Who is the New ‘Caliph’?
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was born in Samarra, Iraq, in 1971. He attended university in Baghdad, gaining a doctorate in Islamic Studies and History, and formerly served as an Islamic teacher.
There is conflicting information about much else in al-Baghdadi’s past. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he is thought to have overseen religious courts in Qaim, northwest Iraq, accusing local citizens of supporting the Iraqi government and coalition troops. He was believed to have kidnapped and publicly executed individuals and even entire families; recruited fighters (mainly from Saudi Arabia) and funnelled fighters from Syria into local terrorist cells.
In October 2005, the Department of Defense announced that it had ‘likely’ killed al-Baghdadi in an air strike (something specifically referred to in a President Bush speech though an assessment deemed faulty by the US by December 2006). Yet also in 2005, al-Baghdadi was also supposedly captured by US forces and jailed. During this time he is thought to have been recruited into al-Qaeda in Iraq, being released in 2009. This contradicting information about al-Baghdadi has yet to be resolved.
Following the death of two Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, which was what ISIS was known as then) leaders in a US airstrike in April 2010, al-Baghdadi became the ISI’s emir, the first Iraqi to hold this position. In April 2013, al-Baghdadi rebranded his group as ISIS, claiming dominion to also operate in Syria. This contributed to their eventual expulsion from the al-Qaeda network in early 2014.
Al-Baghdadi currently has a $10m bounty on his head, making him one of the most wanted terrorists in the world.
Didn’t the West Leave a Safe and Secure Iraq Behind?
President Obama previously claimed to have withdrawn US troops ‘responsibly’ and ‘ended the war’ in Iraq. However, this was not the case – violence in Iraq has remained at a consistently high level, even if media coverage of this violence has not.
There was a time when the prospects for Iraq were more optimistic. The Iraqi insurgency – of which al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, the group that would eventually become ISIS) was a key component – carried out thousands of deadly attacks in Iraq following the US invasion. Yet in late 2006/early 2007, the US began to work closer with the Sunni tribes (who despised the brutality of AQI), paying them to maintain security locally. This coincided with a ‘surge’ of US forces. ISI was subsequently crushed. With the tribal groups committed to keeping ISI in check, civilian deaths plummeted and the overall security situation improved exponentially.
However, the 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq removed not only a military check against ISI, but a political check on the sectarian leanings in Baghdad. The US had previously acted as a key mediator in Iraqi internal affairs, but troop withdrawal reduced US political leverage. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began to marginalise the Sunni tribes, removing them from security forces and stopping payments to them. Competent military commanders who worked with the US were removed in favour of Maliki loyalists.
With the US military presence gone – and the Obama administration largely disengaged from affairs in Iraq – a fresh wave of sectarianism emanated from the Maliki government. For example, Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni Vice President, fled to Turkey after being accused of being a terrorist and was subsequently sentenced to death; approximately 150 bodyguards and staff members of Sunni finance minister Rafie al-Issawi were arrested; several Sunni women were arrested in an attempt to gain intelligence on their husbands; and the army was purged of certain Sunni officers.
Such actions fostered greater resentment, enabling ISI to co-opt a level of support from former Baath party and sympathetic tribal groups. The latter were alienated to the extent that they began to allow ISI greater room to operate. The group was further energised by the jihadist conflict taking place to their west in Syria, in which ISI would begin to play an increasingly decisive role.
In January 2014, an increasingly powerful ISIS took over Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. In June, it took Iraq’s second city of Mosul. A host of other towns fell, as Iraqi troops abandoned their positions in the face of the ISIS advance.
What Does This Have to Do With Us?
As ISIS imposes strict sharia law in the territory it controls, there are obvious humanitarian concerns in Iraq. Yet there are also security and strategic interests at stake.
A) ISIS already has a focus on the West
Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, British Prime Minister David Cameron and former CIA Director General David Petraeus have all warned of ISIS attempting attacks in Europe and beyond. Indeed, ISIS already has connections to previous attacks in Europe.
ISIS now controls a large amount of territory, from which it can attract new recruits and providing aspiring jihadists with training for attacks both in Iraq and beyond. Such a safe haven developing is clearly a significant security concern.
B) If we don’t intervene, Iran will be allowed unchallenged influence
If the West remains by the sidelines in Iraq, its strategic competitors will fill the vacuum. China and Russia, for example, are already investing heavily there. Yet it is Iran that has the largest stake in Iraq.
Iran aspires for regional hegemony and to expand its influence in Iraq, Syria and southern Lebanon. When the US military was operating in Iraq, Iran was training, arming and funding both Shia and Sunni militias within Iraq in order to destabilise the country. It now aims to stoke sectarian tensions and reduce national cohesion, uniting Iraqi Shiites behind Iran as a political bloc. Iran wants a weak, fragmented Iraqi government comprised of key ﬁgures sympathetic to them. The US military withdrawal was a key step toward achieving those objectives.
Any new Iranian offers to mediate disputes should not necessarily be regarded as an act of goodwill, as it is often they who are a key force behind creating these disputes in the first place.
C) The nature of our previous involvement means we have an obligation
The US and the UK led a military intervention to depose a dictator from Iraq, leading to thousands of jihadists fighting Western forces there. While these jihadists were temporarily defeated militarily by the US ‘surge’, the West became increasingly disengaged from Iraq – militarily and politically. This allowed Maliki’s dictatorial tendencies to come to the fore and his sectarian policies have created huge problems in Iraq. Rather than ignore this, the West have a moral duty to be proactive in helping Iraq shape a secure, democratic future.
Is a military response needed?
ISIS is a hugely ambitious and aggressive group that will not willingly relinquishing its newly claimed territory. Furthermore, the Iraqi military appears incapable of reclaiming it.
Therefore, there is a role for a US-led military response. Since President Obama has ruled out introducing US ground troops, there will need to be a reliance on aerial power. High value targets within ISIS – with al-Baghdadi being the top priority – could be targeted by US drone strikes, as could ISIS supply routes. However, this is dependent on three key factors:
Western disengagement from Iraq facilitated an authoritarian government emerging that was closely tied to Iran. This undid much of the good work of the ‘surge’ and led to the revival of jihadism in Iraq.
Now, ISIS poses not only a great threat to the region, but also the West. As a result, the West must once again deepen its involvement in Iraq both politically and militarily. If it has good enough intelligence, it can carry out aerial strikes against high value targets and against the supply routes between towns that ISIS uses. However, the US cannot be seen to be strengthening an increasingly weak Maliki, and must remain (at best) non-committal on his future.
Iran will remain highly interventionist in Iraq, seeking to shape a government pliant to its objectives – this is something the West must also remain cognisant of, no matter Iran’s overtures about playing a constructive role in Iraq.