Now that the recent publicized beheadings of two Westerners has the Obama Administration taking action against ISIS/IS, it is interesting to look back at testimony given in early February 2014 to the House Foreign Affairs Committee by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and former Senior Advisor to the United States Ambassador to Iraq, Brett McGurk about the ramping up of activity by ISIS in Iraq as far back as late 2012 and early 2013. In this posting, I will provide you with some quotes from his testimony of February 4, 2014 that is available on the House website showing how long ago the Obama Administration knew that ISIS was becoming a major obstacle to stability in the Middle East.
Let's open this posting with two maps. The first map shows the sectarian divisions within Iraq:
This map shows the areas controlled by ISIS in June 2014:
Mr. McGurk begins his testimony by noting that in 2011 and 2012, Iraq remained a very violent country with 4400 Iraqis killed each year in attacks led by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and that the insurgency situation in Iraq was at a "low boil" level where there was no serious risk of state collapse. He goes on to note that the escalating civil war in Syria attracted terrorist groups looking to take advantage of the loss of state authority in the border region between Syria and Iraq. One of these groups was ISIL, a franchise of AQI which had the agenda of carving out an Islamic caliphate from Baghdad to Lebanon. As a result of ISIL's involvement in the area, Iraq saw an increase in suicide attacks, rising from an average of 5 to 10 attacks per month in 2012 to 30 to 40 attacks by the summer of 2013. Not only were the number of attacks increasing, the sophistication of the methods used during the attacks showed that ISIL was quite capable of launching sophisticated military-style operations. By November 2013, Iraq witnessed 50 suicide attacks compared to only three in November 2012. During the summer of 2013, it was noticed that ISIL was building a series of training camps in western Iraq; unfortunately, Iraq's security forces were unable to destroy these camps because they lack armoured helicopters which made ISF pilots vulnerable to ISIL anti-aircraft platforms that protected the camps.
Here is a quote from his testimony:
"Indeed, the violence may appear indiscriminate – but it is not. From what we are now seeing, ISIL attacks are calculated, coordinated, and part of a strategic campaign led by its Syria-based leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This campaign has the stated objective to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of governing control in the western regions of Iraq and eastern Syria (an area known as the “Jazeera”). To do this, they are now using three primary tactics:
First, attacking Shia civilians with an aim to re-ignite a civil war and cause ordinary people to look to militias, not the state, for protection. Adherents to ISIL’s extreme ideology believe Shia should be killed based on their sect alone, and the suicide bombers seek populated areas to murder as many innocent people as possible. These are the vast majority of ISIL attacks.
Second, contesting territory in Sunni areas to assert dominance over local Sunni officials and tribes. Targeted assassinations and attacks increased in these areas as ISIL focused its resources inside Iraq. In one 30-day period between September and October of last year, for example, more than a dozen suicide bombers were used in assaults on three towns in Anbar province (Rawa, Rutbah, and Haditha).
Third, attacking the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) and disputed boundary areas in northern Iraq to stoke ethnic tensions and conflict. The thriving capital city of the IKR, Erbil, faced an attack in September similar to attacks seen in Baghdad earlier in the year: multiple suicide bombers followed by an infantry assault to temporarily control a government building.
By the end of 2013, suicide and vehicle-borne attacks initiated by ISIL returned to levels not seen since the height of AQI’s power (its earlier incarnation) in 2007. Overall levels of violence, however, remain far below 2007 levels, demonstrating that reprisal attacks from Shia militias have been restrained, though the risks of such reprisals continue to rise as ISIL continues to attack Shia civilian areas.
In summary, ISIL’s strategy is sophisticated, patient, and focused. It will take a similar combination of sophistication, patience, and focus to combat it, and I will explain shortly what this strategy should look like, and how we intend to help the Iraqis increase the chances that they can arrest these 2013 trend-lines in 2014.”
Deputy Assistant Secretary McGurk goes on to outline the reasons why ISIL has been so successful at infiltrating Iraq. He notes that protests in the Sunni areas of Iraq began after the Iraqi domestic forces detained the bodyguards of Minister of Finance al-Issawi. Protests against the decade-long process of de-Ba'athification (Saddam Hussein's political party) from the Sunni community continued throughout 2013 and the black flags of ISIL began to appear during protests as ISIL took advantage of the anger between the Sunni and Shi'a populations. At a protest on April 23, 2013, Iraqi forces stormed a demonstration at al-Hawija with tanks and helicopters along with water trucks using extremely hot water to hose down demonstrators killing at least 50 demonstrators, wounding 150 and arresting 400. In his testimony, Mr. McGurk also outlines the successes that ISIL had experienced in January 2014:
"On January 1, 2014, convoys of approximately 70-100 trucks with mounted heavy weapons and anti-aircraft guns, flying the black flag of al-Qa’ida, entered the central cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. They deployed to key objectives, destroyed most police stations, and secured vital crossways. The police in both cities nearly disintegrated. The Iraqi army, deployed in camps outside the cities, engaged some armed vehicles but generally chose not to get drawn into urban fighting. The domination of these central cities was a culmination of ISIL’s 2013 strategy to govern territory and establish 7th-century Islamic rule. Across the border in Syria, ISIL has governed the city of Raqqa (with a population of 220,000) for most of the past year. In Iraq, ISIL sees Ramadi and Fallujah as their new Raqqa. In Fallujah, days after seizing central areas, ISIL declared the city part of an Islamic caliphate. This message, however, is not popular in Anbar – and has bred fierce resistance.”
Mr. McGurk also testified that ISIS was a direct threat to the United States as shown here, quoting a January 21, 2014 audio statement issued by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:
"Were there any doubt, moreover, of the threat Baghdadi and his network – now with approximately 2,000 fighters in Iraq – presents to the United States and our interests in the region, his statement said this in its concluding paragraph:
“Our last message is to the Americans. Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day. So watch, for we are with you, watching.””
Here are two paragraphs from McGurk's testimony, outlining his recommendations:
"The danger at this moment is that these hardened cores of militancy, which must be isolated from the broader population and defeated, become fused with a sense of despondency and grievance in Sunni areas of the country. It is therefore critical and incumbent upon the Government of Iraq (GOI) to help mobilize the people in Sunni areas against ISIL and JRTN through a combination of aggressive political outreach and targeted intelligence-driven security operations.
This responsibility for political outreach and inclusion rests on all Iraqi leaders, but most prominently on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He is under tremendous political pressure from the Shia population, which faces a near daily threat of car and suicide bombs; but it is incumbent upon the head of state to act in a manner that advances stability in all parts of Iraq. In all of our engagements with Maliki, accordingly, including a November meeting with the President, and regular calls from the Vice President, we have continued to press the urgency of working with local Sunni leaders to draw the population into the fight against ISIL.”
The Government of Iraq responded to the fighting in early 2014 by funding reconstruction and humanitarian needs in the areas damaged by fighting and is attempting to supply its troops with much-needed weaponry and other materiel.
Let's summarize the impact of ISIS on Iraqi civilians. From IraqiBody Count, here is a graph showing the growth in the number of civilian casualties from 2012 to 2014:
In 2012, 4,620 Iraqi civilians were killed. This is comparable to the levels seen in the years from 2009 to 2011. The number of civilians killed rose to 9,656 in 2013 and in the first nine months of 2014, the count has risen to 11,190.
It is interesting to look back at testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee from early 2014 and see how it was quite clear that ISIS was becoming a very significant threat to the stability of both Syria and Iraq and a threat to the civilian population of Iraq. As far back as mid-2013, it was clear that the degree of chaos in Iraq was increasing, yet, very little attention was paid to the growing number of Iraqi civilian casualties who died as a direct result of ISIS attacks. It wasn't until two American journalists lost their lives in a rather gruesome and very public way that the White House paid any more than lip service to the problems that were created as a direct result of Washington's policy of state destruction and rebuilding.
Oh, the complexities that result from geopolitical interference!