Omar al-Shahir is a journalist from Ramadi, west of Iraq, who graduated in Islamic studies and worked as a muezzin and Koranic teacher at one of the city’s mosques. He recounts that Isis prohibited singing the Azan (call for prayer): “Azan in Anbar has a multi-melody tune. It includes the Saba, Rust, Hijaz and other melodic modes. When they entered the city, Isis prohibited this tune as a type of singing, and embraced instead the Saudi monotonous model, where the whole Quran is recited in one tone. Isis punished whoever violates this rule by lashing.”
Al-shahir gives us a historical account of the Iraqi Azan in Sunni cities “endorsed by the Tekeyas, and therefore enriched by Turkish, Persian and Aleppo’s tones which may include up to 20 melodic modes. This richness is now lost after the prevalence of the monotone desert style, where Azan is performed in the Hijazi melody.”
The American invasion was paralleled by the less noisy infiltration of Salafism from its primary source, Saudi Arabia. In Bucca prison in Basra, the brutality of al-Ba’th party and its officers was buttressed with the Salafi-Jihadist ideology. It was right there that Isis was born. The prison was its inception site where group leaders, scholars and officers wasted no time offering “educational” sessions and organizational workshops. Those were former middle-ranking Ba’ath officers like Hajji Bakr, and Salafist scholars like Turki Bin-Ali from Bahrain, and Abu-Bakr al-Qahtani from Saudi Arabia.
The group was formed and Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, also an inmate, was appointed leader. He was Iraqi like the Ba’ath officers, and a Salafist like the scholars. But it was the lineage he claimed he descended from that earned him the title “Caliph.”
Talking to Isis leaders in Iraqi detention centers, you soon realize that so much remains hidden about the circumstances and environment which led to the group’s formation.
We sat with Ismail Olwan al-Ithawy, the head of the “Diwan of Education in the Caliphate,” and formerly a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at the University of Baghdad. Ismail was served the death sentence and is now awaiting his own execution.
Ismail, who has a vast knowledge of Iraqi history, affirms that “the general religious atmosphere in Iraq before 2003 was mainly Sufi. There were no definite schools of thought. Suddenly, after 2003, the Salafi-Jihadist thought emerged. Bucca prison was the main source of that thought. It was there that Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi met Turki Bin Ali and Abu-Bakr al-Qahtani, who influenced him to a great extent. They were tasked with drafting the Islamic educational syllabus and their school of thought prevailed. They were considered al-Baghdadi’s spokesmen. I noticed that the syllabus for teaching creed was taken from books that were taught in Saudi Arabia, with only a few changes added to accomodate the new situation.”
Bucca prison, however, was not where they acquired experience. Abu-Gharib prison was the other ‘terrorism academy.’ The two simultaneous mass escape operations from Abu-Gharib and al-Taji prisons suggest that the Iraqi prisons between 2003 and 2013 were a perfect place for establishing such an organisation.
Al-Ithawy himself was at first in the Airport prison, also called ‘Brooker Prison.’ He tells how he was introduced to a man called ‘Abu-Turab’ from Anbar. An Iraqi security official says that al-Ithawy landed in Brooker after he had pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in the days of al-Zarqawi. Yet Ismail says he was unfairly jailed, and was consequently released because he was proven innocent.
After his release, he tried to go back to teaching but he could not. So, he decided to leave Iraq. Abu-Turab had given him his phone number, so he called him and they met in the desert. Ismail did not know where he was, before he traveled to Syria’s Dawajin, then to al-Riqqa.
Today, Iraqi prisons are getting filled again with Isis members. Iraqi authorities have been trying to prevent these prisons from being turned into Isis regroupment centers by adopting two controversial methods:
The first was put into practice during the battles against Isis, when Iraqi military units had been given orders to avoid taking captives and resort to field executions instead, which led to the killing of 23,000 Isis fighters in those battles, according to Iraqi official sources.
The second method consisted in executing anyone who is proven loyal to the group. As of today, the Iraqi authorities say they executed around 700 Isis militants and leaders. An Iraqi security official says there are 3000 more in detention, 5000 suspects, and 19000 militants on the Wanted list.
Today, the proposed solution to stop Isis from being reborn is to socially and geographically isolate its captured members.
Thus the first nucleus of Isis was born, and its numbers are estimated at a staggering 218,000 Iraqis, most of them women and children. Social isolation means separating these families from their tribal environment, and geographical isolation entails establishing desert camps for them.
It is evident that this is an ideal formula and perfect environment for the group to resume its activities, as several indicators show.
One of the definitions of Isis is “the desert’s organization,” without a rival. All the stories we heard from the group’s leaders and militants all have something to do with the desert and its morals.
The far-flung western and northern deserts, which cover about half of Iraq, are sparsely populated, except for a few cities separated from each other by hundreds of kilometers.
Almost all the stories took place in those mysterious sandy swathes, where winters are cold and summers lash their inhabitants with a sweltering heat. There were years, even decades during which the character of desert dwellers was in the process of being, per Omar al-Shahir, moulded by Sufism and the introduction of urbanization to cities and towns. It all came to a halt when Isis entered the picture.
Some cities refused to surrender, foremost among them was Mosul.
However, al-Shahir points out that Sufism, also called “the commoners’ religion,” had always been resisted by the official Ash’ari religious institution. So the values Isis tried to impose by the sword, the Ash’aris had paved the way for decades before.
One could draw an imaginary chart of how the Islamic State burst into life in Iraq and then flowed into cities and towns.
It all started in prisons where military officers and Salafi-Jihadist scholars converged around common ideas.
The same happened with the desert clans.
Then also at the borders, where the same social and psychological conditioning was formed.
The birth of the Islamic State was accompanied by an acute political and ideological crisis, which is still ongoing today. Add the enormous isolation camps surrounding ruined cities– where hundreds, and perhaps thousands of young men grew up as “caliphate cubs,” and are now part of the fabric of the population there– and you have the same concatenation of factors that initially led to the organism’s birth. The political conditions, despite the enormous pressure on the Sunni communal environment in Iraq, has yet to mature.
It was not a hard mission to revive the religious values in a Ba’athist environment among desert tribes on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. Before his fall, Saddam Hussein had already started the process through what is known as the “Faith Campaign,” in which he carried out the “Islamization of the Ba’ath.” No other social or religious models were as well-established by these groups as both the tribal connection and the two Ba’athist states in Iraq and Syria.
Weak states turned the desert into a vulnerable spot that helps the resurrection of the “caliphate”
Now let us look at the most significant decade, the one that separated the regime’s fall in 2003 and the official date of Isis’s birth.
Those ten years were enough to introduce, through tremendous events, a kind of awareness Iraqis always considered themselves strangers to.
Detention Camp Bucca was not the only indicator. The volatile Iraqi borders were open to fighters, and lifestyles and ideologies from far and wide. Iraqi security estimates that as soon as the “caliphate” was announced, the number of Saudis who arrived in Iraq to join Isis jumped to 7,000 fighters, and they were mainly responsible for weakening the social borders.
During those ten years, Sunni cities turned into mere federal units besieged by enemy armies, and a breeding ground for the formation of jihadist groups.
Ten years during which locals lost their sense of belonging to Iraq. Prisons, blockades, the proliferation of mujahideen, fighting, and the absence of the government’s will and that of Iran, its ally, to address the situation… all factors made Sunni Iraq ready to welcome the newborn Isis.
Al-Anbar Governorate is an extension of both the Arabian Peninsula and the Syrian desert. In the Syrian “Badia,” Sunnis’ grievances were delivered at the hands of the Alawi Ba’ath regime, while in Iraq Nouri al-Maliki’s government fulfilled the task. Then, from the Arabian Peninsula, came the “caliphate” with its false promises to deliver the desert Sunnis from the Shias and Iran.
When Saddam al-Jamal– a former Syrian Isis leader in the border city of Bukamal, who today faces a death sentence in Iraq― speaks of his previous work smuggling between Syria and Iraq, he makes you feel that Isis’s obliteration of frontiers between the two countries was a rectification of all the mistakes caused by those borders.
Listening to his statements, you cannot tell whether he can be considered Syrian or Iraqi. The border blurred the difference between the two territories. Al-Jamal says that his clan found the cancellation of the borders as a means to renew the bond and unity between its members in Iraq and Syria. That is what he personally practiced by killing an equivalent number of Iraqis to those killed in Syria with his own hands. Today, he is sentenced to death in Iraq for all the crimes he committed there, and he conjures up his Syrian identity as a likely savior from this sentence. He claims he is Syrian now. He does not belong to Iraq anymore.
Once again, the desert looms as a natural horizon for the group’s expansion. Weak states turned the desert into a vulnerable spot that helps the resurrection of the “caliphate.”
Perhaps the combination “Ba’ath” and “caliphate” is the only legacy left that the party can claim.