We Built Their Death Squads: ISIS's Bizarre Origin Story
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 ...
We Put All Their Leaders In The Same Camp
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 ...
They Learned To Work Together
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.
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, 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 ...
We Recruited Former Terrorists To Fight Terrorists
Cracked also spoke with two sources who were present at the founding of the Sons Of Iraq. In short, the Sons Of Iraq were a bunch of Sunni Muslims in the Anbar Province who organized into an ad hoc army, funded by the U.S. military, and fought to stabilize the region. The only problem is that many of them started their "militant" careers as terrorists fighting American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
We trained all our enemies. Terrorists trained all our allies.
Our first source, who insisted on the pseudonym "Max Thrustington" was an American soldier stationed in Anbar at the time. He recalled his first meeting with some of the men who would become the Sons Of Iraq, while out on patrol in a small village. "We saw some weird activity: a couple of trucks that weren't supposed to be there ... what happened is, they had all the male in one house, all the females in another. They were rigging the village with IEDs and going to slaughter them."
But, terrorists or not, we were badly in need of competent local allies. The new Iraqi army, trained and equipped by ... well, us, was not that competent an ally. As our other source, who we'll call "Rex Icebone" says, "Besides their massive drug problems and general incompetence, one of my very first firefights was with the Iraqi army."
If one of the first Arabic phrases you start to recognize is, "dude, my bad," you've got problems.
So, the Sons Of Iraq weren't big fans of the United States, and we weren't big fans of them. But, we knew they were competent (some of them had been fighting us for years, at this point), and they wanted the bags and bags of money we had to offer them. "At first, there was a lot of resistance," says Max. "This militia didn't care a lot about the politics; they didn't want America to be in Iraq. So, we had to start paying them. That's what stability was to them."
Rex explained how the order to start paying the guys -- who had been their enemies just weeks before -- actually sounded to the grunts on the ground: "We got a brief saying these guys were 'concerned local citizens' who are just farmers, concerned about their community. We're going to set them up with weapons so they can stop Al Qaeda from putting IEDs on the road and ambushing us ... Someone had the brilliant idea that the only reason they were fighting us is they were being paid better by Al-Mahdi. He was giving them maybe $60 a month before; we started giving them $400."
If we thought of this plan earlier, there would never have been a Cold War.
It didn't take long for the military to realize that these armed, dangerous extremists didn't have to obey the same rules of warfare as American soldiers. As a result ...
We Turned Them Into An Organized Death Squad
The term "death squad" is exactly how Max described the Sons Of Iraq. "It's a buzzword, but that's what they were. Anyone the UN wouldn't let us kill, we would say, 'Wouldn't it be nice if this person wasn't around anymore?' You won't find a piece of paper with those orders on them anymore. But, the last five months I was there, April to August 2007, we had no attacks. That was the safest time. It was a major step forward in the promise to make Iraq quieter."
Better to be woken by a prayer horn than a warning one.
See, American soldiers have a lot of rules to follow in terms of what they can and can't do, especially when they're not being shot at. The Sons Of Iraq didn't have any particular rules to follow. As Rex recalled, "We were in the triangle of death. So, we would go on patrols with these Sons Of Iraq in broad daylight, start rounding up terrorists or suspected terrorists. Usually, the women would cry when we would kick down the door because they know Americans don't like that ... But, when we did this mission, it wasn't the women crying. It was the men crying."
You see, because they realized they weren't about to be interned by the Americans -- they were going to be handed off to the Sons Of Iraq. And that meant they were going to die.
"Eh, 'interned,' 'interment,' they practically sound the same ..."
"They were almost given carte blanche ... we would tell them, 'Here are your prisoners. We're going to look over here now.' They would go to a ditch somewhere, there'd be a burst of AK fire, and the problem was solved."
Sounds horrible, right? It was! But, it also worked: As much as 90 percent of the drop in violence attributed to the "surge" was directly due to the Sons Of Iraq. What does all this have to do with ISIS?
We Handed Both Groups To The Iraqi Government, And Out Popped ISIS
In 2008, President Bush turned over control of all Iraqi prisoners, including those in Camp Bucca, to the Iraqi government. And like everything else the Iraqi government was involved in, it turned out to be a complete shit show. The Iraqis released Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2010 under the assumption that he had gotten all the terrorism out of his system. He became the leader of ISIS that same year.
"He has glasses now; how could he still be a terrorist!?!"
So, roughly half of the angry people reading this article can shake your fists at Dubya for bringing ISIS down on our heads. For the other half of you, there's plenty of ISIS-blame to throw the Obama Administration's way, too. Using the Sons Of Iraq as a death squad worked great, causing a massive drop in violence (well, violence against us). But, the U.S. turned over responsibility for paying them to the Iraqi government in 2008. Want to guess how that went?
We'll go ahead and spoil it for you: We pulled out in 2011, leaving the country in the hands of Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite Muslim. He immediately had his vice president (a Sunni) arrested. Then, he ceased all payments to the Sunni-majority Sons Of Iraq.
Rule #1 of running a nation: Don't stop paying the guys with the grenades.
Fun Fact: Funding the Sons Of Iraq cost the United States around $200 million a year. The Pentagon estimates it's going to cost $22 billion a year to keep fighting ISIS.
So, now that they were out of a job, many of the Sons Of Iraq joined ISIS because, fuck it, ISIS had money. Since the Iraqi government forces were Shiite, many of the Sunni Sons Of Iraq saw ISIS as a natural ally against the dudes who'd kicked them out of a job and seemed to be gearing up for some good old-fashioned religious repression.
And from a distance, their flag looked like a Jolly Roger.
It's true that most of the Sons Of Iraq didn't join ISIS (some of them were actually murdered by ISIS), but it didn't matter. The Islamic State's largest roadblock was gone. Suddenly, a bunch of violent assholes -- who had plenty of time to plan during their stint in prison together -- found themselves at the head of around 30,000 active fighters. The most effective military force in the area -- the hundred-thousand strong Sons Of Iraq -- had been disbanded. The actual Iraqi Army proved so ineffective that ISIS now controls more than half of their country.
So, here's the lesson in all this, as far as we can tell: You can debate among yourselves as to whether or not a particular military action is right or wrong. But, if anybody states with absolute confidence that they know exactly what the results of that action is going to be? Yeah, they're either lying or are fucking insane. It's like those people who keep opening bigger and bigger Jurassic Parks and act like it's absurd to think anything will go wrong this time. Well, we're going to go out on a limb and say that the genetically-engineered superdinosaur you're breeding might sell some tickets at first, but the control you think you're exercising in this situation is probably an illusion.
If you are a woman who served with the U.S. Military in Iraq or Afghanistan and you'd like to talk about your experiences, please email Cracked.
Robert Evans runs the Cracked personal experience article team, and he tweets sometimes too.
Be sure to follow us on Facebook and YouTube, where you can catch all our video content, such as How To Stay Sane After The Apocalypse and other videos you won't see on the site!
Also check out 6 Things You Learn Detonating Roadside Bombs For A Living and 6 Insane Things You Learn Overthrowing Your Own Government.
Have a story to share with Cracked? We're always listening.