How America Helped ISIS
By ANDREW THOMPSON and JEREMI SURIOCT. 1, 2014
Austin, Texas — The Islamic State terrorists who have emerged in Iraq and Syria are neither new nor unfamiliar. Many of them spent years in detention centers run by the United States and its coalition partners in Iraq after 2003. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, spent nearly five years imprisoned at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. A majority of the other top Islamic State leaders were also former prisoners, including: Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Louay, Abu Kassem, Abu Jurnas, Abu Shema and Abu Suja.
Before their detention, Mr. al-Baghdadi and others were violent radicals, intent on attacking America. Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following. At Camp Bucca, for example, the most radical figures were held alongside less threatening individuals, some of whom were not guilty of any violent crime. Coalition prisons became recruitment centers and training grounds for the terrorists the United States is now fighting.
This process began when coalition forces arrived in Iraq in 2003 and detained alleged terrorists with little preparation or oversight. Although soldiers tried to document the circumstances behind the detentions of Iraqis and foreign fighters, the process broke down under the pressure of fighting, the shortage of trained Arabic speakers, and the fog of war.
Simply being a “suspicious looking” military-aged male in the vicinity of an attack was enough to land one behind bars. There were 26,000 detainees at the height of the war, and over 100,000 individuals passed through the gates of Camps Bucca, Cropper and Taji. Quite a few were dangerous insurgents; many others were innocent.
Small-time criminals, violent terrorists and unknown personalities were separated only along sectarian lines. This provided a space for extremists to spread their message. The detainees who rejected the radicals in their cells faced retribution from other prisoners through “Shariah courts” that infested the facilities.
The radicalization of the prison population was evident to anyone who paid attention. Unfortunately, few military leaders did.
At Camp Bucca, the extremists forced moderate detainees to listen to clerics who advocated jihad. The majority of prisoners were illiterate, so they were particularly susceptible. Prisoners frequently refused medical attention and vocational training for fear of breaking religious rules. The prisons became virtual terrorist universities: The hardened radicals were the professors, the other detainees were the students, and the prison authorities played the role of absent custodian.
Policies changed in 2007, as American military leaders began placing more emphasis on understanding the detainee population. Where possible, the military tried to separate hard-line terrorists from moderates. Prisoners gained more access to programs that taught vocational skills, literacy and a moderate version of Islam.
Some of these reforms worked, but the damage had already been done. The terrorists had four years to network, recruit and impose their extreme version of Islam on thousands of detainees.
One of us served at Camp Cropper in 2009 as a compound intelligence liaison officer with the tasks of collecting information on detainees and disrupting extremist activity. Fulfilling the first priority was relatively easy; the second was nearly impossible.
The compound’s “emirs” controlled the prison population. Detainees, for example, refused to watch television or play ping-pong, lest they face the judgment of the Shariah courts. Moderate detainees suffered repeated physical assaults from radicals. When they fought back, they were punished by the prison authorities.
Insurgents with damning evidence against them were released because of the incompetence of the Iraqi court system and America’s refusal to share classified evidence. Efforts at expediency drove both policies, and the mistakes compounded one another.
By December 2009, only a few thousand detainees remained in the prisons and Camp Bucca was closed. Although American soldiers, backed by intelligence agencies, tried to identify the most threatening detainees, that effort was doomed to failure. Poor record-keeping, limited language skills, detainee obfuscation and the pressure to cut costs prohibited the effective evaluation of prisoners.
The most extreme radicals were never slated for release. A number of them had already been sentenced to death and were awaiting transfer to the Iraqi justice system. But after the United States withdrew, these prisoners found themselves in Iraqi custody. The Islamic State made a priority of freeing these extremists as they conquered large parts of Iraq this past summer. With a new lease on life, these former prisoners are now some of the Islamic States’ most dedicated fighters.
The United States should keep this lesson in mind as it begins another counterterrorism campaign in Iraq and Syria. Large detention facilities only create the seeds for further radicalization and violence. There is strong evidence that the prisons run by the Iraqi and Syrian governments have already had this effect.
The United States must convince its regional partners to avoid mixing radicals and moderates, and provide alternatives to prison for small-scale criminals. If we continue to replay the history of mass incarceration in the Middle East, we will remain stuck in the current cycle where our counterterrorism efforts create more terrorists.
Andrew Thompson,a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, served for eight years in the United States military.Jeremi Suri, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of “Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 2, 2014, in The International New York Times.
BERLIN – Three distinct timelines are shaping developments in the Middle East: the short-term timeline of daily struggles and politics; the medium-term timeline of geopolitical shifts, which is measured in decades; and the long-term timeline of sociocultural transformation, or what the historian Fernand Braudel called the longue durée. Understanding each is essential to craft an effective strategy in the region.
The first timeline certainly receives the most attention. The media report relentlessly on the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas; recent negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program; ongoing opposition activity and political repression in Egypt and Bahrain; and the slaughter and humanitarian tragedies unfolding in Syria and Iraq.
But political thinking in the Middle East is often linked to the second timeline. Indeed, it is impossible to grasp the region’s contemporary history and politics without understanding the emergence of the regional state system after World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire.
For example, there are the constant reminders that external powers – most notably, the United Kingdom and France – established the existing borders. Resistance against the so-called Sykes-Picot order nurtured the founding myths of many states and political movements in the region.
That order has remained largely intact for almost a century, enabling the emergence of separate, though not necessarily exclusive, political identities in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and, to varying degrees, in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries. It has dictated the political parameters for 4-5 generations in the Arab world, including today’s main protagonists, who have battled over it, adapted to it, and attempted to manipulate it.
But the system may finally be unraveling. The border between Iraq and Syria is evaporating, as the Sunni militants of the Islamic State capture a widening swath of territory. And the rise of Kurdish military forces against them raises the possibility that a full-fledged Kurdish state will eventually emerge.
Meanwhile, the tenuous status quo in Israel and Palestine is crumbling. With a two-state solution less likely than ever, the area is likely to experience the creeping consolidation of a one-state reality.
In the Persian Gulf, ongoing international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are but the latest chapter in a struggle over strategic hegemony, security, and economic interests. And, though the world’s appetite for energy resources from the Gulf will not diminish anytime soon, the structure of influence may be set to change again.
When it comes to external power brokers, the United States plays the largest role, having replaced Great Britain by the 1970s. It now must learn to cope with the growing influence of India and China, as well.
But it is the leading regional powers – Iran and Saudi Arabia – that have the greatest potential to transform the Middle East. The question is whether they will continue their competition for regional dominance, regardless of its destabilizing impact, or become pillars of a new regional security structure.
Such a structure has become all the more important as the major external powers’ appetite for sustained involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts wanes. Having learned the hard way that they cannot dictate regional political outcomes, Western powers – as well as Russia, China, and India – will likely limit their involvement to protecting their direct interests and, if necessary, containing regional threats.
Wherever the political and socioeconomic conditions of the short- and medium-term timelines fail to provide order and stability, the confessional, ethnic, or tribal identities that emerged over the longue durée gain prominence. The extent to which identities are invented matters little, as long as their invocation helps to appropriate elements of history and harness them to current political goals.
Episodes from this timeline thus become as relevant as recent events. The conflict over the succession of religious leadership following the death of the Prophet Muhammad nearly 1,400 years ago is the origin of the split between Sunni and Shia Islam. The battles between the Fatimids and the Abbasids, the Crusades, the Mongol invasion, the Ottoman conquest, and, of course, Western imperialism all serve as points of reference for today’s struggles.
But these events provide more than explanation; they often provoke powerful responses. Consider the Islamic State’s recent declaration of a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. Most Sunnis are outraged by the brutal behavior of the Islamic State’s self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and consider his claim that he will eventually “conquer Rome” ridiculous.
Nonetheless, the symbols and “memories” from the longue durée that Baghdadi uses – such as the black flag of the Abbasids and the glorious stories of a time when the caliphate constituted a great power and a lodestar for all Sunnis – have an enduring impact. Of course, these ideas would amount to little were they not backed by modern weaponry, and had the countries whose territory the Islamic State is seizing not failed to create inclusive social contracts. But they imbue the Islamic State’s project with a powerful historical narrative that cannot be dismissed.
Navigating this narrative can be tricky for external actors. They must neither ignore the longue durée nor believe misleading claims that the struggle is really over the legitimacy of opposing interpretations of the faith.
More generally, these actors’ actions in the region must never be shaped by the delusion that the Sunnis, Shia, or any other ethnic or religious minority is on their side. One lesson common to all of the Middle Eastern timelines is that all local actors are on their own side – and more than willing to draw foreigners into their wars if doing so fortifies them against their enemies.
Muslims and Jews Are Targets of Bigotry in Europe
LONDON — A few years ago, I was a guest on “Start the Week,” a BBC radio discussion show. Among the other guests was the novelist Eva Figes, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and a fierce critic of Israel. Israel, she suggested, would have built gas chambers to exterminate the Palestinians but for the fear it would “be found out.”
What astonished me was not simply Ms. Figes’s comment itself, but the fact that I was the only one who challenged her on it. The other guests may well have felt that a Holocaust survivor had some special license to speak harshly about Israel; I certainly don’t see them as anti-Semitic. But in suggesting without a speck of evidence that Israelis had a desire to build gas chambers, Ms. Figes had, for me, given the history of the Holocaust, crossed a line.
What the incident revealed was that many anti-Semitic ideas have become such an acceptable part of the liberal view on Israel that they are barely seen as such anymore. They have become almost invisible.
I was reminded of that discussion as the question of anti-Semitism has returned to Europe — often disguised as anger against Israel’s assault on Gaza. Synagogues have been attacked, Jewish-owned shops smashed, Jews beaten up. At pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London, placards comparing Israelis to Nazis have become common. There have even, reportedly, been chants of “gas the Jews” at demonstrations in Germany.
Today’s anti-Semitism in Europe is more than a replay of old themes; it is also the product of new developments. One is the growth of Muslim communities, or rather, their transformation.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Muslim communities in Europe were broadly secular. Since the late ’80s, though, secular movements have been marginalized, while religious fervor has grown. Support for the Palestinian cause has always been strong, but only recently has a fervent anti-Semitism become entrenched.
It might be convenient for some to simply blame the growth of reactionary tendencies within Muslim communities for the new anti-Semitism, but the truth is more complicated. A 2008 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that hostility to Jews had increased in most European nations.
In Britain, Muslims make up 4.6 percent of the population; in France, 7.5 percent. The proportion of people who possessed unfavorable views of Jews in those countries was, respectively, 9 percent and 20 percent. But in Spain, where just 2.3 percent of the population is Muslim, almost half the population was ill disposed toward Jews, a figure that had more than doubled in three years. In Poland, there are just 20,000 Muslims, or about 0.1 percent of the population; more than a third of Poles held anti-Semitic views.
In other words, there is no clear correlation in Europe between the level of popular anti-Semitism and the size of the Muslim population. In fact, it is in those countries with fewer Muslims that anti-Semitism seems most prevalent.
One explanation for this is that many of the drivers of change within Muslim communities that have paved the way for greater hostility toward Jews have had an equally corrosive effect on public opinion at large. The rise of identity politics has helped create a more fragmented, tribal society, and made sectarian hatred more acceptable generally.
At the same time, the emergence of “anti-politics,” the growing contempt for mainstream politics and politicians noticeable throughout Europe, has laid the groundwork for a melding of radicalism and bigotry. Many perceive a world out of control and driven by malign forces; conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringes of politics, have become mainstream.
Anti-Semitism has become a catchall sentiment for many different groups of angry people. The distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has eroded, as many see Israeli action in terms of grand conspiracies. Thus someone can imagine that Israel would build gas chambers on the West Bank if it could get away with it.
Perhaps in no country are the corrosive effects more visible than in France. And perhaps no figure better represents the character of the new anti-Semitism than the stand-up comic Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, notorious for popularizing the “quenelle,” a hand gesture that, for some, is an expression of hatred for the system, and for others, an anti-Semitic taunt. In reality, it is both: Dieudonné’s popularity shows how inchoate anger against “the system” and anti-Semitic sentiment can all too easily become fused, and his success rests on his ability to blur the two.
But Jews are not the only object of this free-floating rage. The Pew survey showed not just that anti-Semitism had increased throughout Europe, but also that the “publics that view Jews unfavorably also tend to see Muslims in a negative light.” The fusion of xenophobia, conspiracy theory, identity politics and anti-politics that has nurtured the new anti-Semitism has also cultivated hostility to Muslims. The Pew report found that in every country surveyed, “Opinions about Muslims in almost all of these countries are considerably more negative than are views of Jews.”
Against this background, what is troubling is that many who rightly challenge anti-Semitism do so in a way that fuels anti-Muslim prejudice. Many commentators talk of anti-Semitism as an almost wholly Muslim problem, and have used the growth of anti-Semitism to question the wisdom of allowing Muslim immigration to Europe. Others suggest that Muslim support for Palestine shows that Muslims cannot be truly integrated into Western societies.
Such arguments only entrench further hostility toward “the other,” and so inflame not just anti-Muslim but anti-Jewish sentiment, too. Israel’s action in Gaza should not be a moral shield for complaisance with anti-Semitism in Europe. But neither should anti-Semitism be a moral shield for the justification of anti-Muslim prejudices. Bigots on both sides need to be held to account.
Kenan Malik, a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, is the author, most recently, of “The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethic
Israel’s raison d’être was as a Jewish state, yet for almost four decades
after the 1948 declaration of its establishment its Jewishness was not inscribed in any law. This essay, a structural-historical discourse analysis, seeks to explore what led up to today’s insistent assertion of the state’s Jewish identity. To this end, the author traces Israel’s gradual evolution from its purely ethnic roots (the Zionist revolution) to a more civic concept of statehood involving greater inclusiveness (accompanied in recent decades by a rise in Jewish religious discourse). The author finds that while the state’s Jewishness was for decades an assumption so basic as to be self-evident to the Jewish majority, the need to declare it became more urgent as the possibility of becoming “normalized” (i.e., a state for all its citizens) became an option, however distant. The essay ends with an analysis of Israel’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state, arguing why the Palestinian negotiators would benefit from deconstructing it rather than simply disregarding it.