Mohamed Khalaf: Bashar Assad's Regime Was 'Biggest Helper' of IS
An interview of Novinite.com with Mohamed Khalaf, an Iraqi-born journalist and correspondent in Bulgaria of a Kuwaiti newspaper, on the Sunni militant group called Islamic State (IS) acting in Iraq and Syria.
The text below is the first part of the interview and is mostly about the origins and basic features which make IS a powerful factor in the Middle East. it also explores the European dimensions of jihad.
Mr Khalaf, Islamic State (IS) has managed to emerge very rapidly, and it is not only the Iraqi forces, but also the West, that are finding it difficult to deal with them. How could one explain this quick success?
I wouldn't say it was that quick. Speaking of IS, it is just an old organization with a new name. It is composed of many Al-Qaeda affiliates who are nevertheless the new generation renouncing traditional leaders. They are followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who was killed by the US army in Iraq in 2006. They are not much different from Al-Qaeda, but they aspire to achieve their goals more rapidly. The environment created in Syria and Iraq allowed them to expand. But it is not only the two states they are aiming, but also beyond - Jordan. They sought a few times to stir provocations at the borders, their presence in the Anbar province, which has a long border with Jordan and which is their under control, helped them to do so. Two weeks ago IS managed to take over Arsal, a town [in northern Lebanon] bordering Syria, in no time. Readers should know that Arsal is a Sunni town with 100 000 refugees from Syria. Among those refugees some IS followers were bred, as well as Nusra Front followers (the latter group is a staunch supporter of Al-Qaeda and even occasionally embroils itself in fighting IS). It is a typical thing for IS that it does not allow any independence. Everyone who would like to operate in a certain region should be under their command. This is why it fights anyone [organization] staging a mutiny and does not agree, even though goals and ideas might be the same. The leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (a pseudonym), was an intelligence officer during the regime of Saddam Hussein. After the Iraqi army and secret services were disbanded following the US offensive and the toppling of the regime, he lost his job, alongside the entire army and services. He soon became part of the so-called "resistance against the occupator". He was sent to [Southern Iraq's] Bucca camp but was freed after just 8 months behind bars, since the Americans failed to find any evidence against him. By the way, everyone who knows him says they've never seen him aggressive and also that he is always quiet and very kind. And at the same time he graduated Islamic Sharia Law at the University of Baghdad. Upon his release, Baghdadi addressed US soldiers in the camp and told them, "See you in New York!" They failed to understand what he said, but it is obvious he is seeking to prepare a 9/11-style attack. He later headed the IS following dissension with Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, the man who created IS. I explained all this as you asked me what kind of people they are: people who managed to create a hierarchy, an organization, but did not do it without any assistance - both from the inside and from outside.
But where does the external aid come from? Several days ago Germany's Minister of Economic Cooperation Gerd Mueller declared it was Qatar that sponsored IS. Does he have any ground to say that?
There are a few different versions. The truth is that all Gulf states took part in the beginning. It was not the states themselves, however, but a various moguls, deviations, schools within the intelligence services which pumped money into the organization and its members with a single purpose: to topple down [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad's regime as soon as possible. This was the initial goal. The concentration of IS forces in Syria increased after the West and the Obama administration refused to intervene. The sponsors were besides representatives of the Sunni community – they believe in Islamist ideas and in the rule of an Islamic Caliph. This is in their way of thinking.
The most substantial evidence is in support of the information that the state which most extensively provided assistance, mainly by giving access to training camps in regions bordering Syria, is Turkey. More precisely it is Turkey's intelligence services MIT.
Volunteering jihadists are also an important source of support for the organization.
Jihadists come from different parts of the world, from over 50 states. Last week the Americans said that foreigners fighting among not only IS, but also within other organizationsq amount to between 12 and 15 thousand.
Do you have any information about Bulgarian jihadis?
I think there are only two Bulgarians who could answer whether there are Bulgarians: the head of the State Agency for National Security [DANS] and the Interior Minister. As far as I can tell: if we look at how many jihadists from European countries travel to Syria and Iraq, I cannot rule out Bulgaria. If we look at the example of Bulgaria's neighbors or states in immediate proximity (Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, Croatia). Last week some 40 people were arrested after returning from Iraq and Syria. I was in Kosovo at the time of [this June's general] elections and met there Interior Minister Bayram Rexhepi, as he was one of the campaigners’ heads). My questions, however, also included whether there are jihadists from Kosovo, how many they are and what they did there. He admitted it was a serious issue for his government. He said many boys go there as volunteers, but girls did as well - young girls who take part in another jihad, sexual jihad, and go there to fulfill the needs of fighters and interpret this as a way to Paradise. Kosovo has alrady adopted a bill criminalizing jihad and the participation of citizens in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, but also anywhere in the world. A similar law is in force in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Serbia Rasim Ljajic, who was then in charge of Kosovar affairs, also passed such motion, since the Sandzak province has a vast Muslim population. Europeans, however, are another issue - they are seriously threatened, because 1000 to 3000 European citizens are fight in Syria and Iraq. There are for instance 600 to 700 French and British, over 500 German, 160-190 Belgian citizens. Two weeks ago the head of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution [Hans-Georg Maa?en] reported that authorities were after all suspects in different provinces. He added they had begun to track them down to prevent them from travelling abroad, and to ensure that those who do should not return to the country. Speaking of the UK,last week a citizen of theirs beheaded [US journalist] James Foley. In English cities there are entire districts ruled by Islamic Sharia law. With all these cases in Europe in sight, it is hard to believe there are no Bulgarians. Last week there were report of a Bulgarian jihadists detained in Spain, but authorities explained he was only born here and was Russian, holding a Russian passport.
The single country in Europe which does not provide information for such events is Bulgaria. I told that to [former Interior] Minister Yovchev at a press conference: it is unthinkable that a certain state's Interior Ministry does not issue an annual report on these matters.
What kind of measures could European authorities adopt against jihadists?
EU states are coordinating their actions. Over the past three months EU interior ministers and nine ministers from Arab countries have carried out two or three secret meetings. What they discussed was exactly preventive measures to help catch or prevent the return of those 3000 jihadists from Syria and Iraq. This means Europe is feeling threatened by the return of those people, who are well-trained and know how to carry out terror attacks. More than two months ago one of them made one at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. By the way, Belgian authorities recently reported that Haris, 27, a Congoese-born Belgian citizen, who fought in Syria and was wounded there, neared the Bulgarian-Turkish border. His father went to trace him and took him in. They sought medical assistance and took him to a hospital in [Bulgaria's southern town of] Haskovo, then handed him to Belgium. This is something the Belgians reported, but the Bulgarians did not. It seems Bulgaria's policies are aimed at avoiding panic in society. Such incidents should be taken into account, though. Jihadists are very clever: they won't go straight to their destination, for example, if they are in France, they won't reach Syria via Turkey, but will enter Germany, then a Scandinavian country and so on, as the bombers at the Sarafovo airport [in the Bulgarian city of Burgas].
Given the freedom of movement of radical Islamists in Western Europe and the presence of large radicalized communities on the Balkan peninsula, how do you assess the risk that IS could uphold its threats to establish a Caliphate reaching the Mediterranean?
Do you mean: an occupation? I consider the notions of an "Islamic state" and "Islamic Caliph" to be a utopia which will never become reality in the 21st century. They are nothing but a fruit of the imagination of people who are allowed by the conditions in their states to express themselves using the means of globalization and democratic values. Europe considers the tradition of observing human rights to be an important one and believes it should be applied not only to its citizens, but to other citizens as well. Jihadists are trying to direct this against the societies which gave them shelter, wives, education, a family, a job, etc. The problem is, it is not in the Arab world that most of these people become radicalized. It was European societies where they did, and it happened for various reasons. Unfortunately, whereas there are opinion surveys in all other European countries measuring processes among diasporas, Bulgaria does not conduct any. Let me give you an example: in Austria they carried out a poll two or three years ago with 500 Austrian citizens of Arab or Islamic origin. When asked if it was their religion or rather their citizenship that better described them, 85 percent pointed religion. To the second question, or how they perceived the states which had granted them citizenship, 78 percent answered "Hostile". The results suggest a vast part of these diasporas have failed to integrate in society. We must look for the reason. Just three years ago the Americans believed they did not have this problem. They did until a group of US citizens was arrested on the road to Afghanistan where they sought to become part of Al-Qaeda's training camps in order to later return to the US and carry out attacks there.
I should point out, however, it is not gentile Christians that fall victims to such groups, but Muslims themselves. This is something we are witnessing every day. The attacks are targeting Sunni and Shia Muslims, not just Christians. This is a key point with Islamists - they consider every Muslim who does not keep to their understanding of Islam to be an infidel. If you don't accept their point of view, their doctrine saying women should be veiled, not to do this or that, you are beyond Islam and should be murdered.
It seems that IS is currently profiting from the developments in the Middle East, the radicalization of the European youth. Nonetheless, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently noted IS "beyond anything" the West has seen. What makes this group so special?
In March the US President’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice told Congress that the developments in Syria, the emergence of IS [then still Islamic State] poses a big threat to the security of Iraq and Syria, but also to the whole region and of the world. He added the organization would make further gains and its actions will be more large-scale, with its influence also on the rise. So the recent events were expected.
What brought about the rising influence of IS comes from Syria. The situation in Syria turned into an incubator for jihadists believing in Islamist ideas and arriving from across the world. The rumor goes that there are about 12 000 from Chechnya in Syria, but also a lot from the Russian republics and North Caucasus. Even the Chinese reported that 100 Chinese Muslims are fighting in Syria. This creates favorable conditions for a good organization and financing. And financing is currently gathered as they extract oil in Syria. IS has already taken hold of all regions with deposits. They say some 100 000 barrels are being extracted every day. You know that under such circumstances a number of smuggling networks, bandits, organized criminal gangs sprawl, but the biggest surprise stems from the fact it is Bashar Assad's regime itself that is buying their oil, since it cannot continue the war against them without oil. They, for their part, cannot fight Assad without oil, they cannot sell it to him and take his money. Just look at the paradox! Virtually, if we are to be objective, the biggest helper and creator of IS is Bashar Assad's regime. When the uprising against him started three years ago, as protests were beginning he freed all jihadists from jail on one condition: they were entitled to set up an organization to fight protesters. In return he provided assistance and money. I will tell you something. In Syria they built during what many experts described as a “secular" and a "liberal" regime about 18 000 mosques and 200 religious schools. Does this strike you? A secular regime building so many mosques... People who lost their faith in everything go to the mosque and listen to ignorant theologians and imams. They direct them, they point them the way and show them more formidable methods of religious thought. And Assad kept saying he had freed himself from them... Until 4 months ago Assad did not make raids on IS a single time, he only targeted organizations like the Free Syrian Army, because they are not Islamists. He fomented controversies between them so that they fight each other. Now there is no-one fighting him except for the Free Syrian Army and a few others.
The second part of our conversation with Mr Khalaf is due later this week.
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