identified or State-identified groups of people?

        Cause I’m getting mixed up about that word.

  6. 666
    October 16, 2014, 5:41 pm

    just says

    “So many places in the ME were secular until we arrived with our shock and awe and billions and coups.”

    i have a saying……………. a rotten apple is easily broken in two.

    the easy money pumped from the ground rots everything it touches.

  7. Walid
    October 16, 2014, 5:52 pm

    Brief reference was made by Baroud to the Jordanian Zarkawi (Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh ) that was killed early in the game. It’s worth noting that his hometown of Zarka (the “blue”) is currently the hotbed of ultra fundamentalism in Jordan. In June, the Jordanian special forces averted an attack on Saudia from there. In the weird strategies being played out by the pro-West countries, last June Jordan released from jail the cleric that had inspired Zarkawi to join AQ, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, to help the kingdom against IS (?). At the same time, the UK sent back to Jordan another jailed terrorist cleric, Abu Qatada, to also help the kingdom against IS (??) During the trial, Abu Qatada reportedly spoke out about the conflict in Syria, urging the two main terrorist factions there – the al-Nusra and ISIS – to unite behind the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He was acquitted and recruited to help against IS . It’s puzzling how these 2 terrorists are helping Jordan.

    • Keith
      October 16, 2014, 6:22 pm

      WALID- “It’s puzzling how these 2 terrorists are helping Jordan.”

      It is difficult to recognize patterns from so little information, however, I have been struck by how many of these terrorists have been held in prisons, then released. Below is a quote and a link involving this phenomenon where terrorists are (dare I say it?) recruited(?) in allied prisons and then released.

      “We have to ask why the majority of the leaders of the Islamic State (IS), formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), had all been incarcerated in the same prison at Camp Bucca, which was run by the US occupation forces near Omm Qasr in southeastern Iraq….. First of all, most IS leaders had passed through the former U.S. detention facility at Camp Bucca in Iraq.”

      “Former detainees had said in documented television interviews that Bucca…was akin to an “al-Qaeda school,” where senior extremist gave lessons on explosives and suicide attacks to younger prisoners. A former prisoner named Adel Jassem Mohammed said that one of the extremists remained in the prison for two weeks only, but even so was able to recruit 25 out of 34 inmates who were there. Mohammed also said that U.S. military officials did nothing to stop the extremists from mentoring the other detainees…” (quoted by Mike Whitney)

      • Walid
        October 17, 2014, 2:25 am

        Keith. I’m remembering the waves of former US terrorists detainees released, recruited and ferried to Libya to take on Gaddafi’s forces. They went from being terrorists to freedom fighters overnight. After Gaddafi’s downfall, they ruled simply as “fundamentalists”. One has to be leery of those bearing fruits of democracy.

      • Walid
        October 17, 2014, 2:27 am

        I meant US-held terrorists rather than US terrorists.

      • bilal a
        October 17, 2014, 5:43 am

        What if ISIS is just mercs, eg Blackwater / FSA, with an online branding campaign to provoke a US intervention ( the fake syrian gas attacks not having worked ) ?

        Naomi Wolf
        It is unusual for a terrorist group to have an…”English-language online magazine” which features its own atrocities as content…but very sophisticated PR.

      • Annie Robbins
        October 17, 2014, 10:55 pm

        what if? it’s occurred to quite a few of us.

  8. Keith
    October 16, 2014, 6:42 pm

    I, too, am very pleased to see this article posted here. It goes to the heart of something I have been saying for a long time. You simply cannot evaluate the political economy of the various Middle East countries in splendid isolation. Their governments and economies have been heavily influenced both by the history of imperial interference and the ongoing geopolitical strategies of powerful states. In this case, the US and Israel have historically promoted sectarian groups to weaken secular nationalism in the Middle East. Those dictators are our dictators, not the consequence of some innate Arab or Islamic backwardness. It is all about power and the empire is the primary architect of an unjust global system. No, it is not all the Godfather’s fault, but much of it is.

  9. Horizontal
    October 16, 2014, 8:11 pm

    I, too, found this article very interesting, and the first thing that came into my mind while reading it was the memory of American soldiers standing by while Iraq’s museums and government agencies were looted and destroyed (all accept the one containing the petroleum records).

    So how can this underhandedness be stopped, much less explained or appreciated for what it is, when most American voters couldn’t tell a Shia from a Sunni if their life depended on it?

  10. MHughes976
    October 17, 2014, 2:52 am

    The UK’s best-known and respected liberal Muslim columnist, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, has I think mentioned that she has been a little excluded from some Muslim activities because of her Shia identity. I do hope I don’t misrepresent her. Her article in the Independent drew a comment from an Ahmadi mentioning a more bitter degree of exclusion. Odium theologicum does exist in every religious group even without outside pressure and is always pretty dangerous.
    I remember talking to an ex-Yugoslav as ex-Yugo was falling apart. He said that everyone in Belgrade had forgotten whether they were Serb or Croat but that they had suddenly started to remember: people were friends or enemies according to where their grandmothers had gone to church. Ex-Yugo was under some pressure from the West, to put it mildly, but I don’t think that the sectarian divisions were entirely of our making. When things get really bad people desperately seek out others to trust and very small differences can sow doubt about whether a particular other person can be trusted. That really is human nature I think.

    • Annie Robbins
      October 17, 2014, 3:59 am

      When things get really bad people desperately seek out others to trust and very small differences can sow doubt about whether a particular other person can be trusted. That really is human nature I think.

      yes, it is just human nature to notice when people are eliminated by category to figure out what those categories are, figure out where you and your loved ones stand and where you do not, and hang where there’s safety. it doesn’t have to be religion. in south america the death squads targeted the leftists.

      if categorically people in your neighborhood were disappearing based on their political beliefs and you shared those beliefs, you’d be weary/afraid you might be next. this is one way to divide/manipulate communities, by targeting people by political or religious signifiers/ideology/ethnicities. that’s something governments of the world figured out a long time ago. if it’s done systematically it can divide in the millions. but iraq, considering the circumstance, did hold together for a relatively long long time before the civil war set in full stop. it took the US/cia/mercenaries 2 long years of death squads to really get it going full score. it wasn’t til after the samarra mosque attack/2006 al-Askari Mosque bombing which precipitated the orwellian named (and likely pre planned) “Operation Together Forward” that really kicked it off.

      the sectarian division in iraq wasn’t a mistake, it was a strategy to break/decimate iraq.

      • just
        October 17, 2014, 12:42 pm

        “the sectarian division in iraq wasn’t a mistake, it was a strategy to break/decimate iraq.”

        A deliberate & nefarious strategy at that.

  11. Laurent Weppe
    October 17, 2014, 7:15 am

    True, the Americans didn’t create Iraqi sectarianism. The latter always brewed beneath the surface. However, sectarianism and other manifestations of identity politics in Iraq were always overpowered by a dominant sense of Iraqi nationalism, which was violently destroyed and ripped apart by US firepower starting March 2003.

    I’d say that Saddam Hussein’s divide-the-plebs-to-weaken-them was what originally sapped the iraqi national community: the US invasion, then the carte blanche granted to a revanchist government merely finished off an already deeply wounded -if not moribund- sense of commonality.

    • Annie Robbins
      October 17, 2014, 10:56 pm

      I’d say that Saddam Hussein’s divide-the-plebs-to-weaken-them was what originally sapped the iraqi national community

      more than 10 years of sanctions?

      • Laurent Weppe
        October 18, 2014, 7:36 am

        Sanctions certainly made things worse, but by the time they arrived, Saddam had already been Iraq’s strong man for 15 years: long enough to build a clientelist despotat: you only have to see what happened to Tito’s Yugoslavia to see that these regimes don’t need foreign invasions or crippling sanctions to collapse into bloody tribal warfare.

    • Annie Robbins
      October 19, 2014, 3:16 pm

      but iraq didn’t just “collapse into bloody tribal warfare”, that’s my point. the target was softened by 10 years of sanctions and the invasion brought with it a massively sectarian racist scrambling of the entire social fabric and socialist gov of iraq bolster by enough ‘lost american weapons’ (see Report: Pentagon lost almost 200,000 weapons in Iraq ) that ‘fell into the hands of insurgents’ , plus US trained sectarian death squads, to fuel and empower a civil war that STILL took over 2 years to kick off. surely you’re not blaming that on saddam.

      say what you will about the man but had the US not enlisted the peshmerga to bend iraq to US will, empowered lethal iranian trained shia militias embedded in the new iraqi army in their efforts to wipe out the ba’ath party i really do not believe iraq would have descended into civil war. you sound like the invasion of the global superpower was some side show, it wasn’t.

      he was a brutal dictator and yes he suppressed sectarian movements trying to gain independence, yes. but, common knowledge:

      Saddam moved up the ranks in the new government by aiding attempts to strengthen and unify the Ba’ath party and taking a leading role in addressing the country’s major domestic problems and expanding the party’s following.
      After the Ba’athists took power in 1968, Saddam focused on attaining stability in a nation riddled with profound tensions. Long before Saddam, Iraq had been split along social, ethnic, religious, and economic fault lines: Sunni versus Shi’ite, Arab versus Kurd, tribal chief versus urban merchant, nomad versus peasant.[32] The desire for stable rule in a country rife with factionalism led Saddam to pursue both massive repression and the improvement of living standards.[32]

      ….Ever concerned with broadening his base of support among the diverse elements of Iraqi society and mobilizing mass support, he closely followed the administration of state welfare and development programs

      Within just a few years, Iraq was providing social services that were unprecedented among Middle Eastern countries. Saddam established and controlled the “National Campaign for the Eradication of Illiteracy” and the campaign for “Compulsory Free Education in Iraq,” and largely under his auspices, the government established universal free schooling up to the highest education levels; hundreds of thousands learned to read in the years following the initiation of the program. The government also supported families of soldiers, granted free hospitalization to everyone, and gave subsidies to farmers. Iraq created one of the most modernized public-health systems in the Middle East, earning Saddam an award from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).[33][34]

      iraqis were very well educated. the military was multi ethnic. the benefits to society were for all iraqis. the ba’ath party was by no means an exclusing ‘sunni’ party. and baghdad was fully integrated.

      i don’t know that much about Yugoslavia, but to suggest iraq’s civil war was inevitable is irresponsible.

      • Laurent Weppe
        October 22, 2014, 1:49 pm

        i don’t know that much about Yugoslavia, but to suggest iraq’s civil war was inevitable is irresponsible.

        I don’t claim that the Iraq civil war was inevitable: if you go back to the Yugoslav exemple: the titist system lasted 45 years, and managed to survive its founder by a full decade, and even then, the collapse of the system was helped along by european powers (Germany first among them) gambling on the dissolution of Yugoslavia because they thought that gobbling up its more prosperous (and formerly owned by the Yugoslav state) corporations would be easier if the country was divided into half a dozen tinier states.

        Nevertheless, my point is that regimes like Saddam’s and Tito do a lot of lasting damage to their country social cohesion: even if it’s not immediately obvious, even the middle-management is decently competent and well-meaning, the rot at the top, the corruption, the nepotism, the fait du prince, all these build up anger and resentment which piles up and can then be exploited by moderately crafty demagogues (Yugoslavia) or self-proclaimed freedom fighters (Iraq) eager to build their own personal dominion.
        And remember that without the invasion, Saddam’s despotate might have trudged along for 10 more years or so before being challenged during the Arab Spring, giving time for more rot to pile up.
        Although I agree that without the invasion the bloody civil war was not a certainty, the risk was always here, regardless of the high education of the local population.

  12. Walid
    October 17, 2014, 1:55 pm

    A bit of distraction for those that have an interest in what’s behind the IS flag and its nostalgic medieval roots:

    A plain black flag was used in the 7th century by the Prophet Muhammad’s armies in their wars and conquests, so it’s used by IS as the basis of its flag. At the end of the Medina-Mecca wars in 620-something, the Prophet was to send ambassadors to the rulers of Byzantium, Persia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Kashmir carrying a personal invitation from him to join Islam, or “else”. Someone in the Prophet’s entourage had advised him that it was de rigueur that such important letters from a VIP to another VIP to have a personalized seal by the sender. So for his letters, Muhammad had one made of silver set in a somewhat oblong circular Abyssinian stone and the seal of the Prophet was thus created with the 3 words “Muhammad Messenger (of) God” as read from the bottom up. The purported original seal or one of a few copies made by the Prophet’s successors is kept today at Topkapi Palace and is duplicated with its oblong circle at the center of the IS flag. The straight horizontal line of words at the top of the flag is half the Muslim’s Declaration of Faith, the Shahada, “La Illaha il l’Allah”, “There is no God but God”; the other half that says “Muhammad is the Messenger of God”, is picked up in the duplicated seal at the center of the flag. On dormira moins bête ce soir.

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