Whereas Al Qaeda wasn’t a household name before September 11, 2001, its ‘Afghan Arab’ origins and its core leadership were transparent. However, the birth, activities and associates of what used to be known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that burst onto the world’s stage in 2014 are still a mystery prompting unsubstantiated theories and conspiracies. Linda S. Heard looks at some that are worth exploring…
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Islamic State can “trace its lineage to the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, in 2003” when the Jordanian militant Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi - more thug than committed Islamist - aligned his jihadist group with Al Qaeda to become Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Zarqawi died as a result of an airstrike. His successors initially rebranded AQI as the Islamic State in Iraq.
Another theory expounded by Martin Chulov writing in The Guardian newspaper, points to a revelation by Abu Ahmed, one of the Islamic State’s senior commanders, that the group was born inside Camp Bucca, a desert prison camp in Iraq “right under the noses of its American jailors”.
Abu Ahmed says he first met the self-ascribed Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, considered a trusted detainee permitted access to other sectors of the camp. Baghdadi was a quiet individual with charisma, he says while characterizing him as far more ruthless than Zarqawi. “He was respected very much by the US army” and released in 2004. “Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology,” he asserts.
Former detainee Adel Jasim Mohammed told Al Jazeera that “extremists had freedom to educate the young detainees … I saw them giving courses using classroom boards on how to use explosives, weapons and how to become suicide bombers.” Reconnecting following their release was easy, he says.
An ex-US officer quoted in the New York Times said “In retrospect, bringing every Jihadi and insurgent into the same place and giving them all the time in the world to get to know one another may go down as our biggest mistake.”
The Drudge Report website maintains that “Even with the influx of thousands of foreign fighters, almost all of the leaders of the Islamic State are former Iraqi officers, including the members of its shadowy military and security committees … They have brought to the organization the military expertise and some of the agendas of the former Baathists, as well as the smuggling networks developed to avoid sanctions in the 1990s and which now facilitate the Islamic State’s oil trading.” The Iraqis don’t fight says a former member. “They put the foreign fighters on the front lines.”
The Economist explains how the Islamic State is the wealthiest terrorist organization ever: “Unlike other terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, IS largely funds itself rather than relying on rich supporters (despite various versions of a conspiracy theory in the region that America, Iran or Israel bankrolls the group) ... Instead, the bulk of its money comes from oil revenues from fields under its control in western Iraq and eastern Syria. American officials estimated that it was making US $2 million a day from oil before air strikes started.”
Surprisingly, the US-led coalition neglected to bomb those oilfields until Russia’s military intervention on the grounds the oil was the property of the people. With regards to links to Israel, articles abound asking why the Islamic State isn’t targeting Israel or, conversely, why Israel isn’t taking on the Islamic State?
President Putin has a different take. Last year, during the G20 Summit, he declared that he had shared intelligence on the Islamic State’s financing with his counterparts in the G20. “This money, as we have established, comes from 40 countries and, there are some of the G20 members among them,” was his message to the media.
Pakistan’s Urdu-language paper The Daily Express reports that Yousaf Al-Salafi, a purported Pakistani commander of the Islamic State, confessed to the country’s intelligence agencies that the group receives funds routed via the United States to attract young recruits willing to fight in Syria. If this is true, then it echoes United States policy in Afghanistan when the CIA advertised for Jihadis to fight the Soviet occupiers.
Who buys the Islamic State’s stolen oil?
The US contends that the Syrian regime is buying back its own oil! An American Treasury Department official quoted by Reuters says Islamic State oil is going to the regime, while “some ends up in Kurdish regions, and some in Turkey.” President Putin accuses Turkey of being involved in the illegal oil trade. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has challenged him to prove his allegations and says it is Russia that is buying Islamic State oil, not Turkey. Questions have been raised why until a few months ago the convoys of trucks transporting oil were not being bombed.
The Arab-language paper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed ran a story pointing a finger at Turkish and Kurdish smugglers tasked with transporting oil out of Syria and Iraq when it is sold at rock-bottom prices to Israel through brokers.
Where does IS get its weapons?
An article by Julia Harte and R. Jeffrey Smith published on the Foreign Policy website highlights a report compiled by Conflict Armament Research to the effect many of the group’s arms which are primarily American and Russian-made were captured on the battlefield. Other reports suggest they are buying them from the black market or that US weapons supplied to ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria are ending up in Islamic State hands.
Foreign Policy alleges “the Islamic State has stolen thousands of American-made armoured Humvees from Iraqi Security Forces to use as rolling bombs and Iraq’s government has petitioned the Pentagon to deliver more.
A November 2014 a United Nations report to the Security Council states newer weapons have been smuggled to the Islamic State through routes than run through Turkey. There is little doubt that Turkey turned a blind eye to Islamic State activities on its territory until that became an international embarrassment and now that it’s tightened up it has become a terrorist target.
Everything about the beginnings and the rise of this organisation that so spectacularly grabbed huge swathes of Iraq and Syria with little initial opposition is murky. The same goes for ‘Caliph Baghdadi’ who has featured in a slew of alternative media articles as “a Mossad spy”, the son of Jewish parents whose real name is Simon Elliot based on allegations purported to derive from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as well as Iranian intelligence. Such reports often publish photographs of Baghdadi in his previous life with a woman in what looks like a bar.
With little hard evidence at our disposal, it’s wise to take everything one reads or hears with a giant pinch of salt until such time as the truth reveals itself. Until then for most of us the Islamic State and its backers will remain a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.