What gave rise to ISIS and how is the group holding onto power? To answer these questions, journalist, activist and political commentator Phyllis Bennis connects the dots between the fall of Iraq, the U.S. “War on Terror,” and oil.
WASHINGTON — ISIS is not a guerrilla organization that popped up out of nowhere, figured out how to hold onto territory, and take on the Iraqi and Syrian armies all by themselves, says Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive multi-issue think tank in Washington.
ISIS is powerful, she argues, because the group enjoys political and military support from the Sunni communities in Iraq that were left defenseless against the Shiite-dominated government the United States put into power following its occupation of Iraq in 2003.
“The Sunni, who are a large minority, around 20 to 25 percent, have been kind of isolated from any kind of access not only to major power but to any part of [Iraqi] society,” Bennis said in July at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant and community organizing spot in Washington.
“So there’s a great deal of antagonism towards the government, and for a lot of people there’s a sense of, ‘Look I don’t like these guys, but maybe they can be the one force that can fight back,’” she said during a discussion of her new book, “Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer,” which asks and addresses basic questions about ISIS and the U.S. “War on Terror.”
As MintPress News reported in a February analysis of the terrorist group, ISIS emerged as one of a number of Sunni organizations fighting the American occupation of Iraq.
It was reported in April 2010 that AQI’s top leaders, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, were killed by U.S. troops.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had been radicalized while imprisoned in Camp Bucca, a U.S. prison in Iraq, was appointed the new leader of the group the following month. It is at this point that Bennis launches into her exploration of the group’s power.
A diversified economy
Illustrating Phyllis Bennis’ point that ISIS has the support of former state officials, is that, unlike al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, ISIS gets its funds not only from donations from abroad, but from a diversified economy.
George Kiourktsoglou, visiting lecturer at the University of Greenwich in London, told MintPress that the group represents the next evolutionary step in global jihadism. While al-Qaida was primarily funded by donors, he said, “ISIS is a different beast.”
“ISIS does receive donations, but it’s practically a syndicate of crime bankrolling an ideology, smuggling crude oil, antiquities, human trafficking, weapons trafficking, extortion, everything you can think of,” Kiourktsoglou explained, emphasizing that ISIS’ economic strength comes from a variety of sources.
Kiourktsoglou and his colleague Alec D. Coutroubis, principal lecturer at the University of Greenwich, wrote ”ISIS Export Gateway to Global Crude Oil Markets,” a paper about one source of ISIS’ funding, smuggled oil, which is possibly being sold on the global market.
Their research into ISIS’ oil smuggling took place between July 2014 and February 2015. They looked into the extraction, transportation, and sales of oil on the black market by the terrorist group.
They found that ISIS, in the best-case scenario, is selling about 30,000 barrels of oil a day. At current market rates of approximately $50 a barrel, that equals roughly $1.65 million daily, though it is widely believed that ISIS sells oil below market rates.
Additionally, they report that oil exports from Ceyhan, Turkey, routinely spike whenever ISIS is fighting in an area that holds oil assets. Kiourktsoglou and Coutroubis wrote: “This may be attributed to an extra boost given to crude oil smuggling with the aim of immediately generating additional funds, badly needed for the supply of ammunition and military equipment.”
Al-Baghdadi and former Baath Party military support
In March, MintPress was in Lebanon, where we spoke with Ali Hashem, who had recently finished an investigative documentary about ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Hashem is the chief correspondent for Al Mayadeen, a pan-Arab news channel based in Beirut, and his investigation backed up Phyllis Bennis’ claims.
He described al-Baghdadi’s ascent to power as linear and logical. He also said that his investigation runs contrary to conspiratorial theories surrounding the organization that involve the U.S. and Israel. Facts, he said, do not support those claims.
“People, especially in the Middle East, do not want to believe they have such people among them,” Hashem told MintPress. “They always want to blame it on the West or on Israel.”
Speaking in Washington in July, Bennis also explained that ISIS gets massive military support from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army generals, who the U.S. dismissed from their positions upon occupying the country in 2003.
In a process known as “de-Baathification,” the U.S. fired everybody in the military and the civil service, she explained.
“All of these people were sent home with no job, no money, [and] no way to support their family,” she said. “And what happens, they’ve been waiting for 10 years or more to figure out a way to get back at this government that they hate, and they have become the military leaders of ISIS.”
Indeed, almost all of ISIS’ top leadership are former Iraqi officers, according to Ahmed S. Hashim, associate professor of Strategic Studies and deputy coordinator in the Military Studies Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
In a December 2014 policy paper, he wrote: “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi thus allowed Iraqis, mostly from the military and security establishments of the former Ba’thist regime, to fill in the top layers of ISIS and then of the IS.”
Likewise, an investigative report by The Independent in April explained that Baghdadi spearheaded the initiative to revive ISIS by recruiting former Baath party officials.
The newspaper reported: “Tasked with rebuilding the greatly weakened insurgent organization after 2010, Baghdadi embarked on an aggressive campaign to woo the former officers, drawing on the vast pool of men who had either remained unemployed or had joined other, less extremist insurgent groups.”
Discrimination against Sunnis
Phyllis Bennis told the audience at Busboys and Poets that it’s important to note that the Iraqi government does not simply discriminate against the Sunni minority and privilege the Shiite majority.
“It’s that their discrimination against Sunnis has been so profound that it included mass killings in the streets, the bombing of a Sunni protest camp killing who knows how many people, [and] the arrest on a massive scale of Sunni activists of various sorts,” she said, emphasizing that people have been suffering enormously at the hands of the government.
In 2014, then-Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki was forced out of office because of his radical opposition to Sunnis, as well as many of the human rights violations mentioned by Bennis. With the support of both the U.S. and Iran, Haider al-Abadi took over as prime minister. But, according to Bennis, he’s not much different than his predecessor.
“The new prime minister sort of talks a much better talk than his predecessor,” Bennis said. “But he doesn’t walk the walk,” she asserted, signaling that the reshuffling of Iraq’s government won’t make much difference to Sunnis who support ISIS out of a sense of desperation.
Institutionalized sectarianism in Iraq
The extreme sectarianism that poisons Iraq, Phyllis Bennis argues, is the result of the American occupation and its institution of a sect-based political system.
Referring to the Americans, she said: “They created a whole new political system that was based on new parties that were established not on the basis of people that had different ideas or something, but based on the basis of religious identity, sectarian identity.”
Parties were set up to represent “the Sunnis” and “the Shiites,” as if all Sunnis or all Shiites have one interest, or as if class and other issues are of little consequence.
“What it did was to institutionalize a level of sectarianism in Iraq that had not been a feature of Iraqi society for a century,” she said, “and it’s shocking that … what the U.S. puts into place is designed to divide people along sectarian lines.”
And it is precisely this political system that has led to the rise of ISIS, Bennis says. In February, she described to MintPress that three important constituencies in Iraq support ISIS, contributing to the group’s rise and empowerment. The first group is made up of Sunni generals, who lost their jobs; the second is Sunni tribal leaders, who are also angry about sectarianism; and the third is ordinary Sunnis, who are upset by ethnic cleansing, mass arrests, and neglect of basic services, such as electricity, in their communities.
American hegemony in the Middle East
As far as the U.S. is concerned, Phyllis Bennis told the audience at Busboys and Poets, conflict in the Middle East is not so much about who wins and who loses, it’s about how to maintain the United States’ position as a global superpower.
“The U.S. is supporting the Shia government in Iraq, and opposing the Shia Alawite government in Damascus,” she said. “What does that mean? How does that work?”
It’s confusing, she says, because it’s not really about which faction or which sect is in power in any particular place, it’s about maintaining U.S. power.
“The Middle East is the one part of the world where if you control the territory you can attack three continents. You can go after Africa, you can go after Asia, you can go after Europe from that very strategic place,” she said.
Referring to Syria, Iraq and Yemen, she urges vigilant thinking about the situations in those countries, which she says are more than civil wars between the government and opposition forces.
“There’s a bunch of ways in which the wars that are being fought right now have far less to do with the people of Syria, the people of Iraq, [and] the people of Saudi Arabia, than it does about elites fighting it out,” Bennis said.
She gave as an example that part of what’s going on in Syria relates to a conflict between the U.S. and Russia over the control of sea lanes and naval bases.
Disarming the US and its allies
In order to figure out what can be done not only to stop ISIS but also U.S. militarism in the Middle East and all over the world, Phyllis Bennis urges that people ask one critical question: “Who benefits?”
The answer, according to Bennis, is the CEOs of the corporations that produce the bullets, the bombers, the planes, the drones and the bombs that are used in these wars.
“They’re making a killing, literally,” commented Andy Shallal, the moderator of last month’s discussion and owner of Busboys and Poets.
According to an Institute for Policy Studies study of war profiteers between the years of 2001 and 2004, following the onset of the Iraq War, CEOs at defense manufacturers in the U.S. raked in a 200-percent pay raise while their counterparts at average large companies averaged 7 percent.
One CEO, David H. Brooks of DHB Industries, got a 3,349-percent pay raise between those years, when the company was manufacturing what were supposed to be bulletproof vests for American troops. His pay in 2004 was $70 million.
“Some might argue that Brooks is worth every penny if his products are saving lives in Iraq. But in May, the Marine Corps recalled 5,277 DHB Interceptor armored vests after questions were raised about the vests’ ability to stop 9-mm pistol rounds. By that time, Brooks had personally pocketed $250 million-plus in war windfalls,” wrote Sarah Anderson, the author of the IPS report.
Brooks has since been sentenced to 17 years in prison for insider trading, fraud, lying to auditors, and obstruction of justice.
Bennis says it is the war profiteers who work for Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and other defense contractors who need to be called out. They need to be “named and shamed,” she urged.
People need to call Congress, she says, but first and foremost there needs to be outreach to the mainstream public to educate everyday citizens about what’s really going on.
“That means we have to be writing letters to the editor, calling into radio talk shows, doing all the stuff that you think, ‘Oh my God, do I have to do that again?’ The answer is, yes you do,” she said.
“We have to reach people in the schools,” she continued. “We need to change the curriculum of how our children are educated so they grow up looking at what role the U.S. could play as a bastion of disarmament, not just non-proliferation, starting with our own arms, our own disarmament.”
As far as disarming ISIS and creating a more stable situation in the Middle East overall, Phyllis Bennis argues that Washington has to take to heart the Hippocratic Oath, which states, “First, do no harm.”
President Obama said last year: “There is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.”
Referring to this statement, Bennis says the U.S. should make good on this claim and stop trying to find military solutions to the problems in the Middle East. She argues that the U.S. should withdraw the troops, stop the drones, and put an end to everything that’s killing and antagonizing people in the region.
The U.S. also needs to return to diplomacy, she says. While that doesn’t necessarily mean talking to ISIS, it means talking to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Turkey, and everyone else who is allied with the U.S. and selling weapons to various opposition forces, including ISIS and al-Qaida, she added.
“You need to have serious negotiations with those people to say, … ‘We need an arms embargo. We need to stop flooding the region with arms,’” she said.
If that happens, she says, the U.S. can then go to Russia and Iran, and tell them to stop arming the Assad government in Syria. But until then, she concludes, the U.S. has no credibility when negotiating with those powers.