The New Caliph: Just Another Broadway Joe

Baghdadi profile

I’ll see you in New York” was the parting comment of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the newly announced Islamic State (IS), to his American hosts at Camp Bucca in 2009. He was a nobody then, but since his release, Baghdadi has worked very hard to lead IS back from the graveyard to current relevance. His organization recently grabbed the world’s attention by taking as much Iraqi territory as the American-led coalition did in 2003, in much less time and with little fanfare. Baghdadi’s parting words must have brought a smile to his captor’s face, but they are less funny now.

The humor is lost on a country tired of war and bewildered that this particular jihadist problem has resurfaced. By our departure in 2011, U.S. and Iraqi Special Operations Forces had killed or captured 34 out of 42 leaders of the group formerly known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Violence was at a post-2003 low, oil was moving steadily into record production, and all three Iraqi sects were involved in the political game — so much so that in 2010 a Shia politician backed by Sunnis almost won a political majority. Things seemed to be headed in the right direction.

This drastic rewrite of the screenplay for the American project in Iraq is enough to encourage many to think about letting Iraq deal with what could be called the third Iraq war on their own. This would be a mistake. The return of IS is a significant setback to our national interests in the Middle East and will eventually be a direct threat to our homeland. To understand why, we need to look closely at a group that we have fought since 2003 but don’t seem to understand very well.

IS’s origins were in Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Salafi jihadist organization that enlisted with Al Qaeda in 2004. From its roots, it has always been a tightly controlled military organization with a penchant for spectacular attacks, a black-and-white categorization of enemies and friends, a unique ideology derived from their Salafi roots, and a highly functioning media arm. Zarqawi’s logistics genius facilitated a continuous flow of foreign fighters and waves of car bombs. More uniquely, the group specialized in attacking Shia religious targets and civilians in a genocidal campaign that is now in its 11th year. If you are shocked by the recent slaughter of hundreds of captured Iraqi Shia soldiers, you have not been paying attention.

This history of IS is important because despite fears by informed commentators that the group would learn from its failures, IS continues the very same patterns. The notions of implementing an extreme interpretation of Sharia law remain, as witnessed in Mosul. The slaughter of the Shia population continues, as does the sectarian taunting in statements and videos. Analysts contend that this is strategic and therefore primarily instrumental in nature, designed to provoke a Shia response. But this isn’t the case. The leaders of IS have always categorized the Shia as the real enemy to a caliphate. If you disagree, ask yourself what 11 years of sectarian targeting has accomplished for AQI/ISIS, and then look at the videos of the killings and see for yourself the joy ISIS killers exhibit when they kill their Shia rivals. Look at this eulogy for a Saudi fighter named Abu Harira to understand how targeting the Shia has become a mark of high honor in the organization. This pathology has alienated many would be IS allies and eventually fueled its rift with Al Qaeda Central itself. On the other hand, IS atrocities against Shia targets in Iraq and in Syria has had a devastating impact on the level of sectarian tensions all over the region, and could hamper any political resolution in Baghdad.

The United States has three major national interests in helping Iraq to turn back IS. First, the stability of Iraq, much more than Afghanistan, has always been an important economic interest of not just the United States but of the growing energy consumers of the East. Second, the jihadists in Iraq have the potential to destabilize not only our partners in the region, but also European populations vulnerable to radicalization. Finally, we have a minor crisis in maintaining the credibility of the United States. Iraq is an ally for us in the fight against the extremist jihadist movement. Alliances and friendships matter, and if we fail to help Iraq, our friends in Europe and Southeast Asia will take notice. Our allies don’t expect us to fight Russia over Ukraine, but they do expect us to act when shared vital interests are threatened.

The United States, with the help of many Sunni tribes and the Iraq government, was able to diminish the capabilities of IS in the past in order to enable the Iraq people to put their country back together. For a variety of reasons, this situation has degraded to a point more dangerous than 2006-7. The ideology of IS is now triumphant, and has serious momentum. This is an ideology as seductive as the last one we faced during the Cold War. Its march across the globe is facilitated not only by evangelism and proselytizing, but more importantly, by the power of the gun. It is in America’s interest to stem this growing jihadist threat in areas that we care about and where we have the ability to act.

We have committed great resources to denying Al Qaeda a sanctuary in Afghanistan. What we have failed to realize is that an actual state, not a simple sanctuary, has developed in IS-controlled areas in Syria and Iraq. If we think European fighters radicalized by the Internet are a problem now, wait until the youth of IS schools graduate and are exported as part of a new wave of terror. Despite assurances that IS is a regionally focused group, a quick look at its slick media productions reveal much larger ambitions.

That ambition is alive in Baghdadi. IS has always thought bigger than other terror groups. Zarqawi’s first targets in Iraq in 2003 were not Americans, but the United Nations and a key Shia religious leader. He forced several countries to abandon the coalition through terror attacks and even directed attacks in Jordan while fighting in Iraq. In addition to slaughtering pilgrims by the hundreds, AQI/IS was able to capture, torture, and kill American soldiers twice during the war. Even before their recent success in the Sunni areas of Iraq, this group had begun to eclipse their former parent organization, Al Qaeda Central. This is an exceptionally capable group with an unlimited imagination and one critical vulnerability – their tendency to overreach within their own Sunni community.

Today the organization has stretched itself thin by taking large portions of Iraq and is vulnerable to counterattack. Its logistical element is not prepared to support this unexpected breakout, and its erstwhile allies — Sunni insurgent groups and certain tribes — have seen this game before. These allies know their role in a future Islamic State is non-existent. Like the Awakening before them, they are waiting for an opportunity to strike. The United States was wise enough to exploit such an opportunity in the past, and can do so again. This time, there can be no backsliding by an Iraqi government more focused on short-term politicking and power consolidation and the U.S. is again the only one who can play the role of an honest broker.

If we fail to act, the Iraqis who will live under the rule of the Islamic State will continue to suffer. The lack of trade and oil will cause the Sunni portion of Iraq to crumble into economic catastrophe. Ethnic minorities and so-called apostate Muslims will be exterminated, if they fail to repent and convert. If you doubt this, read what AQI/IS has said numerous times in the past (here, here, and here). Finally, the remaining Awakening members, people we made promises to, will be wiped out.

IS surprises are just beginning. A group that recently split with the aging rock star jihadists of Al Qaeda and killed its emissary to Syria has very little restraint in its playbook. Its organizational culture provides the emir with wide discretion in determining who is an enemy and what to do with them. IS is truly an enemy worthy of our mobilization and its targeting would be in our national interest. If we fail to act here, then we should at least be prepared to take the secretive but still very dramatic Baghdadi at his word: “See you in New York…”


Craig Whiteside is a former Army officer and Iraq War veteran who is currently a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College at Monterey. He can be reached at @CraigAWhiteside on Twitter.