Recently the Pentagon admitted to killing two Syrian children in a drone attack last fall when they bombed a group of al Qaeda fighters in the suburbs of the Syrian city of Aleppo. At the time they claimed this group was a critical target because they were high level operatives associated with Al Qaeda who were planning attacks on the United States mainland.. No one that I know had ever heard of this group, but their name, Khorasan, is the name of a province in Iran, which is an odd choice for an Al Qaeda affiliate. So they bombed this small group of 50 or less foreigners, holed up in a suburb of Aleppo, Syria, in a civilian neighborhood in the middle of a war zone, plotting to kill Americans in America. It is a stretch to to wrap the mind around this rather incredible story.,
“These people whose bodies are washing up on these shores, – and I carefully choose my words – if they were Whites, the whole Earth should be shaking now. Instead, it’s Blacks and Arabs who are dying and their lives are cheaper.
The European Union, with its navy and war fleet can rescue the migrants in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea if they want to, but they sit and wait till the migrants die. It’s as if letting them drown is used as a deterrent to prevent migrants from coming to Europe. But let me tell you something: that doesn’t deter anyone…because the individual who is migrating as a survival instinct, who believes that the life they are living isn’t worth much, he’s not afraid of death.
Sir, you guys will not remain like little goldfish in the European fortress. The current crisis tell us that much. Europe can no longer close itself as long as there are conflicts elsewhere around the world. Europe can no longer live in opulence where there are so much unmet needs around the world. We live in a global society where an Indian makes a living in Dakar, someone from Dakar makes a living in New York, and a Gabonese makes a living in Paris. Whether you like it or not, this process is irreversible.
When you are a White Canadian or an Argentine and you come to live in France, you are an expat… But if you are African, or Indian, or Afghan, and you come to France or Germany, you are in immigrant, no matter the circumstances. It is the representation that Europe does to the Other that feeds xenophobia.
And the Schengen visa that you speak of – You will let me finish!—this visa gives me the opportunity to be invited to give talks in your universities if you find my brains convenient and profitable, but it bothers you that my brother, who may not have the degrees that I have, but who may want to maybe come to Europe and work in construction, that idea makes your countries schizophrenic. You cannot divide the migrants between the useful ones and the poisonous ones.
Also, you see on the headline the flow of African migrants arriving in Europe but you don’t speak of the Europeans going in Africa. That’s the free flow of the powerful, the ones who have the money, and the right kind of passports. You go to Senegal, to Mali, to any country around the world… Anywhere I go, I meet French people, Germans, and Dutch. I see them everywhere around the world, because they have the right passport. With your passport, you go anywhere around the world, and act like you run those place, with your pretentious demeanor. Stop the hypocrisy. We will all be rich together, or perish together.”
In the summer of 2004, a young jihadist in shackles and chains was walked by his captors slowly into the Camp Bucca prison in southern Iraq. He was nervous as two American soldiers led him through three brightly-lit buildings and then a maze of wire corridors, into an open yard, where men with middle-distance stares, wearing brightly-coloured prison uniforms, stood back warily, watching him.
“I knew some of them straight away,” he told me last month. “I had feared Bucca all the way down on the plane. But when I got there, it was much better than I thought. In every way.”
The jihadist, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed, entered Camp Bucca as a young man a decade ago, and is now a senior official within Islamic State (Isis) – having risen through its ranks with many of the men who served time alongside him in prison. Like him, the other detainees had been snatched by US soldiers from Iraq’s towns and cities and flown to a place that had already become infamous: a foreboding desert fortress that would shape the legacy of the US presence in Iraq.
The other prisoners did not take long to warm to him, Abu Ahmed recalled. They had also been terrified of Bucca, but quickly realised that far from their worst fears, the US-run prison provided an extraordinary opportunity. “We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else,” he told me. “It would have been impossibly dangerous. Here, we were not only safe, but we were only a few hundred metres away from the entire al-Qaida leadership.”
It was at Camp Bucca that Abu Ahmed first met Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of Isis who is now frequently described as the world’s most dangerous terrorist leader. From the beginning, Abu Ahmed said, others in the camp seemed to defer to him. “Even then, he was Abu Bakr. But none of us knew he would ever end up as leader.”
Abu Ahmed was an essential member of the earliest incarnation of the group. He had been galvanised into militancy as a young man by an American occupation that he and many like him believed was trying to impose a power shift in Iraq, favouring the country’s larger Shia population at the expense of the dominant Sunnis. His early role in what would become Isis led naturally to the senior position he now occupies within a revitalised insurgency that has spilled across the border into Syria. Most of his colleagues regard the crumbling order in the region as a fulfilment of their ambitions in Iraq – which had remained unfinished business, until the war in Syria gave them a new arena.
He agreed to speak publicly after more than two years of discussions, over the course of which he revealed his own past as one of Iraq’s most formidable and connected militants – and shared his deepening worry about Isis and its vision for the region. With Iraq and Syria ablaze, and the Middle East apparently condemned to another generation of upheaval and bloodshed at the hands of his fellow ideologues, Abu Ahmed is having second thoughts. The brutality of Isis is increasingly at odds with his own views, which have mellowed with age as he has come to believe that the teachings of the Qur’an can be interpreted and not read literally.
His misgivings about what the Islamic State has become led him to speak to the Guardian in a series of expansive conversations, which offer unique insight into its enigmatic leader and the nascent days of the terror group – stretching from 2004, when he met Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Camp Bucca, to 2011, when the Iraqi insurgency crossed the border into Syria.
At the beginning, back in Bucca, the prisoner who would become the most wanted man in the world had already set himself apart from the other inmates, who saw him as aloof and opaque. But, Abu Ahmed recalled, the jailers had a very different impression of Baghdadi – they saw him as a conciliatory and calming influence in an environment short on certainty, and turned to him to help resolve conflicts among the inmates. “That was part of his act,” Abu Ahmed told me. “I got a feeling from him that he was hiding something inside, a darkness that he did not want to show other people. He was the opposite of other princes who were far easier to deal with. He was remote, far from us all.”
* * *
Baghdadi was born Ibrahim ibn Awwad al-Badri al-Samarrai in 1971, in the Iraqi city of Samarra. He was detained by US forces in Falluja, west of Baghdad, in February 2004, months after he had helped found a militant group, Jeish Ahl al-Sunnah al-Jamaah, which had taken root in the restive Sunni communities around his home city.
“He was caught at his friend’s house,” said Dr Hisham al-Hashimi, an analyst who advises the Iraqi government on Isis. “His friend’s name was Nasif Jasim Nasif. Then he was moved to Bucca. The Americans never knew who they had.” Most of Baghdadi’s fellow prisoners – some 24,000 men, divided into 24 camps – seem to have been equally unaware. The prison was run along strictly hierarchical lines, down to a Teletubbies-like uniform colour scheme which allowed jailers and captives alike to recognise each detainee’s place in the pecking order. “The colour of the clothes we wore reflected our status,” said Abu Ahmed. “If I remember things correctly, red was for people who had done things wrong while in prison, white was a prison chief, green was for a long sentence and yellow and orange were normal.”
When Baghdadi, aged 33, arrived at Bucca, the Sunni-led anti-US insurgency was gathering steam across central and western Iraq. An invasion that had been sold as a war of liberation had become a grinding occupation. Iraq’s Sunnis, disenfranchised by the overthrow of their patron, Saddam Hussein, were taking the fight to US forces – and starting to turn their guns towards the beneficiaries of Hussein’s overthrow, the country’s majority Shia population.
The small militant group that Baghdadi headed was one of dozens that sprouted from a broad Sunni revolt – many of which would soon come together under the flag of al-Qaida in Iraq, and then the Islamic State of Iraq. These were the precursors to the juggernaut now known simply as theIslamic State, which has, under Bagdhadi’s command, overrun much of the west and centre of the country and eastern Syria, and drawn the US military back to a deeply destabilised region less than three years after it left vowing never to return.
But at the time of his stay at Bucca, Baghdadi’s group was little-known, and he was a far less significant figure than the insurgency’s notional leader, the merciless Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who came to represent the sum of all fears for many in Iraq, Europe and the US. Baghdadi, however, had a unique way to distinguish himself from the other aspiring leaders inside Bucca and outside on Iraq’s savage streets: a pedigree that allowed him to claim direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. He had also obtained a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad, and would draw on both to legitimise his unprecedented claim to anoint himself caliph of the Islamic world in July 2014, which realised a sense of destiny evident in the prison yard a decade earlier.
“Baghdadi was a quiet person,” said Abu Ahmed. “He has a charisma. You could feel that he was someone important. But there were others who were more important. I honestly did not think he would get this far.”
Baghdadi also seemed to have a way with his captors. According to Abu Ahmed, and two other men who were jailed at Bucca in 2004, the Americans saw him as a fixer who could solve fractious disputes between competing factions and keep the camp quiet.
“But as time went on, every time there was a problem in the camp, he was at the centre of it,” Abu Ahmed recalled. “He wanted to be the head of the prison – and when I look back now, he was using a policy of conquer and divide to get what he wanted, which was status. And it worked.” By December 2004, Baghdadi was deemed by his jailers to pose no further risk and his release was authorised.
“He was respected very much by the US army,” Abu Ahmed said. “If he wanted to visit people in another camp he could, but we couldn’t. And all the while, a new strategy, which he was leading, was rising under their noses, and that was to build the Islamic State. If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no IS now. Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology.”
As Isis has rampaged through the region, it has been led by men who spent time in US detention centres during the American occupation of Iraq – in addition to Bucca, the US also ran Camp Cropper, near Baghdad airport, and, for an ill-fated 18 months early in the war, Abu Ghraib prison on the capital’s western outskirts. Many of those released from these prisons – and indeed, several senior American officers who ran detention operations – have admitted that the prisons had an incendiary effect on the insurgency.
“I went to plenty of meetings where guys would come through and tell us how well it was all going,” said Ali Khedery, a special aide to all US ambassadors who served in Iraq from 2003-11, and to three US military commanders. But eventually even top American officers came to believe they had “actually become radicalising elements. They were counterproductive in many ways. They were being used to plan and organise, to appoint leaders and launch operations.”
Abu Ahmed agreed. “In prison, all of the princes were meeting regularly. We became very close to those we were jailed with. We knew their capabilities. We knew what they could and couldn’t do, how to use them for whatever reason. The most important people in Bucca were those who had been close to Zarqawi. He was recognised in 2004 as being the leader of the jihad.
“We had so much time to sit and plan,” he continued. “It was the perfect environment. We all agreed to get together when we got out. The way to reconnect was easy. We wrote each other’s details on the elastic of our boxer shorts. When we got out, we called. Everyone who was important to me was written on white elastic. I had their phone numbers, their villages. By 2009, many of us were back doing what we did before we were caught. But this time we were doing it better.”
According to Hisham al-Hashimi, the Baghdad-based analyst, the Iraqi government estimates that 17 of the 25 most important Islamic State leaders running the war in Iraq and Syria spent time in US prisons between 2004 and 2011. Some were transferred from American custody to Iraqi prisons, where a series of jailbreaks in the last several years allowed many senior leaders to escape and rejoin the insurgent ranks.
Abu Ghraib was the scene of the biggest – and most damaging – breakout in 2013, with up to 500 inmates, many of them senior jihadists handed over by the departing US military, fleeing in July of that year after the prison was stormed by Islamic State forces, who launched a simultaneous, and equally successful, raid on nearby Taji prison.
Iraq’s government closed Abu Ghraib in April 2014 and it now stands empty, 15 miles from Baghdad’s western outskirts, near the frontline between Isis and Iraq’s security forces, who seem perennially under-prepared as they stare into the heat haze shimmering over the highway that leads towards the badlands of Falluja and Ramadi.
Parts of both cities have become a no-go zone for Iraq’s beleaguered troops, who have been battered and humiliated by Isis, a group of marauders unparalleled in Mesopotamia since the time of the Mongols. When I visited the abandoned prison late this summer, a group of disinterested Iraqi forces sat at a checkpoint on the main road to Baghdad, eating watermelon as the distant rumble of shellfire sounded in the distance. The imposing walls of Abu Ghraib were behind them, and their jihadist enemies were staked out further down the road.
The revelation of abuses at Abu Ghraib had a radicalising effect on many Iraqis, who saw the purported civility of American occupation as little improvement on the tyranny of Saddam. While Bucca had few abuse complaints prior to its closure in 2009, it was seen by Iraqis as a potent symbol of an unjust policy, which swept up husbands, fathers, and sons – some of them non-combatants – in regular neighbourhood raids, and sent them away to prison for months or years.
At the time, the US military countered that its detention operations were valid, and that similar practices had been deployed by other forces against insurgencies – such as the British in Northern Ireland, the Israelis in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Syrian and Egyptian regimes.
Even now, five years after the US closed down Bucca, the Pentagon defends the camp as an example of lawful policy for a turbulent time. “During operations in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, US Forces held thousands of Law of War detainees,” said Lt Col Myles B Caggins III, a US Department of Defense spokesman for detainee policy. “These type of detentions are common practice during armed conflict. Detaining potentially dangerous people is the legal and humane method of providing security and stability for civilian populations.”
* * *
Some time after Baghdadi was released from Bucca, Abu Ahmed was also freed. After being flown to Baghdad airport, he was picked up by men he had met in Bucca. They took him to a home in the west of the capital, where he immediately rejoined the jihad, which had transformed from a fight against an occupying army into a vicious and unrestrained war against Iraqi Shia.
Death squads were by then roaming Baghdad and much of central Iraq, killing members of opposite sects with routine savagery and exiling residents from neighbourhoods they dominated. The capital had quickly become a very different place to the city Abu Ahmed had left a year earlier. But with the help of new arrivals at Bucca, those inside the prison had been able to monitor every new development in the unfolding sectarian war. Abu Ahmed knew the environment he was returning to. And his camp commanders had plans for him.
The first thing he did when he was safe in west Baghdad was to undress, then carefully take a pair of scissors to his underwear. “I cut the fabric from my boxers and all the numbers were there. We reconnected. And we got to work.” Across Iraq, other ex-inmates were doing the same. “It really was that simple,” Abu Ahmed said, smiling for the first time in our conversation as he recalled how his captors had been outwitted. “Boxers helped us win the war.”
Zarqawi wanted a 9/11 moment to escalate the conflict – something that would take the fight to the heart of the enemy, Abu Ahmed recalled. In Iraq, that meant one of two targets – a seat of Shia power or, even better, a defining religious symbol. In February 2006, and again two months later, Zarqawi’s bombers destroyed the Imam al-Askari shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad. The sectarian war was fully ignited and Zarqawi’s ambitions realised.
Asked about the merits of this violent provocation, Abu Ahmed paused for the first time in our many conversations. “There was a reason for opening this war,” he said. “It was not because they are Shia, but because the Shia were pushing for it. The American army was facilitating the takeover of Iraq and giving the country to them. They were in cooperation with each other.”
He then reflected on the man who gave the orders. “Zarqawi was very smart. He was the best strategist that the Islamic State has had. Abu Omar [al-Baghdadi] was ruthless,” Abu Ahmed said, referring to Zarqawi’s successor, who was killed in a US-led raid in April 2010. “And Abu Bakr is the most bloodthirsty of all.
“After Zarqawi was killed, the people who liked killing even more than him became very important in the organisation. Their understanding of sharia and of humanity was very cheap. They don’t understand the Tawheed (the Qur’anic concept of God’s oneness) the way it was meant to be understood. The Tawheed should not have been forced by war.”
Despite reservations that were already starting to stir, by 2006, Abu Ahmed had become part of a killing machine that would operate at full speed for much of the following two years. Millions of citizens were displaced, neighbourhoods were cleansed along sectarian lines, and an entire population numbed by unchecked brutality.
That summer, the US finally caught up with Zarqawi, with the help of Jordanian intelligence, killing him in an airstrike north of Baghdad. From late 2006, the organisation was on the back foot – hampered by a tribal revolt that uprooted its leadership from Anbar and shrank its presence elsewhere in Iraq. But according to Abu Ahmed, the group used the opportunity to evolve, revealing a pragmatism in addition to its hardline ideology. For Isis, the relatively quiet years between 2008 and 2011 represented a lull, not a defeat.
By this time, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had risen steadily through the group to become a trusted aide to its leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and his deputy, the Egyptian jihadist Abu Ayub al-Masri. It was at this point, Abu Ahmed said, that Isis made an approach to the Ba’athist remnants of the old regime – ideological opponents who shared a common enemy in the US and the Shia-led government it backed.
Earlier incarnations of Isis had dabbled with the Ba’athists, who lost everything when Saddam was ousted, under the same premise that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. But by early 2008, Abu Ahmed and other sources said, these meetings had become far more frequent – and many of them were taking place in Syria.
Syria’s links to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq had been regularly raised by US officials in Baghdad and by the Iraqi government. Both were convinced that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, allowed jihadists to fly into Damascus airport, where military officials would escort them to the border with Iraq. “All the foreigners I knew got into Iraq that way,” Abu Ahmed told me. “It was no secret.”
* * *
From 2008, when the US began to negotiate the transition of its powers to Iraq’s feeble security institutions – and therefore pave the way to its own exit – the Americans increasingly turned to only a few trusted figures in the Iraqi government. One of them was Major General Hussein Ali Kamal, the director of intelligence in the country’s Interior Ministry. A secular Kurd who had the trust of the Shia establishment, one of Kamal’s many duties was to secure Baghdad against terror attacks.
Like the Americans, General Kamal was convinced that Syria was destabilising Iraq, an assessment based on the interrogations of jihadists who had been captured by his troops. Throughout 2009, in a series of interviews, Kamal laid out his evidence, using maps that plotted the routes used by jihadists to cross the border into western Iraq, and confessions that linked their journeys to specific mid-ranking officers in Syrian military intelligence.
As Isis activity ebbed in Iraq, he had become increasingly obsessed with two meetings that had taken place in Syria early in 2009, which brought together Iraqi jihadists, Syrian officials and Ba’athists from both countries. (Kamal, who was diagnosed with a rare cancer in 2012, died earlier this year, and authorised me to publish details of our conversations. “Just tell the truth,” he said during our last interview in June 2014.)
When I first met him in 2009, he was poring over transcripts of recordings that had been made at two secret meetings in Zabadani, near Damascus, in the spring of that year. The attendees included senior Iraqi Ba’athists who had taken refuge in Damascus since their patron Saddam was ousted, Syrian military intelligence officers, and senior figures in what was then known as al-Qaida in Iraq. The Syrians had developed links to the jihadists since the earliest days of the anti-US insurgency and had used them to unsettle the Americans and their plans for Iraq.
“By early in 2004/05, Islamic elements, jihadists and disenfranchised Ba’athists were starting to get together,” said Ali Khedery, the former adviser to American ambassadors and senior commanders in Bagdhad. “They were naturally disciplined, well organised people who knew the lay of the land. And over time, some folks who were Ba’athists became more and more Islamist and the insurgency raged. By 2007, General [David] Petraeus was saying there was crystal clear intelligence of cooperation between Syrian military intelligence and the jihadists. Though the motivations never really aligned 100%.”
In our conversations, Abu Ahmed emphasised the Syrian connection to Iraq’s insurgency. “The mujahideen all came through Syria,” he said. “I worked with many of them. Those in Bucca had flown to Damascus. A very small number had made it from Turkey, or Iran. But most came to Iraq with the help of the Syrians.”
The supply line was viewed by Iraqi officials as an existential threat to Iraq’s government and was the main source of the poisonous relationship between Nouri al-Maliki, then Iraq’s prime minister, and Bashar al-Assad. Maliki had become convinced early in the civil war that Assad was trying to undermine his regime as a way to embarrass the Americans, and the evidence he saw in 2009 from the meeting in Damascus took his loathing of the Syrian leader to a whole new level.
“We had a source in the room wearing a wire,” at the meeting in Zabadani, General Kamal told me at the time. “He is the most sensitive source we have ever had. As far as we know, this is the first time there has been a strategic level meeting between all of these groups. It marks a new point in history.”
The Ba’athists present led the meeting. Their aim, according to General Kamal’s source, was to launch a series of spectacular attacks in Baghdad and thereby undermine Maliki’s Shia-majority government, which had for the first time begun to assert some order in post-civil war Iraq. Until then, al-Qaida in Iraq and the Ba’athists had been fierce ideological enemies, but the rising power of the Shias – and their backers in Iran – brought them together to plan a major strike on the capital.
By July 2009, the Interior Ministry had increased security at all checkpoints across the Tigris river into Baghdad, making a commute at any time of day even more insufferable than normal. And then General Kamal received a message from his source in Syria. The extra security at the bridges had been spotted by the attack plotters, he said. New targets were being chosen, but he didn’t know what they were, or when they would be hit. For the next two weeks, Kamal worked well into the evening in his fortified office in the southern suburb of Arasat, before being sped by armoured convoy across the July 14 Bridge – which had been a target only days earlier – to his home inside the Green Zone.
For the rest of the month, General Kamal spent several hours each scorching night sweating it out on a treadmill, hoping that the exercise would clear his head and get him ahead of the attackers. “I may be losing weight, but I’m not finding the terrorists,” he told me during our last conversation before the attackers finally struck. “I know they’re planning something big.”
On the morning of 19 August, the first of three flat-bed trucks carrying three large 1000-litre water tanks, each filled with explosives, detonated on an overpass outside the Finance Ministry in south-eastern Baghdad. The blast sent a rumble across the Emerald City, raising desert soil that caked homes brown, and sending thousands of pigeons scattering through the sky. Three minutes later, a second enormous bomb blew up outside the Foreign Ministry on the northern edge of the Green Zone. Shortly after that, a third blast hit a police convoy near the Finance Ministry. More than 101 people were killed and nearly 600 wounded; it was one of the deadliest attacks in the six-year-old Iraqi insurgency.
“I failed,” Kamal told me that day. “We all failed.” Within hours, he was summoned to meet Maliki and his security chiefs. The prime minister was livid. “He told me to present what I had to the Syrians,” Kamal later said. “We arranged with Turkey to act as a mediator and I flew to Ankara to meet with them. I took this file” – he tapped a thick white folder on his desk – “and they could not argue with what we showed them. The case was completely solid and the Syrians knew it. Ali Mamlouk [the head of Syrian general security] was there. All he did was look at me smiling and say ‘I will not recognise any official from a country that is under US occupation’. It was a waste of time.” Iraq recalled its ambassador to Damascus, and Syria ordered its envoy to Baghdad home in retaliation. Throughout the rest of the year, and into early 2010, relations between Maliki and Assad remained toxic.
In March 2010, Iraqi forces, acting on a US tip, arrested an Islamic State leader named Munaf Abdul Rahim al-Rawi, who was revealed to be one of the group’s main commanders in Baghdad, and one of the very few people who had access to the group’s then leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Al-Rawi talked. And in a rare moment of collaboration, Iraq’s three main intelligence bodies, including General Kamal’s Intelligence Division, conspired to get a listening device and GPS location tracker in a flower box delivered to Abu Omar’s hideout.
After it was confirmed that Abu Omar and his deputy, Abu Ayub al-Masri, were present at a house six miles south-west of Tikrit, it was attacked in a US-led raid. Both men detonated suicide vests to avoid being captured. Messages to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were found on a computer inside the house. Much like Bin Laden’s safe house in Pakistan, where he would be killed a little more than a year later, Abu Omar’s hideout had no internet connections or telephone lines – all important messages were carried in and out by only three men. One of them was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“Abu Bakr was a messenger for Abu Omar,” Abu Ahmed told me. “He became the closest aide to him. The messages that got to Osama bin Laden were sometimes drafted by him and their journey always started with him. When Abu Omar was killed, Abu Bakr was made leader. That time we all had in Bucca became very important again.”
The deaths of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri were a serious blow to Isis, but the roles they had vacated were quickly filled by the alumni of Camp Bucca – whose upper echelons had begun preparing for this moment since their time behind the wire of their jail in southern Iraq. “For us it was an academy,” Abu Ahmed said, “but for them” – the senior leaders – “it was a management school. There wasn’t a void at all, because so many people had been mentored in prison.
“When [the civil war in] Syria became serious,” he continued, “it wasn’t difficult to transfer all that expertise to a different battle zone. The Iraqis are the most important people on the military and Shura councils in Isis now, and that is because of all of those years preparing for such an event. I underestimated Baghdadi. And America underestimated the role it played in making him what he is.”
* * *
Abu Ahmed remains a member of Isis; he is active in the group’s operations in both Iraq and Syria. Throughout our discussions, he portrayed himself as a man reluctant to stay with the group, and yet unwilling to risk any attempt to leave.
Life with Isis means power, money, wives and status – all attractive lures for young firebrands with a cause – but it also means killing and dominating for a worldview in which he no longer believes so fervently. He said hundreds of young men like him, who were drawn to a Sunni jihad after the US invasion, do not believe that the latest manifestation of the decade-long war remains true to its origins.
“The biggest mistake I made is to join them,” Abu Ahmed said, but added that leaving the group would mean that he and his family would certainly be killed. Staying and enforcing the group’s brutal vision, despite partially disavowing it, does not trouble Abu Ahmed, who sees himself as having few other options.
“It’s not that I don’t believe in Jihad,” he said. “I do,” he continued, his voice trailing away. “But what options do I have? If I leave, I am dead.”
The arc of his involvement with what is now the world’s most menacing terrorist group mirrors many others who now hold senior positions in the group: first a battle against an invading army, then a score to be settled with an ancient sectarian foe, and now, a war that could be acting out an end of days prophecy.
In the world of the Bucca alumni, there is little room for revisionism, or reflection. Abu Ahmed seems to feel himself swept along by events that are now far bigger than him, or anyone else.
“There are others who are not ideologues,” he said, referring to senior Isis members close to Baghdadi. “People who started out in Bucca, like me. And then it got bigger than any of us. This can’t be stopped now. This is out of the control of any man. Not Baghdadi, or anyone else in his circle.”
Martin Chulov covers the Middle East for the Guardian. He has reported from the region since 2005. Additional reporting by Salaam Riazk
They entered the hairdresser’s shop together. One looked serious, covered in traditional Islamic dress; while the other seemed more lively, wearing pants and lots of makeup. The first woman had an authoritarian air that she tried to impose on the second, who ignored her as best she could.
They looked like sisters, except for the hatred that filled their eyes. The hairdresser got close and whispered into my ear, “They are sister-wives.” The hostile air between them dissuaded me from asking about the particulars of sharing the same man.
Similar examples are easy to find in all of Gaza’s social strata, be they rich, poor or even middle class.
“Assaad al-Ghazi,” a pseudonym, has been married to two women for the past 10 years. Ghazi, 40, told Al-Monitor that men are driven into polygamist relationships for a variety of reasons, such as dissatisfaction with the first wife, emotional needs or love for another woman. He explained that being married to two women is a source of trouble in his life, “I am constantly worried that one of them will be treated unfairly, particularly considering that I have children from both.” He indicated that he cannot always be equitable, and sometimes has to lie to one of the two.
“Ahlam Ahmad,” 38, had achieved financial and professional independence before choosing to become a second wife three years ago. She told Al-Monitor, “Becoming the second wife is the worst decision that a woman can make. She will always live with the guilt of taking what was not hers.”
She added, “In most instances, the second wife discovers that 90% of the things that her husband told her about his circumstances and his first wife were lies.” She explained that problems arose when the first wife did not accept her husband marrying another woman. Neither woman talked to the other at all, which is not usually the case between sister-wives.
“Salma Awad,” 35, is an attractive woman to whom dozens of men have proposed, but chose to become the second wife of a married man she fell in love with. She told Al-Monitor, “I think that deciding to become a second wife is a choice born out of necessity. In all cases, it is a difficult decision because marriage is difficult enough in itself, let alone to an already married man.”
Salma reminisced about lost dreams and the many concessions that had to be made both emotionally and on her principles, as well as the lies that were uncovered, leading her in the end to a harsh and painful life. She added, “In the beginning, I was wrought with jealousy. But I have learned to accept reality and now have more time to concentrate on work and self-development.”
“Omnia Salem,” 33, discovered by chance that her husband had married another, despite their marriage still being a love story. “You cannot imagine the pain and humiliation that I felt, particularly considering that we were raising our children. For what will the future hold, now that it includes an outsider?”
She added that she understands that such practices were allowed in the Muslim religion, for reasons relating to a wife’s infertility or sickness. But she believes that polygamy can only lead to injustice between sister-wives, and is an indication of a man’s selfishness when he marries another despite loving his first wife. Describing how her life was shattered, Omnia said, “I constantly think about divorce, only to preserve my sense of self and maintain my dignity in the eyes of my children.”
Human rights organizations have called for restricting this practice through the imposition of conditions, such as requiring a pressing need to marry another, informing the new wife of the existence of the first, informing the first wife that the husband intends to marry another, as well as guaranteeing her the right to seek separation.
In the corridors of the Sharia Court in Gaza City, a staff member who preferred to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor, “The deteriorating economic situation in the Gaza Strip makes a first marriage nearly impossible to maintain, let alone a second one. But after the last war, second marriages are on the rise, due to the increased number of widows.”
He clarified that statistics indicate that second marriages totaled 1,376 in 2012, rising to 1,466 in 2013. He added, “These cases include divorced men who remarried and men who married a second wife.”
We were interrupted by a citizen who came to have a power of attorney notarized in preparation for marrying a woman living in Germany. The man was older, so we asked whether he was already married. He replied, “Yes, I am. My first wife and children approve because she will take us all to Germany.”
The chairman of the Supreme Islamic Courts Council, Hassan al-Joujou, told Al-Monitor, “Second marriages in Sharia are exceptions and not the rule, with Sharia condoning only marriages to one wife.” He continued, “This is as far as religion is concerned, but the law gives men the right to marry more than one woman without any [specific] reasons. In this sense, legislators, not us, may restrict this right.”
Asked about the contention that the lengthy rule of Islamic-oriented Hamas led to the increase of this phenomenon, as some of the movement’s most renowned leaders have multiple wives, Joujou expressed his disagreement. He added, “Polygamy is born out of personal conviction, irrespective of any party or policy.”
At the end of the 1990s, following the ascent of the Palestinian Authority to power in 1997, a group of female activists worked to change the personal status law by establishing the Mashriqiyat organization, which was met with overwhelming social rejection.
Women’s rights activist Izza al-Kafarneh told Al-Monitor, “Despite my rejection of second marriages, we in Mashriqiyat asked that second marriages be restricted rather than outlawed, for a ban of polygamy would be unacceptable. In that, we based our opinion on religious jurisprudence, and submitted a series of recommendations endorsed by all parties, including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. But the issue was never implemented on the ground.”
It wasn’t easy growing up as a teenage Muslim girl, with a father who thought he owned your body just because he put a roof over your head or food on the table. Not just that—this was a Muslim man who perverted the teachings of his own religion to justify the sexual abuse that he inflicted upon me, his own daughter.
He would say a good girl “must listen” and “respect” her father’s needs.
“You think I’m spending all this money on you just so another man can have you?” he would say to me as he tried to brush up against my breasts or backside. He would make jokes out of it. But I knew this abuse was no joke. I would scream at the top of my lungs, curse him, and sometimes even slap him in the face to defend myself.
It’s difficult and almost impossible to explain what it feels like to be treated like a piece of property, a useless object that is only created to satisfy the sexual desires of a man—especially when that man is your own father. I was so embarrassed by what he did that I was scared to bring home my girlfriends. I was scared they’d find him out. I was scared of being judged.
At times, I even blamed myself. I thought if I dressed more conservatively that maybe he would stop. But it didn’t stop.
Today, I wonder how far my father would’ve gone if I did not defend myself when he’d try to make contact with my body. Would he have had the courage to rape me? Would he have had the lack of heart to go further? I’ll never know.
Still, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I am someone who didn’t feel obliged to give him what he wanted, simply because he was supporting me financially, as he would say. I am also one of the lucky ones who dared to defend herself.
I never spoke about it publicly until now because I wanted to protect my father. That’s the way it works, especially when you live in a conservative Middle Eastern household that puts so much emphasis on honor and family pride. I didn’t want to hurt his reputation or get him in trouble with authorities. Some women worry about the well-being of their abusers because they are family members. They also fear the social stigma. In fact, domestic abuse is one of the most chronically underreported crimes worldwide, let alone in Egypt.
‘A HOUSEHOLD AFFAIR’
More than a third of women in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia report have been subjected to physical or sexual abuse from a partner at some point in their life, a 2013 study by the World Health Organization found. In the U.S., 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women. One in every four women in this country will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime.
In Egypt specifically, 47 percent of women ever married reported that they have been victims of physical violence in their household, according to a 2005 study by the Egypt Demographic and Health Survey. Nearly 45 percent of the women said that they had been a victim of violence by a male other than their husband. The fathers in the households were reported twice as often as brothers to be the abusers, the study found.
An Egyptian women’s rights activist, who was molested by her grandfather at the age of 7, told me that at one point as a child she thought it was acceptable for her father’s dad to abuse her. Although this happened almost 30 years ago, she asked me to keep her name confidential because of the sensitivity of her family’s situation.
“He used to babysit me and my little brother,” she said. “I liked to paint, so he would keep papers and colors in his briefcase as bait to lure me into the closet with him.”
That’s where her grandfather would molest her—in the closet. She was left guilty, confused, and broken. She still carries that pain decades later.
“I saw how close my grandpa was to my dad,” she said, her voice cracking with sorrow. “I thought my parents knew about it and approved of it all. It continued for two years till I was about 9, but for me it went on forever.”
Since then she couldn’t stand being in the same room with him. Her family, a traditional Middle Eastern family, was in denial. “He would touch me inappropriately in front of them, and it’s like it was normal,” she said. When she turned 18 and her grandfather had passed away, the young woman finally mustered enough courage to tell her family. But it was to no avail. They called her a liar and accused her of trying to ruin her grandfather’s legacy.
She never considered going to the police, and neither did I.
When such violence happens in Egypt, many women say the police simply do not care. They don’t even see it as physical or sexual abuse—they see it as a household affair between the man and his wife, or family. Consequently, the woman, who is responsible for raising the children, is left to deal with her suffering on her own. Her pain is then inflicted on her children, and the suffering continues. Beyond that, boys who witness violence in the home are twice as likely to abuse their children or partners when they become adults, according to one U.S. study. Hardly unique to a single country, however, this is the global domestic cycle of violence.
CULTURE PLAYS A HUGE PART
In my case, my father never learned how to treat women. It wasn’t because he was Muslim; he was far from upholding the pillars of his faith. In fact, Islamic teachings preach the exact opposite: They state that you must be loving, caring, and attentive as you raise your children. It was because he grew up in a chauvinistic society that taught men they could do whatever they want and get away with it—simply because they did not have a hymen. My father would often boast about how society would never put the blame on him as a man if my mother asked for a divorce. He said it is the woman who is always shunned. And he was right.
My mother eventually left my father, but the damage was already done. She was blamed for ruining her marriage, even though she told her brothers and family that he had done deplorable things.
My father grew up in an authoritarian, impoverished system that treated women like objects—a system that still exists today under the rule of a military-backed government and a relentless patriarchal regime. Although my father was an educated man and a doctor of medicine, the system in which he was raised left an odious imprint on his character.
This system continues to leave the same impression on Egyptian youth. In a recent video, young Egyptian boys are asked why they think women are harassed so much in Egypt. Their answers were shocking: Each said women who are harassed are asking for it because of how they dress.
Men who cling to archaic Middle Eastern values continue to patronize the women of their culture. Many of these men are self-proclaimed moderates, yet when it comes to women, they have constructed different rules for themselves, restricting women to the specific roles of mothers, daughters, or wives—roles that are defined only by serving the men in their lives. They tell us how to dress so we do not get raped. They tell us not to raise our voices so as not to tempt men. They tell us not to be ambitious so we don’t intimidate the men who will pursue us for marriage.
Looking back on my own experiences, I have learned that it is imperative that we start teaching our Middle Eastern sons that they do not own the women in their families; rather, they owe these women. It is also crucial to start teaching our daughters that they control their own destinies—not the man or the father, simply because he pays the bills. As women, we must stop being afraid.
BLAME, STIGMA, AND HOW TO MOVE FORWARD
Violence and sexual assault in Egypt have reached new lows and continue to constrict the participation of women in society. Nearly 100 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lives, according to the 2013 UN study. Some men and women will tell you that a woman deserves harassment if she isn’t dressed conservatively or if she’s out late. A woman who was sexually assaulted by a mob of men at Cairo University in March was blamed for her own attack. Tamer Amin, a prominent Egyptian TV show host, said the girl was wearing “dancer’s clothes” and that she was “seducing” and “provoking” the boys. It is as if women are somehow public property in Egypt.
The Middle East, particularly Egypt, has a long way to go when it comes to women’s rights. In patriarchal societies like these, women and children are perceived as the weaker creatures that exist only to serve the needs of the men in society, even though among married women, about 62 percent provide more or half of their families’ income, according to the World Bank. Among single women, 7 percent are the sole breadwinners and 27 percent provide half or more their families’ income, the study shows.
But the important thing is that women should not be afraid to speak up. I was quiet about my father’s abuse for over a decade. I thought it was a test I had to pass for him to respect me as his daughter. Because Middle Eastern families put endless pressure on women to protect their chastity and so-called honor, women and girls feel it is their fault if they are abused—even if it is abuse that comes from their own family members.
We must break this stigma. And as women, we must start with ourselves. Women and girls facing abuse must know that it is all right to speak out. If they don’t, future generations of women will not only suffer in silence but think they deserve the abuse inflicted upon them.
It is time to start exposing our secrets so we can heal and move forward.
Specialist Lynndie England holds an Iraqi detainee on a lead at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, 2003. Photo: Wikipedia.
When making sense of the people and things around us, it is often tempting to rely on binaries. There’s “us” and there’s “them”, there are “men” and “women”, “masculinities” and “femininities”, some are “white” others are not. These lists apply to our our daily routines as much as to extraordinary events. For example, the last few days have seen various forms of celebration for International Women’s Day. The ways in which such an occasion is observed highlight the common dichotomy between “men” and “women”. This constructed binary, like many others, may seem harmless. But those who consider themselves to be outside of that binary constuction argue would disagree, arguing that if you do not conform to the binary labels then suffer intolerance, insecurity and perhaps even violence. The…
Between the 23rd and 27th of February, students and staff at SOAS, University of London took to the ballot box in a school wide referendum which asked “should SOAS join the BDS call for an academic boycott of Israeli universities?”.
SOAS currently has formal links with the Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, which has strong ties to the Israeli military, this was clearly demonstrated during last years Gaza conflict when HU campaigned for scholarships donations for students fighting in the Israel Defense Force. An academic boycott would see SOAS end all institutional links with the Hebrew University and refrain from academic cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with this and other Israeli institutions. Supporting the referendum therefore entails supporting the boycott of institutions, not individuals: under the boycott Israeli academics would still be able to work with SOAS academics in their individual capacity, just not as official representatives of Israeli universities.
The referendum, which was open to all members of the SOAS community including students, academics, non-academic staff, University Governors as well as outsourced workers such as cleaners, security and catering enjoyed wide spread engagement within the University. No easy task considering SOAS represents one of the most diverse student bodies in the UK with over 5000 students and staff of multi-faith backgrounds from over 133 countries. After weeks of fierce campaigning from both Yes and No campaigns a total of 2056 individuals voted in the referendum of which a resounding 73% voted in favor of supporting the boycott (just 27% voted against). While the number of votes cast is less than half the entire student body, the turnout was significantly higher than any previous Students’ Union referendum or election, emphasizing the importance of the vote and the high level of engagement with the referendum process.
The referendum, which was organized by the Students’ Union and supported by on campus trade unions, UCU and UNISON, was one of the first such referenda to be held at a UK university and represents the growing appeal of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement within the British University sector. Since last summers Gaza conflict in which over 2100 Palestinians were killed by Israeli air strikes BDS has successfully reasserted itself as a powerful form of protest and resistance against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians. As such we are now witnessing a new wave of grassroots activism throughout Europe on campuses such as SOAS that seeks to directly challenge the normalization of Zionism and the oppression of Palestinian people within mainstream discourse. At the national level we have also witnessed an increase in support for the BDS movement with the UK National Union of Students also voting to support BDS in August 2014. After this latest victory for the BDS movement at SOAS it seems likely that many other institutions and groups both here in the UK and abroad will likely follow suit in the coming months.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the result of the referendum at SOAS quickly drew condemnation from some Zionist media, academics, and organizations both in the UK and in Israel. Most claim that the referendum represents an attack on free speech and an ever-increasing rise in anti-Semitism at British universities and should therefore not have been allowed to have taken place. In an attempt to undermine and discredit the result these same groups have challenged the right of the SOAS community to hold this referendum, even threatening legal action, and claim that it has fuelled intimidation and anti-Semitism. These claims ignore the fact that many Jewish students supported the boycott and actively participated in the campaign in favour of the Yes vote.
This is not the first time we have witnessed student unions in the UK being intimidated by Zionist lobbies, representing a greater trend of intimidation aimed ant any person or group who speaks out against Israeli atrocities. A pattern has now emerged in which anyone who seeks to challenge Israel’s atrocities and its occupation of the West Bank is quickly portrayed as anti-Semitic. The BDS movement has regularly found itself subject to such accusations despite academic consensus arguing the contrary and the fact that the BDS campaign denounces all forms of racism. This means that as legitimate, political opposition to Zionism and the atrocities committed by the Israeli state begin to build momentum, Zionist organisations attempt to delegitimise these successes through accusations of anti-Semitism.
Zionism is a political ideology that necessitates occupation of Palestinian land and the displacement and continued oppression of the Palestinian people. Claims that criticisms of Israeli state atrocities and Zionist ideology represent anti-Semitism portray the policies of the Israeli government as representative of all Jewish peoples and Judaism itself, rather than Zionism being the political project of a nation-state. This disregards the diversity of opinion among Jewish communities around the world, with many Jewish people both historically and presently opposing Zionism and Israeli government policy. It is extremely dangerous and disingenuous to conflate racism with legitimate political opposition to the ideology and policies of a nation-state. At a time when there is rising anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia and general intolerance of “others” across Europe it is vital that we oppose and dismantle these prejudices where they actually exist, as opposed to where they clearly do not.
So, why do external groups care so much about a referendum held at a small and specialist British university with a reputation of being pro-Palestine? The truth is that these groups realize the significance of this vote and of the real power and support behind the BDS movement. They are afraid, not by the vote at SOAS itself (which is not legally binding upon the university) but rather by the statement it sends to the rest of the world. SOAS is the first university in Europe to support the academic boycott of Israeli institutions setting a precedent, which other institutions will surely follow in the coming months. The referendum result at SOAS has therefore effectively opened a new front line of the anti-Zionist struggle in the UK, demonstrating how grassroots activism can put very real pressure on public institutions to implement the boycott.
There is now a battle to ensure the legitimacy of this vote is recognized for what it is – a victory for free speech, expression, anti-Zionism, for Palestine and for BDS. The referendum has successfully put Palestine at the center of the debate within the university sector and in doing so has helped galvanized support for the free Palestine movement. SOAS voting in favour of an academic boycott of Israel is evidence that people are increasingly angered by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, of is displacement of Bedouins in the Negev desert and of it’s indiscriminate blockade and bombing of Gaza. It is this which makes the referendum at SOAS so important and it is for this reason that external groups as far away as Israel itself are doing all in their power to delegitimize it under the guise of anti-Semitism. Through delegitimizing the vote at SOAS and threatening to pursue legal action these groups seeks to stifle any political dissent against Israeli atrocities and thus guarantee the State’s impunity from international scrutiny. Through conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism these groups are attempting to undermine such forms of grassroots activism, intimidate those involved, stifle political debate and thereby facilitate Israel’s continued expansion into the West Bank and oppression of the Palestinian people.
"gam. noun—a social meeting of two (or more) whaleships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews; the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other." Herman Melville, Moby Dick