The images are shocking, and yet, almost familiar to anyone who has seen photographic evidence of the worst atrocities of the Second World War. Indeed, what distinguishes photographs showing the work of Nazi killing units 70 years ago from the recently released images of Islamist extremists slaughtering captured Iraqi soldiers are peripheral details: gloomy skies and the temperate landscapes of eastern Europe, rather than desert sand and glaring sunlight; the sense of otherworldliness that black-and-white photography allows, rather than the undeniable immediacy of colour. The heart of what is captured in the photos is identical. Ditches are filled with terrified and unarmed captives, and then they are shot dead with casual brutality, their bodies packed too tightly together to thrash or sprawl as they expire.
The dead, according to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the Islamist insurgent group that claims responsibility for the massacre, had donned civilian clothes and tried to flee an ISIS advance through northern and western Iraq, where major towns and cities have fallen in recent days. As of early this week, the jihadists had swept into Baquba, clashing with security forces only 60 km from the capital, Baghdad.
Most of those captured were air force cadets, according to a New York Times employee in the city of Tikrit, where the shootings reportedly took place. Members of the Sunni branch of Islam were set free. Shia Muslims, a majority in Iraq, were murdered. “The filthy Shias are killed in the hundreds,” reads a caption on one of the photographs uploaded to an ISIS Twitter stream last weekend.
In total, ISIS claims it murdered 1,700. This figure has not been confirmed, but, if true, the massacre is the largest in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was deposed in an American- and British-led invasion in 2003. The United Nations’ human rights chief, Navi Pillay, says the mass killings have “almost certainly amounted to war crimes.”
The massacre is the bloody and lurid reflection of a movement that has swept through Iraq and Syria over the past year, threatening to fragment both countries. “The state is collapsing as we’re speaking,” says Feisal al-Istrabadi, Iraq’s former ambassador to the UN. “There is an expression in Arabic that a cracked glass cannot be repaired. Iraq is beginning to look a hell of a lot more like a cracked glass than anything else.”
ISIS’s offensive seems sure to revive and intensify a regional sectarian war that tore through Iraq in 2006 and 2007. (Some 44 suspected Sunni militants died in police custody on Tuesday in what appears to have been a reprisal killing.) And it marks the emergence of a new global jihadist group that is eclipsing even al-Qaeda. The crisis may pull America’s military into another Iraqi intervention, and perhaps even into a temporary alliance with its arch-enemy, Iran.
ISIS grew out of an Islamist insurgent group in Iraq that fought American and Iraqi soldiers and committed numerous acts of terror against Iraqi and international civilians. Known by a variety of different names, including the Islamic State of Iraq, it was led for a time by Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In 2004, Zarqawi swore a loyalty oath to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, subsuming his group into the larger and more infamous global terrorist network.
Zarqawi was a particularly bloodthirsty jihadist. His penchant for beheadings, often filmed, drew criticism from al-Qaeda second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who warned him in a 2005 letter that he risked losing the support of the Muslim public and suggested captives could simply be shot instead. Zarqawi died in a 2006 American air strike, and the Islamic State of Iraq was all but defeated over the subsequent two years as U.S. and Iraqi forces killed many of its leaders and the Sunni tribes of Iraq turned against it.
Its fortunes were revived by the uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which grew into a civil war of an increasingly sectarian nature. Jihadists from Iraq crossed into Syria, where a variety of Islamist groups operated. Zawahiri, who inherited al-Qaeda’s leadership following bin Laden’s death in 2011, eventually renounced ISIS—meaning that the group, now led by an enigmatic man named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is no longer an al-Qaeda franchise, but a rival.
In Syria, ISIS has surpassed other less ruthless opposition militias. Operating out of the northern city of Raqqa, it has established a proto-Islamic state where women must be veiled, Christians are taxed, cigarettes are forbidden and members of rival rebel groups are murdered. Public executions are common. Earlier this year, at least two bodies were strung up on crosses as if crucified.
ISIS is also a magnet for international jihadists. Aymenn Al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, estimates that, of the 10,000 or so fighters ISIS can field, about 30 per cent of them are foreigners, including hundreds of Westerners. Canadians are among them.
ISIS fights other anti-Assad militias in Syria at least as much as Syrian government soldiers do. Assad appears to have focused his military efforts on more moderate rebels, knowing that his regime and ISIS share a common enemy in them—and reasoning that, if ISIS comes to dominate the rebellion against him, Western support for the rebellion will dry up.
Earlier this year, ISIS moved back into Iraq in force. In January, it took the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah—highly symbolic locales, given the amount of U.S. blood spilled to win them from jihadists. But those advances pale compared to ISIS’s rampages over the past two weeks, including the capture of much of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, as well as Tikrit and Tal Afar. Iraq’s army has melted away before the ISIS columns, either out of well-placed fear or because they feel so little loyalty to the state they are charged with defending.
ISIS has promised to march on Baghdad and the southern cities of Karbala and Najaf, home to two of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines. In response, hundreds of Shia Muslims have enlisted in militias vowing to confront ISIS and protect their holy places. Iraqi Kurds, who have enjoyed relative peace and prosperity in their semi-autonomous northern enclave since Saddam’s fall, have occupied the city of Kirkuk. Ostensibly, this was done to protect the city from ISIS, but it is far from certain they will ever relinquish the city.
Istrabadi, now an international law professor at Indiana University, says ISIS could not have achieved such stunning military success unaided. “There is a relatively broad coming together of disaffected Sunni groups,” he says, including ISIS jihadists, but also Saddamists and fierce partisans of his disbanded Ba’ath party, as well as former army officers who were sacked following Saddam’s overthrow.
It is in some ways an unlikely alliance. Ba’athists in the newly formed insurgent group called the General Military Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries entered Mosul alongside ISIS. In an interview with the BBC, its spokesman, former general Muzhir al-Qaisi, claimed his group is stronger than ISIS, and described his jihadist partners as “barbarians.”
That hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians fled ISIS’s advance on Mosul, a majority Sunni city, suggests that ISIS’s support among Sunni Arabs is limited. However, the group’s Sunni chauvinism does have some resonance among the local population, and much of the responsibility for this must be borne by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki. “Nuri al-Malaki has been seen as engaging in discriminatory policies toward Sunni Iraqis, essentially reversing the power dynamic that existed under Saddam, rather than working to achieve social cohesion between Iraq’s different communities,” says Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Tamimi, of the Middle East Forum, cautions that what’s dividing Iraqis goes beyond Maliki. The army is mostly Shia. The security forces are thuggish. And there’s no longer an American military to cajole Iraq’s various groups toward greater co-operation. Maliki wanted U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, but was unwilling to allow them to do so if they were to remain immune from Iraqi prosecution. Granting them that would have cost him politically, so he balked.
The result is that Iraq didn’t have American help when ISIS began rolling through its territory. Maliki reportedly asked U.S. President Barack Obama to consider bombing ISIS targets last month, but was rebuffed.
With ISIS converging on Baghdad, Obama now says he is considering “all options.” Secretary of State John Kerry says this may include drone strikes. Washington is sending additional troops to its embassy in Baghdad to provide security for American personnel. There are also reports that the U.S. is considering dispatching special forces to help train Iraqi soldiers—something it already tried to do during its long intervention in Iraq, which didn’t stop Iraqi troops in Mosul from fleeing the ISIS fighters they outnumbered.
Any of these moves would effectively mean America is once again militarily engaged in Iraq—an ironic development, given that in 2008, Obama campaigned on ending America’s war there and has often bragged about doing so in the years since.
U.S. military support for Iraq would put it on the same side as Iran—a country America considers a state sponsor of terrorism, but which is also a strong backer of Maliki’s government. Tamimi says members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps are “undoubtedly” in Iraq, and Iranian websites are reporting that at least one Revolutionary Guard has died ﬁghting there already. Kerry says America is open to the possibility of co-operating with Iran. Iranian and U.S. diplomats in Vienna met and discussed Iraq on Monday.
But, according to former Iraqi UN ambassador Istrabadi, neither Iranian nor American military assistance will do much good. Enlisting Iran will only stoke sectarian resentment among Sunni Iraqis, and America is unlikely to offer more than air strikes, which are of limited use against insurgents operating among civilians.
Instead, says Istrabadi, Iraq’s government should be appealing to the same Sunni tribal leaders that American forces convinced to turn against al-Qaeda jihadists in 2007 and 2008. “We’ve got to find a credible leader who can reach out to these groups,” he says. “There isn’t a military solution to this.” It won’t be possible to deal with ISIS members and hard-core Ba’athists, adds Istrabadi. The former want a religious dictatorship and the latter want a Ba’athist totalitarian one. “Their agendas are non-negotiable.”
America may have a window in which it can force the Maliki government to move toward greater political and sectarian pluralism in exchange for American help against ISIS. But ISIS also threatens U.S. and Western interests: Ignoring its growth is not really an option.
“ISIS is the number 1 terrorist group out there today,” says Matthew Levitt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s already overtaking al-Qaeda in some ways,” he adds. Tamimi, who is in touch with several ISIS members on social media, says ISIS’s transnational ambitions are a draw for Western jihadists, as is the fact that ISIS is building the foundations of an Islamic emirate in Iraq and Syria—something that was lost in Afghanistan with the Taliban’s defeat there. “If you are a guy who wants to go abroad to fight for a global struggle, the place you go is Syria to join ISIS, not Pakistan to join al-Qaeda central,” he says.
The great fear among Western intelligence agencies is that their citizens who have travelled to fight with ISIS will return to commit acts of terror at home. Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national who is accused of murdering four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels earlier this year, spent more than a year in Syria and was arrested with a machine gun wrapped in an ISIS flag.
Whatever Obama does to help the Iraqi government deal with ISIS in Iraq, it’s unlikely to permanently undermine the group, unless America’s strategy includes Syria, as well. Otherwise, ISIS militants will simply retreat to their Syrian haven and regroup. “The only reason ISIS is what it is today, either in Iraq or Syria, is because of Syria,” says Levitt.
“What we really need from the United States is a decisive change toward the Syrian conflict,” says Khatib, arguing for more substantial American support for moderate rebel groups fighting both Syrian regime forces and ISIS militants.
Obama has so far resisted this. American foreign policy during his presidency has been guided by restraint. Obama says America will use force when its core interests demand it: when Americans are threatened or when the security of America’s allies are in danger. With swaths of Syria and Iraq falling to a jihadist group every bit as radical and nihilistic as al-Qaeda, and with Iraq itself on the brink of dissolution, he may conclude that such a point is approaching.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.