How the American Invasion Unleashed Jihad

Anand Gopal

Journalist Anand Gopal on Islamism, ISIS, and the role of the United States in Iraqi politics today.

Illustration by Jan Robert Duennweller

Interview by


Islamism is a real force in Iraq today. This wasn’t the case before the invasion and occupation. What can you tell us about its roots, in both Iraq and the wider region?

Anand Gopal

It’s easy to look at the political forces today in the Middle East and assume that political Islam has always been dominant, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Iraqi Communist Party was one of the most powerful actors in Iraqi politics; at its height, it was a cross-sectarian party with tens of thousands of members. The rising Ba‘ath Party eventually crushed it — possibly with help from the CIA.

In addition to its role in eliminating progressive movements, Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘ath Party damaged the legitimacy and credibility of secular politics because of its oppressive rule. Secularism received a bad name because the most important remaining secular force was so cruel and corrupt. So, with the two main representatives of mass dissent — communism and Arab nationalism — eliminated, a tiny minority of politicized individuals turned to various interpretations of political Islam. This process took place across the Middle East from the 1970s on, though it was muted among Sunnis in Iraq because of state repression.

Nonetheless, through the 1980s and 1990s, small informal networks of individuals espousing some form of Salafism began to emerge. These networks focused on preaching and propaganda, and they were sometimes tolerated by the state so long as they did not speak against Saddam’s regime.

The second factor leading to the rise of Islamism was the Iran-Iraq War, which killed hundreds of thousands and spurred the rise of religious motifs and symbols in the public sphere. To take one example, a woman wearing the veil was not a common sight in Mosul in the 1970s, but by the 1990s, it was rare to see a Muslim woman without a hijab in public. In part, Saddam promoted this to bolster support for his war; he wanted to show that Iraq was more genuinely Islamic than the Islamist theocracy in Iran.

Third, during the 1990s, Saddam launched the “Faith Campaign,” which incorporated Islamic language and imagery into official discourse to shore up his legitimacy in the wake of a massive Shia and Kurdish rebellion. For example, he changed the Iraqi flag to include the words “God Is Great” and introduced religious instruction among the officer corps. He built mosques around the country, printed millions of Korans, and even introduced aspects of Sharia law into society. In Baghdad, for instance, hundreds of sex workers — who had previously been tolerated — were rounded up and executed by the regime.

The fourth reason for the rise of Islamism in Iraq relates to the global context. Around the world, the United States and regional powers like Saudi Arabia helped promote hard-line political Islam as a counterweight to secular forces or as a way to control local populations. One prominent example is the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s; the United States armed and funded Islamist guerrillas, the mujahideen, to topple the Moscow-backed regime in Kabul. Though there were numerous forces within the mujahideen that espoused a traditionalist, non-radical version of political Islam, Washington purposefully supported the most radical groups. It funded the production of textbooks — read by millions of Afghan children — that glorified jihad and martyrdom. It created Islamist warlords by pouring billions into the country and flooding it with arms.

It was in Afghanistan that Arabs like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the future founder of ISIS, met other radicals like Osama bin Laden, and the modern hard-line “transnational” Salafist movement emerged. Another example is Israel, which supported the creation of Hamas in the 1980s as a counterweight to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. In this sense, the rise of Islamism in Iraq took place within a global context of Islamicization, which was helped along by the United States and other world powers.


How did the American invasion and occupation of Iraq trigger the rise of ISIS?

Anand Gopal

Although the Islamic State operates in Syria and has franchises around the world, ISIS is, at its core, an Iraqi phenomenon. And it’s impossible to understand the group without first understanding the social structure of Iraqi society before and after the US invasion.

Historically, three groups have made up the Sunni ruling class in Iraq: Ba‘athist army officers, the bourgeoisie, and tribal sheikhs. These groups aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s easier to understand if we treat them separately for the moment. Ba‘athist officers comprised a key power base for the Saddam regime and were drawn heavily (though not exclusively) from the Sunni population. The Sunni bourgeoisie functioned through its close ties to the regime, which practiced a version of state capitalism. After the US- and UN-imposed sanctions in the 1990s, which devastated the Iraqi economy, this group also became involved in smuggling.

The third group, tribal sheikhs, needs some explanation. Arab tribalism in its current form is a modern invention, a result of empire and colonialism. In the nineteenth century, the Ottomans forcibly settled nomadic Bedouin communities to increase tax revenue and better control potential threats to the sultan’s rule. The Ottomans broke up communal lands and promoted certain men as “sheikhs,” granting them deeds and other privileges in return for loyalty and taxes.

Effectively, the Ottomans created a landowning class, which every power after them (the British, Saddam, and the Americans) attempted to manipulate to its own ends. These sheikhs’ social position depended on the state giving them resources, which they then distributed to their fellow tribespeople as a form of patronage. This type of patronage acted to blunt class struggle between peasants and sheikhs — because the peasants relied on redistribution from the sheikhs. But this also meant that the tribal sheikhs always owed their power to the state, and as such, they tended to shift their allegiances to whichever authority would grant them privileges.

When it invaded in 2003, the United States plunged Iraqi society into chaos, wrongfully imprisoned and killed tens of thousands, and tore the country apart. All this is well known. What has not been analyzed in great detail, though, is the effect of this devastation on Iraqi class relations. Each of the three elements of the Sunni ruling class I mentioned earlier was directly affected.

The Ba‘athist officers lost their jobs and were banned from political life due to the de-Ba‘athification program of Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority. The Sunni bourgeoisie lost the state that had supported them, and Washington effectively imported a new business class overnight. These were Iraqi expats and elements of Shia religious parties, who became fabulously wealthy on US contracts and corruption.

The third group, tribal sheikhs, lost their source of patronage. With the old Iraqi state removed, these sheikhs not only lost their privileges; they also lost their ability to redistribute or pass this patronage down to the poor farmers and rural workers who comprised their base. As a result, the Sunni ruling class and ordinary Sunnis joined together in a popular rebellion against US occupation.

Their reasons were different: the old ruling class was resisting because it had lost its privileges, while ordinary Sunnis were resisting because of the everyday depredations of occupation. Many Sunnis called this the “nationalist resistance.” However, because this resistance did not include Shias or Kurds, it did not represent a genuine Iraqi-wide national liberation movement.

Parallel to this resistance was a Sunni Islamist-jihadist resistance, led by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and similar groups. This movement originates in those individuals who had turned to some form of political Islam during the 1980s and 1990s. They included some junior Ba‘athist army officers and religious students who joined the resistance in 2003 but were soon jailed by the United States in the vast prison camp in Bucca. There they mixed with hardened al-Qaeda operatives — mostly non-Iraqis — who had fought in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and upon emerging from captivity, they joined AQI and similar groups.

Some who joined would go on to become leading figures in ISIS. This does not mean, however, that ISIS is run by Ba‘athists; rather, a portion of the leadership is former Ba‘athists who have long since renounced secular Ba‘athist ideology in favor of radical Islamism. It’s more accurate to say that these men combine three distinct elements: the ideological vision of hard-line Salafism, the military and intelligence expertise of army officers, and the Ba‘athist totalitarian method of rule.


Why did the nationalist resistance turn against AQI, and why did the Sunni tribal elite opt to go on the CIA payroll during the so-called Sunni Awakening?

Anand Gopal

The United States sought to portray the entire resistance as led by AQI, but in fact, during 2003 to 2005, it was a secondary actor to the nationalists. Ironically, the US portrayal of the entire resistance as Islamist helped build AQI’s cachet and allowed them to attract more recruits.

Yet an equally important reason for the growth of AQI was the class structure of Sunni society that I described earlier. With patronage networks disrupted, the class antagonisms between poor rural workers and their sheikhs increased — which al-Qaeda adroitly exploited.

AQI recruited from small farmers, unskilled workers in the informal sector, and the unemployed, all of whom had lost the modest benefits of the tribal system. Many of these young men had moved to larger cities like Fallujah in the often fruitless search for work. They were more poised than any other segment of society to radically question the old social order. They believed that the sheikhs had done nothing for them and were hypocritically sitting in their luxurious villas while proclaiming resistance to the Americans.

From 2003 onward, graffiti denouncing the sheikhs, and even the entire tribal system, began appearing in cities like Ramadi and Fallujah. AQI propaganda often criticized sheikhs and tribal customs. Its ranks began to swell. Young men who had been forced to pay deference to these sheikhs their whole lives were now given guns and immense authority over the lives and property of the sheikhs. In this way, AQI challenged the tribal system and the old social hierarchy and became a direct threat to the sheikhs.

At the same time, AQI challenged the revenue streams of the Sunni bourgeoisie and the sheikhs. It began competing with these groups in the licit and illicit economy, and, due to its greater firepower, it was often able to wrest control of trade networks. To take one example, the town of al-Qa’im on the Iraqi-Syrian border had been the site of black-market smuggling since the sanctions days. An alliance of local businessmen and sheikhs from the Albu Mahal tribe had monopolized this trade, which they used to enrich themselves and to fund their insurgent group, which was fighting the American occupation as part of the nationalist resistance. AQI began to impinge upon and then take over these smuggling routes.

For these reasons, the growth of al-Qaeda challenged the class interests of the Sunni elite, which had been leading the nationalist resistance. Faced with the prospect of either continuing to fight the Americans in the name of national liberation or protecting their privileges, Sunni elites chose the latter. This is what became known as the “Sunni Awakening,” the rapid reversal of 2006 and 2007 in which Sunni elites turned on AQI and sided with the Americans. This effectively ended the nationalist resistance. The popular media narrative was that Sunni tribes turned against AQI because of AQI’s brutality, but in fact, al-Qaeda only began killing sheikhs after they switched sides to support the Americans.

The United States rewarded these elites by granting them contracts and allowing them to form militias, and, almost overnight, the sheikhs were able to reestablish the authority and privileges that they had lost after 2003. The sheikhs were now able to redistribute some of this wealth to their tribespeople, peeling away the base of support of AQI. Then, with US military backing, they attacked al-Qaeda, dislodged it from its sanctuaries, and expelled the group to the remote desert. By 2009, the insurgency — both Islamist and nationalist — was over.


Politicians and the press portray sectarian conflict in Iraq as going back centuries, when in fact it has more recent historical roots. Can you explain what those roots are? How did the United States manipulate and encourage this division?

Anand Gopal

The roots of sectarianism date to the policies of the British, who generally promoted Sunnis at the expense of other groups, and to the policies of Saddam, who crushed Shia political movements and banned certain Shia religious practices. But it was only under the US occupation that sect became the main referent for political power, the defining identity.

This was because the Americans viewed Iraqis in sectarian terms and treated them as such, something expressed through de-Ba‘athification and other laws, through the quota system, and through the Shia religious parties that the United States empowered. The United States refused to see Iraqis in their various nuanced identities — confessional, ethnic, political — and instead collapsed them into three categories: Sunni, Shia, and Kurd.

Washington reinforced this by importing Iraqi exiles who had no natural constituency within the country and who operated through a sectarian logic. For example, the United States packed the 2003 interim governing council with Iraqi expats and members of Shia Islamist parties. This divide-and-rule policy was a page out of the classic colonial playbook, and, like the historical example, it had the effect of making these categories real and more important. Iran played a similar role: the clerical regime backed Shia Islamist parties and deadly Shia militias, which produced the bizarre outcome of two antagonistic parties — the United States and Iran — backing the same forces in Iraq.

So instead of rectifying the inequities of Saddam’s regime — such as those against Shias — the United States and Iran inverted the situation, effectively excluding Sunnis from mainstream political and economic life. It was under these conditions that AQI was able to spark a Sunni-Shia civil war, which began in 2006. Its rationale for doing so was to eliminate the Sunni moderates; the group would place bombs in crowded Shia areas, killing many civilians, which would spark the Iraqi state and associated Shia militias to commit reprisals against Sunni civilians.

It became impossible for Sunnis (or Shias) to remain neutral or above the sectarian fray. This was a factor in driving some Sunnis to join AQI or to accept its violently anti-Shia rhetoric. It’s worth noting that ISIS, AQI’s successor, used the same logic, both inside Iraq and globally. When ISIS affiliates carry out attacks in the West, the strategic goal is to provoke a violent response by Western states and societies, thereby making it impossible for Western Muslims to remain neutral. ISIS strategists hope that these affected Muslims will then join the Islamic State. In this way, ISIS (and AQI before it) depends on Islamophobia in the West, and anti-Sunni politics in Iraq, to survive and grow.

For two reasons, the civil war that AQI set off in 2006 was over by 2008. First, as I mentioned, the Sunni Awakening was able to defeat AQI. Second, by siding with the United States, Sunni nationalist groups entered into a détente with the Shia-dominated state. In reality, this meant that Sunnis had lost the civil war, but this was not clear to them or to most observers at the time.


How did ISIS manage to sweep into control of most of Sunni Iraq in 2014 and 2015?

Anand Gopal

When the United States pulled out of Iraq in 2011, the balance of forces was the following: the Iraqi state, under the control of Nouri al-Maliki and the Shia ruling class, was firmly in power due to an alliance with the United States and Iran. Meanwhile, the Sunni ruling class had been supported since 2007 by the United States, through millions of dollars in contracts and jobs. The Shia ruling class did not want to share power with Sunni elites — many of whom it had been fighting just a few years before — while the Sunni elites were unwilling to forgo the significant financial and political power they had accrued from the Awakening.

Washington was supporting both the Shia and the Sunni ruling classes but was unprepared or unwilling to reconcile the two sides — because doing so would have meant dismantling the entire post-2003 order. So it withdrew, hoping that the two sides would reconcile by themselves, thereby ignoring the structural contradictions in the post-2003 system that would make such rapprochement impossible in the absence of either renewed civil war or a revolution. And, as it turned out, renewed civil war and revolution was exactly what happened.

The march toward the second Iraqi civil war began after 2011. In the rivalry between the Shia-dominated Iraqi state and the Sunni elite, it was ordinary Sunnis who paid the price. In one town after the next, Iraqi security forces tortured and disappeared rounded-up innocent Sunnis. A protest movement erupted in late 2012, where activists set up tents in major Sunni cities like Fallujah, Ramadi, and Hawija. Protesters were demanding an end to discriminatory policies like the de-Ba‘athification laws and the notorious counterterrorism laws, under which so many Sunnis had been disappeared.

The dynamics of the protests were similar to the post-2003 insurgency: a nationalist uprising led by the Sunni bourgeoisie, tribal sheikhs, and former officers who had mass support among Sunni society. And, like in 2003, radical Islamists like AQI comprised only a tiny part of the movement. The Iraqi state’s response was to increase its repression. In Hawija, for example, state security forces massacred dozens of protesters.

By December 2013, the uprising had morphed into an armed struggle, which had wide support in Sunni communities. At this point, al-Maliki effectively declared war on the movement, which had the immediate effect of splitting the Sunni ruling class. Some elites, especially in more tribal areas like Ramadi, decided to support the state, while others in places like Fallujah were in revolt against Baghdad. Protest leaders established a revolutionary council in Fallujah that ran the city for nearly six months in 2014.

In this environment, AQI — which had now rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — made a comeback. It allied with the revolution against Baghdad and portrayed itself as a protector of Sunnis against the Shia state. As the state increased its repression, ISIS was able to turn this idea into reality. In Fallujah, for example, the Iraqi army indiscriminately shelled the city, killing thousands. This forced the revolutionary council to increasingly rely on ISIS, which had greater access to heavy weaponry. By doing so, however, the revolutionary elites dug their own grave.

In January 2014, Fallujah’s revolutionary council consisted of a mélange of groups and individuals who had previously belonged to the nationalist resistance against the Americans: ex–army officers, sheikhs, Islamists, and secularists. In addition, there were a half dozen insurgent groups operating in the city, all of which had been active in the fight against the Americans. In just six months, ISIS was able to co-opt some members and kill others, until it enjoyed complete authority inside the city.

It did so in part by exploiting the same class grievances that AQI had, recruiting among the rural poor, unskilled workers, deracinated urban immigrants, the unemployed, and other lumpen elements. These were the groups that were the most exposed — both economically and in terms of state predation — from the inability of Sunni elites to redistribute wealth and protection downward. Across Sunni Iraq, ISIS also exploited the divisions created by the US Awakening program: in all areas, the United States supported some tribes more than others, and ISIS was able to recruit among those who lost out from this process.

On the outskirts of Hit, for example, the Americans had showered the Albu Nimr tribe with contracts and government jobs, at the expense of those inside the town. So ISIS recruited from the town dwellers. In Samarra, the Albu Baz tribe benefited disproportionately from the Awakening with jobs and money, so ISIS recruited from other nearby tribes that had lost out.

Through these three processes — killing competing groups, supporting the poorest elements of a community against its elites, and supporting communities that had been excluded from American and Iraqi patron-age — ISIS was able to sweep across Sunni parts of Iraq, dislodge the Sunni elite, and exert hegemony over anti-state Sunni politics.


How was ISIS eventually defeated?

Anand Gopal

While attempting to run an Islamic caliphate, ISIS also waged a multifront war, which proved its undoing. In Iraq, ISIS was battling an array of forces: government soldiers, Shia militias — many of whom were backed by Iran — and Kurdish fighters. In Syria, ISIS was at war with the Syrian regime and the Syrian rebels. But the real cause of ISIS’s defeat was the overwhelming firepower deployed by the United States. After withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, the United States returned in 2014 to launch a new war. This war was unlike the 2003 to 2011 occupation; there were few boots on the ground, with the United States relying almost entirely on airpower and proxy forces. For the next five years, the United States unleashed one of the most devastating bombing campaigns in recent history. In Raqqa, the ISIS capital, 80 percent of the city was destroyed. Stretches of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, were bombed to oblivion. No one knows how many civilians died, but it’s likely that the number is in the tens of thousands.

The war against ISIS was an important milestone for the United States: Washington perfected a new mode of warfare, in which it was able to cause extraordinary devastation without any risk to US forces — almost no American soldiers died. As a result, the war passed with hardly any comment back in the United States; Barack Obama and Donald Trump were able to effectively wipe cities off the map without Americans noticing.


We haven’t discussed the Kurds much. How has Kurdish politics evolved during and after the occupation?

Anand Gopal

The Kurds suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein, and during the 1991 Gulf War, they rebelled against Baghdad’s rule. The United States instituted a no-fly zone, which effectively turned the Kurdish north of Iraq into an autonomous zone. This arrangement was formalized after the 2003 invasion as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which has been like an oasis amid Iraq’s woes, with little violence and regular elections.

However, Kurdish politics has been dominated by neoliberal kleptocratic parties such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KDP and the PUK control the levers of power, along with nearly all economic activity. Contracts to build new construction or open businesses require connections with these parties. They have erected a massive patronage and bribery system that has undermined the development of democratic institutions.

These parties’ main source of legitimacy, such as it is, is their role in defending the nationalist aspirations of Kurds. That legitimacy was probably at a high point between 2014 and 2017, when ISIS threatened the Kurdish heartland and sparked a unified Kurdish resistance. After staving off ISIS invasion — with US help — the KDP conducted an independence referendum in 2017; over 90 percent of voters favored independence. But federal Iraq and regional powers reacted angrily: Turkey and Iran, which have sizable Kurdish populations of their own, slapped the KRG with heavy sanctions, and Iraqi forces seized the Kirkuk oil fields, depriving the KRG of a lucrative source of revenue. The KDP was forced to ignore the results of the referendum and, for the time being, has given up hopes of independence. Today the KRG is a dysfunctional, plutocratic polity with little prospect of statehood.


Even after the defeat of ISIS, the situation you describe seems bleak. Where do things go from here for Iraqi politics?

Anand Gopal

It may take generations to recover from the effects of thirty years of dictatorship, a decade of occupation, and multiple civil wars. And, in an important sense, Iraq is still under occupation — now by Iran, which has effectively colonized the country. Iranian-backed parties and militias dominate the political scene. Despite these hurdles, there are flickers of hope. Since the end of the American occupation, a small but influential movement of academics, journalists, and workers has emerged.

The uniting force behind this milieu is the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), which still survives and advocates for a secular, social democratic program. In 2018, the ICP entered an alliance with the party of Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shia cleric, and won fifty-four seats in parliament, the best performance of any party. The Sadrists were the only Shia force to oppose the US occupation, and, unlike the politicians that the United States and Iran helicoptered in as proxies, they have a massive social base among working-class and poor Shia. The ICP-Sadrist alliance did not survive the 2021 elections, but the groups reflect an important constituency: one that is against the Iraqi political class and Iranian domination. This may be the dominant sentiment among ordinary Iraqis.

In recent years, this sentiment has been expressed through violent protests against Iran, including an incident in which demonstrators burned down an Iranian consulate. Shia protesters are at the heart of this anti-Iran movement, a fact that is cause for hope, as it suggests that the sectarian vision promoted by the US occupation is beginning to break down in popular society. For this reason, the anti-Iran popular struggle in Iraq, along with the uprising in Iran, may be the most important developments in the Middle East in recent memory.