The death of the Islamic State leader is seen as a milestone against terrorism. The truth is muddier


PPrisoner M060108 – dark-skinned, according to his captors, 218.5cm, 101kg – was led past the wire shortly after New Year’s Day in 2008, to the dusty Umm Qasr prison camp, in Iraq. In the coming weeks, declassified interrogation records show, M060108 betrayed his Al-Qaeda comrades, one after another. Exactly why, the documents do not save; other prisoners were beaten with butts, sexually humiliated, sprayed with pepper spray, tied up under the blazing sun.

For seconds last week, US special forces caught sight of this prisoner again, before the self-proclaimed Islamic State caliph blew himself up with his family.

Like the murder of Osama bin Laden in 2011, or that of the first caliph of the Islamic State (IS), Ibrahim Awad al-Badri, in 2019, the murder of the Emir Muhammad Abdal-Rahman, also known as of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi, is presented as a crucial step in the fight against terrorism. The truth is more hazy.

Even as former US President Donald Trump boasted of “100%” defeat of the caliphate in 2019, IS regrouped under Abdal-Rahman in Iraq and Syria, and expanded across Africa and Asia. In recent weeks, the terrorist group hassophisticated attacks tagged in his Iraqi-Syrian heart. ISIS-inspired movements have flourished on two continents.

The destruction of the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 was heralded as the beginning of a new era of democracy and peace in the Middle East. Instead, a long and brutal insurgency ensued, a consequence of the destruction of state institutions, religious and ethnic conflicts, poverty and foreign occupation.

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How American ultra-violence spawned jihadism

Like so many other armies, the United States and its main ally, the United Kingdom, have responded to barbarism with barbarism. Following a 2005 bombing in the Iraqi town of Haditha, US and British troops reportedly killed dozens in cold blood. Fallujah has been razed, then leveled again, as American and British soldiers fought to retake it from the insurgents. In 2009 alone, 33 separate allegations of torture and sexual abuse were made against British troops.

“It’s good that the war is so terrible,” General Robert Lee had said in December 1867, as he surveyed the carnage on the battlefields of Fredericksburg, “or we would be too fond of it.” President George Bush, however, did not flinch.

Al-Qaeda – drawing its legitimacy from nationalist rage over atrocities, as well as Sunni fears of being marginalized by Iraq’s Shia majority – grew more than it had ever before 9/11, fueled by the strong winds of the storm.

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The rise of the Caliph

The most authoritative biography of Abdal-Rahman, written by journalist Feras Kilani, tells us that the future caliph was born in 1976 to a cleric in Mosul, the youngest of his father’s seven children by two wives. Abdal-Rahman completed eighteen months of compulsory military service in Saddam Hussein’s army, before earning a master’s degree in Islamic theology.

From 2003, as anarchy spread in Iraq, Abdal-Rahman appears to have drifted into Ansar ul-Islam, which soon after merged with al-Qaeda. Later, after the death of key al-Qaeda commander, Jordanian Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal, Abdal-Rahman followed the base into ISIS.

In 2007, Abdal-Rahman’s interrogation records show that he supported lead religious courts in Mosulruling inter alia on kidnappings and ransoms.

Taken prisoner at home in 2008 by the Kurdish peshmerga militia, Abdal-Rahman found himself in prison alongside other IS figures. After Camp Bucca closed in 2009, its former students would become the backbone of ISIS.

Little about Abdal-Rahman’s life is documented thereafter. For a time, he was responsible for establishing a training institute for religious judges and clergy at al-Imam al-Adham College in Mosul. It is alleged in some accounts that he provided religious legitimacy for the killing of Yazidis and the capture of Yazidi women as slaves, after the fall of Sinjar in 2014.

Extremism, it should have been clear, thrived in conditions where governmental and social structures were destroyed by violence. Washington, however, was not listening.

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The Arab Spring transforms the Arab Summer

Beginning in 2010, mass protests erupted against authoritarian regimes across the Middle East in what became known as the Arab Spring. The United States has backed a key uprising in Syria in hopes of overthrowing arch-enemy Bashar al-Asad’s regime and containing Iranian influence in the region. Like the European revolutions of 1848, from which the Arab Spring takes its name, the uprisings had very different results in each country. In Syria, the jihadists, the best organized force, have won.

The seeds of this disaster were, ironically, partly laid by Bashar al-Asad himself. Battling youth anger over his liberal economic reforms – which created growth but not jobs – al-Asad decided to welcome the Islamist political vanguard, the Muslim Brotherhood, and allowed Iraqi jihadists to take refuge.

For its part, the United States has allowed the rise of ISIS through benign negligence, viewing it as a tool to be used against Iran’s influence in Iraq and an instrument to bring down the Syrian regime.

Although some semblance of order has been regained, large swaths of Syria and Iraq remain beyond effective state control. IS still has around 10,000 fighters and controls a significant territory. His example has inspired jihadists across Asia and Africa.

Last year, the UN registered that Islamic State violence is on the rise across Africa, spreading from northern Mali into the central region of the country, as well as into Niger and Burkina Faso. In oil-rich Mozambique, jihadists successfully stormed the city of Palma; the 14-year war against al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia has made no discernible progress towards stabilizing the country.

Nigeria, similarly, has had little success in battling Boko Haram, a jihadist group that has claimed thousands of lives in terror attacks since 2002. The insurgency has spread to Niger and northern Cameroon.

Tired of these endless wars, Western governments are retreating from the chaos they unleashed after 9/11. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to end Operation Barkhane, his country’s small-scale edition of the 9/11 war in Afghanistan. No one knows for sure how long the 2,500 US troops deployed in Iraqor 900 in Syria, will remain.

Like Afghanistan, these countries could well implode, sending shockwaves through a region crucial to India’s energy security. Few Indians—only 66, by an estimate— fought with the IS, but some of them are known to have received advanced training, and carried out suicide attacks in Afghanistan. If communal tensions in India lead to large-scale violence in the future, conceivable recruitment into the Islamic State will increase, with dire consequences.

There is no lesson in Abdal-Rahman’s story except the one that mothers teach little children: don’t play with matches. The fires started by the US war in Iraq will likely rage for many years to come.

The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)


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