The New Face of Terror: ISIS' Rise Pushes Iraq to Brink
The jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is relatively new on the scene, but its secretive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has quickly transformed it into one of the most feared terrorist groups around. It threatens to completely transform the Middle East.
Brigadier General Saad Maan trudges through the midday heat to the Iraqi army's Baghdad "operation room" as his aides shove updates into his hand and whisper into his ear. His mobile phone rings constantly. The command center of the Iraqi military is located in the Adnan Palace, a pompous structure built by Saddam Hussein between the crossed-swords monument and the new US Embassy.
Inside the operation center, he traces the frontline on a map. "The greatest danger is not in the north," he says, "rather it is to the south and the west, among the farms and canals in Babil Province and between the fields and palm orchards of Anbar."
Huge traffic jams have clogged the road to the Baghdad airport in recent days as people hurry to leave. Embassies have evacuated personnel while foreign companies have sent many of their workers out of the country. Meanwhile, private security companies in Baghdad more than doubled their fees within just a few days last week. Fuel and food prices have also spiked, partially due to the ongoing fighting around the Baiji oil refinery, the most important such facility in the northern part of the country. But ISIS advances have triggered chaos elsewhere in the country as well: On June 10, the jihadist militia took over Mosul and then marched into Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit the very next day. Now, ISIS fighters are just a few dozen kilometers from Baghdad.
It has been a rapid rise. Not long ago, ISIS was just one of many rebel groups fighting in the Syrian civil war. Now, it is spreading fear and violence across two countries, its notoriety -- and that of its enigmatic leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi -- stretching across the globe.
There are only a few photos of the round-faced Baghdadi in circulation, all of them of poor quality. But suddenly, he has become the de-facto leader of global jihad, a successful and secretive heir to Osama bin Laden. Even intelligence agencies know little about Baghdadi, aside from the fact that he once belonged to al-Qaida before having a falling out and starting his own group. Now, he and his fighters control an area in Syria and Iraq that is almost as big as Jordan.
Indeed, a single combat zone now unites wide swaths of the two countries. Armored vehicles captured by ISIS fighters in Iraq have been brought into Syria for the fighting there and Iraqi jihadists who fought in Syria have returned to their homeland. The area controlled by ISIS is "a de facto state," says Douglas Ollivant of the Washington, DC-based think tank New American Foundation. "Arguably, ISIS presents an even more vibrant incubator for international terrorism than did pre-9/11 Afghanistan."
Baghdadi's terrorists, says General Maan in the Baghdad operation center, want to bring the fight to the capital. But, he says, that won't happen. "We have enough soldiers. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest authority of Shiite Islam in Iraq, has called for the defense of holy sites and thousands of volunteers are ready."
He also says that Iraq is not alone. "We will get help from the US Air Force," Maan says. "We will hit the terrorists and kill them. And the world will see and understand that America is on our side. Baghdad is safe."
But General Maan is largely alone with his assessment, perhaps only supported by the officers surrounding him. In northern Iraq, the army fled in the face of ISIS attacks and the country itself looks to be in the process of disintegrating.
The conflict, after all, isn't merely pitting the Islamists against the state. Rather, it is also a battle between Shiites and Sunnis. Shiites are the majority in Iraq, but they represent only 15 percent of Muslims worldwide. Sunnis in Iraq, meanwhile, feel disadvantaged by the predominantly Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. ISIS is Sunni and has proven adept at taking advantage of Sunni Iraqi resentments to quickly spread.
Baghdadi's fighters receive support from other Sunni militias in Iraq as well as from local sheikhs and even some former supporters of dictator Saddam Hussein. "Uncle Issat, I am looking forward to coming home," tweeted Saddam Hussein's daughter from exile last week. Her devout uncle, Issat Ibrahim al-Duri, was once her father's deputy and is now fighting alongside the ISIS militants.
Iraq has become significantly more fragile in the two weeks since the fall of Mosul. Shiites are terrified and worried about their holy sites in Samarra, Karbala and Najaf, which ISIS has vowed to destroy. Many Sunnis are concerned that the Shiites' fear could lead to revenge attacks and trigger a civil war. Meanwhile, Kurdish leaders are saying that Iraqi unity is no longer tenable. "I don't think it can stay together," Nechirvan Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the country's northeast, told BBC last week. "As I said: Iraq before Mosul and Iraq after Mosul."
Regional powers are further complicating the situation. Iran, which backs the Shiites, threatened military intervention last week. Meanwhile, the foreign minister of Sunni Saudi Arabia warned against "foreign interference or outside agendas" in the country, though he didn't specifically mention Iran. Additionally, Saudi and Qatari businessmen are suspected of providing financial support to ISIS.
The United States, which toppled Saddam in 2003 and spent the next eight years trying to establish peace between the confessions and impose order, is standing helplessly at the sidelines. For President Barack Obama, the current uprising is a catastrophe. He was first elected on a promise of rapidly withdrawing from Iraq, a pledge he fulfilled. But the country's troubles are now pulling him back in.
Obama's first step was sending 300 military advisors to the country late last week and American intelligence agencies are also once again focusing on the country. Obama has thus far refrained from authorizing airstrikes, largely due to the confusing situation on the ground. It remains unclear exactly who is fighting for ISIS and it is likely that groups formerly allied with the US are among them. Airstrikes in such a situation would almost certainly result in significant numbers of civilian deaths.
Even General David Petraeus, the legendary former US commander in Iraq, has warned that the US should not allow itself to be used as the Shiites' air force in a conflict with the Sunnis. He cautioned that airstrikes should only target "high-value ISIS elements."
A significant factor in the confusion is the relative paucity of reliable information about ISIS and its goals. Even as chaos -- reminiscent of the fighting that erupted in the country following the US invasion -- threatens to grip Iraq, it is unclear whether the Islamist extremists have their sights set on invading Baghdad. Indeed, neither Western intelligence agencies nor Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki foresaw this month's ISIS offensive.
The group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains something of a mystery. In contrast to bin Laden's occasional forays into the public eye, Baghdadi has remained in the background -- to the point that he has become something of a legend among his own followers. It is a strategy that appears to be working: Even as ISIS attracts increasing numbers of jihadists, most young fighters pay little mind to the current head of al-Qaida, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaida is seen as being too hierarchical and inflexible.
The ISIS leader's given name is thought to be Ibrahim al-Badri; he was born in Samarra in 1971 and studied religion at the University of Baghdad. Later, he is believed to have been a preacher in a Sunni mosque in northern Iraq.
A Grave Error
Shortly after the US invasion, Baghdadi is thought to have joined the resistance. In February 2004, US ground troops took him prisoner in Anbar Province and brought him to Camp Bucca, a notorious prison near the southern Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr. The desert camp was built to handle 5,000 prisoners, but the number of inmates quickly swelled to 9,000, and conditions were difficult.
In late 2004, the Americans committed a grave error: A commission made up of US military experts granted him an "unconditional release," as a Pentagon spokesman confirmed to SPIEGEL. Immediately thereafter, he began his rapid rise to the top of the Islamist underground.
But the search for ISIS roots goes back even further, to the eve of the US invasion in early 2003. That spring, a 36-year-old former prisoner and school drop-out named Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi set off for Baghdad equipped with money, weapons and a vision. He intended to establish a Sunni caliphate stretching from Syria to the Persian Gulf and to do so, he planned to trigger a religious war by way of bloody and brutal attacks against the Shiites, hoping it would drive the Sunnis into his camp and the Shiites into exile.
It wasn't until five months after the US crossed into Iraq that Zarqawi went on the attack, launching a series of horrific bombings, including one that targeted the United Nations' headquarters in Baghdad. He then turned his deadly attentions to Shiites and their holy sites while also establishing an alliance with the anti-US resistance and developing a network that channeled weapons, money and supporters into Iraq from Syria.
Zarqawi was one of Baghdadi's predecessors; indeed, it is believed that Baghdadi fought under Zarqawi. He became the leader of the terror organization shortly before the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2010 -- and well after the group had renamed itself Islamic State in Iraq. And today, Baghdadi has largely achieved Zarqawi's dream: the de facto elimination of the border between Iraq and Syria.
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