Prisoner M060108 — dark-skinned, his captors recorded, 218.5cm, 101kg — was driven past the wire soon after New Year’s Day in 2008, into the dust-blown prison camp at Umm Qasr, Iraq. In coming weeks, declassified interrogation records show, M060108 betrayed his comrades in al-Qaeda, one after one. Exactly why, the documents do not record; other prisoners were beaten with rifle-butts, sexually humiliated, pepper-sprayed, left hog-tied under the blazing sun.
For a few seconds last week, United States special forces caught sight of that prisoner again, before the self-described caliph of the Islamic State blew himself up with his family.
Like the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, or that of the Islamic State’s (IS) first caliph, Ibrahim Awad al-Badri, in 2019, the killing of Amir Muhammad Abdal-Rahman—also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi—is being cast as a critical milestone in the fight against terrorism. The truth is muddier.
Even as former US president Donald Trump bragged of the “100 percent” defeat of the caliphate in 2019, the IS was regrouping under Abdal-Rahman in Iraq and Syria, and expanding across Africa and Asia. In recent weeks, the terrorist group has staged sophisticated attacks in its Iraq-Syria heartlands. IS-inspired movements have flowered in two continents.
The destruction of Iraqi despot Saddam Husain’s regime in 2003 was heralded as the beginning of a new age of democracy and peace in Middle East. Instead, a long, grinding insurgency ensued—the consequence of the destruction of State institutions, religious and ethnic conflicts, poverty and foreign occupation.
How American ultra-violence bred jihadism
Like so many other armies, the US and its key ally, the UK, responded to barbarism with barbarism. Following a 2005 bombing in the Iraqi town of Haditha, US and British troops were alleged to have killed dozens in cold blood. Fallujah was levelled, then levelled again, as American and British soldiers fought to recapture it from insurgents. In 2009 alone, 33 separate allegations of torture and sexual abuse were brought against British troops.
“It is well that war is so terrible,” General Robert Lee had said in December 1867, as he surveyed the carnage on the battlefields of Fredericksburg, “otherwise we would grow too fond of it”. President George Bush, though, didn’t flinch.
Al-Qaeda—drawing legitimacy from nationalist rage against atrocities, as well as Sunni fears of being marginalised by Iraq’s Shi’a majority—grew larger than it had ever been before 9/11, powered by the storm-winds of violence.
The rise of the caliph
The most authoritative biography of Abdal-Rahman, written by journalist Feras Kilani, tells us that the to-be caliph was born in 1976 to a cleric in Mosul, the youngest of his father’s seven children by two wives. Abdal-Rahman finished eighteen months of mandatory military service in Saddam Husain’s army, before completing a masters’ degree in Islamic theology.
From 2003, as anarchy spread across Iraq, Abdal-Rahman seems to have drifted towards the Ansar ul-Islam, which soon after merged itself into al-Qaeda. Later, after the death of the key al-Qaeda commander, Jordanian Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal, Abdal-Rahman followed the rank-and-file into the IS.
In 2007, Abdal-Rahman’s interrogation records show, he took charge of running religious-courts in Mosul, ruling among other things on kidnappings and ransoms.
Taken prisoner from his home in 2008 by Kurdish Peshmerga militia, Abdal-Rahman ended up in prison alongside other key figures in the IS. Following Camp Bucca’s closure in 2009, its alumni would go on to become the backbone of the IS.
Little about Abdal-Rahman’s life is documented thereafter. For a while, he was given charge of establishing an institute for training religious judges and clergy at the al-Imam al-Adham College in Mosul. He is alleged, in some accounts, to have provided religious legitimacy for the killing of Yazidis, and the capture of Yazidi women as slaves, after Sinjar fell in 2014.
Extremism, it should have been clear, flourished in conditions where government and social structures were destroyed by violence. Washington, though, wasn’t listening.
The Arab Spring Turns Arab Summer
From 2010, mass protests erupted against authoritarian regimes across Middle East, in what came to be known Arab Spring. The United States threw its weight behind one key uprising, in Syria, hoping to depose arch-enemy Bashar al-Asad’s regime, and to contain Iranian influence in the region. Like the European revolutions of 1848, from which the Arab Spring got its name, the uprisings had very different outcomes in each country. In Syria, jihadists—the best organised force—won.
The seeds of this disaster were, ironically, in part laid by Bashar al-Asad himself. Fighting youth anger brought on by his liberal economic reforms—which created growth, but not jobs—al-Asad moved to accommodate the Islamist political vanguard, the Muslim Brotherhood, and allowed Iraqi jihadists safe havens.
For its part, the US enabled the rise of the IS through benign neglect, seeing it as a tool to use against Iran’s influence in Iraq, and an instrument to bring down the Syrian regime.
Even though some semblance of order has been won back, large swathes of Syria and Iraq remain outside of meaningful State control. The IS still has an estimated 10,000 fighters, and controls significant territory. Its example has inspired jihadists across Asia and Africa.
Last year, the United Nations recorded that Islamic State violence is up across Africa, spilling from northern Mali into the country’s central region, as well as Niger and Burkina Faso. In oil-rich Mozambique, jihadists successfully stormed the town of Palma; the 14-year war against al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia has made no discernible progress towards stabilising the country.
Nigeria, similarly, has had little success in fighting Boko Haram, a jihadist group which has claimed thousands of lives in terrorist attacks since 2002. The insurgency has expanded into Niger and northern Cameroon.
Tiring of these endless wars, western governments are withdrawing from the chaos they sparked off after 9/11. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to wind down Operation Barkhane, his country’s small-scale edition of the 9/11 war in Afghanistan. No one knows for certain how long the 2,500 US troops deployed in Iraq, or 900 in Syria, will stay.
Like Afghanistan, those countries might well implode—sending shock waves through a region critical to India’s energy security. Few Indians—just 66, by one estimate—fought with the IS, but some among them are known to have received advanced training, and conducted suicide attacks in Afghanistan. Should communal tensions in India engender large-scale violence in the future, Islamic State’s conceivable recruitment will rise, with grave consequences.
There’s no lesson in Abdal-Rahman’s story barring the one mothers teach little children: Don’t play with matches. The fires lit by America’s Iraq war will likely rage on for many years more.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)