Thursday, May 19, 2016

Frontline: “The Secret History of ISIS” (WGBH/PBS-TV, aired May 17, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I watched a fascinating episode of PBS’s documentary series Frontline, “The Secret History of ISIS,” though the history of ISIS presented was not so “secret” at all. The show’s basic argument was that the U.S. decision to scapegoat Iraq in general and Saddam Hussein in particular as the true perpetrators of the 9/11 terror attacks, including “cooking the books” to make it look as if Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were in cahoots all along to attack America, was the real genesis of ISIS. The film traced the history of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a street thug who was born and raised in Zarqa, Jordan (his real family name was Musab; like a lot of Arabs, he went by a final name that merely indicated where he was from: “al-Zarqawi” simply means “from Zarqa”); he was arrested and imprisoned in Jordan and, like Malcolm X, while in prison was educated by his fellow inmates in the basics of Islam. He’d gone in a street criminal with a heavy-duty set of tattoos; he came out a committed Islamic militant and had laboriously and painfully scraped the skin off his body with a smuggled-in razor blade to remove the tattoos, which were not considered appropriate for an Islamist militant. Looking for a place to join the jihad, he first went to Kandahar, Afghanistan to join Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda operation and fight the infidels in Afghanistan, but bin Laden apparently didn’t think much of him and basically told him to go home. Instead he went to Iraq and seized on the opportunities presented by the U.S. invasion — particularly the disbanding of the Iraqi army (which the person who ordered it, U.S. governor L. Paul Bremer, still thinks was a good idea!), which turned out 250,000 young men with guns and professional training in how to use them loose on the Iraqi streets, ready for recruitment to a resistance movement. Zarqawi (to use the form of his name by which he’s usually referred to in the West even though that’s not how his Arab name really works) seized the opportunities presented by the missteps of both U.S. and Iraqi governors — including the decision of Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’a Muslim, to go after the Sunnis and fight a sectarian civil war.

Zarqawi had already been artificially inflated into a key part of the Iraqi resistance even before the war — in his infamous U.N. speech then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had said Zarqawi was the liaison between bin Laden and Saddam (when, as the film’s narrator, Will Lyman, sardonically points out, if Saddam Hussein had known of Zarqawi’s existence he would have had him executed immediately — Iraq under Saddam had no Islamist terror movement to speak of because Saddam regarded such people as threats to his own power and dealt with them as ruthlessly and brutally as he did anyone else who threatened his power) — and he called his group al-Qaeda in Iraq (with the apparently grudging acquiescence of bin Laden back in his redoubt in Pakistan) and essentially largely led the Sunni side in an Iraqi civil war until he was killed in a targeted strike in 2006. The next year President George W. Bush ordered the “surge” in Iraq and the U.S. essentially bribed the remaining Sunnis into stopping the war — the so-called “Sunni awakening” was literally bought and paid for by the American taxpayers — but Zarqawi’s operation continued under a new leader named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (another Arab taking a last name that simply meant where he was from — “from Baghdad”). What was left of it laid low for three years until 2009, when President Bush’s term expired, Barack Obama replaced him, and the new administration was determined to withdraw the U.S. military from Iraq and leave the Iraqis in charge. One of the things we did to accomplish this was to build a new Iraqi army, which as New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins, one of the show’s interviewees, put it, “which was built at incredible expense— I don’t even know what the final price tag was, $30 billion dollars— largely by the Americans, paid for by the American taxpayer, you know, all their equipment, everything— it all came apart.” That really wouldn’t have been so surprising if anyone in either the Bush or Obama administrations had realized that one of Zarqawi’s calls to his followers had been to have them sign up for the U.S.-organized Iraqi army and get trained in how to fight — and then use their training and new-found skills to fight against the U.S. and the Shi’a Iraqis the U.S. invasion had put in control of the country. So a lot of people in that so-called “Iraqi army” were, and had all along been, on the other side. This show has some pretty well-defined heroes and villains, and the villains are pretty obvious — not only Zarqawi and his equally bloodthirsty successor, Baghdadi, but the Bush administration in general and vice-president Dick Cheney and his associate Lewis “Scooter” Libby in particular — while the closest the story (at least as presented here by writers Michael Kirk, who also directed, and Michael Wiser) has to a hero(ine) is Nada Bakos.

She worked for the CIA as a counterterrorism intelligence analyst from 2000 to 2008 and futilely tried to talk the Bush administration, Cheney and Libby in particular, out of their obsession with finding a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 that did not in fact exist. She also said the CIA had actually located Zarqawi in 2002 and was ready to take him out — but the Bush administration didn’t want to launch an attack in Iraq before they were ready to fight the all-out war and vetoed the plan. Under Obama’s tenure the U.S. pulled out of Iraq, the Iraqi army disintegrated as soon as ISIS forces attacked, and just as Zarqawi had moved from Jordan to Iraq to find a fertile ground for jihad, so Baghdadi moved from Iraq to Syria and aligned ISIS with the rebels who were fighting the Syrian government of Bashir al-Assad. Indeed, ISIS was so successful in Syria they were able to capture a huge swath of territory and unite it with the land they’d conquered in western Iraq to declare the new Islamic Caliphate. The Caliphate was the Muslim empire that was founded by Muhammad himself and reached its height under Iraqi king Haroun al-Raschid (who was the Caliph during the time the Sinbad the Sailor stories take place), when it stretched from Spain to India — indeed, the professed objective of the modern-day jihad is to reconquer all the former territories of the Caliphate and bring them under Muslim rule, though Baghdadi isn’t content even with that and wants his vicious, evil brand of Islam to rule the entire world. (Right there that makes him considerably more dangerous than Saddam Hussein or Bashir al-Assad, who were content to rule one country but would ruthlessly kill anyone whom they consider a threat to their rule.) According to this program, Osama bin Laden finally broke with Baghdadi’s operation when it announced that it was forming a new Caliphate, with the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital — bin Laden apparently didn’t think the historical timing was right for such a drastic step — though reports at the time suggested that Baghdadi and his organization were working more like a classical guerrilla army than a terrorist organization, focused less on spectacular attacks around the world and more on conquering, holding and ruling territory.

This has given Islamic State, under its various names (originally it was called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which generated the initials ISIS; later it was called ISIL, for “Islamic State in the Levant,” and in Arabic its name is “Daesh,” which its adversaries like to use because the pronunciation can be twisted so it sounds like an Arabic insult), far more resources to carry on its struggle, including money it’s looted from the banks in the areas it’s conquered and (a funding source oddly not mentioned on this show) income from the sale of oil from the parts of Iraq they control. ISIS originally questioned the strategy of doing big 9/11-style attacks in the West on the ground that they didn’t bring the New Caliphate one step closer to reality; later, as everyone knows, they abandoned that principle and started authorizing attacks like the big assaults in Paris and Brussels. At the same time it’s unclear just how many of the foreign actions are actually being greenlighted by Baghdadi and his leadership councils in Raqqa and how many (including, most likely, the attacks last December in San Bernardino) are being done by freelancers who log onto ISIS’s Web site or Facebook page and declare “allegiance” to ISIS. One can readily imagine someone in Raqqa monitoring the group’s Facebook page, seeing these “declarations of allegiance” and wondering, “Who the hell are these people?” One interesting aspect of this program is that it all too clearly shows how President Obama’s response to the renewed threat of terrorism from Iraq and Syria via ISIS was conditioned by his tendency to issue a measured response to anything: where President George W. Bush had famously boasted, “I don’t do nuance,” Though Obama declined a request to be interviewed for this show, it includes a clip of him at a White House press conference saying, “The notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military— that hasn’t been true in the past and it won’t be true now.”

To those of us who voted for him precisely because (among other issues) we wanted someone in the White House whose knee-jerk response to terrorism wouldn’t be to find another country and invade it, whether they had anything to do with the terrorists or not, that sounded like wisdom and prudence; but to many Americans, it just came off as weak — which is why Obama, the man who famously “nuanced” virtually every issue to death, is likely to be replaced either by Hillary Clinton (who as secretary of state pleaded with Obama for direct U.S. military action in Syria, and was turned down) or Donald Trump, who like Bush seems to glory in not doing nuance and is so personally combative and pugnacious he seems likely to get the U.S. in a war just to offer further proof of his “manhood.” ISIS is virtually impossible to deal with precisely because it’s more an idea than a specific group of people — which is why you shouldn’t get your hopes up when the U.S. announced that a targeted drone strike somewhere has taken out one ISIS leader or another. One problem with ISIS is they seem to have a virtually infinite bench; take one of their major figures out and there are two, three or 10 people ready and eager to replace him. The old wisdom that you can only fight an idea — and for some reason the New Islamic Caliphate ISIS promises has become an incredibly attractive idea to Muslims (and some non-Muslims who were attracted enough by it to convert) around the world — with a better idea has rarely been more true than it is for ISIS, but the policy the Obama administration has based around that idea — attempting to contain ISIS, trying to decapitate its leadership on the ground and ultimately waiting for (or persuading) Muslims around the world to embrace a better idea than the future offered by these murderous thugs — is seen as dangerously “weak” by all too many of the American people and is likely to be abandoned in favor of a more militaristic approach if Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is the next President.