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Investigative journalist Patrick Cockburn discusses how the U.S. narrowly defined the jihadist threat as al-Qaeda affiliates, thereby failing to taking the Islamic State seriously

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to the second half of our conversation with investigative journalist Patrick Cockburn.

Patrick has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and presently works for The Independent. He also has a new book out called The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising. And he joins us now from Ireland.

Thanks for being with us, Patrick.


DESVARIEUX: So, Patrick, you recently returned from Iraq, and a few months ago you were in Syria. So you’ve pretty much gotten a sense of what’s going on on the ground. I want to speak to you about these jihadi groups and the Islamic State. What’s the difference between these different groups?

COCKBURN: Well, the Islamic state grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Iraq grew strong after the invasion of 2003. Then it suffered badly when the Sunni community that had backed it split. It seemed to be on the retreat. But the start of the war in Syria gave it fresh life, and over the last three years it’s expanded with extraordinary speed. So it now controls a really very big geographical area between Iran and the Mediterranean.

DESVARIEUX: How were they able to come to power so quickly? I mean, what’s the role of propaganda in all of this?

COCKBURN: Well, one of their weapons which they’ve used very effectively is to make rather professional movies showing the fanaticism of ISIS followers, also their extreme violence. It shows–they’re very horrible movies. They show them sort of dragging Iraqi soldiers out of cars when they’re going to join their units and shooting them in the head, just people who belong to the Shia variant of Islam, taken out of their trucks, asked if they can perform prayers like the Sunni. If they can’t, they’re shot. It’s very bloodthirsty.

But it served a purpose, which was it terrified their opponents. I mean, a lot of the Iraqi army units, soldiers would go back to the front because they and their families were terrified by what might happen. All these people had seen these movies online, and it had a terrifying impact. And it still does.

Other social media, anything they do, any victory, is immediately publicized through social media, through YouTube when they can do that. So word gets out. So it’s peculiar, because their beliefs are very retrograde. Women are second-class citizens, if that; have to be covered when they go out; have to be in the company of a male relative. Anybody who doesn’t believe in their kind of Islam is regarded as a heretic or apostate or what they call polytheists.

So they’re very, very dangerous people, but they use sophisticated media and they use–militarily they’re very effective.

DESVARIEUX: And so there are now allegations from the Islamic State that Syrian rebels raped and abused female relatives of the Islamic State militants when rebels ousted IS from Syria earlier this year, Aleppo, actually, specifically. And so for me, when I’m hearing about these allegations and the back-and-forth, there seems to be attention even amongst these different groups. Can you speak to that tension? And what are some of the issues that are dividing them?

COCKBURN: Well, a lot of this–ideologically, a lot of them are the same. I mean, the ideology is very–where does it come from? Well, it mostly comes from Saudi Arabia, which have a very puritanical variant of Islam called Wahhabism. And one of the big trends over the last 50, 40 years has been for this Saudi Wahhabi variant of Islam to take over mainstream Sunni Islam. It’s not something that the outside world notices very much, but all these al-Qaeda type organizations really have the same ideology. And it’s been spreading every year and becoming more significant.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah, I’m so glad you mentioned the Saudi ties, because most people know about the funding, essentially how Saudi Arabia has funded these extremist groups like the Islamic State in the past. And you mentioned the religious connections there. Can you elaborate a little bit more? Why is it in the Saudis’ interests to be sort of spreading this religious ideology and promoting this sort of fanaticism?

COCKBURN: Well, that’s the state religion in Saudi Arabia. There’s always been an alliance between the Wahhabi clergy and the House of Saud, the Royal family. And they’ve been pretty effective, you know, that the House of Saud is still there when it was opposed by Egyptian nationalists and Arab nationalists at one time. They were defeated. In 2011, we had the Arab Spring. It seemed that these monarchies of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, that they maybe their time had come, but no, they’re still there. The Saudis are very good at dividing their enemies and exporting trouble to their enemies. And recently they’ve done it through jihadis, people who are fighting holy war who go to Syria, who go to Iraq, who go to Libya. And the enemies of Saudi Arabia, most of these governments have fallen. And Saudi Arabia is still there.

DESVARIEUX: So I’m assuming they want to be the dominant power in the region at the end of the day.

COCKBURN: Well, they kind of are at the moment, plus they’ve got enormous sums of money. They’re immensely influential, and not just in the region; they’re influential in Washington, and have been for a long time. You know, it’s [awful to say it (?)], which is perfectly true. After 9/11, 15 out of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. Bin Laden was part of the Saudi elite. The U.S. official inquiry into 9/11 say the money for al-Qaeda had come from private donors in Saudi Arabia. So that was always there, but it was never–Saudi Arabia was never targeted in the wake of 9/11, which is maybe why we have this pretty dire situation at present.

DESVARIEUX: Patrick, I want to turn back to ISIS and speak specifically about what we’re seeing transpire in Iraq since you were recently there. I mean, the fact is is that the U.S. was supporting a Sunni revolt in Syria. Wouldn’t that ultimately destabilize Iraq and lead to the rise of fanatic groups like ISIS? I can’t believe they couldn’t have seen this coming. That’s basically my question. Shouldn’t they have seen this coming?

COCKBURN: Well, yeah, it is, and it’s a very good question, and it was one that Iraqi politicians have been asking me over the last three years, saying, can’t Washington see that if this rebellion, this Sunni rebellion in Syria, goes on, then it’s going to destabilize Iraq, it’s going to restart the war in Iraq, it’s bound to do that? But Washington and its other allies, London and elsewhere, really didn’t believe this. I think they thought it was all sort of exaggerated, that it was going to remain Muslim-on-Muslim violence, that what was happening in Syria wouldn’t really spread. But for the last two years it’s been pretty obvious that Assad was not going to fall, that the opposition was not going to overthrow him by stoking the opposition and saying that the only thing that should be discussed is Assad going was in fact a recipe for continuing the war.

And it’s out of this war, this continuing war, that ISIS has grown up. This sort of organization doesn’t really flourish except in war conditions. ISIS is really a war machine. It may be it has a fanatical ideology, but what it does is fight. And the reason it attracts so many young men in the area is that it not only fights, but it wins victories.

DESVARIEUX: But at the end of the day, correct me if I’m wrong, ISIS is not al-Qaeda, and we’ve been told here in America that al-Qaeda is the enemy and that’s where we should be keeping our focus and our attention is really on focusing on defeating al-Qaeda. So does that in any way, the fact that we didn’t label groups like ISIS as al-Qaeda affiliates, does that have anything to do with the reason why we didn’t see this coming?

COCKBURN: Oh, yes, that’s a big reason why it didn’t happen. There was this very convenient labeling of jihadi organizations as al-Qaeda, even only if these guys were sort of on the telephone to what Washington called core al-Qaeda up in the mountains of northwest Pakistan. But, actually, there were far more dangerous groups growing up in Iraq and Syria, but they were somewhat more tolerance autonomous. So it was very easy for administrations to say, really, we’re inflicting these tremendous losses on al-Qaeda and the hill villages of Waziristan, which is in Pakistan, and in Yemen, and people would see pictures of wrecked vehicles because of drone attacks. But actually it was completely irrelevant. The people they were targeting were really already ancient history, and the really dangerous jihadi al-Qaeda type organizations [that] were not being attacked were in Syria, and were also in Iraq. So I think that administrations, not just the Obama, but Bush and their predecessors, sort of by defining al-Qaeda very narrowly managed to make it look as [if] they were winning victories, when in fact they were suffering defeats.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Patrick Cockburn, joining us from Ireland.

Thank you so much for being with us.

COCKBURN: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Patrick Cockburn is a correspondent for the Independent London. He is the author of The Age of Jihad.