Fractured lands: How the Arab world came apart

The following New York Times Magazine feature story is more than a long-read — at 42,000 words it’s more like a short book. Scott Anderson writes: Before driving into northern Iraq, Dr. Azar Mirkhan changed from his Western clothes into the traditional dress of a Kurdish pesh merga warrior: a tightfitting short woolen jacket over his shirt, baggy pantaloons and a wide cummerbund. He also thought to bring along certain accessories. These included a combat knife, tucked neatly into the waist of his cummerbund, as well as sniper binoculars and a loaded .45 semiautomatic. Should matters turn particularly ticklish, an M-4 assault rifle lay within easy reach on the back seat, with extra clips in the foot well. The doctor shrugged. “It’s a bad neighborhood.”

Our destination that day in May 2015 was the place of Azar’s greatest sorrow, one that haunted him still. The previous year, ISIS gunmen had cut a murderous swath through northern Iraq, brushing away an Iraqi Army vastly greater in size, and then turning their attention to the Kurds. Azar had divined precisely where the ISIS killers were about to strike, knew that tens of thousands of civilians stood helpless in their path, but had been unable to get anyone to heed his warnings. In desperation, he had loaded up his car with guns and raced to the scene, only to come to a spot in the road where he saw he was just hours too late. “It was obvious,” Azar said, “so obvious. But no one wanted to listen.” On that day, we were returning to the place where the fabled Kurdish warriors of northern Iraq had been outmaneuvered and put to flight, where Dr. Azar Mirkhan had failed to avert a colossal tragedy — and where, for many more months to come, he would continue to battle ISIS.

Azar is a practicing urologist, but even without the firepower and warrior get-up, the 41-year-old would exude the aura of a hunter. He walks with a curious loping gait that produces little sound, and in conversation has a tendency to tuck his chin and stare from beneath heavy-lidded eyes, rather as if he were sighting down a gun. With his prominent nose and jet black pompadour, he bears a passing resemblance to a young Johnny Cash.

The weaponry also complemented the doctor’s personal philosophy, as expressed in a scene from one of his favorite movies, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” when a bathing Eli Wallach is caught off guard by a man seeking to kill him. Rather than immediately shoot Wallach, the would-be assassin goes into a triumphant soliloquy, allowing Wallach to kill him first.

“When you have to shoot, shoot; don’t talk,” Azar quoted from the movie. “That is us Kurds now. This is not the time to talk, but to shoot.”

Azar is one of six people whose lives are chronicled in these pages. The six are from different regions, different cities, different tribes, different families, but they share, along with millions of other people in and from the Middle East, an experience of profound unraveling. Their lives have been forever altered by upheavals that began in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq, and then accelerated with the series of revolutions and insurrections that have collectively become known in the West as the Arab Spring. They continue today with the depredations of ISIS, with terrorist attacks and with failing states.

For each of these six people, the upheavals were crystallized by a specific, singular event. For Azar Mirkhan, it came on the road to Sinjar, when he saw that his worst fears had come true. For Laila Soueif in Egypt, it came when a young man separated from a sprinting mass of protesters to embrace her, and she thought she knew the revolution would succeed. For Majdi el-Mangoush in Libya, it came as he walked across a deadly no-man’s-land and, overwhelmed by a sudden euphoria, felt free for the first time in his life. For Khulood al-Zaidi in Iraq, it came when, with just a few menacing words from a former friend, she finally understood that everything she had worked for was gone. For Majd Ibrahim in Syria, it came when, watching an interrogator search his cellphone for the identity of his “controller,” he knew his own execution was drawing nearer by the moment. For Wakaz Hassan in Iraq, a young man with no apparent interest in politics or religion, it came on the day ISIS gunmen showed up in his village and offered him a choice.

As disparate as those moments were, for each of these six people they represented a crossing over, passage to a place from which there will never be a return. Such changes, of course — multiplied by millions of lives — are also transforming their homelands, the greater Middle East and, by inevitable extension, the entire world.

History never flows in a predictable way. It is always a result of seemingly random currents and incidents, the significance of which can be determined — or, more often, disputed — only in hindsight. But even accounting for history’s capricious nature, the event credited with setting off the Arab Spring could hardly have been more improbable: the suicide by immolation of a poor Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller in protest over government harassment. By the time Mohamed Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries on Jan. 4, 2011, the protesters who initially took to Tunisia’s streets calling for economic reform were demanding the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the nation’s strongman president for 23 years. In subsequent days, those demonstrations grew in size and intensity — and then they jumped Tunisia’s border. By the end of January, anti-government protests had erupted in Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Jordan. That was only the beginning. By November, just 10 months after Bouazizi’s death, four longstanding Middle Eastern dictatorships had been toppled, a half-dozen other suddenly embattled governments had undergone shake-ups or had promised reforms, and anti-government demonstrations — some peaceful, others violent — had spread in an arc across the Arab world from Mauritania to Bahrain.

As a writer with long experience in the Middle East, I initially welcomed the convulsions of the Arab Spring — indeed, I believed they were long overdue. In the early 1970s, I traveled through the region as a young boy with my father, a journey that sparked both my fascination with Islam and my love of the desert. The Middle East was also the site of my first foray into journalism when, in the summer of 1983, I hopped on a plane to the embattled city Beirut in hopes of finding work as a stringer. Over the subsequent years, I embedded with a platoon of Israeli commandos conducting raids in the West Bank; dined with Janjaweed raiders in Darfur; interviewed the families of suicide bombers. Ultimately, I took a five-year hiatus from magazine journalism to write a book on the historical origins of the modern Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Trump makes the headlines with media help

Politico reports: After doubling down on his assertion that President Barack Obama is the “founder” of the Islamic State, Donald Trump on Friday suggested he was being sarcastic.

“Ratings challenged @CNN reports so seriously that I call President Obama (and Clinton) ‘the founder’ of ISIS, & MVP,” Trump tweeted Friday morning. “THEY DON’T GET SARCASM?” [Continue reading…]

It’s worth remembering at this time the real, demonstrable, non-hyperbolic role Trump has played in helping ISIS and Al Qaeda recruit new members:

 

 

In Trump’s tweet today, he alludes to the fact that even as he pours contempt on the press, he and they are indeed partners in a ratings-driven tango.

The conservative talk show host, Hugh Hewitt, had this exchange with Trump on the claim that Obama was the “founder” of ISIS:

Hugh Hewitt: I think I would say they created, they lost the peace. They created the Libyan vacuum, they created the vacuum into which ISIS came, but they didn’t create ISIS. That’s what I would say.

Donald Trump: Well, I disagree.

HH: All right, that’s okay.

DT: I mean, with his bad policies, that’s why ISIS came about.

HH: That’s…

DT: If he would have done things properly, you wouldn’t have had ISIS.

HH: That’s true.

DT: Therefore, he was the founder of ISIS.

HH: And that’s, I’d just use different language to communicate it…

DT: But they wouldn’t talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?

HH: Well, good point. Good point.

Trump lays the bait and the media bites, but the way it bites is what keeps the story alive for 24 hours instead of two.

Instead of feigning shock in response to each new Trumpism, a serious interviewer would drill into Trump’s wild claims — something like this:

Trump: Obama was the founder of ISIS.

Interviewer: Really? That’s an interesting claim you’re making. You know most experts say that ISIS was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi back in 1999. Are you saying that back when Barack Obama was a state senator in Illinois, he was also a secret jihadist?

Trump: No, I’m just saying he founded ISIS.

Interviewer: Yes, I got that — I just want to flesh out more of the details. When did he do this?

Trump: You’d need to talk to the intelligence agencies.

Interviewer: OK. But just to be clear: You’re saying that although Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is generally viewed as the leader of ISIS, Obama has a more pivotal role. Did he appoint Baghdadi?

Trump: As I said, you’d need to talk to the intelligence agencies.

Interviewer: But, here’s my problem: I’m sure that if I talked to anyone at any level in the CIA or the NSA or any other agency, no one would say Obama founded ISIS. You’re the person making this claim and either you back it up with some substance, or concede that it’s just a line designed to grab a headline — otherwise you’re just going to be seen as a guy who fools around and is willing to say anything to get attention.

Trump: I really don’t see what you’re driving at, but I will repeat what I told Hugh Hewitt yesterday, ISIS came about because of Obama’s bad policies.

Interviewer: Ah, so “founder” — that’s just you messing with the media…

Trump: That’s what I do. They seem to like it.

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ISIS and its allies were responsible for a quarter of terrorism deaths in 13 years

The Washington Post reports: Between 2002 and 2015, the Islamic State was either directly or indirectly responsible for terrorist attacks that killed more than 33,000 people and wounded 41,000 more, according to a new analysis from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism.

It’s a startling figure. If attacks with unknown perpetrators are excluded, this means that the Islamic State bore responsibility for 13 percent of terrorist attacks globally during that period, with 26 percent of all terrorist attack deaths, 28 percent of injuries and a further 24 percent of kidnap victims.

These figures include not only acts committed by the core Islamic State group, but also the precursor groups that came before it was officially founded — primarily al-Qaeda in Iraq — as well as the affiliates and individuals inspired by the Islamic State who came after. [Continue reading…]

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The grinding fight to root out ISIS in a battered Libya

Frederic Wehrey writes: In late July, on a tree-lined avenue of villas in Sirte, the coastal home town of the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Islamic State snipers pinned down a group of Libyan militiamen. It was early evening, a drawn-out time when the fighting usually starts to pick up. The figures of young men crouching or darting across the street with rocket-propelled grenades cast long shadows in the soft light. Amid the snap and rattle of automatic gunfire, the stereo from a nearby Toyota played an Islamic chant known as a nashid that seemed at once elegiac and fortifying.

An armored personnel carrier, one of a few in the Libyan fighters’ inventory, finally broke the impasse. The hulking, dun-colored vehicle lumbered to an intersection. From a turreted heavy machine gun, a young fighter delivered a withering fusillade toward the snipers a few hundred metres away. Shouts of “God is great!” erupted.

In the months-long struggle in the Islamic State’s Mediterranean bastion, such confrontations have become typical. The Islamic State in Libya began to arrive in Sirte in late 2014, drawing partial support from tribes and communities that had enjoyed Qaddafi’s favors but were now excluded from the revolutionary order. Most of its real muscle, though, came from abroad: Iraqi, Yemeni, Syrian, and Saudi advisers; foot soldiers from Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, and the Sahelian states to the south of Libya.

isis was able to tighten its grip because Libya is a shattered, hollowed-out country, lacking the basic sinews of governance that define a functioning state. There is no singular army or police unit. Instead, a dizzying array of militias holds sway, most of them loyal to towns, tribes, or power brokers. Much of this disorder stems from the legacy of Qaddafi’s forty-two-year rule, but a lack of international follow-up after the 2011 revolution is also to blame. Then, in 2014, the country descended into civil war between eastern and western factions, which each fielded their own parliament, Prime Minister, and coalition of militias. Each saw the other as a more pressing threat than the Islamic State, enabling the terrorist group to take hold and spread. [Continue reading…]

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45,000 ISIS fighters killed in past two years, says U.S. general

AFP reports: About 45,000 militants have been killed in Iraq and Syria since the US-led operation to defeat the ISIS group began two years ago, a top general said Wednesday.

“We estimate that over the past 11 months, we’ve killed about 25,000 enemy fighters. When you add that to the 20,000 estimated killed (previously), that’s 45,000 enemy (fighters) taken off the battlefield,” said Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, who commands the US-led coalition campaign against ISIS.

MacFarland said estimates for the overall remaining strength of ISIS vary from about 15,000 to 30,000 but said the jihadists are having increasing difficulties replenishing their ranks. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t celebrate ISIS setbacks too soon

William McCants writes: There’s a broad consensus in the analytical community that the Islamic State’s legitimacy would be damaged if it lost its government — the only debate is over how much. A state without a state would be a laughingstock, the argument goes, which I agree with in the main. But if the group’s previous incarnation is any indication, the laughter will be a long time coming — perhaps as long as a generation.

The Islamic State suffered ridicule for its outsized ambitions early on. When the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq dissolved the organization and proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006, jihadis scoffed. How could a rebel group that controlled little territory possibly convince anyone that it was an actual state? The Islamic State’s rejoinder that it was a state because it was trying to behave like a state fell flat.

You might anticipate that the Islamic State’s credibility in jihadi circles would have suffered irreparably when the group was defeated as an insurgency in 2008. But strangely, its popularity soared. The group kept itself in the news by launching spectacular terrorist attacks in Iraq so its fans wouldn’t lose heart. It promised to “endure” against all odds. And as I document in my book, other al-Qaida affiliates took up its flag and its state-building ambitions, which kept hope alive. By the time the Islamic State got a second bite at the state-building apple with the civil war in Syria and the drawdown of American troops in Iraq, the Islamic State’s cause was wildly popular in jihadi circles and thousands left their homes to fight under its banner.

Faced with the loss of its so-called caliphate today, the Islamic State has not adopted the absurd know-nothing analysis of “Baghdad Bob” during the American invasion of Iraq. Rather, its spokesman has frankly acknowledged that the Islamic State may lose all its land. But he promises it will return. Given the group’s recent history, it’s not an empty promise. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. Special Operations troops aiding Libyan forces in major battle against ISIS

The Washington Post reports: U.S. Special Operations forces are providing direct, on-the-ground support for the first time to fighters battling the Islamic State in Libya, U.S. and Libyan officials said, coordinating American airstrikes and providing intelligence information in an effort to oust the group from a militant stronghold.

The positioning of a small number of elite U.S. personnel, operating alongside British troops, in the coastal city of Sirte deepens the involvement of Western nations against the Islamic State’s most powerful affiliate.

U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a mission that has not been announced publicly, said the American troops were operating out of a joint operations center on the city’s outskirts and that their role was limited to supporting forces loyal to the country’s fragile unity government. [Continue reading…]

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Former ISIS members open up to German investigators

Der Spiegel reports: Prior to his field trip into the realm of the murderous IS band, Nils D. had been a good-for-nothing. He would sleep until mid-day, then surf the Internet and meet up with his buddies in a café, where they took drugs, drank booze and played cards. They didn’t have any hobbies and they lacked any enthusiasm. The company that had provided him with vocational training fired him because he wasn’t attending the vocational school courses that were part of the program. Afterward, the most he found were temporary jobs. “I was a pothead,” Nils D. says. “I didn’t feel like doing anything.”

This continued for years. Then D. discovered Islam through his cousin Philip B. and became a Salafist. He was still serving a sentence for grand theft when his cousin and the other guys went to Syria to fight. Then, during the autumn of 2013, D. also traveled to the “caliphate.”

During his trial in the dock of the Higher Regional Court in Düsseldorf, Nils D. said “he wanted to see things for himself.” He then quickly became part of the murderous system. In Manbij, he joined a special IS unit. The force’s task was to capture suspected traitors, spies or deserters. D. is believed to have taken part in up to 15 missions.

He also knew what happened to the men he had helped to capture. The former pothead from Dinslaken knew about the wooden crates they would be placed in. There were large ones in which they could stand, sandwiched. And there were small ones in which the prisoners could only crouch — sometimes for days at a time.

Nils D. sported a typical Islamist beard. Whenever he went out, it was always dressed in black and with his face covered. He attended five executions as a spectator. “I had goosebumps all over,” D. would later tell investigators with the State Office of Criminal Investigation in Düsseldorf. “But after a while it bounces off you.” [Continue reading…]

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American trained and armed Syrian rebels find Russian offers of support enticing

Michael Weiss writes: The Russian government is trying to poach Syrian rebels trained and equipped by the United States for the war against ISIS, according to the political leader of a prominent Pentagon-backed brigade in Aleppo — and the rebels are strongly considering Russia’s offer.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Mustafa Sejry of the Liwa al-Mu’tasim Brigade said that he met personally with a Moscow representative the Syrian-Turkish border 10 days ago and was offered “unlimited amounts of weaponry and close air support” to fight both ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, in exchange for the Mu’tasim Brigade’s transfer of loyalties from Washington to Moscow.

Sejry clearly wants to use the offer to leverage more and better support from the Americans if he can, but that may not be forthcoming. (The Pentagon and U.S. Central Command did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.) And the Russians, meanwhile, are whispering a lot of sweet nothings in the rebels’ ears. [Continue reading…]

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How a secretive branch of ISIS built a global network of killers

The New York Times reports: Believing he was answering a holy call, Harry Sarfo left his home in the working-class city of Bremen last year and drove for four straight days to reach the territory controlled by the Islamic State in Syria.

He barely had time to settle in before members of the Islamic State’s secret service, wearing masks over their faces, came to inform him and his German friend that they no longer wanted Europeans to come to Syria. Where they were really needed was back home, to help carry out the group’s plan of waging terrorism across the globe.

“He was speaking openly about the situation, saying that they have loads of people living in European countries and waiting for commands to attack the European people,” Mr. Sarfo recounted on Monday, in an interview with The New York Times conducted in English inside the maximum-security prison near Bremen. “And that was before the Brussels attacks, before the Paris attacks.”

The masked man explained that, although the group was well set up in some European countries, it needed more attackers in Germany and Britain, in particular. “They said, ‘Would you mind to go back to Germany, because that’s what we need at the moment,’” Mr. Sarfo recalled. “And they always said they wanted to have something that is occurring in the same time: They want to have loads of attacks at the same time in England and Germany and France.”

The operatives belonged to an intelligence unit of the Islamic State known in Arabic as the Emni, which has become a combination of an internal police force and an external operations branch, dedicated to exporting terror abroad, according to thousands of pages of French, Belgian, German and Austrian intelligence and interrogation documents obtained by The Times.

The Islamic State’s attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 brought global attention to the group’s external terrorism network, which began sending fighters abroad two years ago. Now, Mr. Sarfo’s account, along with those of other captured recruits, has further pulled back the curtain on the group’s machinery for projecting violence beyond its borders.

What they describe is a multilevel secret service under the overall command of the Islamic State’s most senior Syrian operative, spokesman and propaganda chief, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. Below him is a tier of lieutenants empowered to plan attacks in different regions of the world, including a “secret service for European affairs,” a “secret service for Asian affairs” and a “secret service for Arab affairs,” according to Mr. Sarfo. [Continue reading…]

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Libya, U.S. face entrenched ISIS

The Wall Street Journal reports: Even with the U.S. launching airstrikes on an Islamic State stronghold in Libya, the battle to uproot the extremists from the oil-rich North African nation is expected to be long and difficult.

The U.S. began the attacks on Monday and struck again on Tuesday in support of a ground offensive to retake Sirte, a strategic port on the Mediterranean coast. But Islamic State is also entrenched in other pockets across the country, including parts of the eastern city of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest; Derna, another eastern city; and the western town of Sabratha, near the Tunisian border.

The competing militias and centers of power that have stoked Libya’s civil war complicate the fight against Islamic State. The chaos has given the group an opening to gain its first territorial foothold outside its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Libya has two rival governments — one that is internationally recognized in the capital, Tripoli, and another based in the east. The competing governments so far have refused to work together to defeat Islamic State or toward national unity, despite international efforts. [Continue reading…]

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Libyan forces push into Sirte after U.S. air attacks

Middle East Eye reports: Forces loyal to Libya’s unity government have advanced inside the Islamic State group’s stronghold of Sirte following the first US air attacks on positions in the city.

Fighters seized the central district of al-Dollar after clashes that killed five of their members and wounded 17, they said on social media on Tuesday.

The Tripoli-based unity government launched an operation in May to retake Sirte, which the militants have controlled since June 2015.

The fall of the coastal city, 450km east of Tripoli, would be a major blow to IS, which has also faced a series of setbacks in Syria and Iraq.

The US air raids would continue as long as the unity government continued to request them, the US defence department said on Monday. [Continue reading…]

TSG IntelBrief says: The metastasizing nature of the so-called Islamic State has required the military effort to combat the group to grow alongside it. Though the U.S. has struck high-value targets in Libya before — most recently in February — it has not engaged in a sustained air campaign against the Islamic State in Libya. However, the announcement on August 1 of two airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in the coastal city of Sirte may be an indication that the operational tempo against the group in Libya is about to increase. The strikes came at the request of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), which has been trying to battle the Islamic State while simultaneously attempting to navigate the numerous militias and armed rivals that make foreign intervention highly problematic.

For a time in late 2015, it appeared that the Islamic State was on the verge of making Sirte its de facto third capital after Mosul and Raqqa. Unlike Iraq and Syria, the environment in Libya has posed unique challenges for the Islamic State’s ‘fight everyone everywhere’ strategy; the lack of a sectarian wedge in Libya blunts the group’s appeal. Still, the Islamic State managed to take control of the important coastal city of Sirte in May 2015, and estimates of the group’s total strength in Libya ballooned to 4,000-6,000 fighters in April 2016.

To prevent another Raqqa or Mosul, the U.S., as well as France, the UK, and others, have spent months building liaison relationships with various militia and GNA forces. These relationships take time to build, as do intelligence gathering networks that can generate information accurate enough for targeting purposes. The August 1 strikes in Sirte indicate that cooperation and coordination has progressed to a level in which all parties are comfortable moving ahead. The scale and pace of any U.S. air campaign in Libya will not compare to those in Iraq or Syria, but comments made by U.S. officials indicate airstrikes will continue as the GNA seeks to gain footing in the fractured country. [Continue reading…]

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