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We Asked a War Correspondent About the Origins of ISIS

Anand Gopal talked to us about the beheading of journalists and why the US needs to stay the hell out of Iraq.

IS Members. Still from Islamic State.

Anand Gopal’s job is to report from the front lines of conflict. He spent years as the Wall Street Journal’s reporter in Afghanistan, and in a few months he will be heading to Iraq to take stock of the chaos enveloping the region.

In the wake of the Islamic State’s murder of photojournalist James Foley, VICE checked in with Gopal to find out what he thinks of the situation unfolding in Iraq and the risks inherent in reporting from a war zone.


VICE: You spent years living in and reporting from Afghanistan, first for the Christian Science Monitor and then for the Wall Street Journal. The last reporter the Journal had covering Afghanistan before you was Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by Pakistani militants in much the same way James Foley was by the Islamic State. Later this year, you’ll be traveling to Iraq to cover the turmoil there. Your job obviously requires you to take significant risks with potentially lethal consequences. Do you think of your work this way? Or do you become inured to the dangers it entails?
Anand Gopal: I have not become inured to the dangers, because the moment you do that, that’s when you’re the most vulnerable. Although I work in war zones, and I work in places that are considered dangerous, I actually take quite a bit of precautions when reporting. I make sure I know an area very well; I make sure I have a very trusted network of contacts. I tend not to take particular risks that some other types of journalists take—particularly photojournalists, I think, tend to take way more risks than print reporters do, because they need to be in the middle of the firefight to take the photos. I’m always more interested in the background to the fighting, the political underpinnings of the fighting, so I tend not to be the one to run to the scene of an explosion, whereas photojournalists tend to do that.


So, of course there are risks, but I try to mitigate those risks through preparation and through the types of stories that I pursue.

You’ve interviewed both foot soldiers and leaders in the Taliban, and Afghan warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. These were, obviously, dangerous men steeped in brutal violence and war. From a Western vantage point, however, the Islamic State seems as if it belongs to a different category altogether. The IS bloodlust seems to go even further than that of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the other radical Islamic groups that the US has been at war with for the past 13 years. Is that an accurate description in your view, or is there a hype factor at work here?
To some extent it is accurate to say that ISIS, or the Islamic State, is quite different from the Taliban. Different from al Qaeda as well, but especially different from the Taliban, for a couple of reasons—one of which is that the Taliban’s goals have always been nationalistic, in the sense that they claim to be fighting on behalf of Afghans against a foreign occupier. They claim to have the extent of their political ambitions being the return of Afghanistan to the status quo before the 2001 American invasion. And so in that sense they’re very much sort of focused on Afghanistan, and also—something I’ve learned from talking to Talib fighters—is that the things that propel them to fight are very local, very parochial. It’s about some valley that you live in. There happens to be a warlord there who’s predatory or who causes human-rights violations, and you’re reacting against this warlord. And that’s really the extent of it, and you go and join the Taliban. So it’s a very locally oriented movement, whereas ISIS is not.


What’s very interesting about ISIS is that they seem to reject the international order altogether, and I think that’s very unique and different. Even when the Taliban were in power, they sought international approval to an extent. I don’t think ISIS is necessarily more bloodthirsty than the Assad regime, or the Taliban, or al Qaeda, but what’s different about ISIS is that they are very happy to show their atrocities. They post it on Twitter. They put it on YouTube. And it’s because they have basically rejected the international order, and they’re rejecting working with the international order, and claiming their own order, an Islamic order harking back to the caliphate days, and because of that it seems like they’re much more bloodthirsty than any other group. But groups that are in power, including the Syrian regime, and groups that are in opposition, including elements of al Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban, can be just as bloodthirsty, except that they try to minimize their atrocities; they don’t want the world to know about them. They hide their atrocities, whereas ISIS, because they reject the international order, they have a completely different strategic logic. So they promote their atrocities, and because of that we tend to think that ISIS is somehow uniquely bloodthirsty, more bloodthirsty than any other group out there, but I don’t think that’s actually the case.

On the surface, last week’s gruesome murder of James Foley seemed to be either a warning to the US to stay out of Iraq or a provocation to join the fight. But was the intended audience really the West, or could it have been aimed at a domestic Iraqi audience for recruitment purposes?
Well, it’s possible that it was both simultaneously. I think there’s less sympathy for the killing of an American in parts of Iraq, given Iraq’s recent history with the United States, than there would be for the killing of Iraqis or Syrians, which is also happening on a daily basis via ISIS. So it’s very plausible that on the one hand it was something that was intended for a local audience in terms of recruitment, but at the same time I do think it’s hard to deny that in some way it was intended for the West as well.


There’s a line of thought out there, which I think is plausible, which says that ISIS and its previous incarnation, going back to 2004, 2005, 2006, that what they were very good at was operating in a state of war—at sowing chaos, and using that chaos to draw recruits and function as a group. And you could see this as part of that strategy. They’re still operating in a state of war. Their efforts to actually build a state, even in places like Rakkah in Syria, aren’t as extensive as you may see in in other places, like if you compare it with Hezbollah, and the mini-state that Hezbollah has in Lebanon, or some other Islamist groups.

As monstrous as the Islamic State may be, its success is fueled by legitimate grievances on the part of a Sunni population that has been relegated to second-class status by the Maliki government, a government that came into power as a result of the United States' recklessly short-sighted invasion and occupation of the country. Now we’re essentially being dared by IS to intervene again in what has become a three-way civil war. Is there any kind of constructive role the US can play in this nightmare scenario, military or otherwise, or should the Obama administration stay as far away from the situation as possible?
I don’t think there’s a constructive role that the US can play. It’s important to keep in mind that the US is indirectly responsible for the very existence of ISIS because of its invasion, because of the chaos that was sowed by the invasion and because of the civil war that was ultimately caused by the United States’ invasion. So number one, given that, and number two, given the fact that it was US partners that laid the groundwork for Sunni disillusionment that ISIS was able to take advantage of, I don’t think the US has a very good track record in Iraq, and so I would be very wary of US involvement.


But beyond that, also, there’s really a dearth of good options. It’s not like a foreign power, a major power like the US can come in there and somehow defeat ISIS without causing unintended consequences or second- and third-order effects of the sort that gave rise to ISIS in the first place. I think if the Syrian Revolution were to change course, which unfortunately seems like it’s not very likely right now, but if it were to, if the less radical Islamists and the non-Islamist forces were able to become stronger, that might change the dynamic, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot that can be done. It seems like there would be a lot of bloodshed for many years to come.

What we’re seeing, more broadly speaking, is the fact that we’ve had 30, 40, 50 years of dictatorship, secular dictatorship across the Arab world, in which you’ve had very weak left forces that can articulate a vision of social justice that’s also secular. Those forces have been extraordinarily weak, in large part because of these dictatorships, because of Arab nationalism and Baathism and a lot of these ideologies that garb themselves in left-wing rhetoric but actually, in practice, are very oppressive. And so I think that robs a lot of genuine social justice and left-wing political movements of their legitimacy. And instead what you have is left-wing dictatorships or Islamism as the alternative.

And so after the Arab Spring, the secular dictatorships have been overthrown for the most part, or they’ve been attempted to be overthrown, and there’s nobody else to fill that vacuum except for the Islamists, and so that’s what’s playing out across the Arab world.


I don’t think there’s an easy solution to that. It’s a generational thing. It’s going to take rebuilding, rediscovering these forms of politics and resistance that don’t have to do with Islamism and don’t have to do with Baathism and these other ruinous ideologies. It’s going to take a lot of time, and unfortunately, it’s going to be very bloody.

Portraits of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in Damascus. Photo by James Gordon

You’ve written, of Syria, that there is “a powerful pull in the West to order a messy reality into a simple and self-serving narrative.” Do you see that process unfolding in media accounts of what’s happening in Iraq today?
Certainly. I think for one thing, people have forgotten the history. The debate right now, sadly, is whether Obama pulling out in 2010–2011 is what caused ISIS to grow and become strong, or whether not arming the Syrian rebels is what allowed ISIS to grow and become strong. But these are very selective and simplistic views because we have to take the longer view, which is the fact that this is all taking place within the context of the radical upheaval that the US caused by its intervention and occupation of Iraq. And that has to be the starting point to begin to understand this.

And secondly, people tend to think of ISIS as purely evil. I see that word a lot. And obviously they’re heinous and barbaric and I abhor them. But we don’t get very far by thinking of them as purely evil. We need to really think about what are the social origins, what are the political roots of ISIS. What are the conditions in Iraq, particularly after 2008 and 2009, that led to the feelings of disillusionment and disenfranchisement on behalf of Sunni populations and the anger toward the Maliki government that allowed a group like ISIS to become strong in the first place?

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