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What’s fueling and funding the insurgents behind the violence in Iraq?

June 16, 2014 at 6:14 PM EST
The Sunni militants known as ISIL or ISIS continue to broaden their control over the northern Iraq. What are their origins and how does the group compare to other insurgencies? Gwen Ifill learns more from journalist Rania Abouzeid and Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation.
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GWEN IFILL: This latest sectarian uprising in Iraq has caused the U.S. to move some embassy employees out of Baghdad and, according to the Associated Press, consider sending special forces into the country.

Tonight, we look at the insurgents behind that violence. The group is known as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also referred to as ISIS.

For more on who they are and the threat they represent, we turn to Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation. He’s also a research fellow at the West Point Military Academy. And Rania Abouzeid, an independent journalist who has written for The New Yorker and TIME magazine. She’s spent time with Sunni militant fighters in Northern Syria.

Welcome to you both.

Brian Fishman, who is — who are ISIL, and why do they seem, feel more dangerous?

BRIAN FISHMAN, New America Foundation: Well, ISIL is the modern incarnation of the organization that was originally founded in Iraq by Abu Musab al Zarqawi that began in the early days after the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

It turned into al-Qaida in Iraq in 2004, was later, after Zarqawi’s death in October of 2006, an entity called the Islamic State of Iraq was declared. And that was the first time that this organization really wanted to attempt to govern large areas in Iraq.

The ISI at that point though was largely defeated by the Anbar awakening, the tribal uprising against al-Qaida, and U.S. forces. But with the beginning of violence in Syria with the civil war, the ISI was able to regain strength and in 2012 began calling itself ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

But, fundamentally, this is the organization that was begun by Abu Musab al Zarqawi back in 2004.

GWEN IFILL: Rania Abouzeid, this organization seems to have great expectations of what it can accomplish even beyond the borders of Iraq.

How does it compare to other insurgencies like the al-Nusra Front, for instance.

RANIA ABOUZEID, Independent Journalist: Well, the al-Nusra Front was formed by the ISI that Brian Fishman referred to.

The ISI leader sent a group of men into form al-Nusra Front in late 2011, just a few months after the start of the Syrian uprising. Jabhat al-Nusra became quite a potent force in Syria. And in April 2013, the ISI leader decided that he was going to form ISIS or ISIL and merge Jabhat al-Nusra with the ISI.

The Jabhat al-Nusra leader rejected this move. Now, the two groups are very different, even though they basically share the same ideology, which is that they want to see — they want to establish an Islamic state in Syria and in Iraq. And they want to restore the caliphate.

They differ, however, in terms of who should lead that operation, in terms of their strategy and their tactics. The Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, is very careful not to antagonize the local populations in which it is based. ISIS, however, doesn’t seem to share that concern.

And it actually imposes its rather harsh ultra-conservative understanding of Islam on the local people in the areas in which it is based.

GWEN IFILL: Brian Fishman, the name we keep hearing is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Tell us about him.

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was born in Samarra, which is a town just north of Baghdad.

And he’s sort of exalted in sort of an interesting way by the jihadis that support him. He — they tell this rags-to-riches story of a very poor boy that wound up going to study perhaps for a doctorate at a university in Baghdad, studying Islamic theology and poetry.

We know for a fact that he was imprisoned in a U.S. facility during the insurgency back in 2005. Exactly when he was released and the conditions under — the circumstances of that release are not exactly clear.

But what is clear is that he rose — he was radicalized in prison and then rose through the ranks of the ISI and then the ISIL. And he is somebody that, unlike other jihadi leaders, very much is willing to stay out of the limelight. He seems very focused on sort of the practical application of force and the movement towards his strategic objectives.

Now, as Rania said, that doesn’t mean that the ISIL has not been brutal. It has been extraordinarily brutal, but I think it is notable that al-Baghdadi, as opposed to somebody like Abu Musab al Zarqawi, historical, is very, very focused on his long-term objectives, and he does seem to be more flexible in terms of how he applies his understanding of Islamic law in various places.

So you see ISIL taking a much harsher approach in Syria than it has in Iraq, for example, where it has been able to rebuild some relationships with tribal groups and other Sunni militant organizations that it had alienated previously.

GWEN IFILL: Rania Abouzeid, who pays for all this? How did this organization suddenly bloom? Or, at least to us, it seems sudden.

RANIA ABOUZEID: Well, in Syria, for example, ISIS or ISIL has taken over vast swathes of the eastern part or the oil-producing part of the country. It also finances itself via racketeering, via imposing taxes on some of the people who live in its facility, and just general criminality, in addition to also having sponsors, individual funders, you know, sheiks in Gulf countries, for example.

GWEN IFILL: Brian Fishman, is Nouri al-Maliki, is he equipped to handle this uprising? Can we tell yet?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, you know, I think Nouri al-Maliki has fed this uprising with what I think is a very sectarian agenda. He has driven some of the Sunni tribes and some of the Baathist organizations back into the arms of ISIL, ISIS.

And, you know, Maliki’s approach now, which is really a stopgap one, he is calling out Shia militias to help blunt the ISIS approach on Baghdad, and that may work in a military sense. But the more that this fight becomes framed as a sectarian one between Sunni and Shia, the more that ISIL gains over the long run and the bigger threat they will be not just in the region, but to the West.

GWEN IFILL: Rania Abouzeid, is that the same way you see it from there?

RANIA ABOUZEID: I think that while — I disagree somewhat.

I think that while ISIS has been able to take advantage of the fact that many Sunnis feel disenfranchised because of Maliki’s increasingly sectarian rule, I don’t think that that relationship may last. I think that we have seen already in Mosul, for example, just two days after the ISIS took over the city, it declared its rules for life in Mosul, and they were extremely harsh.

They included things like, you know, women must now wear the all-enveloping black cloak. They must wear the face veil. They can only leave their homes when necessary. People — it has imposed obligatory prayers five times a day in the mosques. So it’s basically imposing its very harsh ideas on the people.

And if we recall just a few short years ago, that’s exactly the same approach that lead to the sahwat, to the tribal awakenings, when Sunnis with the aid of the U.S. military rose up against the then al-Qaida affiliate in their midst and removed it.

So ISIS doesn’t seem to have learned from its recent history, because it is taking the same approach in some regards in terms of holding territory that it has now won.

GWEN IFILL: Rania Abouzeid of “TIME” and “New Yorker” and Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation, thank you both very much.

Early this evening, the White House released a letter that President Obama sent to the speaker of the House, John Boehner, and to the president pro tem of the Senate. The president informed them that up to 275 U.S. armed forces would be deployed to Iraq. The troops will be in country to protect American citizens and property.