Is ISIS an American proxy?

Adnan Khan from the Revolution Observer questions whether ISIS could be a US proxy.

Janes intel­li­gence, the pres­ti­gious global secu­rity firm released new data recently that high­lighted the num­ber of oper­a­tions con­ducted by ISIS and the Bashar al-Assad regime. It found around 64% of ver­i­fi­able ISIS attacks in Syria this year (21 Novem­ber 2013 –21 Novem­ber 2014) tar­geted other rebel groups. Just 13% of ISIS attacks dur­ing the same period tar­geted al-Assad’s forces. It also found al-Assad’s counter-t­er­ror­ism oper­a­tions, more than two-thirds of which were airstrikes, skewed heav­ily towards groups whose names were not ISIS. Of 982 coun­tert­er­ror­ism oper­a­tions for the year, just 6% directly tar­geted ISIS.[1]

ISIS actions ever since its emer­gence has led to much sus­pi­cion of coor­di­na­tion between them and the Syr­ian regime. At RO we con­tinue to receive numer­ous ques­tions on the pos­si­bil­ity of ISIS being a US proxy and the sus­pi­cion of col­lu­sion between ISIS and the al-Assad regime. Due to this we thought it would be a good time to analyse such claims, espe­cially now that empir­i­cal evi­dence exists of ISIS and al-Assad’s forces mainly avoid­ing each other.

Origins of ISIS

The ori­gin of ISIS is rather murky and is prob­a­bly the rea­son many have sus­pi­cions over them. All of the senior lead­ers of ISIS were gathered in Camp Bucca in 2004 in the midst of the insur­gency against coali­tion troops dur­ing the Iraq war. The Guardian con­ducted an exclu­sive and lengthy insight into ISIS on 11 Decem­ber 2014 and inter­viewed senior ISIS com­man­ders. ISIS com­man­der, Abu Ahmed confirmed the US-run prison pro­vided an extra­or­di­nary oppor­tu­nity. “We could never have all got together like this in Bagh­dad, or anywhere else. It would have been impos­si­bly dan­ger­ous. Here, we were not only safe, but we were only a few hun­dred metres away from the entire al-Qaida lead­er­ship.”[2]

The previous images of al Baghdadi have matched his most recent images.
The previous images of al Baghdadi have matched his most recent images.

Abu Ahmed explained how Camp Bucca was organ­ised. Most of Baghdadi’s fel­low pris­on­ers – some 24,000 men, were divided into 24 camps. The prison was run along strictly hier­ar­chi­cal lines, down to a Teletubbies-like uni­form colour scheme which allowed jail­ers and cap­tives alike to recog­nise each detainee’s place in the peck­ing order. As ISIS ram­paged through the region, it has been led by men who spent time in US deten­tion cen­tres dur­ing the Amer­i­can occu­pa­tion of Iraq. Accord­ing to Hisham al-Hashimi, the Baghdad-based ana­lyst, the Iraqi gov­ern­ment esti­mates that 17 of the 25 most impor­tant Islamic State lead­ers run­ning the war in Iraq and Syria spent time in US pris­ons between 2004 and 2011.[3]

By Decem­ber 2004, Bagh­dadi was deemed by his jail­ers to pose no fur­ther risk and his release was autho­rised. “He was respected very much by the US army,” Abu Ahmed said. “If he wanted to visit peo­ple in another camp he could, but we couldn’t.[4] Effec­tively in prison, all of ISIS’s princes were meet­ing reg­u­larly. The most impor­tant peo­ple in Bucca were those who had been close to Zar­qawi. But the question remains how ISIS shifted from a a gang in prison to the world’s pre­mier mil­i­tant organisation?

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This is where Sad­dam Hussain’s Ba’athists came into the equa­tion, who lost every­thing when Sad­dam was ousted. By 2008 meet­ings between those who would form ISIS and the Ba’athists became fre­quent. In the Guardian insight Abu Ahmed, a senior com­man­der of ISIS con­firmed: “these meetings had become far more fre­quent – and many of them were tak­ing place in Syria.”[5] Bashar al-Assad has a long his­tory of arm­ing and sup­port­ing Jihadi groups, for its own strate­gic inter­ests.

ISIS and the Assad regime

In May 2006, the US Depart­ment of Defence quar­terly report, titled “Measuring Sta­bil­ity and Secu­rity in Iraq,” out­lined: “…. Syria continues to pro­vide safe haven, bor­der tran­sit, and lim­ited logis­ti­cal sup­port to some Iraqi insur­gents, espe­cially for­mer Saddam-era Iraqi Baath Party ele­ments. Syria also per­mits for­mer regime ele­ments to engage in orga­ni­za­tional activ­i­ties, such that Syria has emerged as an impor­tant orga­ni­za­tional and coor­di­na­tion hub for ele­ments of the for­mer Iraqi regime. Although Syr­ian secu­rity and intel­li­gence ser­vices con­tinue to detain and deport Iraq-bound fight­ers, Syria remains the primary for­eign fighter gate­way into Iraq…” [6]

Syrian president Bashar al Assad
Syrian president Bashar al Assad

There is more damn­ing evi­dence of Syr­ian regime-ISIS col­lu­sion. The Guardian inter­viewed Major Gen­eral Hus­sein Ali Kamal, the direc­tor of intel­li­gence in Iraq, reg­u­larly, until his death in early 2014. One of his duties was to secure Bagh­dad against ter­ror attacks. Kamal, who was diag­nosed with can­cer in 2012 and died ear­lier this year, autho­rised the Guardian jour­nal­ist to pub­lish details of their con­ver­sa­tions. The Guardian jour­nal­ist con­firmed when he first met Kamal in 2009, he was por­ing over tran­scripts of record­ings that had been made at two secret meet­ings in Zabadani, near Dam­as­cus, in the spring of 2009. Kemal con­firmed in his inter­view with the Guardian that Iraqi jihadists, Syr­ian offi­cials and Ba’athists from both coun­tries from Iraq and Syria were brought together: “We had a source in the room wear­ing a wire at the meet­ing in Zabadani. He is the most sen­si­tive source we have ever had. As far as we know, this is the first time there has been a strate­gic level meet­ing between all of these groups. It marks a new point in his­tory.”[7]

In March 2010, Iraqi forces, arrested an ISIS leader named Munaf Abdul Rahim al-Rawi, who was revealed to be one of the group’s main com­man­ders in Bagh­dad, and one of the very few peo­ple who had access to the group’s then leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Iraq’s three main intel­li­gence bod­ies, con­spired to get a lis­ten­ing device and GPS loca­tion tracker in a flower box deliv­ered to Abu Omar’s hide­out. Abu Omar’s hide­out had no inter­net con­nec­tions or tele­phone lines – all impor­tant mes­sages were car­ried in and out by only three men. One of them was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The deaths of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri vacated posi­tions that were quickly filled by the alumni of Camp Bucca – whose upper eche­lons had begun prepar­ing for this moment since their time in  jail in south­ern Iraq. “For us it was an acad­emy,” Abu Ahmed said, “but for them” – the senior lead­ers – “it was a man­age­ment school. There wasn’t a void at all, because so many peo­ple had been men­tored in prison. [8]

The capture of Mosul

ISIS rise to infamy was its con­quest of Mosul. Mosul, Iraq’s largest city after Bagh­dad is the provin­cial cap­i­tal and boasts a pop­u­la­tion of around 1.8 mil­lion. The maths was sim­ple. The Iraqi army had 250,000 troops, its enemy, ISIS, had some­where around 1,500. The Iraqi army had tanks, planes, and Amer­i­can train­ing. ISIS had never fielded a tank or a plane. In Mosul two army divi­sions were sta­tioned in Mosul. This was around 30,000 troops, there were also 10,000 fed­eral police, 30,000 local police and likely, some Iran­ian Al Quds Force officers. The ques­tion is how a force 15 times larger than the 1,500 indi­vid­u­als ISIS could muster defeated?

Iraqi army offi­cials were aware of an impend­ing attack by ISIS. Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Mahdi Gharawi, the oper­a­tional com­man­der of Nin­eveh province, of which Mosul is the cap­i­tal, con­firmed in mul­ti­ple inter­views that in late May 2014, Iraqi secu­rity forces arrested seven mem­bers of ISIS in Mosul and learned the group planned an offen­sive on the city in early June. Gharawi, asked Prime Min­is­ter Nuri al-Maliki’s most trusted com­man­ders for rein­force­ments. Senior offi­cers scoffed at the request. [9]

ISIS controls Iraq's second largest city Mosul
ISIS controls Iraq’s second largest city Mosul

The attack on Mosul began on 6 June 2014, ISIS attacked Mosul from the north­west in con­voys of pickup trucks. Bat­tles inside the city proceeded for 3 days until sol­diers deserted and fled.  There are how­ever many sol­diers and secu­rity per­son­nel, who in inter­views con­firmed, they did not desert — they were ordered to with­draw.  Amir al-Saadi, a sol­dier from one of the Iraqi Army’s divi­sions in Mosul outlined what hap­pened: “The army with­drew from Mosul and that with­drawal is the respon­si­bil­ity of the senior com­man­ders. The officer in charge was sit­ting in his office when I came in with some other sol­diers. He told us he had received orders to with­draw from the city as quickly as pos­si­ble. When he said that, we really thought he was jok­ing. But he wasn’t. So we went out and told the oth­ers about the orders. That was when we started leav­ing the base, after chang­ing out of our uni­forms into civil­ian clothes.” [10]

Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Mahdi Gharawi confirmed only three peo­ple could have given the final order: Aboud Qan­bar, at the time the defence ministry’s deputy chief of staff; Ali Ghaidan, then com­man­der of the ground forces; or Maliki him­self, who per­son­ally directed his most senior offi­cers from Baghdad. The secret of who decided to aban­don Mosul, Gharawi says, lies with these three men. Gharawi says a deci­sion by Ghaidan and Qan­bar to leave Mosul’s west­ern bank sparked mass deser­tions as sol­diers assumed their com­man­ders had fled.

All the evi­dence points towards Mosul not being deserted, but orders being received by sol­diers to leave the city, but also to leave their equip­ment behind. Malaki, since he emerged as Iraq’s pre­mier, con­sol­i­dated and cen­tralised all the key min­istries and depart­ments into his per­sonal office, there­fore the deci­sion to aban­don the city could only have come from Malaki him­self. This would weaken his stand­ing con­sid­er­ably in Iraq and especially from his Shi’a sup­port base. He would only have done this if the pres­sure came from the US, as no-one had so much influ­ence to force Malaki into a decision such as this. ISIS has frac­tured the insur­gency in Syria through its actions since its announce­ment of a so-called “Caliphate”. The weapons and equip­ment and money attained from Mosul were the cat­a­lyst for this.

ISIS’ Caliphate

ISIS’s actions ever since it announced its “Caliphate” has caused a frac­ture in rebel unity. This is because the ISIS state is pred­i­cated on an exclu­sion­ary method of gov­er­nance. ISIS main­tains social con­trol by elim­i­nat­ing all resis­tance. Many reports com­ing out from Mosul and in Syria are of descent being dealt with through pun­ish­ments, includ­ing death. Bagh­dadi said the fol­low­ing about the Shi’a: “Al Qaeda wants to forge links with the Shi­ites. They think the Shi­ites are their broth­ers even though they make tak­fir on all the sahabah and they believe the Quran is cor­rupted. Yet al Qaeda wants to forge links with them. When Isis takes a town either you leave shism or die. Isis cannot take jizya from them. They are a newly invented reli­gion so no jizya can be taken from them.”

Imple­ment­ing Islam includes their under­stand­ing of the creed and as a result many have been accused of apos­tasy for tak­ing dif­fer­ent posi­tions to them. Based on this, courts have been set up and any oppo­si­tion to ISIS rule or ver­dicts has been viewed as rebel­lion and has seen indi­vid­u­als and groups pun­ished with exe­cu­tion. When all the rebel groups were fight­ing the al-Assad regime and launch­ing attacks on Dam­as­cus, ISIS focused on con­quer­ing ter­ri­tory, rather than fight­ing the al-Assad regime.

ISIS fighters in Iraq
ISIS fighters in Iraq

Many have long sus­pected col­lu­sion between al-Assad and ISIS. Analy­sis of the JTIC data­base on a regional level showed that there were 238 coun­tert­er­ror­ism oper­a­tions in Aleppo for the year through Nov. 21 — but just 14 of those tar­geted ISIS. In the ISIS strong­hold of Raqqa, there were 22 coun­tert­er­ror­ism oper­a­tions but just half tar­geted ISIS. ISIS have spent most of the last few months fight­ing in Kobani, which has very lit­tle strate­gic value and has zero al-Assad regime pres­ence, rather than fac­ing off in Aleppo which is under intense regime attack.


Yusuf Abu Abdul­lah, one of the lead­ers of the Al-Mujaheddin Army in Aleppo, said when his fight­ers have attacked regime bases, they have come under sep­a­rate attacks from ISIS. That’s forced them to with­draw and bat­tle ISIS instead of Assad’s forces. Assad’s air force not tar­get­ing the large camps oper­ated by ISIS in sev­eral parts of the coun­try, has been con­stantly pointed out by those on the receiv­ing end of air attacks[11] and many defec­tors from the al-Assad army have pointed out sev­eral field com­man­ders of ISIS were for­mer mil­i­tary or intel­li­gence offi­cers of the Syr­ian army. Oil and gas sales between ISIS and the al-Assad regime has also been a reg­u­lar occurrence. [12]

The US incur­sion back into Iraq and then to Syria has been very dubi­ous. ISIS started from Iraq and has been con­stantly stream­ing across the Iraq-Syria bor­der, they have been mov­ing sup­plies in con­voys of trucks but have not been tar­geted by the US. The US gave ISIS cover when it con­ducted strikes in Syria against a new dubi­ous group known as ‘Kho­rasan,’ which offi­cials say was plot­ting an immi­nent attack onUS soil. Bizarrely, the his­tory of the Kho­rasan was vir­tu­ally non-existent, and US offi­cials never men­tioned the group until the week before the strikes began in Syria. Esti­mated at 50 fight­ers, the group sud­denly became a huge pre­text for mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion, even though an air sor­tie on Sep­tem­ber 23rd 2014 report­edly killed 30 of them. [13]

Jabhat al Nusra fighters in Idlib
Jabhat al Nusra fighters in Idlib

Andrew McCarthy, a for­mer US fed­eral ter­ror­ism pros­e­cu­tor high­lighted in the National Review mag­a­zine: “You haven’t heard of the Khorasan group because there isn’t one. It is a name the admin­is­tra­tion came up with cal­cu­lat­ing that Kho­rasan had suf­fi­cient con­nec­tion to jihadist lore [so] that no one would call the Pres­i­dent on it.”[14]

Harakat Hazm high­lighted the airstrikes were a sig­nif­i­cant US effort to destroy Jab­hut al-Nusra, and a minus­cule effort to destroy ISIS, and no effort at all to destroy al-Assad. This is very sig­nif­i­cant as Harakat Hazm, which is allied with the CIA-backed Free Syr­ian Army, was one of the first rebel groups to receive US anti-tank mis­siles. That effec­tively makes it one of America’s most trusted supposed allies in the Syr­ian conflict.

The US has attempted to thwart the upris­ing in Syria from the very first day it began. Whilst it was able to divert the other upris­ings in the wider Arab spring, it has failed to do so in Syria where the peo­ple have main­tained their Islamic ori­en­ta­tion in almost apoc­a­lyp­tic conditions. Unable to cob­ble together a loyal oppo­si­tion, US pris­on­ers went on to estab­lish ISIS which has achieved much more than the US was able to ever achieve.

ISIS pri­or­ity in Syria has been their con­quest of ter­ri­tory rather than fight­ing the al-Assad regime, which has weakened the rebel oppo­si­tion against al-Assad. Dur­ing this period al-Assad has been sit­ting back and watch­ing the rebels fight amongst each other in the north of Syria and launch­ing strikes when the oppor­tu­nity arises against a weak­ened rebel front. There is only one entity that has ben­e­fited from the rise of ISIS and what they have achieved and that is the US who was strug­gling in thwart­ing the upris­ing in Syria.
















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