Benjamin Bahney, Patrick B. Johnston, and Patrick Ryan write: In the weeks since the Islamic State captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi, a loud and diverse chorus of voices, including the New York Times editorial board, has called for the Iraqi government and the United States to arm Sunni militias to fight the extremist group’s advance. The administration increased the number of U.S. trainers last week, adding an additional 450 as early as this summer to the 3,100 American troops already in Iraq. Regardless, current political and military dynamics on the ground may merit giving arms to Sunni fighters if the Islamic State can’t be pushed back soon.
But the decision to hand weapons over to the Sunni militias also poses risks. Before directly arming more ethnic- or sectarian-aligned militias, both U.S. policymakers and the public should have a deeper understanding of our potential allies’ past and their possible future interests. And what the unintended consequences of arming these Sunni militias might be.
Newly declassified documents from the Islamic State’s predecessor, captured during a U.S.-Iraqi raid in 2010 and published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, suggest that some of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni politicians collaborated with the Islamic State’s predecessor in 2009, when the group faced its darkest hour. Some of these senior figures may have worked with the Islamic State to benefit themselves, some to benefit the Sunnis, and some to weaken the hand of the Kurds in Iraq’s ethnically mixed areas in the country’s north. While the threat of the Islamic State has moved these dynamics to the back burner today, they will likely reemerge if and when the security environment improves. And now some of these same politicians are lobbying the United States to send money and weapons to the militias from their territories.
While most of the U.S. public hadn’t heard of the Islamic State before its breakout last summer, the group declared an “Islamic State of Iraq” back in 2006 and maintained a presence in the northern city of Mosul through the U.S. military’s withdrawal in 2011. Conventional wisdom says that the Islamic State’s place in Iraq’s sectarian political strife rose out of the disarray that followed the U.S. withdrawal. It was at that moment that Iraq’s Sunnis were left to fend for themselves against the domineering, Shiite-oriented central government. The Islamic State’s resurgence in Iraq in 2013 and 2014 came at a time when the country’s Sunni minority was ripe to accept the group as a bulwark against political marginalization and crackdowns at the hands of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.
In this telling, which has dominated U.S. media and policy circles, Maliki and his Shiite allies in the Iraqi government bear the brunt of the blame for inciting the renewed sectarian tensions that enabled the Islamic State to reemerge and unleash the brutal campaign that has arrested the world’s attention.
The new documents published by the CTC suggest the need to approach this conventional wisdom with caution. They have important implications for understanding Iraq’s sectarian schism and for informing the ongoing policy debate on how to stabilize the war-torn country.
A key document sent to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who preceded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the group’s leader, suggests that the Islamic State established cooperative relationships with key Sunni politicians by 2009 that gave it access to extortion opportunities, kickbacks, and other revenue-generating activities in and around Mosul. Assuming the document is authentic — for the moment, there is no evidence to suggest it is not — these revelations should give pause to those recommending that the Iraqis train and equip local Sunni forces under the auspices of the provincial governments in Nineveh and Anbar. Reporting from Mosul indicates that similar ties between Sunni government officials and the Islamic State likely continued after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, and Maliki’s government began to intensify its repression of Sunni political leaders.
It is impossible to know the specific motivations of these officials — Sunni politicians may simply have been buying themselves protection in an environment where no other party was able or willing to provide it. But what is clear is this: For the Islamic State, these relationships enabled the group to access tens of millions of dollars to finance its operations in 2009 and after, some of which may have been diverted from Western reconstruction aid through political favors and phony contracts. The Islamic State likely used these funds to expand its extortion and intimidation networks in Mosul even prior to the 2011 U.S. withdrawal. This would go far in explaining how it had become so rich, even before it seized over $400 million from Mosul’s bank vaults last June. [Continue reading…]