August 21, 2016


Present at the Creation : The never-told-before story of the meeting that led to the creation of ISIS, as explained by an Islamic State insider. (HARALD DOORNBOS, JENAN MOUSSA, AUGUST 16, 2016, Foreign Policy)

In mid-April 2013, Abu Ahmad noticed a dark red-brown car pull up in front of the headquarters of Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM), a Syrian jihadi group led by Abu al-Atheer, in the northern Syrian town of Kafr Hamra.

One of Abu Ahmad's friends, a jihadi commander, walked up to him and whispered in his ear: "Look carefully inside the vehicle."

The car was nothing special: not new enough to attract attention but not a jalopy, either. It wasn't armored and it did not have a license plate.

Inside the vehicle sat four men. Abu Ahmad recognized none of them. The man sitting behind the driver wore a folded black balaclava like a cap. On top of it was a black shawl, falling over his shoulders. He had a long beard. Except for the driver, all occupants held small machine guns on their laps.

Abu Ahmad could see that there was no extra security at the gate of the headquarters. As usual, just two armed fighters stood guard in front of the entrance. The internet connection at the headquarters was working normally. To him, there didn't seem to be any sign that today was different from any other day.

But after the four men got out of the car and disappeared into the headquarters, the same jihadi commander walked up to him again and whispered "You have just seen Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi."

Since 2010, Baghdadi had been the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al Qaeda's affiliate in that war-torn country. According to Baghdadi's own account, he sent Abu Muhammad al-Jolani as his representative to Syria in 2011, instructing him to set up the Nusra Front to wage jihad there. Until the beginning of 2013, ISI and Nusra worked together. But Baghdadi wasn't satisfied. He wanted to combine al Qaeda's Iraqi and Syrian affiliates to create one outfit that stretched across both countries -- with him, of course, as the leader.

Every morning, for five days in a row, the red-brown car dropped off Baghdadi and his deputy, Haji Bakr, at the headquarters of MSM in Kafr Hamra. Before sunset, the same car with the same driver would pick them up from the headquarters and take Baghdadi to a secret location for the night. The next morning, the car would come back to drop off Baghdadi and Bakr.

Over the course of those five days, inside the headquarters of MSM, Baghdadi talked extensively to a group of important jihadi leaders in Syria. These were some of the world's most wanted men, all gathered in one room, sitting on mattresses and pillows on the ground. They were served breakfast and lunch: roasted or grilled chicken and french fries, tea, and soft drinks to wash it down. Baghdadi, the most wanted man in the world, drank either Pepsi or Mirinda, an orange-flavored soda.

In addition to Baghdadi, the participants included Abu al-Atheer, the emir of MSM; Abu Mesaab al-Masri, an Egyptian jihadi commander; Omar al Shishani, a leading Chechen jihadi who had come to Syria from Georgia; Abu al-Waleed al-Libi, a jihadi leader from Libya who had come to Syria; Abed al-Libi, an emir in the Libyan Katibat al-Battar group; two Nusra intelligence chiefs; and Haji Bakr, Baghdadi's second in command.

Abu Ahmad was fascinated by the congregation of so many senior commanders. During breaks in the talks, he would walk around the headquarters, speaking to people who attended the meeting. Abu Ahmad was full of questions: Why did Baghdadi come from Iraq to Syria? Why did all these commanders and emirs meet with him? And what was so important that Baghdadi himself discussed for days on end?

The answer to Abu Ahmad's questions could be found in a speech made by Baghdadi, shortly before the Kafr Hamra meeting. On April 8, 2013, Baghdadi announced that his organization had expanded into Syria. All jihadi factions there -- including Nusra -- had to submit to his control. "So we declare while relying on Allah: The cancellation of the name Islamic State of Iraq and the cancellation of the name Jabhat al-Nusra, and gathering them under one name, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham," he intoned.

"The sheikh is here to convince everybody to abandon Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Jolani," one of the participants in the talks told Abu Ahmad. "Instead, everybody should join him and unite under the banner of ISIS, which soon will become a state."

Baghdadi, however, faced one big problem in realizing his goal. The assembled emirs explained to the ISI chief that most of them had sworn allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chosen successor and the leader of al Qaeda. How could they suddenly abandon Zawahiri and al Qaeda and switch to Baghdadi?

According to Abu Ahmad, they asked Baghdadi during the meeting: Have you pledged allegiance to Zawahiri?

Baghdadi told them that he had indeed pledged allegiance, but hadn't declared it publicly, per Zawahiri's request. But Baghdadi assured the men that he was acting under the command of the al Qaeda leader.

The jihadi leaders had no way to check if this claim was true. Zawahiri was perhaps the most difficult person in the world to contact -- he had not been seen in public in years, and is still in hiding, most probably somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

With Zawahiri unable to mediate the dispute himself, the jihadi leaders had to make up their own minds. If Baghdadi acted on behalf of Zawahiri, there was no doubt they had to follow the order to join ISIS. But if Baghdadi was freelancing, his plan to take over Nusra and other groups was an act of mutiny. It would divide al Qaeda and create fitna, or strife, between all the jihadi armies.

So the commanders gave Baghdadi a conditional allegiance. "They said to him: 'If it is true what you are saying, then we will support you,'" Abu Ahmad told us.

Baghdadi also spoke about the creation of an Islamic state in Syria. It was important, he said, because Muslims needed to have a dawla, or state. Baghdadi wanted Muslims to have their own territory, from where they could work and eventually conquer the world.

The participants differed greatly about the idea of creating a state in Syria. Throughout its existence, al Qaeda had worked in the shadows as a nonstate actor. It did not openly control any territory, instead committing acts of violence from undisclosed locations. Remaining a clandestine organization had a huge advantage: It was very difficult for the enemy to find, attack, or destroy them. But by creating a state, the jihadi leaders argued during the meeting, it would be extremely easy for the enemy to find and attack them. A state with a defined territory and institutions was a sitting duck.

Abu al-Atheer, the MSM emir, had already told his fighters before the arrival of Baghdadi that he was very much against declaring a state. "Some people are talking about this unwise idea," Atheer told his men. "What kind of madman declares a state during this time of war?!"

Omar al-Shishani, the leader of the Chechen jihadis, was equally hesitant about the idea of creating a state, said Abu Ahmad. There was a reason why Osama bin Laden had been hiding all these years -- to avoid getting killed by the Americans. Declaring a state would be an open invitation to the enemy to attack them.

As The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright is the singular text on Al Qaeda in the run-up to 9-11, so The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State by William McCants is the outstanding book on Baghdadi and company.

Obviously a group that has caused as much death, misery and Mayhem as ISIS has to be taken seriously, but an account of its history and ideology can't help but be comical.  Nevermind how frequently Mr. McCants portrait of a rising jihadi and the imminent threat he represents ends with the character being killed by a US missile attack, consider instead just the impossibility of ISIS ever realizing its goals. We can start with the one the Al Qaeda skeptics enunciated above and continue from there:

(1) In order to be a legitimate potential political alternative, the jihadists have to demonstrate that they can take and hold or create a state.  But the attempt does nothing, in reality, but to make it easier for the US to acquire targets.  In essence, none of the public structure of a state can be brought into existence without our proceeding to destroy it.

(2) On the other hand, the inability to institute a caliphate--a state run by the jihadis' notions of totalitarian Islamicist governance--delegitimizes the group and its message.

(3) Suppose, however, that reality were radically different and the US and the West (and the Turks and the Iranians, etc.) all ceased paying attention to the Arabian Penninsula and allowed the Salafi radicals to establish their caliphate.  As Mr. McCants recounts, the legitimacy of that regime would depend on its capacity to deliver decent lives to those living under its rule.  And, of course, it would have to exceed the capacity of rival regimes--the Western model--to deliver prosperity, security, justice, etc., in order to demonstrate its superiority.  As a slew of other isms have amply proven, there are no real competitors here at the End of History.

(4) Legitimacy would also depend on Muslims choosing to live under such a regime, which they stubbornly refuse to do--taking up arms against it or fleeing to the hated West. Indeed, ISIS has been forced to use such brutal methods to repress the locals that it tends to undermine its own claims to representing the popular will, fails to govern in conformity with the standards required of the genuine Caliphate and makes the prospect of its success repellent to even those Sunni Muslims it is ostensibly trying to appeal to.

(5)  Nor is it just the methods that ISIS employs that are problematic; it is also the men wielding those methods.  The military forces of ISIS are dependent on former Ba'athist officers, ignorant foreign fighters attracted to the war for non-religious reasons, and various and sundry psycho and sociopaths.  The resulting brutality and corruption are hardly consistent with the idea of establishing a religious utopia. And the presence of non-Arabs is a tough sell in what are still tribal regions. Even if Allah were sending an army to help the faithful restore the Caliphate, this surely isn't the best he could do, is it?

(6) And here we get to the theological problems that ISIS faces.  It's not just the inferior quality of the armed forces and their leadership, but the whole movement depends on the idea that it is being led by the Allah-sent Mahdi who is preparing the world for the End Times.  It is sufficient for us as Christians that this is nothing more than heresy and that there is no possibility of a Mahdi to recognize the futility of the whole enterprise.  But, taken on its own terms, the declaration by ISIS that the Mahdi is here and the Caliphate restored requires--as a purely theological matter--that they succeed.  A Mahdi and a Caliphate that are being pummeled as relentlessly as those in Syria today stand as a rebuke to the theology itself.  The Apocalypse is, obviously, not supposed to result in Christians, Jews, Shi'a, Alawites, Kurds, Persians, Turks and the rest standing victorious on the battlefield while the jihadi lower their black battle flag and run for cover.

Taken as a whole, these weaknesses make it clear that while the Salafi jihadists were a terribly destructive force, briefly, and will likely remain a terrorist threat for some time, they are not and never were a serious geo-political threat.  There can be no Clash of Civilizations where only one exists.

Posted by at August 21, 2016 10:03 AM