On Wednesday, the US announced it was offering rewards of up to $5 million for information leading to the location of three senior Islamic State figures.
They include Mutaz Abd Nayif Najm al-Jabouri, whom the State Department’s Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program, which is offering the rewards, described as “one of the most important leaders in ISIS.”
Also known as Hajji Taysir, Mu’taz al-Jabouri, was, “as of mid-2017,” the “deputy amir of manufacturing in Syria,” where he “was in charge of the Research Department for ISIS’s chemical and biological efforts,” RFJ explained.
It has long been known that the Islamic State had a chemical weapons program. It used such weapons against the Peshmerga, who were, at first, poorly prepared to deal with that threat. Subsequently, they were provided training and equipment from the US-led Coalition.
Wednesday’s announcement, however, marks the first time the US has stated that the Islamic State also had a biological weapons program.
Biological weapons can be far more lethal than chemical weapons, although most people are unaware of the danger they pose. That is true, even in the US, which was the target of an abortive biological attack following the 9/11 assaults.
In October 2001, shortly after the US intervention in Afghanistan began, highly lethal anthrax was sent in the mail, addressed to two US senators. It came with a note, announcing it was anthrax. Otherwise those who opened the letters would, most likely, have paid little attention to the innocuous-looking white powder.
“I was struck by a sickening thought: Was this the second wave, a biological attack?,” President George W. Bush later wrote in his memoirs. “I had been briefed on the horrifying consequences of a bioweapons attack. One assessment concluded that a ‘well-executed smallpox attack by a state actor on the New York City metropolitan area’ could infect 630,000 people immediately and 2 to 3 million people before the outbreak was contained.”
“One of the best intelligence services in Europe told us it suspected Iraq,” Bush continued. “Saddam Hussein’s regime was one of the few in the world with a record of using weapons of mass destruction, and it had acknowledged possession of anthrax.”
Most of the 17 people infected by the anthrax in 2001, including the five who died, lived in the Washington DC area. A doctor involved in treating them told this reporter, “We pulled them from the jaws of death,” as he explained that the intensive treatment they received would have been impossible, if large numbers of people had been infected.
Advances in genetic engineering in the years since, have only increased the danger posed by biological agents. That prompted the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, to describe gene editing in 2016 as a potential weapon of mass destruction, on a par, even, with nuclear weapons.
The other two Islamic State figures for whom rewards were announced include: Sami Jasim Muhammad al-Jabouri, who “has been instrumental in managing finances” for the terrorist organization, and Amir Muhammad Sa’id ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Mawla, whom RFJ describes as “a religious scholar.”
All three men are Iraqi, and RFJ describes all three as “legacy” members of the Islamic State’s “predecessor” organization, al Qaida in Iraq (AQI.)
Just what the names of such organizations signify is unclear. AQI first emerged in 2004, a year after the US-led war to oust Saddam Hussein began. In late 2004, Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Secretary of Defense, told The Atlantic Monthly that the enemy “consists primarily of organized remnants of Saddam’s old regime.”
Around the same time, a figure in Iraq’s new government, visiting Washington, spoke similarly to a small group of Americans. He explained that the ousted regime was the main element behind the insurgency. However, it recognized that it was detested in Iraq, including even by Sunni Arabs. So it had adopted a new, religious cover. Among AQI’s main targets were Iraq’s Shi’ites, as it sought to exacerbate the country’s sectarian divide and mobilize support by assuming the role of the protectors of the Sunni Arabs.
Just as the core of AQI, properly understood, was the former Iraqi regime, the same is true of its successor organization, the so-called Islamic State.
Already in February 2014, as the Islamic State began to establish itself, Al-Arabiya carried a report entitled, “Exclusive: Tops ISIS Leaders Revealed.” Citing Iraqi officials, it explained, “The six individuals who are at the helm of the terror group are from Iraq.”
“At least three of them served in Saddam Hussein’s army,” it continued, “while others were previously detained in Iraq and upon their release they joined the war in Syria.”
The Kurdish view, expressed four months later, shortly after the Islamic State overran Mosul, was similar.
“We believe that many groups are in cooperation, including the former Ba’ath regime’s supporters, former army members, and Ba’ath administrators,” the media advisor to the President of the Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, explained. “Most of the people in the region believe that the organization known as ISIL is actually founded and ruled by the Ba’ath.”
In 2015, the highly-regarded news magazine, Der Spiegel, published a report, based on captured documents, entitled “Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State.”
The report, a leak from German intelligence, made a similar point: the Islamic State was established by members of Saddam’s intelligence apparatus, first in Syria after the start of its civil war, following which they moved into Iraq.
Asked in May 2018, about the Der Spiegel article and the role of former Iraqi regime elements, then Commandant of the US Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller, essentially agreed.
Neller served as Deputy Commanding General, I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), during the Iraq war. “I left Iraq in 2007,” he said. “Clearly, the ISIS-Al-Qaida Iraq that we fought there did include former Saddam personnel.”
However, the understanding held, over a decade ago, by Neller and Wolfowitz appears to have been lost.
Asked a similar question in March 2018, the Marine colonel in charge of US forces at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq’s Anbar province, replied, with disarming frankness, “I’ve never looked at it from that perspective.”
“I don’t believe that the leaders are former Iraqi regime leaders.” he continued. “I believe what they are is — I believe they’re twisted. Twisted by some kind of ideology that very few of us can understand.”
Jordanian and Egyptian officials complain that the US fails to see that Iraqi intelligence is still active. Sixteen years may have passed since the collapse of Saddam’s regime, but it was based on sectarian, tribal, clan, and family ties. Those relationships endure.
As described above, the Islamic State is not so much a religious phenomenon, as it is a political phenomenon, with a religious cover.
At its core are brutal and ruthless men, seeking to regain the power and status they lost in 2003, and they use Islam as a legitimizing and recruiting tool. The jihadis are essentially the contemporary equivalent of Lenin’s “useful idiots,” the true-believers, manipulated by others.
The US objective, one former intelligence official advised Kurdistan 24, should be to separate the useful idiots from those who are using and manipulating them. “But the US does the opposite,” he complained. “It is so focused on the transnational, religious aspect of the violence, that it doesn’t see what is happening at the local, political level.”