The American Legion Magazine | 4.1.15
By Alan W. Dowd
controls 34,000 square miles of territory—an area the size of Costa Rica. He
commands an army larger than Belgium’s and perhaps larger than Canada’s. He has
a $2-billion budget at his disposal. He reigns
over a population of more than 2 million people.Indeed, he is the self-styled leader of a new state, which has a major export
(9,000 barrels of oil per day) and a capital (the Syrian city of Raqqa). He’s
at war with some of the world’s largest, richest, most advanced powers—and he’s
more than holding his own. In fact, Forbesmagazine ranks him the 54th most-powerful person in the world.
His name is Abu Bakr
al-Baghdadi, the ultraviolent political-spiritual-military leader of the
Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (known as ISIS, ISIL and IS). His story is at
once horrific and tragic.
Born in Iraq around 1971 and given the name Ibrahim Awwad
Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, Baghdadi
was apprehended by
U.S. forces in Fallujah in 2004, during Iraq’s postwar insurgency. He was held
for some period of time—some reports say four years, some say less—in a U.S.
prison facility in southern Iraq.
Baghdadi made connections and laid the groundwork for the ruthless killing
machine that would become ISIS. The U.S. prison “was like a summer camp for
ambitious terrorists,” a Newsweekaccount of Baghdadi details. “The inmates interacted, traded information and
battle tactics, and made important contacts for the future.”
At some point in the course of transferring sovereignty back
to the Iraqi government, Baghdadi appears to have been entrusted to Iraq’s
civilian authorities, who released him.
That’s the first tragic element of Baghdadi’s story and the
first missed opportunity.
The second relates to the big
picture in Iraq and Syria. Let’s start with Iraq.
surge took hold and turned the tide in Iraq—eviscerating al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI),
persuading former insurgents to become part of the solution, stabilizing Iraq’s
politics, and rescuing Iraq from civil war and America from defeat—most
observers thought the United States and Iraq would renew the status of forces
of agreement (SOFA) to authorize a residual U.S. presence in Iraq. As Vice
President Joe Biden said, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki [former Iraqi
prime minister] will extend the SOFA.” Frederick
Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explained that “Painstaking staff
work in Iraq led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000
troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.”
Barack Obama demanded that the new SOFA be blessed by the Iraqi parliament,
rather than simply signed by the Iraqi government; proposed
a residual force of just 3,000 troops; and made it clear he was willing to
withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of 2011, a
timetable set by the Bush administration. When Maliki
balked, as Kagan reported at the time, the White House went forward with the
zero option “despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion
that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.”
Kagan and others who
advocated keeping U.S. forces in Iraq after 2011 feared that Iraq was not ready to stand on its
But for the president, ending U.S. involvement in Iraq was a promise to be kept.
After all, the centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy platform as a candidate—indeed
the very fuel for his White House run—was always the withdrawal from Iraq. If
nothing else, his critics should give him credit for keeping his word.
there was nothing surprising about his impatience with Maliki, decision to
follow the Bush administration’s timeline or eagerness to bring America’s war
in Iraq to a close. Regrettably, nor was there anything surprising about the
October 2011, Col. Salam Khaled of the Iraqi army warned, “Our forces are good
but not to a sufficient degree that allows them to face external and internal
In January 2012, Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan worried, “Without all the enablers we provide, there’s no doubt there will be
less capability than there is right now,” adding
that if Iraqi troops prove unable to put pressure on jihadist groups,
“they could regenerate.”
In 2012, the remnants of AQI
“morphed into the earliest version of ISIS,” as The Financial Times reported. By
2014, Baghdadi and ISIS declared independence from al Qaeda.
In summer 2013, Iraq officially
began asking for help against Baghdadi and jihadist spillovers from Syria, making urgent requests for
American assets to hit terrorist camps.
In February 2014, Deputy
Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk told a House committee that ISIS operations “are calculated, coordinated and
part of a strategic campaign led by its Syria-based leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghadi…to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a
zone of governing control in western regions of Iraq and Syria.” That same
month, Director of
National Intelligence James Clapper warned that “the protracted civil war in
Syria is destabilizing Iraq.”
brings us to the other part of the big picture. ISIS has thrived on the symbiotic chaos in Iraq and Syria,
usingthe unchecked Syrian civil war as feedstock for its rise. This explains why so many
policymakers (including former
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former CIA Director David Petraeus and
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey) advocated sending arms to weaken Syria’s
Bashar Assad and forestall the radicalization of his opposition.
As Clinton recently
argued, “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people
who were the originators of the protests against Assad…left a big vacuum, which
the jihadists have now filled.”
Even so, it pays to recall that Obama’s reticence reflected
the national mood. Unlike 2003, when the American people and Congress strongly
supported regime change in Iraq, there was no consensus to stay in Iraq in
2011, or intervene in Syria in 2013, or return to Iraq in 2014. In other words,
if the president deserves criticism for engaging Syria too late and withdrawing
from Iraq too early, he deserves credit for reversing course and blunting the
region full of bad guys, Baghdadi is arguably
In its initial sweep into Iraq, Baghdadi’s army massacred
1,700 unarmed Iraqi soldiers near Tikrit;summarily executed 510 Shiite prisoners in Mosul; shelled “apostate” homes in Dhuluiya and
Zowiya; and ordered Christians to
convert, make extortion payments or die.
ISIS has beheaded aid workers, executed American civilians, burned
POWs alive and crucified captured enemy soldiers.
is especially barbaric in its treatment of children and women. ISIS has subjected Yazidi women to “systematic rape
and sex slavery,” according the Kurdish government. ISIS has imprisoned children as young as eight, executed
children as young as 10, flogged children as young as 14 and sold
children into slavery. Perhaps
most shocking and shameful of all, the UN reports that ISIS has used “mentally
challenged” children as suicide bombers.
February 2015, ISIS orchestrated a mass-beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians
captured in Libya.
tactics have a power all their own, inflating ISIS into an invincible,
inevitable force—and leaving Baghdadi in control of vast swaths of northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria, along with a
network of transportation arteries between Baghdad and the Iraq-Syria border.
Baghdadi’s means and ends
have gotten the world’s attention—and done the impossible. After all, ISIS has united
Shiites and Sunnis, Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus, Persians and
Arabs, Kurds and Turks, postmodern Europeans and pre-modern tribesmen, liberal
democracies like America and Australia and revisionist autocracies like Russia
and Egypt, reactionary Sunni monarchies like Saudi Arabia and revolutionary Shiite
theocracies like Iran, technocracies like the European Union and gangster
regimes like Syria, into the strangest enemy-of-my-enemy coalition in history.
overtly, sometimes tacitly, sometimes purposely, sometimes coincidentally, the
members of this de facto alliance are cooperating to dismantle Baghdadi’s machinery of murder.
The fight against Baghdadi is not about oil or democracy or even noble notions
of standing up for civilization. It’s about protecting America and its
interests. If you doubt this, consider
what national-security leaders have said.
jihadist state, the president concludes, “threatens American personnel and
facilities located in the region…If left unchecked, ISIL will pose a threat
beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland.”
“The most immediate threat
to U.S. national interests is ISIL,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter concludes.
what Baghdadi himself has said.
America’s paranoid World War II foes, he believes his people are under attack
everywhere—listing China, India, “Palestine,” Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula,
the Caucasus, “Sham” (Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon), Egypt, Iraq,
Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya,
Algeria, Morocco and “the West” by name—and he delights in war. “Soldiers of the Islamic State,” he howls, “erupt
volcanoes of jihad everywhere.”
America’s Cold War enemy, he hates freedom and wants to upend the liberal
global order. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era”—an era that will “trample the idol of
nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy.”
his forefather Osama bin Laden, terror is Baghdadi’s weapon of choice.
“Terrorism is to refuse humiliation, subjugation and subordination.”
http://www.globalfirepower.com/active-military-manpower.asp and http://warontherocks.com/2015/02/how-many-fighters-does-the-islamic-state-really-have/ and http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/23/politics/pentagon-isis-casualties-territory/ and Andrew, Pestano,
“Islamic State prepares $2 billion budget, opens bank,” UPI, January 4, 2015.
 Janine di
Giovanni, “Who is ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi?” Newsweek, December 8,
 Janine di
Giovanni, “Who is ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi?” Newsweek, December 8,
 Sam Jones,
“Extreme violence lies in ISIS DNA,” Financial Times, August 20, 2014.
http://www.cfr.org/iraq/islamic-state-iraq-syria/p14811 and http://www.vox.com/cards/things-about-isis-you-need-to-know/what-is-isis
http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/07/24/234353/obama-administration-knew-islamic.html?sp=/99/100/&ihp=1 and http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/2014%20WWTA%20SFR_SASC_11_Feb.pdf
http://thehill.com/policy/international/281725-panetta-dempsey-endorsed-clinton-petraeus-plan-to-arm-syrian-rebelsand and http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/obama-says-he-is-confident-of-congressional-backing-for-strike-on-syria/2013/09/03/aeee7e60-149e-11e3-a100-66fa8fd9a50c_story.html.
 CNN, “ISIS
putting price tags on children, selling them as slaves, UN says,” February 6,
http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/4387/baghdadi-isis-caliphate and http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/13/us-mideast-crisis-baghdadi-idUSKCN0IX1Y120141113 and