SEEMA MUSTAFA | 26 AUGUST, 2014
US First Lady Michelle Obama: Islamic State Militants Are Flushed With Money And Weaponry
1st in 2 Part Series
NEW DELHI: A short, attractive woman with white hair, puffing away at cigarettes non stop met us at her newspaper office in Baghdad just a few months before the US invasion in 2003. The Iraqi’s were expecting the attack but clearly there was hope that the Americans would eventually see sense and not carry through the threats they were making. A bright woman editor, better informed than most and highly political, was supporting then President Saddam Hussein at the time-- “we all are given the circumstances”---and gave us a peep into the future without perhaps even realising it. She said that if Iraq was attacked, the US plans would not stop there, and other countries like Syria and Iran would be next in line. And as the US has no understanding of the region, the order that was visible then, would disintegrate into insurgency, militia wars, terrorism and chaos.
This became the story in Iraq, followed by Libya where the Gaddafi regime was bombed out of existence as well. And Syria under similar pressure managed only because of a strong and loyal military that despite being predominantly Sunni refused to desert the Alawite President Bashir al Asad, thereby giving a lie to the western propaganda of the violence in West Asia being a totally sectarian war. In fact for a brief period after colonisers UK and France left the region, and the Americans re-entered it, most West Asian governments had dealt with and overcome sectarian rivalries were existing in their respective countries. The exception was and is Saudi Arabia, with even Iran moving away from this narrow outlook to adopt a wider perspective. Close relations between what the west describes as hardcore Sunni groups like Hamas and Shia groups like Hezbollah bely the western propaganda, and reveal that in West Asia as in other regions, politics reveals common goals that then are handled outside religious differences.
The end of the Baathist party in Iraq, that by its very ideology was secular and opposed to terrorism and sectarianism, let loose a surge of insurgency that the US could not control even if it had wanted to. The removal of the educated, and indeed sophisticated Baathist leadership at all levels---including the Iraq military---led to a bursting forth of militia, criminal gangs, Salafists, al Qaeda remnants that acquired their legitimacy from violence and unnamed and unidentified benefactors that tried to use them to retain control over the region. The same groups were funded and armed to overthrow Gaddafi in Libya, and then to join the Syrian Rebel Army to oust the Assad government in Syria.
In Damascus senior most officials of the Assad identified these groups to this writer long before the Islamic State in its many avatars burst onto the scene. The US that stated its commitment to a regime change in Syria openly supported the rebels despite information and evidence that a pot pourri of militant groups had joined the insurgency in the border areas. The borders were controlled by the drug and criminal gangs from before, the difference being that they found themselves getting free weaponry and money to join the insurgency against the Assad government. From relatively small levels, the attack on the Syrian government escalated into a virtually full fledged war with real worry registered by the officials close to the President who told this reporter at one time that it had become a ‘touch and go’ situation for the government that was fighting not just the war on the ground but also the propaganda war unleashed against it by the western powers who lumped all the organisations as ‘rebels’ even though the evidence of al Qaeda and militia involvement was rising. Seizures by the Syrian army showed that the so called rebels were carrying highly sophisticated weapons that were being pumped into the conflict through Turkey and other countries.
A massive recruitment drive was also undertaken by the money flushed groups at this time who were being supported fairly openly by the US, UK, and other western governments at the time. Israel in the region was supportive, as were Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar according to reports at the time. The Syrian government repeatedly tried to draw attention to these facts, and there was worry expressed by academics and journalists in the region as to how and where these weapons would be used not just in that present, but in the future.
Several names have appeared in the context of the leadership of the Islamic State that comprises the same groups as had fought against the government in Syria--the Salafists, the militia. the Naqshbandi elements, al Nusra, al Qaeda etc,--many of whom are fighting for control with each other. The Jabhat-al-Nusra, known as the Nusra Front, came to the fore leading the attack on the government and was an amalgamation of many of these forces mobilised as the new ‘army’ to fight at the bidding of powers outside itself. At least this is what the Syrian leaders said, pointing directly at the US and its western allies for promoting such “dangerous forces and elements in the region.”
One name that is interesting to note is that of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi, who had formed a militant group just after the US invasion of Iraq. He had been detained as a “civilian internee” whatever that means by the US forces in Iraq and very significantly, despite his violent background, was recommended for release by a combined Review and Release Board. Reports are vague on this, with some suggesting that he disappeared mysteriously as the result of a ‘mistake’ and with considerable money in his pocket. He emerged as the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq in May 2010, an outfit connected with the al Qaeda.
This organisation was then formally expanded to cover Syria in 2013---after the Asad government had been weakened through the sustained and calibrated ‘rebel’ action---and ISI became the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.Significantly al-Baghdadi announced the merger of the AL-Nusra Front with ISIS and this led to the first major dispute between these groups, with the former resisting the move. Baghdadi then announced its expulsion from ISIS and more recently reports suggest that al Qaeda is not particularly enthused either, and has parted ways with al Baghdadi who has named himself as the Caliph of the ISIS Caliphate.
There is big money at play here with the Rand Corporation maintaining that ISIS has over two billion dollars in assets, making it the richest terrorist group in the world. Interestingly in almost a walkover the militants, while killing and executing masses along the way, also captured assets like oilfields in Mosul in northern Iraq as well as helicopters and weaponry belonging to the US military. The last seems to be a peculiar and inexplicable development. Arab intellectuals insist that Baghdadi was trained by the Mossad during his time in detention, although this is part of the grapevine reports, with no independent confirmation as yet.
The Syrian government had earlier identified the weaponry held by the groups operating against it with the list being added to now by the Americans themselves who had first denied arming the rebels, and then later confirmed it. The weaponry in the hands of these radical and dangerous groups includes anti tank guns, Stinger missiles, surface to air missile, armoured cars , trucks, artillery, Humvees,and rocket launchers to name just a part of the long list.
(SECOND AND CONCLUDING PART OF THE SERIES TOMORROW)