Early on, ISIS targeted Sunni tribal leaders
David Ignatius/The Daily Star/24.11.14
A centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s strategy for defeating ISIS is mobilizing tribal fighters to join the Iraqi military in retaking Anbar and other Sunni-dominated provinces. But new research shows the jihadis have been working since 2009 to gut the very Sunni tribal leadership on which Obama’s rollback depends – making the U.S. campaign much more difficult.
U.S. strategists want to create a “national guard” version of the tribal militia known as the “Awakening,” which in 2007 and 2008 crushed Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS. But overlooked evidence shows that the jihadis have worked systematically to destroy the Awakening and assassinate tribal leaders who might challenge their rule.
The jihadis’ long-running intimidation campaign against the Sunni tribes is one more sign that, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told me in September, the U.S. “underestimated” ISIS. Obama later told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that he shared Clapper’s critique.
Despite these mea culpas, U.S. planners may be making a similar mistake in assuming that the tribal networks can be rebuilt quickly. American officials believe Sunni support has been galvanized by the removal of polarizing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite. That’s true, but fighting the jihadis will be a long uphill road.
Research documenting the ISIS onslaught was compiled by Craig Whiteside, a former Army officer who fought in Iraq and now teaches at the Naval War College. By his count, at least 1,345 Awakening members have been killed in Iraq since 2009 by ISIS or its predecessor organizations. “In the Sunni areas where the Iraqi government had little control, it did not take long for [ISIS] to slowly and methodically eliminate resistance one person at a time,” he writes in a military blog called “War on the Rocks.”
Whiteside cites the example of the strategic town of Jurf al-Sakhar, south of Baghdad. Between 2009 and 2013, 46 Awakening members were killed in 27 different incidents there. The dead included four sheikhs from the local Janabi tribe. Similar killings across Sunni areas of Iraq “were barely noticed by the Iraqi government or in the media.”
The jihadis documented their assassination campaign in a grisly video called “The Clanging of the Swords,” which Whiteside cites in his report. Watching the video, you see a series of drive-by assassinations, accompanied by heroic Islamic music, as ISIS fighters gun down selected vehicles on the road or pedestrians on the streets. “The hungry lions chase their prey,” says an Arabic narrator, whose words are translated into English. It’s clear that the assassins’ intelligence is precise.
The Islamist fighters also targeted Iraqi police and army units in Sunni areas and Baghdad itself, starting more than two years ago. ISIS communiqués released in February 2013 claimed that in the second half of 2012, the group conducted 37 attacks in Baghdad and 43 assassinations in other areas of Iraq. U.S. analysts failed to see this gathering storm.
As its campaign against the Sunni tribal forces gained momentum in 2012 and 2013, ISIS began offering amnesty to Sunnis who had been part of the Awakening militia or the Iraqi security forces. The jihadi video shows scores of Sunnis experiencing “the joy of repentance” in an auditorium in Anbar. They recite a pledge of penitence together and then embrace masked jihadis on stage, one by one.
To swell its ranks further, ISIS staged a series of daring prison raids they called “Breaking the Walls.” Whiteside counts seven prison assaults between July 2012 and July 2013, culminating in a raid on Abu Ghraib prison that freed more than 500 senior ISIS fighters, including one named Abu Wahib, who later became the group’s leader in Anbar. The importance of this prison-break campaign in the rapid build-out of ISIS forces wasn’t understood by U.S. analysts.
U.S. officials argue that Sunni tribal leaders still want to work with American military advisers – all the more so after the jihadis’ brutal campaign of intimidation. As Sheikh Zaydan al-Jibouri told me in Amman last month, “We want to create a strategic relationship with the Americans.”
But this time around, the tribal leaders must combat a deeply entrenched enemy. ISIS controls the ground; it has the intelligence; it has fierce, combat-hardened fighters. Obama is right to seek Sunni “boots on the ground” for the campaign against the jihadis, but he needs to explain better to the American public the roots of this conflict, and how difficult and protracted it will be.
David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.