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The Powers Behind The Islamic State

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. We’re continuing our coverage of the ongoing turmoil in Iraq. Now with the rise of the extremist group the Islamic State, the drums of war in Iraq are beating louder and louder in the mainstream press.

I’m pleased to welcome our guest, Nafeez Ahmed, to help us put things in perspective. Nafeez is a best-selling author, investigative journalist, and international security scholar who writes regularly for The Guardian. He has a new novel out called Zero Point, which he says anticipated the Iraq crisis that’s going on right now. Thanks for joining us, Nafeez.


DESVARIEUX: So, Nafeez, there’s ISIL, there’s ISIS, there’s the Islamic State–IS some people are calling it. But they’re all the same group, right? Can you sort of give us a sense of the evolution of this extremist group and how they get started?

AHMED: Well, the origins of the group come from militant groups affiliated to al-Qaeda that are operating in Iraq and Syria. And that’s where it gets murky, because, as we know, these groups were kind of engaged in all kinds of militant activity fighting the Assad regime. They were also active in responding to U.S. occupation after the 2003 invasion. So there’s a mix of different actors involved.

So in Iraq we had elements of even the Ba’ath party and ex-Saddam supporters who were actually–according to many reports, they were being recruited by these al-Qaeda militants. And in Syria we had this increasing kind of–the borders of separation between the Iraqi troops and the Syria groups, it became increasingly much more porous, because they were fighting back and forth, they were crossing borders.

And what makes it more murky is how these groups really became as kind of virulent and kind of influential as they have, which is really the kind of–you know, you follow the money. And you follow the money, we’re looking at the involvement of the Gulf states, which have really empowered these groups over time and increased their ability to operate. They’ve increased their arms, logistical trading. So we’ve had the Saudis engaged in funding these groups in Syria.

DESVARIEUX: Do we have proof of this?

AHMED: We have absolute proof. I mean, it’s really a matter of public record. It’s come out from–you’ve got a range of different forms of evidence, from documents produced by Westpoint military analysts to investigative reports by journalists on the ground writing for publications like The New York Times, Washington Post. So it’s very clear. And we’ve had semiofficial and official confirmations from the CIA, from people in the State Department, other people in the Pentagon, even from British officials that have been involved in coordinating the Gulf states and supplying these kinds of virulent groups that we know are affiliated to al-Qaeda to basically topple Assad.

And that’s obviously had a direct blowback effect in Iraq, because these very same groups that were being supported are now streaming across the border, and they’ve now formed this kind of breakaway group, which is styled off as ISIS or ISIL or whatever and now have called themselves the Islamic State. And what makes it really more disturbing is, going deeper into that evidence of the role of the Saudis and the Qataris and Kuwait, which has been confirmed by various different sources, is really the way in which the U.S. and the U.K. have overseen that process. And that’s something which isn’t so much acknowledged in the mainstream, that actually Britain and the United States were involved in knowingly kind of facilitating the support to these groups, despite knowing their links to al-Qaeda calling back as early as 2009.

DESVARIEUX: Wow. How did they support these groups?

AHMED: So we had–you must remember the big batch of files that was obtained by WikiLeaks from the private intelligence company Strategic Forecasting, Stratfor.


AHMED: So that batch of files contains some really interesting correspondence, including correspondence where some senior executives at Stratfor were describing meetings that they had had with senior Pentagon officials and senior U.S. army officials where those officials openly described how U.S. special forces and British special forces had been operating in Syria long before the kind of major, major civil unrest that kind of really broke out, and they had been operating in kind of supporting these groups. And it was very clearly stated by these officers at the time–and the emails are there, people can check them out, and I’ve written about them in some of my Guardian articles and some of my other articles elsewhere–that they quite explicitly said that this is about destabilizing the Assad regime from within. They had even explored the possibility of airstrikes on targets. But the favored policy was using these groups as a proxy force to destabilize Assad’s regime.

DESVARIEUX: Remind us again: why do they want to destabilize Assad so badly?

AHMED: So there’s a lot of different kind of ways of looking at this, and I think it’s difficult to kind of pinpoint which one is necessarily the most important one. But one of the ones that I focused on is the role that Assad has played in kind of cozying up to Russia, allowing Russia to kind of develop a foothold in the region. And that’s kind of tied to this increasing pipeline geopolitics in the region. So you’ve got this interesting kind of geopolitical jockeying over pipelines running across Syria from this field that is a kind of disputed field that Iran has access to and also Qatar has access to. Now, the exact border of that field is a little bit disputed, and both Iran and Qatar have been trying to kickstart ways to get that field into production. The pipelines would cross Syria and they would basically, ideally, supply Europe. It’s a very ambitious project.

Some people have raised lots of questions about whether these projects are really just pipedreams, in a sense. You know, are they viable, really, given the politics of the region? And this kind of stuff has been going on for years. They’ve been discussing these kind of ideas. But there was definitely real efforts to get these projects kind of off the table. So Iran signed a memorandum with Syria. Qatar had been having real negotiations with Saudi and Turkey and other countries. So these were kind of two competing pipeline routes. And, obviously, the U.S. favored the one which would involve Qatar and it wasn’t very happy with the one that involved Iran and kind of would favor Russia. The United States has for long time wanted to ensure that it kind of sidelines Russia and Iran in all of these various pipeline projects. So when Iran signed this kind of memorandum with Assad, that was kind of considered like a major kind of strategic setback, and something kind of needed to be done.

And apart from that, there were also many other–there was generally other kind of geopolitical issues apart from the fact that Russia has a military base there. There’s also issues such as the role that Assad has played in relation to the Middle East conflict, the support that they’ve provided to Hamas, their relationship with the Iranians, and that whole general thing. So there’s this general perception of Syria being this part of the so-called axis of evil in a way. You know. So the whole pipeline thing kind of accelerated that fear, I think, and made them want to do something. And they had a lot of indications that with different crises that Syria is going through domestically–economic crisis, there was a widespread drought due to climate change that was accelerating–and we even have State Department cables, also leaked by WikiLeaks, where literally we have State Department officials talking about how there is going to be civil unrest in Syria very soon, very likely, because of food prices and the strain on food due to these droughts and due to the effect on farmers. So they knew something was going to kick off in Syria. They knew that there was going to be popular–kind of popular uprising of some kind. And it seems that they planned to kind of exploit that, to get some of these jihadist guys in there, hijack that movement, direct it in a way that they felt that they could control. But, of course, as we’ve seen, it’s kind of gone out of control.

DESVARIEUX: It is out of control. And, I mean, I actually have been personally affected by some of this, because I shared on the program earlier than I lost my friend, Jim Foley. He was a journalist who was covering the Syrian conflict. And these men who beheaded him–let’s not mince words here–they’re not good guys. I mean, these are extremists, fanatics that are distorting Islam to rise to power. And there are going to be folks out there who are going to say, you know what, Nafeez, we need to figure out a way to stop these guys. You know, we’re hearing more aggressive language by politicians saying that we–possibly even boots on the ground, things of that nature. So there’s sort of this impulse to use aggression in order to combat some of this. What would you say to folks like that based on the context?

AHMED: Well, the first thing, I think that is very important to grasp: the role that our governments have played in fomenting the crisis that we see. The rise of ISIS was kind of predictable, and it’s something that some analysts–analysts have warned about civil war in Iraq for years. I guess the accelerated nature of what we’re seeing, most people haven’t anticipated that, but it was predictable. And when we look at the way in which we’ve been funding some of these groups, it’s kind of ironic that we have the very same people now calling for boots on the ground, calling for a response, are the same people that have been very loud in their support for arming some of the most virulent of elements of these rebel groups. And even though the Obama administration, for instance, has given a lot of lip service, saying that we only want to fund, you know, the kind of moderate rebels and so on and so forth–but the Obama administration has actively coordinated the financing that has come from the Gulf states to the very types of groups that they historically have always favored, which is the most virulent jihadist al-Qaeda affiliated organizations. So there is a contradiction here in what we’re being told now and the way in which policymakers have kind of created this crisis and now not taken responsibility for this crisis.

And there is an argument to be made, I think–and it’s unclear to–you know, I wouldn’t put this forward as a kind of a firm interpretation of what’s happening, ’cause I think there are many different actors and many different interests at play, but if we look at some of the reports that we’ve had over the last few years of the plans for the region, there are certainly elements in the Pentagon of a neoconservative persuasion who have seen the rise of this kind of group in a way as a boon to reconfigure the Middle East. Now, the evidence for that comes from a range of quite credible sources. So one of the sources I looked at was a publicly available RAND report that was published a couple of years. It was commissioned by the U.S. army. And it was a kind of a thought piece. It was a policy briefing. It was looking at policy options for the United States in essentially reconfiguring the Middle East and exploring how to counter terrorism. But those policy options were pretty Machiavellian in some ways, very, very–I mean, obviously there were strategic calculations and the overarching objective, ostensibly, was countering terrorism. But what they proposed to do was very worrying. There were various there was a range of scenarios that were explored. One of them was divide-and-rule, openly talking about empowering Salafi jihadists to some extent in order to kind of weaken Iranian influence, openly talking about empowering, using the Gulf states, because they have access to the petroleum resources, so using them to kind of funnel support to these groups that would eventually create kind of like a vortex of intra-Muslim conflict that would get terrorists and extremists on different sides fighting each other, that would weaken all of them and allow U.S. interests and Israeli interests to kind of consolidate their own kind of security while these guys are fighting amongst themselves.

So here we see, you know, when you have these kind of very shortsighted geopolitical kind of concepts about how to obtain a victory against counterterrorism, you can kind of see where it leads you up this really dangerous garden path, thinking that we’re going to solve this problem by funding these groups. So if we look at what’s happening now, look at how this funding has happened, and we look at the RAND reports, for example, you get a pretty clear indication that some of that policy seems to have been at play to some extent. How far it’s gone and to what extent no one can know. It’s speculation. But that’s what worries me, that you’ve got this kind of hubris that we can do this, we know what we’re doing. It’s the same hubris that we saw with the neocons after 9/11, pre-Iraq War, post-Iraq War, the same hubris of running in to the Middle East, reconfiguring the region.

You know, another piece of evidence that I thought was quite disturbing that I’ve written about the past was the 2005–these maps from 2005 in the arms Armed Forces Journal, where a senior adviser to the Pentagon responsible at that time for kind of future planning in kind of warfare was proposing that the Middle East be broken up along ethnic and religious lines to create a more peaceful Middle East. So again you see this thread of thinking which–again, it’s imperial hubris, really, to think that–you know, whether it’s kind of motivated by good reasons or not, it’s the same kind of colonial mentality we saw with the British, that we’ll go in, we’ll redraw the borders, we’ll kind of tame the savages. So I’m concerned that that’s the kind of mentality that we’ve seen. So talking about military intervention and boots on the ground now in that context is very worrying, because are we seeing that our interests are actually being kind of merged with that kind of imperial hubris?

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. But, Nafeez, then what do we do? Because some people are saying, these groups are out of control, you’re just going to get more chaos, more people are going to die. What do you do? In this situation, how do we handle this?

AHMED: This is a difficult question, because when you’re faced with that juggernaut of a military-industrial complex that we don’t quite understand, it’s very opaque, and we don’t know where they’re going, we don’t know how they’re fomenting things, it’s difficult to say what the answer is. The answer is certainly not to very simply just put boots on the ground and start blowing people up, because we’ve done that. We did that in Falluja. We do not have our militaries–and I’m talking about the British military, the U.S. military–we do not have a great track record of doing counterinsurgency war. When we do counterinsurgency war, we tend to demonize the entire civilian population. And what’s happening now in Iraq is the Islamic State has gone into Iraq, the so-called Islamic State has gone into Iraq in the context of a repressive U.S.-backed regime, which was presided over by Maliki, which basically has pursued very ethnic sectarian policies. It’s overseen mismanagement, economic mismanagement, mismanagement of oil production and all kinds of stuff. And that’s really created this groundswell of opposition to, obviously, the U.S., obviously to the existing government. It’s created disillusionment with the existing political process. And that’s given, you know, that’s created the recruiting sergeant, really, for these guys to come in. So you go to somewhere like Falluja, and they’ve been [incompr.] we’ve not seen it in the mainstream press, but they’ve been–long before ISIS came in or the Islamic State came in, we had uprisings in Falluja.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah, definitely, definitely. We covered that here. But then what do we do, Nafeez? I mean, I’m going to push you on this a little bit.

AHMED: So what to do?


AHMED: On the one hand, I think the first thing is, do we–in terms of–like, we need to cut off the source. So there’s been a lot of press reports about the Islamic State have basically got in and they’ve looted cities and they’ve got loads of money and they’re kind of self funding, and I’ve got no doubt that they were looting cities and they’ve boosted their economic power. But the fact is is that what’s been kind of suppressed by that kind of what–I would say kind of somewhat banal reporting, which actually has relied on some questionable anonymous sources, what they’ve not looked at is that money trail which is coming from the Gulf states.

We have abundant evidence, the U.S. military has abundant evidence–the State Department’s been tracking this for years, so has the FBI–we know very well where the funding is coming from. That funding is coming from the Gulf states. We have not moved to stop that funding. Since 9/11, there have been political obstacles, bureaucratic obstacles, and intelligence officials, very sincere guys who’ve been tracking this have been complaining that we’ve been blocking that for political reasons, blocking real action to cut that down. So the regulatory mechanisms to sort that out have been–they’re not being pursued. And that’s on the British scene, on the American scene, on the European scene. So that needs to be done. Where’s the will to stop that? And why has it not being stopped? If wedon’t stop these guys, why are we not doing that? So that raises a fundamental question: if we’re not willing to cut off the source of funding for these kind of movements, that raises questions about what we’re doing. So that would be the first step, I would say.

Second step, I would say we need to be looking at how to make Iraqi democracy genuinely robust. At the moment, our interests are in focusing on accessing the oil. I mean, that’s literally what our reconstruction has been all about. It’s been about folks protecting the oil industry, getting that oil production going, playing off the Kurds against the Maliki government, and so on and so forth, trying to facilitate American contracts, getting production to kind of kickstart overall to many different oil companies, whether they’re American or not, so that we can get oil prices down. That’s been the focus. It’s not been about the Iraqi people. It’s not been about democracy and participation. If we can enfranchise the existing population and play that slightly long-term game, then we can cut off ISIS’s support, and they won’t be able to have that juggernaut of power and support, ’cause it’s that–guerrilla warfare needs the civilian population to kind of begin to start supporting them. If we can cut that off, I think we can really sort things out in Iraq. But, again, the will to do that isn’t there. It’s very shortsighted.

The airstrikes, a lot of analysts point have pointed out that the airstrikes we’ve had have not really been about even dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. It’s been about–very narrowly focused on protecting our interests in the Kurdish oil region. So, again, if that intervention’s going to be on the table, we need to be looking at how that intervention is couched and what are the interests of that intervention. Is this really going to be about sorting out the population of Iraq and taking responsibility for the mess that we’ve created and doing something about it? Or is this another shortsighted, narrow-interested kind of operation? So if we want to talk about that debate and people are going to talk about it, that’s what it should be about, really.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah, and that’s a debate we want to keep here at The Real News. Nafeez Ahmed, thank you so much for joining us in the studio.

AHMED: Thanks.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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