Democracy Now! | Video Interview and Transcript | –
Amy Goodman kindly had me on Democracy Now! Monday to discuss the US raid that killed ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and its broader context in Middle Eastern and US politics. Transcript below the video.
Transcript from Democracy Now!
AMY GOODMAN: The raid began early Sunday when eight U.S. military helicopters flew from a base near Erbil, Iraq, to northwestern Syria over airspace controlled by Syria and Russia. The New York Times reports Syrian and Iraqi Kurds had provided more intelligence for the raid than any single country. The raid comes just weeks after President Trump abandoned his support for the Kurds in northern Syria, green-lighting Turkey’s recent invasion. The U.S. named the operation targeting al-Baghdadi after Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker who was taken hostage by ISIS after she crossed the Turkish border into Syria to visit a hospital in 2013. She died in 2015 but her body was never found. She was raped by al-Baghdadi himself.
We are joined now by three guests. In London, Emma Beals is with us, award-winning investigative journalist, researcher who has covered the Syrian conflict since 2012, editor of “Syria in Context.” In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan. His blog “Informed Comment” is online at JuanCole.com. He’s the author of many books, including Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires and Engaging the Muslim World. And in Boston, Rami Khouri, senior public policy fellow and journalist in residence at the American University of Beirut. He’s a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative and a columnist for The New Arab. Juan Cole, let’s begin with you. Your response to the death of al-Baghdadi?
JUAN COLE: Well, I think it should be remembered that the organization he led, ISIL, developed originally as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and arose in reaction to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. And so the same kinetic U.S. military that in some ways inadvertently created ISIL has now ended one of its leaders. It certainly has not destroyed the organization or the impulse that lies behind it. And I think if anybody thinks that kinetic military operations in this part of the world are going to solve all the problems, they are sadly mistaken.
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of al-Baghdadi? While President Trump talked about the killing of the U.S. aid workers and journalists, the rape of Kayla Mueller, who also died in a bombing in Syria where she had been held captive, the fact is that—and probably these journalists and aid workers would have been the first to point this out—ISIS had killed thousands of Muslims.
JUAN COLE: Yes. Well, ISIL developed a strategy—it’s a terrorist strategy–as a small group that wanted to emerge as a state, of what it called acting like beasts. And it was quite deliberate to terrorize people all around it into submission to convince the enemy that they were invulnerable because they would act in such a beastly and violent and berserk way. In many ways, it worked. They intimidated very large numbers of people—at their height, millions—into submission. Iraqi soldiers who fought them talked about the horror of going into alleyways and facing men who would jump down from roofs onto them with suicide bomb belts and detonate them. It wasn’t hand-to-hand combat; it was hand-to-bomb combat.
And so this policy of beastliness was also a media strategy to attract followers. One of the advantages that they sought was to get highly trained former soldiers from Europe who might join them. And their policies were designed to attract people with violent tendencies who had that training.
This strategy, however, has severe drawbacks in that over time, especially if you were trying to run a state, it would make you extremely unpopular, not only with your own population, but with all of the neighbors. And it is an essential contradiction in ISIL strategy that they tried to continue to operate as a terrorist organization once they had a known address. The only way terrorism can be at all successful is if they can’t find you. But if you have a capital, then you are doomed.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, can you tell us, Juan Cole, about the history of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? In a nutshell, how he rose to power, what his background was, his captivity in—being in U.S. captivity back during the beginning of the Iraq war, the U.S. invasion of Iraq?
JUAN COLE: Sure. Well, al-Baghdadi was not, as he is being advertised, an Islamic scholar. He barely passed high school. He was shunted off to what was called the Islamic University of Baghdad, which was a low-level institution in Ba’athist Iraq. He seems to have preached some sermons at a local mosque as a kind of volunteer. And then he got arrested in 2004 along with some associates.
The U.S. military in Iraq would arrest large numbers of people if they were simply in the vicinity of a bombing or an act of resistance against the U.S. occupation. At any one time, they had 25,000 Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs, in captivity. These prisons served as an opportunity, however, for some Iraqi oppositionists to network with others, and al-Baghdadi seems to have met some of the people who formed ISIL with him there in U.S. captivity.
An organization arose to oppose the U.S. occupation called al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Its leader was killed—Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—in 2006. Baghdadi joined that organization. In 2010, he emerged as the leader of it. He did innovate in the sense that he thought al-Qaeda was wrong to just engage in terrorism in hopes of weakening the state for an eventual revolution. He thought there was an opportunity, because the U.S. role in Iraq was so weak and it had destroyed the state, to actually take and hold territory under the Americans’ nose.
And that’s what he started to do, and that was all along what distinguished his tactics, is that he thought there was an opportunity here to create state structures. And in 2014, when the organization took 40% of Iraq and made Mosul its Iraqi center of operations, he declared himself a caliph, a kind of Muslim pope, much to the derision of most of the Muslim world, but it did attract, again, some violent activists.
AMY GOODMAN: Was he held by U.S. forces? Was he imprisoned by the U.S. either at Abu Ghraib or other places?
JUAN COLE: Well, he was in prison, as far as we know, at the U.S. hands in 2004 for many months. And that certainly was one of the origins of his radicalization. Although, the U.S. occupation of Iraq was radicalizing enough. People forget now—four million Iraqis out of 26 million at the time were displaced from their homes and made homeless, not directly necessarily by the U.S. occupation, but as a result of it. Hundreds of thousands died. Sunni Arabs were suddenly viewed with suspicion by the new Shiite-led government.
Many had worked for the Ba’ath government of Saddam Hussein, were fired from their jobs. A hundred thousands were fired from state jobs. Massive unemployment, as much as 75% unemployment, developed in Sunni Arab areas.
And so this was an apocalyptic event for the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, and over time, it radicalized millions of them. And because I think the U.S. destroyed the secular socialist alternative in Iraq quite deliberately, one of the few avenues for their activism that was left was a hyper Sunni fundamentalism, which was extremely rabid in its hatred of foreigners and Shiites. But this is a night-and-day transformation of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had, as I said, largely been secular-minded and even refused Islam as the state religion . . .
MY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to President Trump. A lot of clips were taken just from the very first part of the announcement he made on Sunday morning. But he then moved on, rambling wildly.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, these people are very smart. They are not into the use of cell phones anymore. They are not—they’re very technically brilliant. You know, they use the internet better than almost anybody in the world, perhaps other than Donald Trump. But they use the internet incredibly well. And what they have done with the internet through recruiting and everything—and that’s why he died like a dog. He died like a coward. He was whimpering, screaming and crying.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, President Trump’s comments, from the dogs to the internet?
JUAN COLE: Well, Trump is an extremely disturbing leader in the sense that he basically gave us a snuff film, a film about somebody’s violent death, as a sort of entertainment, I think. And one of the ironies is that ISIL pioneered on the internet what is called stochastic terrorism. Most terrorism is conducted by organized cells with a certain amount of command and control. One of the things that ISIL did as part of its policy of beastliness was to call upon people to undertake violent actions as a destabilizing attempt. And I think it appealed to people on the internet who were already angry and unstable, often mentally ill, and they would go out and commit violence, and then would attribute it to ISIL even though ISIL knew nothing about it. It was just off of a Twitter or Facebook meme.
In many ways, although not with the same systematic effect, Trump also is responsible for a certain amount of stochastic terrorism. The El Paso shooter who drove ten hours to kill Latino Americans was, by his own admission, at least somewhat inspired by memes coming out of the Trump Administration. We saw this in other attempted attacks on mosques in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: And of course invoking Hispanic invaders was a year ago at the Pittsburgh synagogue where 11 Jewish worshipers were killed.
JUAN COLE: Yes, Trump has adopted and people around him have used this language of replacement, which is a far-right conspiracy theory that the American Jewish community wants to bring in immigrants to replace white people, and so made the American Jews a target. It’s of course a monstrous lie. But these kinds of internet memes, which ISIL in some was pioneered as sources of violence, have now been taken up by the American far right, which is in itself a kind of less organized but still very deadly form of ISIS-like activity.