On the trail of terror
Four days, three countries, 3,000 kilometres, but just one story.
The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent Mark MacKinnon reports from a bleak Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley to Beirut, Paris and Brussels, following a path of carnage left by the Islamic State
The maelstrom began as a chilly wind that whipped through the refugee tents of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. It was Thursday, Nov. 12, and I spent the day sitting on the floors of a succession of handmade dwellings, listening as refugees told tales of the horrors they had witnessed before fleeing the nightmare that is Syria. We also spoke worryingly of the long wars to come.
"Da'esh is fighting just over the mountains," intoned the Lebanese aid worker who guided me along the narrow muddy paths that serve as roads in the informal refugee settlements. He nodded at the brown western slope of Mount Lebanon, the natural border between Lebanon and Syria. Da'esh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, a name preferred by Muslims who don't like to grant the extremist group any link with their religion.
That evening, as my taxi returned to Beirut, the radio started to crackle. Two suicide bombers had attacked the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital, killing 43 people. IS, or rather Da'esh, immediately claimed responsibility.
Less than 30 hours later, eight (or more) IS militants were launching their deadly assault on Parisian lovers of music, food and sports, adding 129 to the dead and rattling one of the West's great capitals to its core.
I spent part of Sunday running with a crowd of hundreds from a phantom follow-up attack on Paris's central Place de la République. Someone heard a bang and thought it was a gunshot, and we all fled through the lobby of the adjacent Crowne Plaza hotel. I ran through the kitchen and took a staff elevator up to my room, where, along with several employees, we triple-locked the door and tried to figure out what we would do if the non-existent gunmen started moving floor by floor through the hotel.
The winds kept blowing. By Monday – four days after I sat in the refugee tents of the Bekaa Valley – I was in standing in the rain at a police line in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, the gritty streets that had produced at least three of those suspected of involvement in the Paris attacks.
Events had propelled me through three countries and more than 3,000 kilometres from Thursday to Monday. But it was all the same story.
A clash of civilizations?
In some ways, we have never seen an extremist organization like the Islamic State. The group controls a swath of Iraq and Syria that is larger in area than Britain. Millions of people live under its harsh rule. And over the past three weeks – as it bombed a Russian airliner, attacked a Shia neighbourhood of Beirut and then shot up the streets of Paris, all while battling the various armed groups that directly confront it in Iraq and Syria – it has shown a shocking willingness to fight everyone at the same time.
Trish McAlaster/The Globe and Mail
IS may yet achieve what seemed impossible: uniting such disparate forces as the United States, Russia, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran against it, even as those forces seek very different outcomes for the region.
The self-declared caliphate can't win the conflict militarily. But a bloody stalemate that sees the West lashing out at a Sunni Arab army while co-operating in one way or another with the region's Kurds, Shiites, Christians and Jews (as well as a handful of Sunni autocrats) will only prolong and intensify what is already seen by many in the Middle East as a clash of civilizations.
The problem isn't as simple as defeating IS. It is only the most awful symptom of a much wider illness. The real sickness is a Middle East shattered along sectarian lines that don't match the borders as they are drawn. And if we don't deal with that as part of our war against IS, the cancer will only continue to spread.
Every one of the refugees I met in the Bekaa Valley had horrifying tales to tell, and so – most worryingly – did their children. They had seen friends shot dead beside them, brothers and fathers executed. One girl, 12 years old, tried to explain to me what it looked like when a person's jaw is blown off.
But almost all of the 1.1 million refugees in Lebanon – like the bulk of the 750,000 refugees in Jordan – had fled the Syrian army, not IS (the two million refugees in Turkey are a different matter, since most people fleeing IS-controlled eastern Syria would likely head there). Those were the Syrian army's bullets, not Da'esh's, shooting best friends where they stood, and tearing off jaws. The Syrian army, not incidentally, answers to commanders who are Alawite by faith, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
The rage those experiences produce – an anger that the Palestinian experience has taught us will be passed on for generations – is what IS feeds off. While the West debates shutting its borders to refugees over a single, suspiciously intact Syrian passport, the wars in Syria and Iraq are still producing thousands of new refugees and internally displaced people every day. And luring people like the Paris attacker to join the jihad.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims, whether they are fleeing IS or Mr. al-Assad's forces and their Shia militia allies from Iran and Lebanon. The same holds true in Iraq, where refugees I've met in the camps of Kurdistan tell chilling stories of IS brutality. But ask them why locals did not resist IS when the extremists arrived in Mosul and other cities, and they switch to tales of how Iraq's Sunnis were persecuted by Iraq's Shia-dominated military before IS arrived.
Hassan Ammar/AP Photo
To the West, the IS militants are unqualified barbarians. In parts of Iraq and Syria, they are seen as needed protection against a sectarian foe.
Already we are seeing teenagers grow into young men who know only discrimination and violence. The generation coming up behind them includes hundreds of thousands of children who haven't been to a school for years. And, like the Palestinians before them, they have no homeland now. Iraq and Syria, as they are structured, will never be places to which Sunni Muslims will happily return.
George W. Bush claimed that he was acting in the name of "Iraqi freedom" when he sent the U.S. military into Iraq in 2003 to topple Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. But while Mr. Hussein's ouster may have brought democracy to Iraqis – insofar as elections are held every few years – the invasion did not deliver freedom.
Iraqis can choose their own leaders now, but not their fate. Unless there is a sudden outbreak of secularism in the country, Iraq's Shia majority – which suffered for decades as the Cold War superpowers took turns backing Mr. Hussein – knows that it will write the rules from here on out. The country's Sunnis know that, as long as they are ruled by Baghdad, it's their turn to suffer.
The problem isn’t as simple as defeating IS. It is only the most awful symptom of a much wider illness. The real sickness is a Middle East shattered along sectarian lines that don’t match the borders as they are drawn.
All the solutions on the table are messy, but the only one with a long-term chance of success is to let the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds go their own ways. It's difficult to envision. The Turkish and Iranian governments fear that a Kurdish state in northern Iraq and northern Syria will inspire fresh demands among their own Kurdish populations. The Sunni Arab kingdoms of the region worry that a dissolution of Syria and Iraq might cause their citizens to question the ruler-straight borders of their own countries. And how do you deal with multicultural cities like Baghdad and Damascus?
But history teaches that when pluralistic countries fail, nation states eventually emerge.
Europe rarely saw peace under the empires that existed before the First World War. Similarly, the peoples of the Balkans kept fighting each other until each had its own state. The borders of Iraq and Syria – lines drawn on a map 99 years ago by British and French civil servants – make even less sense than those of Austria-Hungary or Yugoslavia.
What does any of this have to do with the rise and reach of the Islamic State? Well, pretty much everything.
When IS seized control of Mosul – Iraq's second-largest city – in the summer of 2014, the group celebrated with one of its more mundane videos, announcing the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France that drew the border between Iraq and Syria in 1917.
Many of the horrific propaganda videos the group has released are aimed at instilling fear in its many enemies. Fear is the best weapon IS has. Fear has driven numerically superior Iraqi and Syrian forces to abandon their weapons and positions at word of an IS advance. Every foe of IS has seen the gruesome beheading videos, or the immolation of the Jordanian fighter pilot in a cage. Fear of another attack like the one on Paris is what we're all talking about today.
But the video released in June, 2014, was aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the people it sought to rule. In one of his few public appearances, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said from a Mosul mosque: "This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy."
Keeping Iraq together involves the West helping a predominantly Shia army crush a militia that claims to represent the country's Sunni minority. Keeping Syria, a majority Sunni state, together seems to involve some kind of accommodation with at least parts of the Alawite-run regime of Bashar al-Assad.
This is not an argument for or against military intervention, although the West's actions in the Middle East since 2003 (and arguably long before) have spectacularly backfired. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, however involved deeply in the Balkan wars, can claim some successes – largely because it allowed and encouraged different peoples to go their different ways.
The Sunni Awakening
The first time I met Sheik Ali Hatem al-Suleimani was in the spring of 2008 at his fortified villa in Kerada, a Sunni neighbourhood of Baghdad. While an American journalist and I waited for our scheduled interview, Sheik al-Suleimani finished playing Black Hawk Down on his video-game console. It's a game where the player takes the side of U.S. soldiers on a mission in Mogadishu, battling Somali militants eager to spill American blood.
The sheik, then 37 years old, was enjoying playing the American side. "I like it better," he explained after finally putting down his controller. "They have better weapons. It's easier to win."
Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail
Back then, he thought he was on the winning side. After years of fighting against the U.S. occupation – with some of his men doing so under the flag of al-Qaeda in Iraq – the head of the powerful al-Dulaimi tribe had been persuaded (with a lot of cash) to switch and turn his guns against the extremists. They would call it the Sunni Awakening, and the militias they formed became known as the Sons of Iraq. It all worked rather well – for a while. "Guns and tribes, this is my power," the sheik boasted to me.
Iraq's Sunnis had not been extremists under Saddam Hussein, Sheik al-Suleimani reminded me. They had been staunchly secular. The militant salafism that had spread in places like Fallujah and his hometown of Ramadi was foreign to most of those who lived there. Groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq had taken root only because the locals had become disillusioned with the U.S. occupation and the Shia politicians – like then-prime-minister Nouri al-Maliki – it was empowering.
The Sunni Awakening bested al-Qaeda in Iraq, but not Mr. al-Maliki. By 2013, the Iraqi government had disbanded the Sons of Iraq. The Sunni militias were no longer in charge of the streets of Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi. Mr. Maliki's Shia-dominated army was the only force allowed to publicly bear arms. Refugees fleeing the IS takeover of Mosul would later tell me how the Iraqi army would detain and sometimes torture young men simply because they had Sunni names.
Iraq's descent back into chaos happened as Syria's civil war – which had begun when Mr. al-Assad's soldiers opened fire on peaceful (and predominantly Sunni) demonstrators at the end of the "Arab Spring" in 2011 – was entering a dangerous new phase. Proof emerged that his forces had used chemical weapons in the summer of 2013 against something that still existed then: religiously moderate Sunni rebels.
Andoni Lubaki/AP Photo
Desperate to avoid the fall of his regime, Mr. al-Assad had crossed every red line. U.S President Barack Obama sent American warships into the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
I was in Jordan's sprawling Zaatari refugee camp that fall, meeting once more with emotionally and psychologically damaged Syrian refugee children. You could see then that the coming generation was an unfolding disaster, one that – left unattended – held the potential to destabilize the Middle East and the world for decades to come. I met a 13-year-old who watched his father being shot and killed by Mr. al-Assad's forces three years ago. He told me that his only dream "when I turn 16 or 18" was to join the jihad.
But the refugee children's parents, in the fall of 2013, saw hope in the expected Western military action against the al-Assad regime. "Everybody is waiting for the strike," said Mahmoud Hoshan, a refugee who ran a mobile-phone shop in the camp. "We don't want to be disappointed. People are selling their things, getting ready to go back."
But the West, as we know, backed down. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered both his ally, Mr. al-Assad, and Mr. Obama an off-ramp from conflict – a deal to remove chemical weapons from the country – and both sides gratefully took it.
The war would continue. The al-Assad regime would use barrel bombs instead of chlorine gas. And even though reports occasionally surface suggesting that chemical weapons are still being used by various sides in Syria, no one would speak of red lines any more.
In the fall of 2013, IS was one militia among many in Syria’s conflict. Nine months later, by the summer of 2014, it had largely subsumed the local al-Qaeda affiliate, and had taken over territory from the edge of Aleppo to the outskirts of Baghdad.
To Mr. Obama, it probably looked like he was avoiding Mr. Bush's mistakes, not to mention keeping a war-weary United States out of another intractable Middle Eastern conflict. But to the Sunnis fighting Mr. al-Assad – who briefly looked to the skies hoping American jets were coming to save them – it was a huge betrayal. After all, imaginary chemical weapons had been enough to trigger the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of a Sunni dictator. Now the use of real ones (against a Sunni population) was being allowed to go unpunished in Syria.
In the fall of 2013, IS was one militia among many in Syria's conflict. Nine months later, by the summer of 2014, it had largely subsumed the local al-Qaeda affiliate, and had taken over territory from the edge of Aleppo to the outskirts of Baghdad.
With both the Iraqi capital and the Kurdish mini-state under threat, the West finally decided to intervene in Iraq and Syria. A broad U.S.-led coalition – including Canada, France and Britain, as well as the rattled Sunni Arab dictatorships of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – declared war on IS.
A root feeling of injustice
It was June of 2014 when I saw Sheik Ali Hatem al-Suleimani again. This time, he had agreed to meet a small group of foreign journalists on the mezzanine floor of a five-star hotel in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish mini-state in northern Iraq.
In some ways, he was a refugee too. There was no place for a rich sheik in impeccably tailored white robes among the black-clad jihadis who that month had driven the Iraqi army from Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi. But he still claimed leadership of the al-Dulaimi tribe. And he acknowledged that his tribesmen were now fighting alongside the Islamic State.
Speaking before the Western air strikes began, he foresaw at least two wars that needed to be fought. The first was the war that the region's Sunnis were waging against the al-Maliki and al-Assad governments. After those fights were won, he said, the Sunnis would have an internal battle over what kind of state they wanted. Then sheiks like him might again have a role similar to the one they played in the Sunni Awakening of 2007 and 2008. "We are postponing our fight with Da'esh until later," he said with almost none of the bravado he had displayed six years earlier.
I asked him if he thought that Iraq was falling apart. His reply suggested that he would not mind if it did. "Dividing Iraq is better than us being killed every day."
The lesson of Sheik al-Suleimani's rise and fall is not that Western governments should invest in people like him again (though I wouldn't be surprised if they do), but that there is a root feeling of injustice that each of these Sunni movements – al-Qaeda, the Sons of Iraq, IS – has used to fuel a fighting force.
We were shocked on Sept. 11, 2001, to discover that there was an angry army out there that blamed us for the troubles in their part of the world.
Fourteen years later – in the wake of another horrific attack on a Western capital – the unlearned lesson is that we won't feel safe in our homes until the peoples of the Middle East feel safe in theirs.
Anger and resentment
As I walked through the rainy streets of Molenbeek on Monday, there were two words that connected it all, from the refugee camps I had been in a few days before, to the massacres in Paris, to the Molenbeek residents glaring at the police and journalists invading their neighbourhood: hatred and injustice.
Yes, they hate us. We (the West) now understand very well that there is a very committed and growing group of people who hate us and what we stand for.
But do they hate our culture – our openness, our wine drinking, even our tolerance – as many writers have suggested since the attacks on Paris?
No, those are just symbols of "us." People in Raqqa and Mosul didn't hate us in 2002. They may not have wanted to drink a bottle of wine with us and they definitely resented Western support of Israel, but they didn't want to see Westerners bleed on the streets of Paris.
There were others who did – witness al-Qaeda's attacks on the United States, London and Madrid – but that's a different issue and a different story.
So why does IS seem so much more dangerous than the Algerian or Palestinian groups that we fretted about in the 1980s and 90s, or even al-Qaeda? It terms of capabilities, it is not. The attacks on the soft targets of Paris's nightlife required none of the sophisticated planning and preparation that went into al-Qaeda's 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, nor its previous operations against the USS Cole as it docked in Yemen or against a pair of U.S. embassies in Africa.
While the West debates shutting its borders to refugees over a single, suspiciously intact Syrian passport, the wars in Syria and Iraq are still producing thousands of new refugees and internally displaced people every day.
What IS has is a bigger pool of anger and resentment to draw on, young Muslims who now see the conflict as civilizational, rather than a beef with the U.S. government and its military. The Koran and its more dangerous interpretations have been with us for centuries. There is nothing new about the ideology of IS, the idea of a caliphate or the need to wage jihad against all non-believers.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has none of Osama bin Laden's creepily serene charisma. Nor is he a Saudi billionaire. He just has better timing.
Al-Qaeda grew out of Muslim anger over the Israel-Palestine conflict and – in the case of Mr. bin Laden and his immediate coterie – the presence of U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia and other sacred lands of Mohammed. Now the casus belli have multiplied to include Iraq and Syria.
So, too, has the pool of potential jihadis. As the Paris attacks demonstrated yet again, refugees are not the worry – at least not yet. As with the Madrid and London attacks in 2004 and 2005 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January, nearly all the perpetrators were born, bred, marginalized and radicalized in the European societies they attacked. The kerosene was everywhere; IS only provided the match.
Take a stroll through Molenbeek, on the edge of Brussels, where Friday's assaults were hatched, or the Paris banlieue of Gennevilliers, the last address of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, and you enter worlds that sit inside – but are in many ways no part of – the Europe that surrounds them. Jobs are scarce, education is a league behind what is offered in richer parts of the cities, the police are mistrusted.
As Doug Saunders points out in his Focus essay this weekend, it is precisely these factors that help encourage homegrown extremists down the path to radicalization.
Many youths feel that they have no place in the France or Belgium to which their parents moved their families, so they look for another identity. IS, like al-Qaeda before it, is waiting for them – online and sometimes right in their neighbourhood – with narratives connecting their local troubles to faraway wars and a clash of civilizations.
A troubled path
There is no prescription here. Only a warning, a feeling I picked up during that ill wind that blew me from the Bekaa Valley to Brussels, via Paris.
It's a simple one: Worse lies ahead down the road that world leaders are currently plotting. A Russian-French agreement to work together to punish IS, while necessarily empowering the remnants of the al-Assad regime to expand back into parts of the country where it is feared and reviled, will not stem the refugee flow from Syria. Nor will it convince the country's Sunni Muslims that we care about their interests. The same applies in Iraq, where we bolster the Kurds and a hated national army against IS there.
"Why don't they stay and fight for their country?" is one barb often aimed at the young men fleeing Iraq and Syria.
The root of the problem is, they don't have one.
Read some of Mark MacKinnon's earlier reporting from Beirut, Paris and Brussels