The war in Iraq is going pretty much like I predicted it would. The three factions—Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shia Arabs—are holding their own, consolidating their turf, not trying very hard to occupy the other groups’ territories. The Sunni militias, led by I.S.I.S., the Caliphate of Loud-Talking, has been making ridiculous noises about “liberating” not just all of Iraq but Rome and Spain.
Both those claims are laughable, but at least Spain makes sense in a lame way. Spain is the one big chunk of the world Islam lost, after conquering and holding it for centuries, and that still annoys some people in the Ummah, mostly the ones who don’t have anything going on in their own lives—pretty much the way, when you meet somebody who spends a lot of time brooding over why America gave the Panama Canal back to those ungrateful Latin Americans, you’re dealing with somebody who’s behind in his alimony and spends a lot of time trolling lib’ruls online.
As for Rome, it’s much odder and more interesting that Al Baghdadi chose that city as a token of world domination. After all, it’s been a couple of millennia since Rome ruled the world. But that’s the thing about jihadis: These are very, very conservative guys—and I do mean guys—and for guys like that, Rome is still the standard-setter in world domination, so they’re stickin’ with it even if they’ve heard about the torch being passed to other megacities like Shanghai or Los Angeles. Or maybe the idea that the black flag of jihad will soon fly over either L.A. or Shanghai is just so ridiculous that even the dormant—very dormant—jihadi sense of humor started to twitch at the idea, so Al Baghdadi settled for the old standbys, Spain and Rome.
You can’t really blame the I.S.I.S. leadership or publicity apparatus for pushing this stuff. They have funding to get and recruits to attract, like any major college football program, and that means hyping their chances next season. I.S.I.S. draws its funding from fat old rich guys in Saudi and the Gulf who want to believe that their hick dreams of a world caliphate will come true any day.
Convince them of that, and they grab their bank cards and head down to NBK to hand over more cash for your militia. Hyping your victories is also a group like I.S.I.S.’s best way to pull in more recruits. Victory lures recruits with the promise of glory, loot, salvation and the rest of the traditional conquistador menu—above all the chance to stomp around heavily armed and untouchable among scared civilians. To draw guys who want that dream—and let’s not lie, it’s a big seller, whether with Blackwater applicants or Saudis—a group like I.S.I.S. has to look like it’s winning, unstoppable, the team you want to join.
You can’t blame the P.R. team at I.S.I.S. for pushing that line. What’s much less easy to understand or forgive is the way Western media have been broadcasting all this woofing as if it should be taken seriously.
ABC News headlined “See the Terrifying I.S.I.S. Map Showing Its Five-Year Expansion Plan,” with the black flag of the Caliphate spreading like spilled crude across Africa, Central Asia, the Balkans, and, of course, Spain. Not Rome, however—Italy’s not included, demonstrating that these poor schmo’s can’t even get their bragging straight.
You’ll notice the similarity to earlier scare-maps that showed the spread of Soviet Communism, or Nazi fascism, or “Red Chinese” domination over a terrified world. But for God’s sake, those groups were more or less formidable—maybe not as formidable as the defense contractors and Birchers made them out to be, but all possessed of serious military and industrial power.
I.S.I.S., compared to any of the groups on that list, is about as scary as your neighbor’s yappy Shih Tzu: all noise and no teeth. Let’s just sober up, for Christ’s sake, and remember we’re talking about a half-assed Sunni militia that couldn’t face up to Assad’s mediocre Syrian Arab Army and still hasn’t found a way to occupy Sunni Iraqi towns that were outright abandoned by the Army, left totally undefended.
People have to make a living, I guess, and click-baiting is the only way to do it for some folks, but jeez, can’t the people at ABC News find some new food scare? “Ten Veggies That Would Like to Cut Your Throat” is more plausible than worrying that I.S.I.S. is going to take over Rome, or reconquer Spain—or, for that matter, take Baghdad. I.S.I.S.’s war cry, if there was any truth in its advertising, would be “First we take Dhuluiya, then we take Berlin—except we can’t seem to manage to take Dhuluiya, gosh durn it!”
I picked “Dhuluiya” there for a couple of reasons—first, it’s three syllables, like “Manhattan” in the Leonard Cohen song. Gotta keep that rhythm. More importantly, Dhuluiya is the focus of a typical scare story from the New York Times, a “paper of record” that ought to know better. The NYT’s headline on this July 13, 2014 story on Iraq is “Deadlock Blocks Iraqi Leadership Vote as I.S.I.S. Makes Gains Toward Baghdad.” Scary stuff—Iraq’s legitimate government paralyzed, with the black-flag jihadi juggernaut rolling toward the capital. Yeah, scary stuff… until you read carefully, checking your Iraqi maps, at which point you realize that both parts of the headline mean a lot less than they seem to.
First, that “Deadlock”—Iraq’s government is deadlocked all right, but that’s because it’s a ridiculous sectarian puppet regime shoved into place on an American bayonet, or rather 25mm chain gun turret. Of course it’s deadlocked; it was deadlocked when it began and it’ll be just as jammed up as a Calvinist virgin until the day of its inevitable and unmourned extinction. That deadlock is about as surprising and newsworthy as a traffic jam in Kuala Lumpur or a dust storm in Kuwait.
But what about the other part of the headline, the alleged I.S.I.S. juggernaut allegedly bearing down on Baghdad? Well, that turns out to be even more absurdly over-hyped. Here’s what you get when you try to find details about the jihadi gains promised in the headline:
As lawmakers took stock, militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were already moving into Dhuluiya, a Sunni town 46 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Oh, so I.S.I.S. is threatening to overrun Dhuluiya? It would hardly be surprising if they did, since Dhuluiya is [voice rises to Sam Kinison screech] FAMOUS AS ONE OF THE MOST HARDCORE SUNNI TOWNS IN THE WHOLE FRIGGIN’ TRIANGLE. Here’s an excellent description of what it was like years ago, by a really good NYT staffer named Sa’ad Al Izzi.
Keep in mind, Al Izzi is describing Dhuluiya as it was in 2009, long before I.S.I.S. even existed:
One of the first things I saw then on the way to [Dhuluiya] was a charred Russian armored vehicle abandoned on the side of the road by the Iraqi Army. Someone had painted on it: “Saddam’s hell is better than the Americans’ paradise.”
…At the town’s central mosque, [I was] welcomed by a cleric…His eyes were narrow, traced with eyeliner in the manner of hard-line Sunni fundamentalists…
As we talked, I noticed that many of the cars lined up in front of his mosque for Friday Prayer were 2002 Hyundai Accents with Baghdad license plates. It wasn’t a coincidence. The cars, it was well known, were distributed exclusively to members of the Mukhabarat, Saddam’s intelligence service, and other security officials of his government. Many in Dhuluiya worked for Saddam; others perhaps gravitated there when Baghdad fell.
In other words, Dhuluiya was a stronghold of Sunni diehards years ago, a place where Saddam’s hardcore security goons fled after the fall of the capital. If I.S.I.S. is even a fraction as scary as the media’s making it out to be, it should have strolled into a town like that to the proverbial cakewalk and showering rose petals that Richard Perle promised America’s troops would experience when they entered Baghdad — as easily as the Mississippi flowed into New Orleans during Katrina.
Well, it turns out that I.S.I.S. couldn’t even manage to hold Dhuluiya for more than a few hours, according to the NYT’s story from July 13 2014
The local tribes [in Dhuluiya] are divided over ISIS, but a majority oppose the group and called for help from the army. Some troops were sent from the two nearest bases in Samarra and Balad, but the soldiers from Balad, who were closest, could not get across the river quickly because ISIS militants had bombed the most convenient bridge.
The militants attacked Dhuluiya around 4 a.m. and took over the police station, killing six police officers….“They brought a big pickup truck and loaded it with explosives and then blew apart the west side of the bridge so no support will come from Balad,”…Later, the ISIS militants appeared to withdraw from the town’s center and are now holding only about 20 percent of Dhuluiya…
Police officials suggested that the militants withdrew from the town’s center because they knew that sooner or later the army forces would arrive and they would not be able to fight them off.
This is a story of weakness, really stunning weakness. I.S.I.S. zips into this town full of its natural allies in the middle of the night, and is so afraid of the possible appearance of the pitiful Iraqi Army that it uses its only really effective weapon, the pickup truck, as a VBIED on a bridge in the hope of delaying Army troops.
Then they “withdraw from [Dhuluiya’s] center out of sheer terror—“because they knew that sooner or later the army forces would arrive.” Some friggin’ martyrs! Running from the “sooner or later” show-up of the worthless Shia Army, which would’ve been a lot later than sooner, going by that mob’s track record. God, I get tired of being right. I’ve been saying for weeks that I.S.I.S. was over-hyped but I have to be honest here: This is a level of weakness I never expected to see from them. This is downright pathetic.
I should’ve known though. I.S.I.S. has been talking big and doing little since it started, declaring a new caliphate, or at least emirate, every time it captured a hick town in the dry Sunni eastern zone of Syria. My favorite is the “Emirate of Jarabulus,” a little town on the Syria-Turkey border. In June 2013, I.S.I.S. grabbed the border post there, hoping to make some cash on the smuggling trade, and in its own inimitable style, as Daffy would say, immediately announced that this nowheresvilleburg, population 11,500, was now an emirate.
Syrians, who are mostly urban, cosmopolitan people and wouldn’t visit Jarabulus to collect an inheritance, couldn’t help laughing; it was as if Cliven Bundy were to declare his ranch the Emirate of Don’t-Tread-on-Me, NV.
I.S.I.S., like the Western media, is in the public-relations business, making a dull, stodgy world sound a lot more volatile than it really is. That’s why ABC News, HuffPo, Fox and I.S.I.S. have been groping each other in public like a Kardashian Thanksgiving for years now.
And it just seems to go on and on, this feast of hype, no matter how many times I.S.I.S. shows its almost comic feebleness. It demonstrates that I.S.I.S. really is good at one form of conquest, anyway: seducing the media. They may not be able to take Dhuluiya, the pitiful wimps, but if you’re talking media penetration, they’ve already taken Manhattan.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]