ISIS -- the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria -- is one of the least funny organizations on the planet. From child trafficking to attempted genocide, everything they touch turns into a big steaming pile of tragedy. Things seem to be going pretty well for them, too. The West's new boogeymen captured the city of Ramadi, Iraq, last month, and they appear to be drawing in new recruits slightly faster than American airstrikes can kill them.
But, the truly scary thing is that they seem to have just popped into existence overnight. How many of you had never even heard the term "ISIS" before last year? How is such a spontaneous mass of organized terror even possible? We were wondering that, too, so we sat down with a few people who were on the ground in Iraq during ISIS's real-life supervillain origin story. We learned that, if we're not the father of ISIS, the United States is at least some sort of uncle.
It started when ...
5We Put All Their Leaders In The Same Camp
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Think back to the early days of the Iraq War: The Army and Marines America'd their way through Saddam Hussein's regime and spent the next almost-decade fighting a vicious insurgency. During that time (from 2003 to 2011), Americans went from caring sooooo much about Iraq, to not caring at all, to caring a little bit more because we love the word "surge," to not caring at all again. American and coalition soldiers spent that time fighting and capturing tens of thousands of insurgent fighters. Those men wound up here:
Move over lemon Starbursts, you're now longer the worst thing wrapped in yellow.
Camp Bucca, Iraq, became a major detention center for captured fighters and suspected fighters alike. It also inadvertently became something of a high school for terrorism: Nine top leaders of the Islamic State spent time in Camp Bucca. That is not a coincidence.
Our first source, who wanted to remain anonymous so we'll grant them the manly name "Lance Steelhammer," was stationed there during the same time a man named Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was an inmate. If that name sounds familiar to you, it's because he's the head of ISIS and self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State:
That right, there is a Gibson Class beard.
"Camp Bucca was what you would call a 'theater internment facility,'" says Lance. That's government-speak for "prison," only they couldn't call it a prison because no one there had been charged or convicted with anything. Yes, while many of Camp Bucca's inmates were violent assholes caught doing violent, asshole-y things, just being a male Iraqi near an attack was enough to land your ass behind razor wire.
According to Lance, "These guys ate the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was some sort of chicken curry dish. A few guys were diabetic, and they would get little bags of M&Ms and Skittles to get some sugar in 'em and help ward off the diabetes. Those little packets of candy quickly became the 'cigarette cartons' of our internment facility. So, people could use these to barter for goods and services or ... I don't know, exactly. Whatever kinds of stuff you buy in an Iraqi prison yard. There were these dudes who'd been gut-shot in whatever firefight had led to their capture. They wound up with colostomy bags and extra holes in their body, and well ... that was a novel orifice."
Meaning, they let people stick their dicks in their colostomy holes in exchange for candy. We have no way of knowing if that's really a thing or not, but it has its own entry on Urban Dictionary, so make of it what you will -- the point is, it wasn't a nice place. And winding up in a place like that, locked up with a bunch of violent extremists, is a super easy way to wind up as a violent extremist yourself.
Seeing this, knowing nothing, you would guess it's a terrorist-training camp.
And you would be right.
We'll never know how many innocent young men wound up radicalized as a result of their incarceration in Camp Bucca (it's possible that as much as 90 percent of Camp Bucca's inmates were originally arrested by mistake, but we'll never know for sure). It's no wonder that the camp's former commandant described it as a "pressure cooker for extremism" in a statement he made to, uh, Twitter:
As an aside, does anyone else think it's weird that we've reached the point in modern journalism where incredibly important international news stories are broken on Twitter, while the first half-page of a CNN article on ISIS is one giant beer ad?
Half their readers now think Modelo is a city in Iraq.
Anyway, Camp Bucca brought a lot of violent insurgents into contact with each other and brought them into contact with impressionable, angry young men . And then ...
4They Learned To Work Together
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Many of Bucca's detainees, away from home for the first time in a foreign prison camp, were understandably lonely and scared. The more radical internees offered emotional support first, which made it easier for them to radicalize their fellow detainees. Once they were inside the prison walls, inmates had to live under a strict version of Sharia law -- very much in line with how ISIS operates today.
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Imagine the ensuing shitstorm if they had discovered Skittles weren't halal.
Picture it: You had the inmates in large, fairly open holding areas, surrounded by fences and razor wire with guards patrolling behind them. Escape would've been tough. But, inside the fences, inmates had the freedom to enforce many of their own rules and even carry out lethal punishments on fellow detainees who broke those rules. Lance says that after a rule breaker was shanked, those doing the punishing would then "drag the guy out close to the fence and just say, 'We found him like this.'"
Foreign policy experts refer to this kind of "inmates running the asylum" situation as an Arkham City Scenario (or, at least, they should). Many of the future leaders and foot-soldiers of ISIS got their first experience working and planning attacks together inside Camp Bucca, where they showed the same creativity and cunning that's allowed them to take over like, half of Iraq in the last year-ish. "We would give them powdered chai tea; they'd mix it with water and sand to make these balls ..." says Lance. "Hide 'em in the sun, [and] they dry hard. They are light, but hard. You get clocked in the face, they'll knock your teeth out. During a riot, the sky would turn black with these chai balls."
Still better than the alternative: rampant teabagging.
Officials at Camp Bucca attempted to segregate the more radicalized prisoners from the "safer" ones. But, that didn't stop both groups from co-mingling and even planning together. "They would ... throw notes to each other. One group would riot a bunch on one side ... so, while we're at the flaming compound, another group is making its escape."
And while the future leaders of ISIS were being nurtured in the bosom of Bucca ...