Since its capture of vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the so called 'Islamic State' (Daesh) has become one of the most powerful armed movements in the world. It has reaped billions of dollars in revenue through trade, extortion and larceny, administering territory under its control like a pseudo-state.
There has been a plethora of literature on the rise of Daesh, with numerous academics and journalists utilising their impressive links in Iraq, the country from which it was born, to understand the context behind its emergence. However, there has been little effort to weave the historical foundations of the group within a post-colonial framework.
Since its creation under a Mandate system by the British Empire in 1923, modern Iraq has always been of strategic importance to the imperial powers of the time. It was seen as a bulwark, first against Communism in the region, and then revolutionary Islamic rhetoric emanating from Iran. Iraq's leadership had used this perception as a way to secure international patronage, which in turn assisted those leaders in maintaining a hold over a religiously and ethnically diverse country, permanently on the verge of social upheaval.
By the 1990s Iraq had become a fixation of US imperialism, becoming a "Rogue State", a status exacerbated by its opposition to Israel's hegemony. Over the course of that decade Washington and London waged an economic war for regime change culminating in the 2003 invasion. Various tactics and consequences of this imperial project will be examined over this series of essays, in order to understand the way in which they fed into the social context for the rise of Daesh. These colonial roots will not be presented as the fundamental reasons for the rise of the group. As essayist Panjak Mishra notes, the success of Daesh lies not in the pull factor of its theologically impoverished Jihadist narrative, but its ability to tap into "the simmering reservoirs of cynicism and discontent" which defines the current post-capitalist era. Daesh has emerged out of a broader context of disaffection, social turmoil and economic uncertainty.
From oil for food to torture for control
In Torture and the Twilight of Empire, Marnia Lazreg explains how the French colonial state aimed to avoid the collapse of its empire by the systematic repression of the Algerian people through viciously creative means. For colonial France, Algeria was an extension of the Republic, and its freedom meant not only the demise of the French empire but also the very foundations of the Fourth Republic itself. Lazreg's rigorous examination of hundreds of documents reveals a concerted effort by the French authorities to break Algerian society through torture, humiliation and collective punishment. Lazreg also probes the contours of contemporary discourse on torture, drawing in analysis of the body and self by Camus, Fanon and Foucault, and critiquing and expanding on their insights to find logic in the implementation of torture within the global south. She draws striking similarities between how the French implemented control over their colonised subjects and the contemporary US project of democracy and regime change in the Middle East, and the central role that torture has played in both.
After the fall of the USSR, Iraq became an increasing fixation of the post cold-war Washington consensus. Following his invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime was placed under a series of sanctions which crippled its already war-wrecked economy and played a direct role in the deaths of 500,000 children. In a macabre twist, the US-dominated UN Security Council demanded that Iraq exchange oil for food, providing an obtuse example of US power over a country. By 2002, Washington's demand for regime change in Iraq had reached fever pitch, becoming official policy after the 9/11 attacks and ensuing "war on terror". The subsequent invasion and occupation of Iraq was accompanied by widespread torture and arbitrary detention in Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca. This essay series will utilise Lazreg's insights to question the role that collective punishment through sanctions played in priming Iraqi society for radicalisation and fractiousness once the authority of Saddam Hussein was removed, and the way that torture radicalised young Ba'athist officers who would form the backbone of Daesh in Iraq.
Iraq's national failure: Fanon and the "Pitfalls of National Consciousness"
In his posthumous work The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon examined the state of relations between the colonised and the coloniser. With almost prophetic prescience, the Martinican psychologist-cum-Algerian revolutionary wrote that unless the revolutionary violence of the colonised is checked, it can turn inwards, leading to tribalism and internecine conflict once the colonial forces have retreated to Europe. Fanon noted that if there is not a holistic movement to transcend the inward-looking nationalism, a neo-colonial project will emerge. Through this, elites from the revolutionary movements will barter their political capital with the old colonialists, for political power and capital, granting the latter rapacious access to resources and economic wealth. Furthermore, old tribalism will re-emerge, cantonising the liberated colony and prompting conflict within the colonised communities.
This has been the unfortunate scenario from Ireland to India, where formerly colonised societies have turned-in on themselves, after a progressive and inclusive national project of liberation was developed. In the fight against occupying US and British forces, various armed movements in Iraq set out their ideals along sectarian lines. Al-Qaida in Iraq and other armed Sunni groups organised against the US forces, but also utilised the rhetoric of the parent Al-Qaida movement in order to mobilise attacks against what was perceived as Iranian Shia infiltration into Iraqi political space, resulting in devastating bombing campaigns in Shia areas. Returning exiled political elites, many linked to the Shia Al-Dawa Party, geared the drafting of the Iraqi constitution to favour their dominance, utilising various armed groups as personal bodyguards and de facto private armies to break political enemies in a brutal civil war.
For the first time since it emerged in 2014, Daesh stands on the verge of losing the territory it has gained in Iraq and Syria. An array of Syrian, Kurdish and Iraqi forces, buoyed by foreign support and international air power, are poised to retake Daesh strongholds across both countries. A military defeat for Daesh may be in the offing, as the group retreats from Damascus and Baghdad, with Putin and Obama reaching an accord over the need to channel all international efforts into defeating it.
Despite this, the the colonial roots of Daesh persist. US troops may not be torturing dissidents in Syria and Iraq, but the silence over Syria's torture chambers means that this method of social and political control has essentially received tacit support from the UN Security Council. Furthermore, in both Syria and Iraq, the movement for national reconciliation remains divided along sectarian lines, a result of the inability of political elites to carve out an inclusive narrative of liberation and national reconciliation. Unless these issues are addressed, the conditions which led to the growth of Daesh will remain.
The second part of this essay series will cover "From sanctions to civil war"
Nick Rodrigo is a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.