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Q&A with Vijay Prashad on the Islamic State

The rise of the terrorist group which has declared itself an Islamic State and intends to establish a caliphate over significant parts of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey is now the most pressing and urgent matter for the international community, bringing together countries from different parts of the world together to form a coalition against it. An offshoot of Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL, has carried out several terrorist attacks in Iraq and Syria in the recent years, especially following the fomentation of unrest in Syria in 2011.

The Islamic State considers itself an Islamic authority whose ultimate mission is to govern the whole Muslim world. It claims that it is practicing Sharia law; however, with a vehement anti-Shiite ideology, it encourages its fighters that by killing the Shiites and losing their lives in the path of eradicating the generation of Shiite Muslims, they will directly go to the heaven after death. It’s said that IS currently has 50,000 fighters stationed in Syria and 30,000 combatants in Iraq. Its barbaric actions, including raping the women and girls, beheading innocent civilians and torturing detainees have made IS a bloodthirsty, fundamentalist cult that should be confronted with the active participation of the world powers and all of those who are concerned for the future of Middle East that is now embroiled in a deadly conflict. According to the UN Mission in Iraq, as of July, 5,576 civilians have been killed by the Islamic State this year.

To discuss the rise of the Islamic State in the region, its possible connections with the U.S. intelligence apparatus, the role of Turkey and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf in the empowerment of the terrorist group and the global fight against it, I conducted an interview with Vijay Prashad.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian author, historian, journalist and university professor. He was the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and currently holds the Edward Said chair at the American University of Beirut.

Prashad has published some 15 books, the latest of which entitled Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South and was released in 2013. Vijay Prashad is an expert on the Middle East and Asia current affairs and his articles and commentaries have been featured by The Guardian, Jadaliyya, Monthly Review, The Hindu, Eurasia Review, Common Dreams, Counterpunch and other online and print publications. The following is the text of my interview with Prof. Prashad.

According to some reporting from the region, Islamic State militants were trained by CIA more than 2 years ago in a secret base in Jordan. When looking at the origins of the extremist cult, one finds some connections between the Islamic State, an Al-Qaeda offshoot, and the U.S. intelligence and military establishment. What do you think about these links? Why doesn’t the U.S. government try to distance itself from this association?

There is a US base in eastern Jordan near Azraq. It is not really secret. Some say that this base is perhaps adjoining the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base. Not sure. But at any rate, it is not far from a refugee camp set up earlier this year for Syrians. This camp is an open secret. It was where the US special trainers gave some kind of support to the southern front in the Syrian civil war. Not sure entirely what went on there. I heard about it from an Amman based US contractor and a few Jordanian journalists. Did not see it myself.

The US did not directly train the Islamic State. That is preposterous. IS emerged out of the al-Qaeda of Iraq. It is an Iraqi group that was started by a set of Jordanian militants in 2004. They have in the past few years drawn in a large number of fighters from all over the world. I know that they crossed over from Turkey. Many of them came with rudimentary training, but with a fierce commitment to the fighting. It is also true that IS has drawn in fighters from other radical Islamist groups – some of whose fighters might likely have been trained by the US and its Persian Gulf Arab allies. The FSA has drained many of its fighters, who did receive US and Persian Gulf Arab weaponry, to the radical Islamists, from where the IS has been able to draw some of its Syrian fighters.

Just a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama had stated that the United States doesn’t have an effective strategy for combating the Islamic State, but during the recent NATO summit in Newport, Wales, he said that the United States is working with its NATO allies to address the concern of IS. First, what do you think about this U-turn in his approach regarding the Islamic State? And next, do you think that the U.S. government is really serious in combating the Islamic State?

I think that the beheading of the two Americans put strong public pressure on the Obama administration to act. The statement about no strategy was wooden, and it hurt Obama. These kinds of domestic pressures are very important to US foreign policy making. It is a sad gesture that the killing of 150 Syrian army troops in a one day massacre did not carry world public opinion as much as the murder of two US journalists. I also believe that the threats to the US allies in Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad played a role here. As much as Baghdad will make noises about no US ground troops, the leadership there wanted the airstrikes as a way to halt IS progress down toward Baghdad. The taking of Amerli had been helped along by US air power, even as the actual fighting on the ground was done by Iraqi army and militia forces. I think the US is serious about protecting its major allies in the region – Iraqi Kurdistan and Jordan. IS has become a threat to them.

What do you think about the role the Arab allies of the United States in the region, as well as Turkey, played in the formation, empowerment and rise of IS? A political commentator just wrote in Forbes that the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is complicit in the rise of IS since his plans for assisting the rebels in Syria for toppling the government of Bashar al-Assad paved the way for the strengthening of the Islamic State. What’s your perspective on that?

It is true that Turkey has played a very duplicitous game here. First, the pan-Islamism of Erdogan and Davutoglu has to be taken in hand. They wanted to promote their main allies – the Muslim Brotherhood – from Libya to Syria. That was their main aim, along with Qatar, in the Arab Spring. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood had been largely decimated inside Syria in the 1980s. Nevertheless, in exile, they were quite prominent and were able to provide Turkey with the sense that they had a network on the ground. Turkey then demanded the fall of Assad; they were early to that position. The Muslim Brotherhood turned out to have less strength on the ground, and none to determine the direction of the fighting.

It was at this point that Turkey began to open its borders to jihadis, many from Libya and of course the classical staging posts of international jihad (Chechnya, Europe, Arabia). This was the role that Turkey played. Since this summer, Davutoglu has refused to categorize IS as a terrorist group. This is a telling sign, but how to read it? It does not mean that IS is a Turkish ally, like the Taliban was to Pakistan; although this could be so. It could also mean that Turkey is loathe to change course on Syria, continuing to call for the fall of Assad. IS would keep the pot on the boil. It also means that Turkey does not want to see the Turkish-Syrian Kurds emboldened in the fight. There is evidence that with Kobani ready to fall, the Kurdish refugees are being held at the Turkish border. They don’t get the same protections as others.

It’s reported that IS terrorists possess a great deal of arms and ammunitions that are manufactured by the United States, including rifles and rockets, and some international research organizations have suggested that these armaments have been sent to IS militants by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. What could have been Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s motives for arming IS fighters? Are they still working to topple the government of President Assad?

The US manufactures the most weaponry in the world – 44% of the world arms sales. Russia is next at 17%. It is therefore not surprising to see US arms in these theatres. This does not mean that they come from the US government. That would be like seeing a Type 56 Kalashnikov in a battlefield and assuming that the group has been armed by the Chinese. Second, IS has taken Iraqi bases where they have since 2012 been stealing US arms.

IS has claimed that its intention is to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East and put into place the rules of Islamic governance, or the Sharia law. This is while many high-ranking Muslim authorities, including several Sunni and Wahhabi scholars, have denounced the Islamic State’s actions, saying that it doesn’t represent the teachings and the true nature of Islam. Why is this dangerous cult persistent on calling itself an Islamic State? Is there a conspiracy at work plotted by certain powers and their allies to defame the Muslims and demonize Islam?

I think that when al-Qaeda in Iraq changed its name to Dawlat al-ʻIraq al-Islāmīyah it was part of its evolution from al-Qaeda [as] a terrorist group to a territorial entity. That is why they chose the term “State” (al-Dawlah) and qualified it by Islamic. Is this part of a conspiracy? I’m not sure of the evidence for it. When they took this name in 2006, they were roundly attacked by various religious figures.

The director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center has just said that IS is making $1 million every day through smuggling, illicit oil sales and ransom payments. Who is really buying the Islamic State’s oil? Are there countries that are funding IS? What will be the benefit of funding IS for them?

I have not personally looked into this matter, but other reporters have done so in some detail. This is what US Secretary of State John Kerry said to the US Congress, “We have raised with a number of countries in the region the question of how they could possibly be getting oil out of the country. It’s being smuggled out.” Well, that is true. We know that the oil has been moving into Turkey. This has been admitted by Republican Party parliamentarian Ali Ediboglu. Also, the oil has been going to local markets in Syria.

Will Israel benefit from the growth and empowerment of IS, which leads to instability and unrest in Syria and Iraq, as the two countries with which Israel has usually been at odds? Some commentators and analysts have suggested that there were links between the Al-Nusra Front, that gave birth to the Islamic State, and Israel. What’s your opinion on the possible connections between them?

I don’t have evidence for anything like this. It is true that Jabhat al-Nusra is in the Golan Heights. It is true that they have stayed clear of engaging Israeli troops. It is true that they plan to march towards Damascus. This is all true. Why this is so is not clear. It could be that they believe that Damascus is the immediate target. It could be that they do not want to incur the wrath of the Israeli air force.