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Ear to the Ground

The New Iraqi Monster America Helped Make

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Posted on Aug 11, 2014

    A painted portrait of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Photo by Abode of Chaos (CC BY 2.0)

A New York Times article glimpses America’s role in creating the leader of ISIS—the violent Islamic group “redraw[ing] the map of the Middle East”—and confirms the line by English poet W.H. Auden: “Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return.”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004,” said an anonymous Pentagon official quoted in the article published Sunday. American forces “picked up” al-Baghdadi, then a “hanger-on” in his early 30s, the paper reports, in a raid on a home near Fallujah “during the turbulent 2004 offensive against the Iraqi Sunni insurgency.”

“It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS,” the official added.

The Times states in a crucial passage:

At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action. And now he has forced a new chapter of that intervention, after ISIS’ military successes and brutal massacres of minorities in its advance prompted President Obama to order airstrikes in Iraq.

Mr. Baghdadi has seemed to revel in the fight, promising that ISIS would soon be in “direct confrontation” with the United States.

Still, when he first latched on to Al Qaeda, in the early years of the American occupation, it was not as a fighter, but rather as a religious figure. He has since declared himself caliph of the Islamic world, and pressed a violent campaign to root out religious minorities, like Shiites and Yazidis, that has brought condemnation even from Qaeda leaders.

The paper goes on to state that Baghdadi grew up in a poor community of Sufis—a strain of Islam known for its tolerance—in a farming village near the town of Samarra. He went on to become a mosque preacher and earn a doctorate in Islamic studies from a university in Baghdad in the 1990s, during which time he became radicalized. Iraqi scholar Hisham al-Hashimi, who researched Baghdadi’s life, says Baghdadi’s views hardened over a period of five years he spent in an American detention facility.

The article concludes with a grim statement by Brett McGurk, a top State Department official on Iraqi policy. At present Baghdadi commands not just a terrorist organization, but “a full blown army,” McGurk said. Speaking at a recent congressional hearing, he warned: “It is worse than Al Qaeda.”

Read more here, and read part of Patrick Cockburn’s harrowing account of the rise of ISIS, published in the Mideast correspondent for The Independent’s new book, “The Jihadis Return: Isis and the New Sunni Uprising,” here.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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