By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
An article at The Wall Street Journal titled ‘a new strategy against ISIS and Al Qaeda’ is making the rounds with a simplistic analysis that caters to the kind of worldview, presumptions and conclusions, that are inviting to readers and experts alike. The article claims that a major flaw in Washington’s approach to fighting ISIS has been “reliance on non-Sunni and non-Arab partners.” This supposedly “amplifies” the message of ISIS, particularly because America works with the “Shia-dominated government, whose past persecution of Sunni Arabs fueled ISIS rise. Meanwhile, America’s Kurdish partners in both Iraq and Syria are pursuing an independent Kurdistan, a political goal that is unacceptable to most Arabs.”
The term “fueled the rise of ISIS” is the most common “explanation” given for the rise of ISIS. It is almost like analysts are told they must use this term. A google search will reveal similar explanations. “Inequality fueled the rise of ISIS.” “US withdrawal fueled the rise of ISIS.” The invasion of Iraq fueled the rise of ISIS. The major bogeyman is the Shia government in Baghdad, and particularly Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “The Shia government that systematically excluded Sunni Iraqis from power and favored the country’s majority Shia population. That played a major role in allowing ISIS to push so successfully from Syria into Iraq this year.,” writes Vox.
The “fueled the rise” narrative is inviting because it places blame on someone else for the actions of ISIS. This is easier than placing blame squarely on the shoulders of every ISIS member, every volunteer and everyone in Mosul and Raqqa and other places that cheered the arrival of ISIS in 2014. It’s easier to claim that the Nazis or fascists or KKK were in “reaction” to something, than to blame the perpetrators. But was Nazism “fueled” by something else, say Germany’s defeat in the war, was the KKK “fueled” by the South’s defeat in the war. Is bigotry, genocide, mass murder, persecution of minorities, always supposedly “fueled” by the supremacists themselves being persecuted. We would find it hard to believe that a group of KKK lynching a black man were actually “victims” of Yankee suppression, but with ISIS we quickly accept the narrative that posits that any “Shia domination” in Baghdad means that people have to start beheading and murdering others? To dismantle the claim that the rise of ISIS was fueled by anything except the wonton love for murder and Sunni Islamist supremacism that ISIS preached and promised, let us consider a few facts.
30,000 foreign volunteers joined ISIS, none of whom were suppressed by Shia or anyone else
By December of 2016 it was estimated that 50,000 ISIS fighters had been killed. Many of them were foreign fighters. The data on the total numbers is not always clear. For instance estimates show some 5,000 came from Europe. Some of them subsequently returned. Some countries purposely allowed their people to join ISIS in order that their Jihadists would die in Syria and Iraq rather than back home. Similar numbers may have come from various states in Russia, primarily Chechnya. By June of 2015 around 25,000 foreigners were estimated to have joined ISIS. Some countries, such as Turkey, don’t release estimates for fears that it will paint them in a bad light. Others in North Africa have not always kept track of who has left, or can’t differentiate between who went to join other “Salafi” movements and how many drifted into ISIS. What we do now know is that ISIS volunteers came from all over the world, from as far away as Bangladesh, from Senegal and China and even Trinidad and Tobago.
None of these tens of thousands of ISIS volunteers suffered persecution from the Shia government in Baghdad. They didn’t go to Iraq because of the US invasion. They went because they read ISIS propaganda online and they were promised an opportunity to participate in a war. Many of them were promised the chance to rape and sell women and this was a motivating factor. It wasn’t suppression that fueled them, but the opportunity to suppress others, the glory of running a “Caliphate,” like ethnic Germans returning to the “homeland” to fight with their “brothers” in Nazi Germany.
What “fueled” the rise of ISIS was foreign volunteers. Almost none of these volunteers joined ISIS because of persecution. Many volunteers were middle class and able to afford tickets to the Middle East. They could have stayed home and fought persecution at home, but the reality was the door was open for them and they had the freedom to go join a Jihadist movement. Some then did return home to relax after committing their crimes.
Half of the fighters in ISIS were made up of foreigners and the foreigners played a key role in most of the major battles of ISIS. The Chechans fighting in Makhmur or Kobani were not suppressed by the Shia government in Baghdad, they sought to suppress the Shia. The British converts who played a key role in many of the ISIS crimes, such as beaheadings, were not suppressed by Nouri al-Maliki, in the opposite, they came to Iraq and Syria to commit genocide against minorities such as the Yazidis. Australian and German ISIS members bragged online about selling Yazidi women. Pretending they were suppressed is like pretending the Nazi guards at Auschwitz were the victims of persecution.
Few ISIS members were ever persecuted or suppressed by any Shia-dominated government. Instead they viewed the very concept of Shia majority-rule in Baghdad as heretical. They viewed any non-Sunnis as “kuffar” and sought to cleanse and genocide them. At its heart ISIS was a supremacist movement, not a protest movement against persecution.
ISIS beheaded journalists, it wasn’t persecuted by them
The narrative that ISIS was “fueled” by not enough support for Sunni Arabs is made further ridiculous by remembering how ISIS crimes began. James Foley was one of the most well known beheadings of foreigners carried out by ISIS in August of 2014. The kidnapping of foreigners began in earnest in the summer of 2013 and many of those who were kidnapped in Syria were sold or traded to ISIS. Journalists had been one of the main voices transmitting the message of the Syrian revolution and rebellion, telling the stories of the average people brutalized by Bashar al-Assad.
If the narrative is that persecution fueled ISIS, then why did ISIS systematically murder journalists and foreign aid workers helping the Sunni Arabs who were being persecuted? ISIS didn’t want coverage and aid for the persecuted, ISIS was the persecutor. ISIS was one of the main engines fueling the defeat of the rebellion and Syrian revolution. It sabotaged any hope Sunni Arabs had in Syria and also in Iraq. Sunnis had legitimate grievances in both countries. But ISIS systematically slaughtered every intellectual and foreigner who had come to assist mostly Sunni Arabs. Aid workers helping refugees were abducted and chased away. Journalists didn’t suppress ISIS, ISIS murdered journalists. It wasn’t that ISIS was “fueled” by Shia domination, ISIS in fact helped to fuel the Iranian intervention in Syria and Iraq, and encouraged more power for Shia militias in Iraq and Syria. It is because of ISIS that the Hashd al-Shaabi is now part of the Iraqi government as an official force. ISIS destroyed Sunni Arab cities in Iraq, tunneled under them, and caused their abandonment. It sabotaged Sunni politicians who were seeking aid and destroyed Sunni hopes. It wasn’t fueled by suppression, in fact it is part of the fuel suppressing Sunni Arabs.
ISIS committed genocide against weaker indigenous groups such as the Yazidi, it wasn’t suppressed by them
If ISIS was “fueled” by being suppressed, why was ISIS main campaign of genocide and mass murder directed at Yazidis in Iraq who never suppressed anyone and who were a weak, indigenous minority group? Pretending that ISIS was the victim reverses historical fact. ISIS was responsible for cleansing Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, Shabaks, and many other groups; include the murder of bedouin tribes.
It is ISIS that was persecuting other groups. Why is it that when Sunni Arabs are being “persecuted,” the response is genocide of Yazidis? Because at its heart ISIS was not fueled by persecution, it was fueled by a desire for supremacy and a dream of genocide and ethnic-cleansing. If persecution fuels a blowback, then it is Kurds and Yazidis who were persecuted. But Kurds didn’t join an ISIS-like group. Yazidis haven’t done to Sunni Arabs and ISIS-members what was done to them. Kurds suffered far more brutality at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s mostly Sunni-Arab dominated regime. Yet they didn’t become like ISIS. So why is the only response to supposed persecution from Baghdad, for people to “fuel” ISIS? The reality is that ISIS actions against minorities prove that it was not the group being “persecuted” but it was the driver of persecution and the fuel for ISIS comes from its own desire to slaughter others. It’s main fuel is hatred and bigotry. It is not a reaction to anything, it is part of a larger context of bullying jihadist groups, and it took their hatred of “kuffar” to a new level, like the Nazis built on anti-semitism to commit the Holocaust.
Hold ISIS and its ideology responsible
The tendency in the West especially is to always see every terror attack and every genocidal act by Islamist Jihadists as somehow never their responsibility. While one blames the Nazis or KKK for their actions, or the Inquisition, people fear to place blame squarely on the shoulders of every ISIS members and volunteer. Instead they always tend to turn ISIS into victims, and their members into victims who always have some excuse for their actions. They refuse to hold hatred, bigotry, and perpetrators of ethnic-cleansing accountable. ISIS is a bullying, supremacist movement, and yet instead of seeing that, people constantly want to find a worldview in which ISIS is the fault of everyone, except the actual leaders and members of ISIS. People who join ISIS are always said to be enticed somehow, as if they are being lied to and they have been suckered in or brainwashed. But those who join ISIS and fly halfway around the world are people who dream of genocide and war. They are people who search out extremism, it isn’t because they are weak and feeble and don’t know any better. They openly brag about what fuels them, if only people would listen. But we don’t want to read the actual statements of ISIS members. The actual statements tell us exactly what they want. “I want to kill the kuffar,” they say and “I want to buy myself a woman slave,” they say. They say they want to live in a “caliphate” where they are the dominant group and where they can beat on others who violate their rules. Theirs is a fantasy. Many of them combine the worst aspects of colonialism, fanaticism, bigotry, hatred, intolerance, extreme-right wing racist, Islamist supremacist views.
It is common in human history that right wing supremacist groups will feed off of a fake “persecution complex” to gain volunteers. The extreme right in Europe claims to be persecuted by the left and Islamic minorities, the Nazis claimed persecution at the hands of a global Communist or Jewish conspiracy. Often the persecution-supremacism logic happens when a formerly supremacist group is having its previous power checked and its influence eroded. This doesn’t mean it is being suppressed or that its “reaction” is legitimate. The erosion of Sunni power did lead to a terrorist extremist reaction in Iraq, precisely because former elites, such as Saddam’s cadre of officers in Mosul dreamed of a return to power. ISIS and Jihadist ideology feeds on dreams of power and former glory, much as the KKK or Nazis sold their followers dreams of white power and glory. But their narrative of persecution-glory-supremacism doesn’t mean analysts should buy into it. Anyone who wanted to help Sunni Arab grievances would not excuse ISIS, but condemn ISIS for having destroyed Sunni Arab polity and possibility, and set back any aspirations in Iraq or Syria for a generation or more. The fact that people resort to terror or extremism doesn’t mean they always have a good reason to do so. In rare examples is this the case. Unfortunately in the West many analysts believe that as long as people are willing to murder others and commit genocide then they must have some legitimate reason to do so.
But why not see the logic of “fueled by persecution” as applying equally to Kurds and Shia? The Kurds were truly suppressed under Saddam and so were the Shia, what about supporting their aspirations as well, fueled by persecution? Why is it only the cause of ISIS that somehow gets attention, without giving proper and just attention to numerous other groups, including Sunni Arabs, who are not extremists?
Instead of admitting that ISIS is not a “reaction” but is an action, we cannot understand it. It is persecuting others, not being persecuted. That hundreds of thousands of Assyrian Christians cleansed by ISIS didn’t react by becoming like ISIS. That is because ISIS is not a reaction, its roots are deeper and unique. It’s roots are supremacism, not a minority rebellion. It is part of a historical persecution of Kurds and minorities, it is not a victim of them. To reverse history, so that the dominant and the extreme become the victims does a great disservice. Nothing fueled ISIS but ISIS itself. ISIS was its own fuel. It crafted its own propaganda. It decided to behead journalists and sabotage Syria. It decided to commit genocide and cleanse and rape. It decided to commit the Camp Speicher massacre. It decided to attack the Kurds. Its members decided to join it. It provided the fuel for its actions. It created the networks that made it initially successful.