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From 'Baghdadi’s State' to 'Lone Wolves'

From 'Baghdadi’s State' to 'Lone Wolves'

Monday, 18 February, 2019 - 09:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The “State of Baghdadi” is expecting an imminent collapse. It was not destined to last. After its thunderous emergence, experts expected the world to uproot it; not only because it cannot live with it, but also because terrorism makes a fatal mistake when it operates under a known title. The power of terrorism lies in the absence of a slogan, which makes it difficult to target or to capture.

ISIS struck the region as an earthquake from the depths of the past. It was clear that it was going in the opposite direction of history and age. The mysterious black army emerged from Al Qaeda’s legacy… from toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and the policies of retaliation that infuriated Baghdad… from the bloody rift of the Syrian state… and from the open Turkish crossing, which allowed ISIS members and other militants to infiltrate into the Syrian arena.

The years of the “Baghdadi state” were violent, frightening, and full of scenes that the world did not witness in the post-World War II world. Gunmen coming from the caves of history used the latest technologies to intimidate the world with scenes of slaughtered heads, burnt prisoners, and assassinations in front of cameras. It was the longest process of destruction and intimidation in the region, loaded with cruel practices.

The years of the rule of “Baghdadi state” inflicted expensive costs on the relations between the components. Not only because it is a project of elimination and divorce, but also because it is a formula for the spread of destruction to cities, states, national partnerships and bridges of coexistence. Those years saw the erasing of the international borders between Syria and Iraq, which the world could not accept. We all remember the response to Saddam’s attempt to eliminate the borders between Kuwait and his country.

ISIS’ story has not been written yet. It is complex. It involves the roles of those who fought it, those who infiltrated it and tried to employ its brutality to serve their own agenda; and those who invoked its existence to justify strategies similar to policies that caused the emergence of ISIS.

Some people, including Syrian Kurdish Leader Saleh Musallem, believe that ISIS has turned into a supermarket used by security services. He mainly pointed to the Turkish intelligence. We have witnessed years of the “Baghdadi state” and the war against it. It imposed itself on the front pages and gripped the attention of reporters. I was one of them.

On June 10, 2014, I had a meeting in Paris with the President of Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani. Before leaving the hotel, I was interrupted by urgent news on Al-Arabiya television announcing the fall of the city of Mosul. Barzani was worried despite his usual quiet attitude. He was receiving reports and wondering why thousands of Iraqi soldiers were fleeing the city and its surroundings, leaving their arsenal of US weapons in the hands of the terrorist organization. He asserted that the Kurdistan Region “cannot live with these monsters on its borders.” He said that he drew Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s attention to suspicious activities of terrorists in Mosul, and that the latter replied that the situation was under control, hinting that Barzani ought to focus instead on concerns in his province. Barzani said: “This is the Middle East, unfortunately. We get out of a war only to see that we engaged in another one.” I saw him later on the lines of contact with ISIS. The first confrontations were very expensive because of ISIS’ military advantage due to the arsenal that they sacked in Mosul.

Curiosity is journalists' syndrome. They retire immediately after it declines. I had met with and interviewed suspects of terrorism. But I was eager to talk with an ISIS member, particularly those who came from faraway places to live under the banner of what was claimed to be the "Caliphate State." In the last week of August 2017, I asked President Barzani to intervene so that I could meet some of the ISIS members detained at the counterterrorism headquarters in Erbil. He agreed.

The headquarters official gave me an office and the detainees were brought along with an interpreter when necessary.

A Chinese man, S.Q.K., told me that he came with his family from East Turkistan to Turkey and ran out of savings, but a network working there paid the cost of his transfer to Raqqa and from there to Tal Afar, where he was enrolled in the “Abu Hajar Turkistani camp” and then underwent a “religious training,” included training on the use of weapons.

He justified joining ISIS by saying that he was promised he would find a “state” that meets his aspirations, where he could live freely according to his beliefs, unlike in China. He admitted in the end that he had been "deceived" and that he had not found what he had been promised.

Kublan Ozak Hasan came from Kazakhstan and was sent to Tal Afar, where he met with Russian speakers from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Dagestan, Turkmenistan, and Chechnya. He admitted taking part in military operations, but denied committing individual killings. He expressed his disappointment that “the Baghdadi state” was different from the picture that had been portrayed to him.

R.K., an American citizen, said he studied religious sciences in Trinidad. He saw on YouTube a video of a Syrian woman bleeding in the rubble and calling on Muslims to help. He decided to come and brought along his wife, a doctor, to Turkey. There, the network was waiting for them and took them to ISIS areas, where they underwent a “religious session.”

I also met an Iraqi from Tal Afar and resident of Baghdad. He said he had joined ISIS because of “sectarian policies that targeted the Sunnis in Iraq under Maliki.” I met a Syrian from Amouda near the area of Qamishli. He said he joined the "Free Army" and when the latter was expelled, he joined ISIS to continue to fight against the regime.

ISIS did not only attract mobile fighters searching for a theater of confrontation. It also attracted narrow-minded people through images and poisonous propaganda that drew them into what they thought to be “the land of salvation and dreams.”

Therefore, it is necessary to go back to studying the phenomenon of ISIS with the announcement of the success of the international coalition over the organization and eradicating its “state.” It is necessary to reflect on the flaws that facilitated its birth and the provision of safe passage for those wishing to join it.

The fall of the “state of Baghdadi” does not mean the end of ISIS. The organization may split in the form of “dangerous wolves” who are waiting for a new haven. Its fragmentation may help al-Qaeda to inherit some of its elements. The page of military confrontations ended. A new page of security and intelligence warfare has just begun.

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