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She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

A tidal wave of hypocrisy has greeted the discovery of the Bethnal Green schoolgirl and Isis bride Shamima Begum in a refugee camp in eastern Syria. Grandstanding politicians like Sajid Javid, the home secretary, say they will do everything to stop her coming back to the UK and might seek to put her on trial as a terrorist if she did return.

It is a symptom of the parochialism of British political life that debate rages over the fate of Begum and her possible complicity in Isis crimes. But there is scarcely a word of well-informed discussion about the role of the British and other western governments in creating the circumstances in which Isis was able to create a powerful de facto state in the heart of the Middle East.

The role of foreign fighters in Isis was important but tends to be exaggerated because of understandable public fascination with people who would leave London or Paris to go to fight for a murderous and bizarre jihadi cult in Syria and Iraq.

I was once in touch with a former Isis fighter, himself a Syrian, who had talked to foreign volunteers of whom he was highly critical, saying that they were ill-informed about Islam and local customs. He thought that many had come to Syria because of unhappy home lives or simple boredom and were not much use for anything except propaganda – showing that Isis was a global movement – or as suicide bombers.

A reason why many of the foreigners were used in the latter role was they lacked military training. Another was that Isis is a deeply paranoid movement that sees spies and traitors at every turn and was convinced that a proportion of the volunteers from abroad were in fact foreign agents so it was prudent to have them blow themselves up as soon as possible.

It is difficult to have much sympathy for these foreign jihadis and Isis sympathisers who found Syria very different from what they expected. But they were not alone in their misunderstanding of the nature of the war and its likely outcome.

The rise of Isis surprised many, but it was neither unpredictable nor unpreventable and many in the region foresaw what dire things would come years before Isis fighters captured Mosul in 2014 and established the caliphate.

I was spending much time in Baghdad after 2011 and I recall Iraqi political leaders repeatedly telling me that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) would resurrect itself unless the civil war in Syria was swiftly brought to an end. They said the same to western diplomats and were told they were exaggerating.

But those Iraqi politicians were dead right as the western powers, backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, supported the Sunni Arab insurrection in Syria. The initial aim of western countries like Britain in 2011 and 2012 was to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, and, when this turned out to be more difficult than originally supposed, to weaken him – though not to the extent that his jihadi opponents would take over.

Iraqi politicians were not alone in foreseeing the calamity that was in the making. The Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) drew up a draft report in August 2012 which is an astonishingly accurate resume of what was happening in Syria and the probability that it would spread to Iraq.

“There was a regression of AQI in the western provinces of Iraq during the years of 2009 and 2010,” says the report which is written in a rather contorted bureaucratic style. “However, after the rise of the insurgency in Syria, the religious and tribal powers [in Iraq] began to sympathise with the sectarian uprising.”

The author of the report rightly interpreted the struggle in Syria and Iraq as one which was essentially a conflict between Sunni and Shia. He says: “If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria.” Moreover, he or she foresaw “the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria (sic)”. The DIA report goes on to suggest that the outcome of this turmoil might be the declaration of “an Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq.

The purpose of quoting the DIA report at length is to show that western governments were in a position to know what the real situation in 2012 and do something to prevent such a disaster by making greater efforts to end the war.

Unfortunately, when the declassified report was published it met the fate of many such revelations, which is to fuel conspiracy theories inculpating the US government. The fact that one or more intelligence officers knew what was happening does not mean that this knowledge was shared by the White House and the Pentagon.

It is easy enough to say that Begum and her fellow schoolchildren should have had some idea of what Islamic State was all about when they set off for Syria in 2015. If they did not know when they departed, then they should have learned about its atrocities soon after their arrival.

Support free-thinking journalism and subscribe to Independent MindsNo doubt they should have, but so too should the British and other western governments when they played sorcerer’s apprentice in Syria and ended up failing to get rid of Assad but creating the sort of chaos in which Isis could flourish.

There is much anxiety now in Europe and elsewhere about former Isis fighters and volunteers heading back to their homelands. But the very same governments showed remarkably little concern five years ago about tens of thousands of foreigners travelling in the other direction to join the war in Syria. They poured unimpeded across the Turkish border without the rest of the world expressing much concern.

I have always been struck by the contrast between outrage over Tony Blair leading Britain into the war in Iraq in 2003 and the lack of interest in British government culpability in becoming engaged in Afghanistan and later in Libya and Syria. The British role in these three conflicts was more limited than in Iraq but it was not insignificant. All of them turned out to be disasters for the inhabitants of these countries and whatever the British government thought it was doing certainly ended in failure, as has been explained in copious detail in various reports and inquiries. What comes across in all of them is that successive British governments had little more idea of what they were doing than Begum and her teenage friends on the road to Syria.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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