Twelve years after the United States invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, it’s easy to forget that support for the war hinged on the demonization of dictator Saddam Hussein. Weapons of mass destruction may have been the motive and the September 11 attacks provided the opportunity, but it was years of media portrayals of Hussein as worse than Hitler that enabled the Bush administration to rally elite and public support for the war.
By the time Hussein was dispatched in December 2006 after a show trial and botched execution, Washington had found a new face of evil in the form of religiously motivated resistance to the Occupation. The shift was remarkable. The enemy seamlessly transitioned from Hussein, whose roots were as a modernist authoritarian socialist, to al-Qaeda offshoots, which tend to be medieval fundamentalists.
This shift reveals how all sides in the “war on terror” use propaganda to shape the perception of the war and even the battlefield itself. Propaganda, though, is a one-way question for the West where commentators obsess over media produced by the Islamic State. Often referred to as ISIS, the extremist group regularly releases videos of mass beheadings, immolations, and parading prisoners in cages.
ISIS has honed an image at once terrifying, effective, dedicated, and vengeful. It uses it to draw recruits from the West, financing from wealthy Gulf State patrons, and the allegiance of militants from Egypt to Indonesia. But ISIS’s real skill is in exploiting power vacuums in Iraq, Syria, and Libya resulting from Western intervention and weak sectarian states. Likewise, its propaganda is a reflection of and response to the West, mainly the atrocities the United States has inflicted upon Iraq and other countries in the region.
Of course, this is not a contest of equals. The United States is a global power, and ISIS is little more than a paper tiger. Analyst Gary Brecher notes ISIS has a relatively small fighting force with little ability to defeat a conventional army, which is how nearly all wars are won, or govern a population, which is how the peace is secured.
Dissecting the propaganda shows why ISIS is not an existential threat, and how the West uses it to perpetuate a global war that shows little sign of ending after more than a decade.
ISIS understands how for-profit media works. What was extreme yesterday is routine tomorrow, lessening the political impact, so ISIS keeps upping the ante with ever-more horrifying videos. It produces videos for different audiences such as English-language ones mocking the United States and showing the beheadings of twenty-one Egyptian Copts captured in Libya, and Arabic-language clips of Syrian soldiers being beheaded.
Apart from the language, the same video is seen differently in the Middle East than in the West. The one of Jordanian fighter jet pilot Mu‘ath al-Kassasbeh being burned alive initially showed him “walking through bombed-out structures, interspersed with scenes of rescuers pulling burned bodies from under rubble.” Kassasbeh’s plane was downed on a bombing run on December 24, and in the video he named eight other Arab nations that participated in the mission, along with France and the United States.
Four days after his capture, “A U.S.-led coalition airstrike killed at least 50 Syrian civilians” in the town of al Bab. Dozens of townspeople claim the toll was “several times higher,” meaning well over a hundred civilians may have died in one U.S.-led airstrike. The Pentagon, however, dismissed claims of civilian casualties as “not credible.” It’s a replay of the Iraq War in which more than 500,000 Iraqis have been killed since 2003, but virtually no civilians were killed by U.S. forces, according to the Pentagon.
By immolating Kassabeh, ISIS was giving its enemies a taste of their own medicine. Syria is one of at least seven nations bombed by the United States since 9/11. Prior to that, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States gave the world some of the most iconic images ever of people being burned to death. At the end of the war U.S. warplanes killed thousands of soldiers and possibly civilians on the “highway of death” in what was likely a war crime. Earlier in the war, the United States bombed an air raid shelter in Baghdad, incinerating at least 408 civilians, but few if any pictures of that charnel house were seen in the West. The 2003 Iraq War began with “Shock and Awe” bombing of targets inside major cities—an act of strategic terrorism designed to destroy “the will to resist.” While occupying Iraq, the Pentagon deployed the devastating AC-130 gunships in dense urban areas like Sadr City. In Fallujah, U.S. forces employed “shake and bake” tactics with white phosphorous bombs, which are generally seen as an illicit chemical weapon as they cause hideous burns. It bombed Iraqi cities so regularly it was rarely news. By June 2006, an estimated 78,000 Iraqis had been blown up or burned to death by U.S.-led airstrikes.
The same comparison can be applied to other ISIS tactics. The group displays abused prisoners in cages and has beheaded more than 100 people since last year, according to a Wikipedia tally. The U.S. occupation, meanwhile, imprisoned more than 100,000 Iraqis, the vast majority believed to be innocent, and held thousands in torture mills like Abu Ghraib. Thousands—probably tens of thousands—were massacred by U.S.-organized death squads and in secret prisons established under the U.S. occupation. Pentagon logs reveal nearly 3,000 Iraqis were killed and wounded at U.S. checkpoints. Thousands of mercenaries running amok in Iraq killed many more civilians, but no one knows how many.
In this context, ISIS propaganda has a distinct logic. It is a graphic reminder of the atrocities committed by U.S. forces that have been hidden from the public eye. Other than the pictures of torture at Abu Ghraib, the Iraq War was sanitized by the U.S. media. It wasn’t until 2009 that the Pentagon lifted an 18-year-old ban on allowing photographs of flag-draped coffins of dead U.S. soldiers—but only if the families allow the photographs to be taken. Going back to the Gulf War, which was packaged as a sterile video-game war, the corporate media have edited out images of the wholesale slaughter caused by the Pentagon supposedly because the death and destruction might upset readers and advertisers.
By not drawing the link between staged atrocities by ISIS and atrocities as inherent to Western military conquest, the corporate media act as propagandists. Erasing U.S. atrocities allows the Pentagon to shape a global battlefield by launching one war after another with minimal public dissent. ISIS propaganda is likewise aimed at shaping the battlefield. By taking Kassasbeh hostage, ISIS weakened Jordanian support for its participation in the U.S. war. It highlighted Jordan’s internal divisions over the conflict. At least 2,000 Jordanians are fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq today. One poll from September 2014 found only 62 percent of Jordanians viewed ISIS as a terrorist organization, and only 31 percent said the same about Jabhat al-Nusra—“the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.” Kassasbeh’s capture also led the United Arab Emirates to suspend its participation in the air war, a serious blow as the New York Times called the UAE “the United States’ most stalwart Arab ally in the fight against the Islamic State.”
Similarly, killing the Copts enabled ISIS to trumpet its outpost in Libya, another Arab country pushed into chaos by the West. ISIS also stoked sectarianism in Egypt where Copts were leery of discrimination by the Muslim Brotherhood government. Many supported the Egyptian military coup in 2013 that ousted President Mohammad Morsi. After that, Brotherhood activists vented their frustration on Copts, attacking or burning 37 churches in one incident alone. ISIS’s attack on Copts inflamed communalism and provoked Egypt into bombing Libya, which had been an open secret since last August. It is now harassing the Egyptian military on two fronts as the main armed Islamist outfit in the Sinai Peninsula declared allegiance to ISIS last November.
Now, much has been made of what motivates ISIS. The Atlantic breathlessly claims ISIS is trying to hasten the apocalypse and as such is faithful to the doctrines of Islam. Even granting the proposition that ISIS is in the mainstream of Islam, despite the flimsy evidence, does not explain its success in gaining followers, creating a strong organization, or triumphing in battle. Ideology shapes our understanding of and relation to the world, but you can’t eat ideology or live in it. The Islamic State’s success and failure in Iraq last decade hinged on the economy, jobs, living conditions, personal and community safety, political representation—the same conditions that matter the world over.
ISIS was birthed are in Jordan with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s ill-fated plotting against the monarchy in the 1990s. After a stint in jail, Zarqawi found fertile ground for his brand of warfare first in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks and then in Iraq. The conditions in Iraq more than ideology gave Zarqawi a new opportunity. The United States made resistance inevitable by trashing the economy, punishing Sunni Arabs for the crimes of Saddam Hussein, and employing sectarian parties and politics to rule the country. Zarqawi’s high-profile attacks and beheadings enabled him to snag the al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq (AQI), despite the group’s misgivings that he was too extreme. The franchise bolstered the flow of foreign recruits and money. AQI is held responsible for many atrocities against Shi’ites, but it was only one of hundreds of armed militant groups Sunni and Shi’ite, nationalist and religious, battling the occupation. What made AQI a top player was support from Sunni Arabs being hunted down by the United States and its Kurdish and Shi’ite partners. Before Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006, AQI was rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and was alienating supporters with its medievalism that was ill-suited to governance. Shortly afterward ISI was sidelined after Sunni tribes turned against it and the Pentagon put tens of thousands of armed tribesmen on the U.S. payroll.
That changed by 2011 as a general revolt against the vicious Syrian state provided ISI with a new base of operations, and it rebranded itself as ISIS under its new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In 2013 the Iraqi government cracked down on Sunni protesters killing dozens, occupied Sunni-majority cities with sectarian military forces, and reportedly resorted to death squads and torture once more.
So when ISIS captured cities like Mosul, Ramadi, and Fallujah in 2014 it was not a military conquest. It was an uprising of Sunnis desperate for an ally against a brutal government. Even after a decade of training and tutelage and more than $26 billion in military aid, the Iraqi Army is so poorly equipped, trained and corrupt it collapsed despite its numerical and technological advantage over ISIS. In this regard, it’s part of a pattern of U.S.-backed forces that disintegrate when facing a determined and popular resistance, as in South Vietnam, Nicaragua, and South Korea.
The hysterical media reports that ISIS was encircling Baghdad and the city could fall were ludicrous. It’s one thing for frightened Iraqi soldiers to sacrifice their lives for a venal government in regions where they are hated; it’s another for Shiite and Kurdish militias to protect their homes and families. ISIS is so weak that less than a year after capturing Mosul, its stronghold there is now encircled by Shi’ite and Kurdish forces as the White House decides whether to deploy U.S. forces in invading it.
Establishing a caliphate in Iraq and Syria was a propaganda coup for the United States as well. The Obama administration blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the mess and engineered his removal. It showed the United States still calls the shots in Iraq while escaping culpability as the prime instigator of the sectarianism and extremism tearing the country apart.
It also reveals Washington’s preference for weak states. Strongmen are easier to manipulate than a state with some semblance of a division of powers, citizen input and a functioning bureaucracy and services. If the Iraqi government had used the hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue it’s earned over the last decade to develop the economy, infrastructure, and to meet social needs, Iraq would be far more stable. But the United States would find it less reliant and malleable.
To project power from Africa to Asia, Washington needs cartoonish enemies to animate its narrative that the war on terror is about incomprehensible evil, defense of freedom, and just vengeance. The propaganda worked after al-Qaeda killed 3,000 people on U.S. soil because the ideology matched a mood raw and revenge-minded. That support drained away during the Iraq War as more than 4,600 Americans were killed.
Nonetheless, Washington has become embroiled in many more conflicts since the invasion of Iraq. On one level these wars have little in common. Yemen’s conflict is driven by poverty, food insecurity, environmental degradation, ethnic divisions, and the legacy of the Cold War. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is classic settler colonialism. Bahrain’s conflict is an inter-Arab struggle involving autocratic, oil-rich Sunni-led Gulf States that deny resources to poor Shi’ite communities. The U.S. and NATO-led intervention in Libya was a cynical attempt to hijack the Arab Spring, while Syria has become a proxy war between the West, Israel and its Arab allies against Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Russia. A number of seemingly national conflicts are really an agglomeration of regional and ethnic disputes, such as in Pakistan. There’s conflict between the state and autonomy-seeking groups in Baluchistan, the rivalry with India over control of Jammu and Kashmir, and warfare with Pashtun groups that straddle the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The common denominator is U.S. involvement, which is both a cause of effect of these conflicts. Many political leaders in these countries are happy to enlist in the war on terror as they and the state apparatus benefit immensely. Pakistan strongman Pervez Musharaff was rewarded with wealth and power. The Egyptian military secured billions of dollars in military aid and a free hand to repress popular protests. The Iraqi Kurds have expanded their territory by 40 percent after ISIS captured Mosul. Forcing everything through the lens of “ISIS is a global threat” warps the root causes of the conflicts, and creates a breeding ground for a new generation of extremists.
Yet, it’s simpler to convince Americans that going to war time and again is necessary by pointing at ISIS rather than confronting the nuanced history and social conditions in each country. It’s also made easier by air power, Special Forces, mercenaries, militias, and proxy forces—all of which minimize official casualties. The Pentagon is currently a combatant in or plays a covert or supporting role in about a dozen conflicts across the Muslim world. Without an archenemy, the ideological basis for the global war would dissipate. ISIS is only the latest character in this role. Since the 1950s the West has labelled one Arab or Muslim leader after another as a new Hitler: Gamal Abdel Nassar, Yasser Arafat, Muammar Gaddafi, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Hassan Nasrallah, Osama bin Laden, Bashar al-Assad. Americans are so comfortable with Islamophobia that it matters little who the actual enemy is or what the conflict is about. When ISIS is eventually defeated and scattered, the United States and its allies will just pick a new bogeyman as the face of evil.
Arun Gupta contributes to outlets including Al Jazeera America, Vice, The Progressive, The Guardian, and In These Times.
A version of this article was originally published by Telesur.