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February 12, 2015
Barbarians Are Made, Not Born
The Islamic State group is composed of the detritus of wars in Afghanistan, Libya,
Chechnya, Yemen. It was fuelled by the destruction of Iraq. Can deliverance be really
found in the violence that forged it?
By Vijay Prashad
February 12, 2015 "ICH" - "al-Araby" - Genuine terrorists require little amplification of
their acts. These acts are designed to create a certain emotional response. A
beheading here, a burning there – ghastly repetitions of old acts, as old as The Rack
or the Judas Chair. It takes little imagination to picture the pain. The terrorist conducts
the act in public, on YouTube at least, in order to sow terror. That is the point of the
The "Islamic State" (IS, formerly ISIS) has been in the spotlight for its barbarism, most
recently for the killing – by fire – of the Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kassasbeh. Prior to
that, IS attained notoriety for its beheadings. Less well known are its violent acts
against homosexuals, who have been thrown off buildings to their death. All of this
seems to be authorized by Abu Bakr Naji’s 2004 Idarat al-Tawahush ('Management of
Savagery'), a textbook apparently of the IS. It seeks religious authority, but also
historical validation. The time of the "Islamic State" is largely the waning days of the
Crusades, when the Franks began to withdraw after the fall of Acre in 1291. Victory,
to the jihadi, seems at hand.
One of the most obvious questions raised is why the IS is barbaric. The demand made
to Muslims that they condemn acts by the "Islamic State" suggests that there is a view
that this is somehow authorized by Islam. Certainly, the IS seeks to find legitimacy in
Islam – as it would. But this does not mean that it is Islam that authorizes such
brutality. If a murderer seeks justification in a fantasy, it should not allow one to
believe that the fault of murder lies in the fantasy.
If the motivation for these acts is not in Islam, then perhaps they might be found in
other traditions? One of the most gruesome videos is associated with the killing of the
aid worker Peter Abdulrahman Kassig, the fifth western hostage to be killed by the IS.
Kassig’s death comes in the last minutes of a fifteen-minute video. The rest of the
video has nothing to do with Kassig. It is a diatribe against the 2003 US invasion of
Iraq and then the aftermath, namely – in the terms of the "Islamic State" – the handing
over of Iraq to the Shia, the nusayri, as the video calls them. Here lie two additional
explanations of the extreme violence of the IS and it is worthwhile to take them in
The US occupation of Iraq
The list of atrocities committed against Iraq is long. In 1991, the US bombardment of
Iraq was fiery and terrifying. When Iraqi troops withdrew on the run from Kuwait, US
aircraft bombed them along Highway 80, the 'Highway of Death'. At least a thousand
soldiers died along the road. The 24th Division 1st Brigade of the US army
investigated two incidents in 1991, one of which resulted in the death of perhaps
three hundred and fifty already-surrendered Iraqi soldiers.
That war morphed into a brutal sanctions regime, whose destructive impact on Iraqi
society has not been fully gauged. UN officials in charge of humanitarian relief during
the sanctions regime – Denis Halliday and Hans Christof von Sponeck – resigned
from their posts in disgust.
The 2003 invasion once more resulted in fiery bombing runs that wrecked Iraq’s
infrastructure and destroyed its cities. When the insurgency against the US
occupation began, the US reaction was swift and ruthless – Fallujah was twice razed
(the Imam of the Grand Mosque of Fallujah, Sheikh Jamal Shakur, was arrested by
the US forces; they also incarcerated his family). Of course there was the humiliation
of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, including the suppressed video (according to Seymour
Hersh) of the sexual brutality against children in the prison.
There was the use of armed force that leaked into the massacre of civilians, most
clearly documented for the 2006 attack in Ishaqi. Where are the families of Turkiya
Majeed Ali, Faiz Hratt Khalaf, Sumaya Abdul Kazzaq Khuther, Iqtisad Hameed Mehdi,
Hawraa (age 5), Asma Yousif Maarouf (age 5), Usama Yousif Maarouf (age 3), Aisha
(age 3), Husam (age five months)? What damage did this killing of innocents by a US
strike do to their wider family? How many of them have now drifted into the "Islamic
State" – or to its Baathist allies?
Hatred of the Shia
There was no al-Qaeda in Iraq before the US occupation in 2003. What existed there
were small, barren sections that had been inspired by Bin Laden but had no network,
no influence, and no ability to do anything. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia emerged as a
parasite on the US occupation. It was led by a Jordanian militant, Abu Musab al-
Zarqawi. There was little room for him in Iraq. What opened the space was the
destruction of Fallujah. Fighters in that city would openly proclaim later that they alone
had defended "the city of mosques".
No longer were the older Sunni groups (such as the Islamic Party) able to claim their
allegiance – new formations, such as al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad and Jaish Muhammad,
emerged. They certainly went after the US troops (and the United Nations). But their
real target became the Shia institutions – a mosque here, a Hawza there. The
sentiment that grew out of the ashes of Fallujah and Ramadi was that the US had
destroyed Iraq and handed over the keys to the Shia community. No attempt by
Muqtada al-Sadr to bridge the divides through a revived Iraqi nationalism could
Barbarians are produced, often by their betters. This "Islamic State" is the detritus of
the wars that ran from Afghanistan to Libya, from Chechnya to Yemen. It is easy to
plumb the depths of its history, harder to know how to combat it. Will the weapons that
laid the conditions for the group’s emergence (bombings, civilian deaths) also provide
deliverance from it?