As Islamic State struck with brutal speed last year, the world dawdled in response, hampered in its understanding of a complex enemy by a news media fixated on by-the-minute updates and a publishing industry whose lethargic pace means in-depth analysis is rendered historic by time of publication. Yet, says Patrick Cockburn, there is another way...
Patrick Cockburn Independent/UK 1 February 2015
I still find it astonishing that no foreign governments spotted the growing strength of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (formerly known as Isis) in the 18 months before it captured much of northern Iraq in June 2014.
There was plenty of evidence that Isis and al-Qa'ida-type organisations were getting stronger by the day in Iraq and Syria, but in January of that year President Obama flippantly compared Isis to a junior university basketball team which was never going to hit the big time and whose activities could be largely ignored.
He was speaking after Isis had captured the city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, and the 350,000-strong Iraqi army was failing to win it back. The previous summer, Isis fighters had successfully attacked the infamous Abu Ghraib prison and freed hundreds of its most experienced fighters. In training camps in the deserts of Iraq and Syria, Isis fighters were preparing for spectacular advances in the summer of 2014 that would create a "caliphate" the size of Great Britain, defended by an army stronger than that of many members of the UN.
The outside world may have been astonished by the explosive rise of Isis, but Iraqi politicians had been warning me for several years that, if the war in Syria went on, it would destabilise Iraq and lead to the full-scale resumption of the Sunni-Shia civil war. They also predicted, with varying degrees of emphasis, that the Iraqi army was rotted with corruption and was not capable of fighting a battle.
I had been writing about the growing power of Isis and other jihadis in Iraq and Syria since the second half of 2013. In December 2013, I nominated the leader of Isis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as The Independent's Middle East Man of the Year. The following March, I wrote a five-part series for the paper called "Al-Qa'ida's Second Act", the first sentence of which read: "Al-Qa'ida-type organisations, with beliefs and methods of operating similar to those who carried out the 9/11 attacks, have become a lethally powerful force from the Tigris to the Mediterranean in the past three years."
The five articles tried to show how strong Isis was on the ground in Iraq and that it was able to levy taxes in Sunni Arab cities such as Mosul and Tikrit that were nominally under the control of the Baghdad government. I wrote that the "War on Terror" had utterly failed, though the US and many of its allies had "adopted procedures formerly associated with police states, such as imprisonment without trial, rendition, torture and domestic espionage". The series attracted some interest among those who followed events in Iraq and Syria closely, but otherwise I was disappointed that there was so little appreciation of the danger.
This is the introduction to a long article which may be read at the website above. A.