The U.S. war in Iraq created ISIS. It thrives on destabilized states, so killing the Osamas and Baghdadis of the world will not end the terror, says The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn.
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Wonderful to have you all with us.
Over the weekend, we all saw, Trump delivered strange and egotistical comments at time during his rambling press conference about the death of the leader of the Islamic state, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that happened during a raid by U.S. forces. There are many facets to this story, from Trump’s ramblings on one end, but also to the use of alliances that Trump has demeaned that killed Baghdadi, to examining just what this might mean for the future of the Islamic State given its dispersed tentacles around the globe. And what many say; what this will portend for the future? And as we discuss all this, it’s important to remember that ISIS’s creation came in the wake of the diminishment of Al-Qaeda and was born of the invasion of Iraq and the destabilization of that entire region.
We are joined today by frequent Real News guest Patrick Cockburn, who is the Middle East Correspondent for The Independent, and his work over the years has won numerous awards. And his three books on Iraq are fascinating and good reads. And he joins us now. And welcome back, Patrick. Good to have you with us.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you.
MARC STEINER: So no matter what people say, the killing of al-Baghdadi obviously was significant. But I just want to explore how significant this is. I mean, there’s been a lot of argument, right and left, in terms of what this really means and how deep it goes. So what’s your overall sense of the significance of his death besides the news-grabbing headlines?
PATRICK COCKBURN: I think it’s been exaggerated. I remember where he was killed, was right up in Northwest Syria where ISIS, Daesh, doesn’t have much strength. He was with his family, he was isolated. He obviously has had no operational control of ISIS for some time, certainly since he moved to this area, in a house surrounded by guys who might be Al-Qaeda sympathizers but are a different party, and not his own. So I think that that’s all been exaggerated.
It is a symbolic defeat of ISIS. After all, he was the caliph. The caliphate, at one time, after 2014, was the size of Great Britain. It stretched right across Iraq, from the Iranian border over almost to the Mediterranean. It ruled about 10 million people. It had been eliminated. And al-Baghdadi was kind of a symbol of that, and now he’s been eliminated. So that’s an important change. But will it put ISIS out of business? No. In many ways, al-Baghdadi was a pretty disastrous leader. He created enemies everywhere. He attacked everybody. So people may say he was in some ways responsible for that, but we don’t know how responsible. But he was certainly also responsible for their pretty well inevitable defeat.
MARC STEINER: Let’s explore that for a moment. There was an article by Hassan Hassan today I read–and some others, some of what Juan Cole talked about in his piece for the Common Dreams–that actually looked at al-Baghdadi as somebody who was actually effective in terms of pulling the Islamic State back together to create it as a powerful force and creating the caliphate. So in that sense, he was successful, their argument is. And so, talk a bit about that and where your disagreements might come in, and how that led to his demise at the moment.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Al-Baghdadi took over in 2010 when his predecessors were killed in a U.S. air strike. At that moment, I think Al-Qaeda in Iraq was never as weak as people imagined. It still had it strength up in Mosul. I mean, I know guys in Mosul, businessmen, who were still paying protection money during that era. So they still had a grip on the city and the surrounding Sunni Arab areas. So there were never out for the count as much as people imagine. Then he takes over. And what happens next, I don’t think it’s really his doing, but suddenly there were tremendous opportunities for Al-Qaeda in Iraq because we have the Arab Spring uprising in Syria, Syria begins to disintegrate, the Sunni Arab population is looking for a vehicle to fight the government.
So ISIS is able–what became ISIS–is able to intervene in Syria. And they bring experience, they bring weapons, they bring money, they expand enormously fast. In Iraq, at the same time, the government is very sectarian. It’s alienated the Sunni population. It’s persecuting them. There are lots of protests in the streets, initially peaceful, until they get shot at. The Iraqi army getting more corrupt, really become a kind of racket. All the divisional command never had any exercise or anything like that. So there are lots of opportunities for him. I think that was the big change. It had always, and Al-Qaeda had always been sort of pretty tightly controlled. So I think that that’s what he was able to take advantage of at that time.
MARC STEINER: So let’s take a look. There was a quote, it was interesting, I found, that was in The Daily Beast. And it was written by Spencer Ackerman, and this is the quote: “There is no campaign plan, not even a theory, by which the killings of jihadist leaders knit up to a lasting victory. Asking for one would require reckoning with a catastrophic failure represented by a war that only perpetuates itself.” That was part of a quote that came from his article today. And if you tack onto that the idea that the origins of Islamic State really came out of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and what forces that unleashed, so in the context of this quote, and that, I mean, how do we make sense of that? Is he right in assuming that as well?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, I’m not entirely clear what he means there. But I think it did come out of 2003, because that shattered the Iraqi state. Suddenly, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the founder of Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. He was sort of up actually in Kurdish-controlled territory, close to the Iranian border in the mountains there. There was this tremendous opportunity that Iraq has disintegrated. And he created this movement which was even more extreme than Osama bin Laden’s realization. It was particularly anti-Shia. It was very sectarian. It was incredibly violent. It depended on suicide bombings used on a mass scale. That was kind of an innovation of his organization is mass use of suicide bombing, both against civilian targets and military targets. Then of course, Zarqawi gets killed by a U.S. air strike in 2006. That gets a lot of publicity, but it’s not decisive.
Again, the leaders get killed in 2010, and al-Baghdadi takes over. But there’s a pattern there that knocking off the leaders doesn’t make a lot of difference, particularly as it’s very much expected by that type of organization that leaders are going to become casualties. And they always have another one in waiting. So the idea that you can just sort of decapitate this organization and it’s going to fall apart, really doesn’t work. So I think that there are things that have weakened ISIS. The fact it made enemies of everybody, from the Kurds, was opposed by the U.S. obviously, by the Russians, by the Syrian government, by the armed opposition in Syria, by the Kurds, by the Turks. Eventually, everybody was their enemy. That was their great weakness and that’s what brought them to their present situation. But how far this will be changed by al-Baghdadi being killed, I think probably less than people imagine.
There is a difference though, I think between the attitude of the sort of adherence of ISIS in far-flung countries, in Europe, in North Africa, in Sri Lanka, and so forth, and in their core base in Iraq and Syria. Outside Iraq and Syria, they tend to look to al-Baghdadi as the great caliph, the great leader. He had rather less prestige and less presence in Iraq and Syria. But remember, this was a guy who nobody ever saw. He only appeared twice physically. And then there were some radio things, and they’re unimpressive. He doesn’t have any new ideas. He doesn’t have any particular ideology that he’s putting forward. So this is a guy in the shadows. So I think that it’s all, it has some significance. But it’s exaggerated, all the stuff that Trump was producing the other night.
MARC STEINER: Speaking of Trump, let’s bring it back to the United States for a moment. And I want to take a look first at some of the things that Trump had said at his press conference, and then kind of look at the difference between Obama and Trump when it came to the two assassinations that took place under their presidencies. But let’s watch this piece from Trump first.
DONALD TRUMP: I want to thank the nations of Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. And I also want to thank the Syrian Kurds for a certain support they were able to give us. Russia treated us great. They opened up… We had to fly over certain Russia areas, Russia-held areas. Russia was great. But the ISIS fighters are hated as much by Russia and some of these other countries as they are by us. And that’s why I say they should start doing a lot of the fighting now. And they’ll be able to. I really believe they’ll be able to.
MARC STEINER: So what are your thoughts on the remarks from President Trump last night? We just played a short piece of them.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, that bit is fairly realistic, to my mind. I don’t think they told that number of people. He’s thanking all of these people; they’re all saying that they were responsible for this in some way. That sort of thing gets told to many people by anybody. And usually, down the road, one discovers that what is said at the time is only part of the truth or isn’t true at all. You know exactly how they found out. So I’m not sure I find that very convincing.
MARC STEINER: So let’s take a look very quickly, this is a montage of Obama talking about the death of Osama, and of course what we just witnessed this weekend with al-Baghdadi and Trump, and just in terms of looking at the effect and impact of American policy, the West policy, in this entire region, when you look at these two men back to back.
DONALD TRUMP: He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.
BARACK OBAMA: But the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden; the leader of Al-Qaeda and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.
DONALD TRUMP: The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him.
BARACK OBAMA: Images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory. And yet, we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world, the empty seat at the dinner table, children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father.
DONALD TRUMP: Terrorists who oppress and murder innocent people should never sleep soundly. These savage monsters will not escape their fate. He died like a dog. He died like a coward. He was whimpering, screaming, and crying. And frankly, I think it’s something that should be brought out so that his followers and all of these young kids that want to leave various countries, including the United States, they should see how he died. He didn’t die a hero. He died a coward; crying, whimpering, screaming, and bringing three kids with him to die.
MARC STEINER: So other than just the clear difference between the two men’s measures of being human beings, but the idea of what the United States has done to create this, in a sense. And both of their messages, I mean, in tone, they’re different, but there’s a lot of similarity.
PATRICK COCKBURN: There are. But there are differences. All this talk about cowardly dogs, this is kind of what you hear in the Middle East from militia commanders describing their enemies as cowardly dogs, Saddam and his lieutenants were always describing people as cowards and dogs and whimpering, and so forth. This, I assume, is addressed to a domestic audience.
In the Middle East, this will sound very sort of kind of the stuff they’re used to hearing from authoritarian leaders, or as I said, sort of militia leaders in Iraq and Syria. They wore suicide vests; all these guys didn’t expect to survive very long. All this talk about whimpering and crying are more likely to come from these children than al-Baghdadi. So I think that this is… What’s the effect of that? In the Middle East, probably not a lot. In a curious way, it kind of elevates al-Baghdadi, because there he is being sort of denounced in vulgar terms by the U.S. president. But otherwise, probably not a lot.
MARC STEINER: And of course there’s then, finally, how this will affect, or how should we reflect on what the future of our policy needs to be there at this moment?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, I think the whole idea of decapitating movements because you’ve knocked off the leader, whether it’s Pablo Escobar in Colombia in, what was it, 1993, this was going to have such a great effect on the cocaine business in Columbia. What real effect did it have? Pretty well nothing. So governments always liked to grandstand some leader as being assassinated, these high value targets. Armies like that strategy as well. It seldom works. Somebody is killed, somebody else takes over. The person who takes over may be more effective than the person who’s just been killed.
So I don’t think that this has much effect. We’ll see what happens. The way Al-Qaeda works is every so often, they stage some big event like the horrible killings in Sri Lanka, to show that they’re still in business. And in their core countries, in Iraq and Syria, actually the situation is getting more in their favor. It’s not that they can have a sort of great lift-off. I think they’re very badly damaged. They have difficulty taking advantage of this. But things are beginning to move in their favor on the ground. And that’s what they always predicted would happen and wanted to happen. I don’t think the disappearance of al-Baghdadi will really make much difference.
MARC STEINER: Well, Patrick Cockburn, it’s always a pleasure for us to have a chance to talk with you. Thanks for your writing. Thanks for being with us today. I look forward to many more conversations. Appreciate it.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you so much.
MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care and let us know what you think.