To understand ISIS we need to understand that ISIS top people are the ex-people of Saddam Hussein i.e. the dictator of Iraq, who was overturned by the Americans in 2003. ISIS first appeared as Al-Qaeda of Iraq in 2004. The appearance of Al Qaeda of Iraq was an attempt of the ex-people of Saddam Huessein to fight the Americans and the Shiites.
The people of Saddam Hussein are the Sunni Arab minority of Iraq, who were oppressing the Shia Arabs (60-65%) of South Iraq, and the Sunni Kurds of Northern Iraq (10-15%). Most of the oil and gas of Iraq is located in the Shia and the Kurdish parts of the country. However it was the Sunni elite i.e. ISIS, which was exploiting this oil.
At the following map you can see with blue the Kurdish region of Iraq, with green the Shia part, and with yellow the Sunni part. The white parts are deserts with few inhabitants, and they are mainly controlled by the Sunni Iraqis.
Map of Iraq (Ethnic Groups)
Note that Iranians (Persians) were Sunnis, but in 1.500 A.D. the Iranian leaders converted their people to Shia Islam, in order to have a distinct identity and fight the Sunni Ottomans. The Iranians (Persians) and the Ottomans were fighting among other things for the fertile lands of Mesopotamia i.e. the region between the rivers Euphrates and Tiger.
That’s why there is a mix of Sunnis and Shias in Mesopotamia. See “This 16th Century Battle Created the Modern Middle East”, August 2014.
To understand ISIS one first needs to look back at the relations of the ex-people of Saddam Hussein with their neighbors.
Saddam and his people were enemies of Iran. They were competitors in the oil markets.
The two countries fought the brutal war of 1980-1988. Iran was also supporting the Shia majority of Iraq, while Iraq was trying to take from Iran the Khuzestan province at the Iranian-Iraqi borders. Khuzestan is one of the richest regions of Iran in oil and natural gas, and has an Arab majority.
Map of Oil (black)Natural Gas (red) of the Middle East
Moreover Iran and Iraq were fighting each other for the Shatt al Arab river, which is the conjugation of the rivers Tiger and Euphrates, and it is the last border between Iran and Iraq at the Persian Gulf.
Map Shatt al Arab
However the two countries were sharing the war against the United States. Moreover both countries counted on their oil exports to pay the public servants who support their regimes, and they both saw Saudi Arabia as a problem, because the oil fields of Saudi Arabia are very “easy” and the Saudi oil can be produced at very low cost and in huge quantities.
The Iranians and the Iraqis also shared their common anxiety about an independent Kurdistan. However due to their rivalry at times they both supported the Kurds of the opposite site.
Finally both countries do not want to see the oil and gas of Central Asia reaching India, and they both supported Al-Qaeda against the United States, even though Iran has been associated with Al-Qaeda a lot more than Iraq.
The people of Saddam were in very good terms with Turkey, even though Turkey was and American ally, and Iraq was a Soviet ally. Turkey bought a large part of her oil from Iraq, and the two countries were jointly hunting the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey. Moreover they both shared Syria as a common enemy.
Saddam had very problematic relations with Saudi Arabia. They were both exporters of oil, and the Saudis produced too much and at very low costs. All exporters of oil have this problem with Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand the Saudis provided Saddam with funding to fight Iran. Even though the Saudis did not like Saddam, they hated the Iranians.
Saddam Hussein was a great enemy of Syria, which was a very strong Iranian ally since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Syria had very few Kurds and could also support the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq.
The Iranians were also supplying free oil to Syria, in return for the Syrians fighting Iraq and for not allowing Iraq to export oil through Syria.
A very close ally of Saddam Hussein was Jordan. Iraq desperately needed the Jordanian port of Aqaba, in order to have access to the Red Sea, both to export oil and to import arms avoiding Iran and the Persian Gulf.
Map Iraq and Jordan
Moreover 2-3 out of the 10 millions of the population of Jordan were Arabs who fled Israel during the Arab-Israeli Wars. With the war against Israel Saddam Hussein was very popular in Jordan, and he really needed Jordan.
Jordan supported Saddam Hussein even during the 1991 war with Kuwait, infuriating both the Arabs of the Gulf and the United States.
Jordan was an American ally, and Iraq was a Soviet ally, but Saddam needed the Jordanian port of Aqaba and Jordan needed Iraq’s free oil, and that made them very good friends.
Israel was a great enemy of Saddam Hussein, because through Jordan and Israel Saddam could reach the Mediterranean Sea. Moreover Saddam needed the war against Israel to influence the Palestinians of Jordan, and to become popular in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, who were American allies and could not be as aggressive as Saddam towards Israel.
Saddam considered Kuwait to be part of Iraq, and wanted the oilfields of Kuwait, and he did take them in 1990 with his invasion.
Saddam thought that Kuwait produced too much oil and it was hurting the Iraqi economy. Saddam set the oilfields of Kuwait on fire before leaving the country after the Americans attacked him in 1991.
The Americans were outside Baghdad in 1991, but they did not overturn Saddam because that would increase Iran’s influence over the Iraqi Shiites, and that would be a problem for their Saudi allies. But in 2003 things were very different and the Americans did not hesitate to take Saddam Hussein out. Things have changed.
What ISIS can Do?
Therefore when ISIS was still Saddam’s people, it had good relations with Jordan and Turkey, very problematic relations with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and very hostile relations with Iran, Syria and Israel. Moreover Saddam was a soviet ally, and his people were trained by KGB. That’s why the top ISIS people are trained by KGB. See “Towards an Alliance Between Russia and ISIS”?
These were the friends and enemies of the people of Saddam, who became Al-Qaeda of Iraq in 2004, and gradually became ISIS, and they even denounced Al-Qaeda in 2014.
What were the options of Saddam’s people when they became ISIS? Their first option was obviously to take control of the Sunni part of Iraq, or at least form an organization to fight the Americans and the Shias of Iraq.
Keep in mind that the American attack to Saddam was a disaster for the Saudis, but it did not please the Iranians either. The Iranians suddenly saw the American army next to them, and they could be next. After all they too had supported the Al Qaeda’s attacks against the Americans.
Moreover the Iranians knew that once Saddam was overturned the Shia majority of Iran and the Kurds would see the Americans as liberators, and the oil of Iraq would soon start flowing to the world markets. And it did. It is the Chinese who are the number one producer of oil in Iraq, but the oil of Iraq does flow. During Saddam’s rule Iraq was under economic sanctions.
I am saying that the attacks of Al-Qaeda of Iraq against the Americans, at least in the first years of the American attack, could have been supported by Iran too. I do not know if they were, I am just saying they could.
ISIS big opportunity was when the Turks and the Arabs decided to take the Sunni part of Syria, in order to create a Sunni energy corridor (Turkey-Qatar) and to block Iran from reaching Syria (Saudi Arabia, UAE). ISIS cultivated the Islamic Caliphate ideology, in order to absorb the Sunni part of Syria, and if they could take the Alawite part of Syria they could reach the Mediterranean Sea.
At the following map of Syria you can see with yellow the Sunnis of Syria, with green the Alawites at the coasts, and with Khaki the Kurds. With white you can see the Syrian Desert.
Moreover ISIS could take the weak and Sunni Jordan. ISIS also claims Gaza from Israel and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, which would give ISIS total control of the Gulf of Aqaba, which would be an alternative Silk Road, and through Gaza it would take ISIS to the Mediterranean Sea.
The Israelis, the Egyptians and the Saudis, three old enemies, are cooperating at the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS. ISIS no longer has the oil and natural gas of Shia and Kurdish Iraq, and would need a sponsor to fight Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the same time, even through a war of terror.
Three countries could help ISIS. The first one is Russia, the second is Iran and the third is Turkey. Russia is in good terms with Israel and Egypt, and she has an understanding with Saudi Arabia, and therefore she is excluded.
Iran, which would be very happy to attack Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, is currently at war with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. We have seen many times two parties fighting in one place and cooperating in another, so it could be possible to see Iran supporting ISIS in Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, while still fighting in Iraq and Syria. After all ISIS is very weakened in Iraq and Syria. But a strong cooperation between Iran and ISIS, like the one between Iran and Hezbollah is difficult, at least for now. Unless Saddam’s people stop attacking the United States and they focus on Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Then they could be good friends with the Iranians.
About a year ago the Turks would also have been very happy to attack Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But now the Saudis had given lots of money to Turkey, and the Turks are trying to reach an agreement with Israel and Egypt, with Russia’s blessings, in order to import natural gas from Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Moreover Turkey has promised the Americans to fight ISIS in Syria, and in return the Americans will not supply the Kurds of Syria with arms, since the Kurds will not be threatened by ISIS, since ISIS will not be supported by Turkey. It is a circle. The circle of war.
Moreover I don’t know if ISIS vision is compatible with the vision of Erdogan. ISIS would have to accept Erdogan as the Sultan of the Chaliphate for the Sultan to support ISIS in the future.
But not now that Erdogan has promised to fight ISIS with the Americans and he is trying to reach a detent with the Israelis and the Egyptians it is not possible. If the Turks do not find a solution with the Israelis and the Egyptians, and ISIS stops attacking the United States, Erdogan could support ISIS against Israel and Egypt. For the vision of Erdogan see “Assessing the Sultan”.
Therefore at the moment it does not seem that there is a strong country that could and would be willing to support ISIS’s vision. Therefore ISIS can get some money from here and there to carry out some terrorist attacks, but it will not be strong enough to fight for its chaliphate. At least not for now.
“This 16th Century Battle Created the Modern Middle East”, August 2014
“ISIS: Everything you need to know about the rise of the militant group”, February
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The group began in 2004 as al Qaeda in Iraq, before rebranding as ISIS two years later. It was an ally of — and had similarities with — Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda: both were radical anti-Western militant groups devoted to establishing an independent Islamic state in the region. But ISIS — unlike al Qaeda, which disowned the group in early 2014 — has proven to be more brutal and more effective at controlling territory it has seized.
ISIS is putting governing structures in place to rule the territories the group conquers once the dust settles on the battlefield. From the cabinet and the governors to the financial and legislative bodies, ISIS’ bureaucratic hierarchy looks a lot like those of some of the Western countries whose values it rejects — if you take away the democracy and add in a council to consider who should be beheaded.
“Al-Qaeda Claims Jordan Attacks”, November 2005
“The Effects of the Amman Bombings on U.S.-Jordanian Relations”, July 2016
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But anti-U.S. tensions lurk beneath the surface. Experts say the two biggest thorns in the U.S.-Jordanian relationship are the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jordanians came out in droves to protest the 2003 Iraq war. Similarly, a July poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 38 percent of Jordanians surveyed said the main cause of Islamic extremism is U.S. policies in the Middle East—namely its support for Israel. More than half of Jordan’s citizens are of Palestinian descent—270,000 of whom reside in refugee camps. Meanwhile, according to the same poll, support for al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in Jordan has jumped from 55 percent in 2003 to 60 percent in 2005 the only Muslim country where al-Qaeda’s leader has not lost popularity besides Pakistan. A number of the most notorious terrorist leaders in recent years have hailed from Jordan, including Abu al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the now-deceased rebel Khattab in Chechnya. “Jordan is a very important base for the development of local jihad,” says Reuven Paz, an Israeli expert on Islamic terrorism.
Experts say another disturbing trend in Jordan, highlighted in the July Pew poll, is that Jordan is the only Muslim country where support for suicide bombs against innocent civilians in defense of Islam has risen, not dropped; a majority of Jordanians—some 57 percent—now say they support suicide bombing, as opposed to 42 percent in 2002. It’s unclear what effect, if any, the recent trio of suicide attacks, which left at least fifty-seven dead and hundreds wounded, will have on public views of these kinds of bombings. “I think it will empower the existing relationship [between the United States and Jordan],” says Samer Abu Libdeh, a Jordanian scholar and visiting research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But it must also quicken the reform and democratization process in order for the king to gain more support among the mass majority and avoid more young radicals and their sympathizers to rise up.”
A Brief History of U.S.-Jordanian Relations
Historically, the Sunni Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has been a small, resource-poor country that in recent years has relied increasingly on the support—both monetary and political—of the United States. From 1953 until 1999, Jordan was ruled by King Hussein, a moderate by Middle Eastern standards but still an authoritarian. Besides the so-called Black September crackdown against Jordan-based Palestinian rebels in 1970 that left thousands dead, Jordan has remained relatively stable despite the escalating violence that encircled its borders. Throughout the 1980s,Amman backed Iraq during its war with Iran. In 1990-91, Jordan remained neutral during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Then in 1994, thanks to nudging from the United States, King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel—a move widely criticized by most Jordanians. In the following years, money from the United States poured into the country, making Jordan, behind Egypt and Israel, the region’s third largest recipient of U.S. aid.
Since succeeding his father in 1999, King Abdullah, King Hussein’s eldest son, has pursued what the Economist calls a policy of “studied neutrality.” Despite the war’s unpopularity, Jordan officially backed theIraqwar in 2003, although it only provided logistical support and allowed no U.S.military presence on its soil (more recently Jordan has served as a training ground for Iraqi security forces). The war was not only unpopular among Jordanians for political reasons but also for economic ones: Jordan had received subsidized oil from Saddam Hussein’s regime, not to mention a large sector of Jordanian businessmen lost jobs in Iraq because of the war.
“The Cheneys’ claim of a ‘deep, longstanding, far-reaching relationship’ between al-Qaeda and Saddam”, July 2014
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“It is undisputed, and has been confirmed repeatedly in Iraqi government documents captured after the invasion, that Saddam had deep, longstanding, far-reaching relationships with terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and its affiliates. It is undisputed that Saddam’s Iraq was a state based on terror, overseeing a coordinated program to support global jihadist terrorist organizations. Ansar al Islam, an al Qaeda-linked organization, operated training camps in northern Iraq before the invasion. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the future leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, funneled weapons and fighters into these camps, before the invasion, from his location in Baghdad. We also know, again confirmed in documents captured after the war, that Saddam provided funding, training, and other support to numerous terrorist organizations and individuals over decades, including to Ayman al Zawahiri, the man who leads al Qaeda today.”
We became interested in this passage after our former colleague Warren Bass, now at The Wall Street Journal, tweeted that the 9/11 Commission report disputed that there was a “deep, longstanding, far-reaching” relationship between Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.
Bass, who had been on the commission staff, quoted from the 9/11 report: “The reports describe friendly contacts and indicate some common themes in both sides’ hatred of the United States. But to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.”
Liz Cheney then responded to Bass, noting that “we have learned much more since then about the relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda based on Iraqi intelligence documents captured after the report came out.” She specifically cited a five-volume collection published by Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), a think tank for national security agencies.
“Zarqawi’s Amman Bombings: Jordan’s 9/11”, November 2015
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The November 9th bombing of three hotels in Amman is Jordan’s 9/11. The simultaneous attacks, claimed by Abu Musab Zarqawi’s “al-Qaeda in Iraq” terrorist network, killed 57 people, most of them Jordanians. Despite speculation about Jordan’s continued stability, the attacks, and the widespread revulsion that they have triggered among Jordanians and other Arabs, may actually bolster King Abdullah’s government. In Jordan and perhaps elsewhere, this may be a turning point in the war against terrorism. By indiscriminately attacking fellow Muslims, al-Qaeda may have stripped the sheen from its image, lessening the appeal of extremism among younger Muslims.
The Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, led by the Jordanian militant Zarqawi, has claimed responsibility for the bombings. Although Zarqawi’s organization has roots in Jordan, it recruited four Iraqi suicide bombers, including a husband and wife team, to execute the attacks, perhaps to preserve its Jordanian members for future attacks inside that country. The woman’s bomb failed to explode, and she was later captured after al-Qaeda’s statement claiming responsibility for the atrocity alerted Jordanian authorities to her participation.
The operational shortcomings of the bombings were accompanied by political miscalculations. Many Jordanians have long supported suicide bombings against Israel and against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. Zarqawi was a local hero to Jordanian Islamic militants and even to some Jordanians who did not share his radical ideology but were impressed by his high profile attacks inside Iraq.
But the Amman bombings, which slaughtered dozens of Jordanian men, women, and children who were celebrating a wedding, have outraged Jordanians of all stripes. Jordan’s Palestinian majority, which might have reacted with schadenfreude toward an attack that targeted King Abdullah’s government (resented since its 1994 peace treaty with Israel) were shocked by the deaths of many Palestinians who perished in the bombings. Among the dead were the head of the Palestinian Authority’s military intelligence and the brother of the speaker of the Palestinian National Assembly. For several days after the bombings, Jordanians took to the streets to participate in large demonstrations, shouting, “Burn in hell, al-Zarqawi.”
Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan in 1989, where he met bin Laden. Although he had much in common with the Saudi millionaire, Zarqawi considered bin Laden too moderate. He retained his independence from al-Qaeda and set up a separate training camp in Afghanistan for his own terrorist group, Tawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Holy War). After the Taliban’s 2001 defeat, he fled through Iran, apparently with the cooperation of the Iranian government, and set up operations in Iraq before the war, with the suspected support of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In 2004, Zarqawi merged his group with bin Laden’s and was named the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Although he still has ideological differences with bin Laden, including a fierce hostility to Shiites that has led his group to bomb Shiite mosques in Iraq, Zarqawi now ranks second only to bin Laden in the eyes of many Sunni Islamic extremists.
“ISIS Comes to Gaza”
Mahmoud Abbas and the leaders of the Palestinian Authority can continue to talk all they want about a Palestinian state that would be established in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. But when ISIS-inspired groups are active in the Gaza Strip and there are no signs that the Hamas regime is weakening, it is rather difficult to imagine a Palestinian state. Abbas has not been able to set foot in the Gaza Strip since 2007. Even his private residence in Gaza City is off-limits to him. But Hamas is just the beginning of the story for Abbas. The jihadi groups clearly seek to create an Islamic emirate combining the Gaza Strip and Sinai. The Palestinian Authority president might thank Israel for its presence in the West Bank — a presence that allows him and his government to be something other than infidel cannon fodder for the jihadis.
“ISIS Meets its Match? How Jordan Has Prevented Large Scale Attacks”, February 2016
At first glance, Jordan would appear to be a prime target for the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS). For one, ISIS has struck almost all of Jordan’s neighbors. In May 2015, there was the bloody attack in a Saudi Arabian mosque; in November, a Russian plane inEgypt came under attack. ISIS hit an Iraqi shopping mall in January 2016, and it has targeted Syrian regime troops for two years now. Since 2014, ISIS has killed18,000 Iraqi civilians. In 2015 alone, it killed approximately 2,000 Syrians.
ISIS’ 2015 immolation of captured Jordanian pilot Muath Kasasbeh inside Syria was a unifying moment for the country. Whereas a month before the attack only 72 percent of Jordanians believed that ISIS should be considered a terrorist group, after Kasasbeh’s death the proportion jumped to a staggering 95 percent of the population. Jordan’s influential Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, called the killing “heinous” and “criminal.”
Even Jordan’s military prowess, however, can’t fully explain how the country has so far avoided ISIS attacks. Egypt has a large and well-funded military, too, yet Egyptian militants affiliated with ISIS have successfully carved out territory in the Sinai. Here, Jordan’s relatively more open political space is key. During the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Amman adopted a peaceful approach that avoided significant casualties, whereas the Syrian and Libyan regimes used overwhelming force to quash political rivals (later alienating vast parts of the country and leaving ISIS with resentments to exploit). For example, in response to anticorruption protests, King Abdullah of Jordan quickly dismissed Prime Minister Samir Rifai along with the cabinet. The government moved up parliamentary elections by two years in January 2013, and security forces largely avoided a lethal crackdown on protesters, unlike in Damascus and Benghazi.
Further, in contrast with the bloody struggles between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government, King Abdullah and Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood have established more tolerant relations. For one, although it seeks reform, the Muslim Brotherhood has not called for the end of Jordan’s monarchy. And Amman has not followed Saudi Arabia’s path of labeling Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organization” and has allowed Jordanians interested in nonviolent political Islam a place to operate safely.
And this is where ISIS’ own priorities come in. As Rantawi explained, “Jordan so far is not on the [list of] top priorities of ISIS targets in the region. They have more important targets for the time being.” ISIS has loyalist fighters across the Middle East, but the group has not announced a Jordanian branch. Adnan Abu Odeh, former royal court chief and UN ambassador, cited Jordan’s negligible Shiite population as a factor. ISIS has frequently hit Shiite targets in Lebanonand Yemen. The group also appears more intent on its ideological clash with Riyadh over who represents the true Islam, so it might be more interested in targets in Saudi Arabia.
“ISIS in Gaza”, January 2016
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Since 2007 Hamas has been the de facto government of Gaza, albeit under Israeli rule—a rule implemented nowadays by means of a military and naval blockade by air, land, and sea, which is described by the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, as “a collective penalty against the people of Gaza.” Hamas is itself an Islamist resistance movement, with a resistance “army” called al-Qassam, but Hamas members are seen as infidels by ISIS since they place the nationalist battle for a Palestinian state before the campaign for a caliphate. Hamas’s willingness to negotiate with Israel and to agree to a cease-fire last summer was seen by ISIS as the latest demonstration of its collaboration.ISIS supporters inside Gaza have shown their opposition and tried to break the cease-fire by firing rockets into Israel, thereby angering Hamas and risking heavy Israeli retaliation.
In recent months, Hamas has tried to crush groups of Salafi jihadists in Gaza, some of whom declare open support for ISIS and are in touch with its networks in Syria. As well as rounding them up Hamas has “persuaded” moderate Salafi sheikhs to help convince jihadists that their interpretation of Muhammad’s wishes is wrong. One of these sheikhs is Omar Hams.
“Abu Musab al-Zarqawi”
“Saddam Hussein : The Father of ISIS in Iraq”
Assessing the Sultan
“How Saddam Hussein Gave Us ISIS”, January 2016
“Flashback: the 1991 Iraqi revolt”, August 2007
“Saddam has Koran written in his blood”, December 2002