In an article published widely on various news and activist websites a few days ago, award winning journalist, author, and social critic John Pilger compared the method, the strategy, and above all, the origins of the Islamic State to the rise to power of the unrepentantly gruesome and nihilistic Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975. Drawing attention to then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Pilger noted the unabashedly genocidal policies of the American war machine in Southeast Asia referring to Kissinger’s quip about US Air Force bombing in Cambodia that should employ “Anything that flies on everything that moves.”
In the subsequent campaign (glibly codenamed “Operation Menu”) that targeted any and all possible communist sympathizers across the Indochinese peninsula, the US Air Force obliterated the Cambodian countryside, dropping “the equivalent of five Hiroshimas” on Cambodian towns and villages from 1969 to 1973. Those civilians who did not flee during the near ceaseless bombing of the region were left behind to gather the corpses of dead family members and to try to reorganize shattered homes and shattered lives. The vast majority of the victims of “Operation Menu” were, in fact, guilty of nothing more than unfortunate proximity to a US military objective. Nonetheless they were considered, tried, and sentenced extra-judicially, to indiscriminate death and thorough and indefinite depredation.
The Khmer Rouge was born here, out of the physical rubble, rife annihilation, and pervasive social disarray caused by the US military in southeast Asia in the early 1970s. For the leadership of the heretofore rag-tag group of poorly outfitted and scantily trained guerilla fighters, Operation Menu was a godsend. Scores of previously apolitical or otherwise uninvolved young Cambodians paused to consider the profundity of their loss of home, family, livelihood, and identity before falling under the influence of the charismatic Saloth Sar, the given name of the genocidal Cambodian warlord the world now knows by his self-appointed nom de guerre, Pol Pot. In fact, according to some testimonies, there is an even more direct and immediate connection between US military action in Cambodia and the growth of the Khmer regime than is suggested here. Returning to Pilger:
A former Khmer Rouge official described how the survivors “froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told… That was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rouge to win the people over.”
The Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia killed between 600,000 and one million people. Ethnic minorities, unfaithful communists, artists, academics, any and all who were hesitant to comply with the Khmer’s version of ideological purity throughout the length and breadth of the country were slaughtered, often in the most horrific of manners. Toddlers’ heads were dashed on rocks or on tree trunks in full view of their parents. Brothers were forced to watch their brothers beaten to death before they were dismembered and then displayed with body parts stacked in morbid totems as a warning to other undesirables. Teenagers were opened from chin to pubis, were disemboweled, and then had their guts pedaled away, tied to the bicycle handlebars of their morose regime executioners (Tyner, 2010).
Thirty years later another US military action would draw strong and widespread public criticism as indiscriminate US tactics in Vietnam and Cambodia did decades earlier. That venture—the US invasion and occupation of Iraq—was packaged and sold to the American public as a necessary police action set in motion to remove a dangerous and volatile dictator much akin to the despicable and bloodthirsty Pol Pot. Promised as a swift and inexpensive military exercise, the American people were told that the region and its peoples—a myriad of established and diverse confessional and ethnic communities that top officials within the George W. Bush Administration clearly neither valued nor understood—would welcome US and allied forces as “liberators.”
Almost a full decade after US military entry into Iraq, however, and with a US intelligence, advisory, and force commitment still present in what is left of the country, it is evident that the wildly optimistic political and military predictions foisted upon the US public were, in fact, a series of falsehoods. Shortly after the American overthrow of the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, an organized insurgency began to articulate itself as anything other than a welcome wagon for the US presence in the country. After a series of calculated sectarian attacks by politically savvy and self-interested ethno-military forces, Iraq was riven into three: the Sunni Kurdish north, the Sunni Arab west, and the majority Shi’a Arab south and southeast, under whose leadership the new Iraq was meant to be reconstituted, and reintegrated into the regional and international community.
That reconstitution and reintegration has not yet come. Instead a political, civil, and social void has proliferated inside post-invasion Iraq in which individual and communal identity has shifted dramatically inward. The former bastion of confessional co-existence and sectarian cooperation where the distinction between Sunni and Shi’a was difficult to mark as a result of generations of comingling and cohabitation has begun to look more like an internecine nightmare-scape: a land of political obliteration and of seemingly interminable civil despair more than a decade after the heinous protestation of a “Mission Accomplished.”
Enter the Islamic State.
Between 2003 and 2012, as part and parcel of American occupation operations in post-Saddam Iraq, massive military sweeps were conducted in mostly civilian zones whereby men of fighting age (roughly 16 to 50) were arrested and detained for indefinite periods in large holding centers, many of which had been employed under Saddam for the imprisonment and torture of political opponents. By the summer of 2004, one such facility—Camp Bucca located in southern Iraq—housed a number of high-profile Iraqi suspects including former officers and soldiers, suspected insurgent leaders, militia members, and former Baath party operatives within Saddam’s political and military machine. In an interview last year with an operative calling himself only “Abu Ahmed,” The Guardian’s Martin Chulov discovered the dark consequences which emanated from these impromptu gatherings:
They [the prisoners] had … 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.”
The US prison facilities inside occupied Iraq thereby facilitated (indeed, secured) an indiscriminate mixing and mingling of otherwise disparate or oppositional actors within a politically void and structurally denuded country. From this secure position, these individuals devised strategy, discussed ideology, and forged personal connections that took macabre and destructive shape over the course of the subsequent decade. After being released from US custody and under the blanket of Al-Qaeda’s command structure, these operatives built a militant Iraqi cadre and connected with like-minded operatives all focused upon destabilizing the US position in the fractious state.
The group, known in its nascent phase as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (or AQI) began to swell its ranks with resentful former soldiers and dedicated sectarian militants. From these ranks, one especially visionary and charismatic demagogue came to the fore. Supplanting killed or otherwise marginalized Al-Qaeda leaders, this soft-spoken captain, a veteran of the meetings at Camp Bucca and a known target of US occupation forces in Iraq, assumed leadership of the juvenile insurgent group and declared its political and ideological intentions to be separate from the stated aims and overarching policies of the former parent organization, Al-Qaeda. The name of this would-be revolutionary is by now, common knowledge: Ibrahim Awwadty Ibrahim Ali Muhammad al Badri as-Samarrai, better known to the world by his nom de guerre: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In the late summer of 2010 the last US combat brigade departed Iraq in partial fulfillment of the campaign promise of a still fresh-faced and promising young liberal American president. Seizing the advantage of the effective end of US martial law in the Iraqi hinterland, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ratcheted up sectarian assassinations in the country targeting the now highly visible Shi’a communities who had begun to reap the benefits of the vengeful and discriminatory policies of the US-anointed Shi’a president of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki.
Shell shocked and frightened, jobless, and hopeless and with the lion’s share of the jobs, services, and federal reconstruction monies being funneled to Iraq’s were going to Shi’a communities during Maliki’s administration, young Sunni Iraqis became further alienated within their own homeland. Slowly but surely, they began to drift, at first by the handful, and then by the score into the waiting arms of al-Baghdadi and his militant group. Susceptible and tormented and yearning for a way out of the devastation around them, these young men became al-Baghdadi’s frontline soldiers. Far from religious zealots, testimony from captured IS fighters indicates that employment, belonging, and opportunity motivated their participation in the group as much as, if not more than, millenarian religious conviction (Wilson, 2015). The social void had been filled; the task at hand was now clear.
By 2012, war was raging in both Iraq and in Syria where the minority Shiite, Alouwite Assad government had been begun to slip loose from its moorings in a bloody, no-holds-barred war of retribution against civilian protesters demanding a democratic voice within the dictatorial regime. Seizing full political advantage of both crumbling societies, al-Baghdadi decided that the time was right for a shift in his group’s political trajectory. Privately at first, and then via public declaration, Abu Bakr announced that his group was no longer merely an especially bloodthirsty, sectarian organization, but rather, in fulfillment of the ideological outlines first sketched at Camp Bucca in 2004 under the watchful eyes of the American security apparatus, al-Baghdadi reestablished the Caliphate of the Prophet and his Companions (PBUT). Proclaiming the birth of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS absorbed a Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, gaining a key territorial and social foothold in Syria’s rapidly devolving state structure.
Al-Baghdadi, now regally ensconced as Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurayshi (the final in the list of carefully chosen surnames a clearly indicated yet dubiously established link to the clan of the Prophet himself), saw himself as an unrestrained operator, the head of a new and expansive regional state and ideological movement. Conceived in the void created by foreign invasion, and military occupation, nurtured by sectarianism and party politics as much in Washington as in Baghdad or Damascus, and born unto the world out of blood, fire, and indiscriminate slaughter, the Islamic State was thrust upon the citizens of Iraq and Syria. The current refugee crisis was shifted into pole position within regional and international political concern.
In June of 2014, ISIS fighters (now on an official state payroll) captured Mosul in Iraq, Tal Afar near the Syrian border, and Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraq dictator now strangely lamented folkloric leader, Saddam Hussein. The first videos of IS brutality began to emerge, depicting the mass execution of thousands of captured soldiers. Bullet after bullet to the back of the heads of men laid face down, prostrate with their hands tied behind their backs. Subsequent videos depicted the intimate and brutal beheadings of captured journalists and western aid workers. In January of 2015 a captured Jordanian pilot was caged, doused with gasoline and set ablaze with the entire macabre event captured on film.
To date IS brutality has killed more than 170,000 in the region, mostly Iraqi Shi’a, almost entirely civilian. IS attacks outside of the Levant have killed as many as 1,000 people, mostly North African Muslims in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. And in Syria, Civil War has killed more than 300,000 people including more than 15,000 children, and 8,000 women. The refugee crisis is the natural and inevitable result of this crushing depredation, this devastating violence, and this unimaginable loss.
Survivors of the Cambodian genocide are visited by ghosts of their fallen kin. Dark apparitions approach their bedside nightly, and in waking nightmares they see the faces of their long dead relatives, broken and bleeding, armless and legless, entails dragging behind them. Paralyzed with guilt and fear, they try in vain to shut out the visions of the slaughter they see daily, crippling memories of trauma as yet unresolved, four decades after the horrific events whence they derive.
Years from now when we in this room are all long abed, shuffling our last steps through this mortal corridor, with memories of family, of home, of friends, of the love we were fortunate enough to receive and gracious enough to return – what ghosts will come to Syria’s children then? What visions will torment the waking lives of Iraqi survivors of the IS holocaust? Whose blood will flow when they lay down to close their eyes? What ghostly terrors will lie in wait for them?