- Patrick Cockburn
Middle East correspondent for The Independent. His latest book is titled The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. One of his recent articles from Iraq is headlined “Private donors from Gulf oil states helping to bankroll salaries of up to 100,000 Isis fighters.” Last year, he received the Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year Award. He joins us now from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Militants from the self-proclaimed Islamic State have reportedly abducted at least 220 people from Assyrian Christian villages in northeastern Syria during a three-day offensive. Meanwhile, the Islamic State militant nicknamed “Jihadi John,” who has been featured in several beheading videos, has been identified as Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born former resident of London. In other news, two U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have reportedly killed over three dozen people in Iraq, including at least 20 civilians. Also this week, UNESCO is has condemned the Islamic State for destroying the Mosul public library, which housed more than 8,000 rare books and manuscripts. UNESCO described the incident as “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history.” Earlier today, video was posted online that appears to show members of the Islamic State smashing ancient artifacts inside a Mosul museum. The video shows men toppling statues and using sledgehammers and drills to destroy the artifacts. The Guardian reports one of the statues destroyed was a winged-bull Assyrian protective deity that dates back to the 9th century B.C. Live from Iraq, we are joined by Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. His latest book is “The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the Middle East. Militants from the self-proclaimed Islamic State have reportedly abducted at least 220 people from Assyrian Christian villages in northeastern Syria during a three-day offensive. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Islamic State has seized 10 villages near the city of Hasaka.
Meanwhile, the BBC and Washington Post have revealed the identity of the British man nicknamed “Jihadi John,” who’s been featured in several Islamic State beheading videos. The outlets say the Kuwaiti-born man is Mohammed Emwazi, who lived in west London and was known to British security services. He first appeared in a video last August when he allegedly killed the American journalist James Foley.
In other news, two U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have reportedly killed over three dozen people in Iraq, including at least 20 civilians. Hospital sources told Reuters a strike near the Syrian border killed nine civilians and 17 Islamic State militants, while a separate bombing west of Baghdad killed 11 civilians and six militants. The Pentagon has also announced a shipment of 10,000 U.S. M16 rifles and other military supplies to Iraq this week, as U.S. troops train Iraqi forces for an operation this spring to try to retake Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul, from Islamic State militants.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, UNESCO is condemning the Islamic State for destroying the Mosul public library, which housed more than 8,000 rare books and manuscripts. UNESCO described the incident as, quote, “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history.” Earlier today, video was posted online that appears to show members of the so-called Islamic State smashing ancient artifacts inside a Mosul museum. The video shows men toppling statues and using sledgehammers and drills to destroy the artifacts. The Guardian reports one of the statues destroyed was a winged-bull Assyrian protective deity that dates back to the 9th century B.C.
We go now to Iraq, where we’re joined by Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. His latest book is titled The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. One of his recent articles from Iraq is headlined “Private Donors from Gulf Oil States Helping to Bankroll Salaries of Up to 100,000 ISIS Fighters.” Last year, he received the Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year Award in England. He joins us now from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Why don’t we go right to the headline of that piece, Patrick? Talk about who is funding the self-proclaimed Islamic State?
PATRICK COCKBURN: It looks as though the Islamic State has much more money than it ought to have. It’s raised certainly 100,000, and getting on over 200,000, soldiers. They’re all being paid. It’s introduced conscription. It recently lowered the age of conscription below 18. If you join up, you don’t get much. You get $400 a month. If you’re a foreign fighter, you’ll get $800 a month and your keep. But this is a pretty large army they’re putting in the field, and they don’t have many sources of revenue. They have some oil. They have some taxes. So, there’s a great big gap there, which senior Kurdish officials and officials in Baghdad have told me they’re convinced come from private donors in the oil states of the Gulf. That’s the only real explanation for that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Patrick Cockburn, you’ve been talking to people who have been fleeing Mosul, the city that’s now entirely controlled by the Islamic State. Could you explain what people have been saying about what conditions are like there?
PATRICK COCKBURN: The conditions are pretty grim. There’s a shortage of electricity. There’s a shortage of clean water. That’s so bad that lots of people are in hospital with various complaints, illnesses, because of eating dirty water. There’s executions. Women forced to wear the niqab, so everything is covered, but one woman whose eyes weren’t quite covered was taken to a police station and was forced to bite on a sort of donkey or horse’s bit, that you put in the mouth of a horse, and to bite so hard until there was blood all over her mouth, and she had to go to hospital. So, it’s pretty vicious.
But one should also say two things. One, that the Sunni Arabs in Mosul are very frightened of ISIS, what they call DAESH, of ISIS, but they’re also very frightened of the idea of the Iraqi army or the Shia militias capturing Mosul. So, they don’t really know which way to go. I was talking this morning to some people in a refugee camp here in Erbil who had left Mosul because their parents had been in the Iraqi police force. And what happened was that they had fled Mosul, but then ISIS goes to their houses and blows them up and then puts the video of the explosion on the social media, so the—saying this is a message to even people who have fled, that they’re blowing up their houses.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Patrick Cockburn, given the brutality that you’re describing, why is it that people are, in some cases, as you say, equally scared of the Iraqi military taking over?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Because every place that the Shia militia and the—it’s mostly—the main fighting force of the Baghdad government at the moment is not the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army has actually failed to take back any city in Iraq or town in Iraq since the beginning of last year, since Fallujah fell to ISIS. But the Shia militia, that probably have about 120,000 men—the Iraqi army probably has about 40,000 to 50,000—where they take over cities or towns, they haven’t taken many, but were they have taken them over, or villages, they treat all the inhabitants, if they’re Sunni Arabs, as if they were members of ISIS. It doesn’t matter if these people are completely opposed to ISIS: They’re still treated as members of ISIS. So the young men disappear. In some cases, they’re killed. In some cases, they’re tortured or put in prison. So, houses are burned. People are driven out.
And there’s one other point, a very important one, I’d like to make, which I don’t think people have taken on board. As you know, that the U.S. government, the Pentagon and the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, have said there’s going to be an offensive to capture Mosul. But the major relief organizations, the World Food Program, believe that if there’s an attack on Mosul, there’s going to be an exodus of up to a million refugees, of basically the Sunni Arabs who live in Mosul, that they’re going to flee the city when airstrikes intensify and they believe it’s going to come under attack. At the moment, they couldn’t get into the Kurdish region. They’re banned. So they’re all going to be on the road. So, they’re pre-positioning supplies for one of the biggest exodus of refugees that we’ve seen, I don’t know for how long. But it’s going to be massive. There’s going to be terrible suffering, and many will die.
AMY GOODMAN: Already the self-proclaimed Islamic State controls a swath of land that covers millions and millions of people. Is the Islamic State going to last? And also, if you could respond to this latest identification, supposedly, of the man that has been called “Jihadi John,” who stands in the video as he was about to execute, for example, the American journalist James Foley—the Kuwaiti-born Mohammed Emwazi. British security said that they were following him. The significance of this? Three arrests in Brooklyn—these young people were supposedly going to join up with Islamic State in Syria. The three girls in Britain, the young women who supposedly have gone to join. Can you put all of this together?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, I mean, there are about or said to be 20,000 foreign jihadis who have gone to the Islamic State. One of the amazing things is that they’re still quite easily able to cross the Turkish frontier into Syria to—into the Islamic State, despite the fact that Turkey is meant to be part of the coalition to eliminate the Islamic State. But there’s a 500-mile border between Syria and Turkey, and it still seems to be generally open.
Now, when these foreigners arrive in the Islamic State, they’re often not much good as fighters, because those from western Europe and America don’t speak Arabic. Even those that do are not professional soldiers. So they often become suicide bombers, or they’re given particularly sort of high-profile jobs for execution and so forth.
But the Islamic State is very obsessed, almost, with the idea of dominating the news agenda, and it doesn’t really matter how they do it. So they know that if you have a Japanese hostage and you demand $200 million ransom, that that’s going to be leading the news. For a long time, cutting off people’s heads led the news. Then that—people became used to that, so they burn to death this Jordanian pilot in a cage, knowing again that will dominate the news, will be assertion of their strength. And they do that particularly when they’ve had a military setback. When things aren’t going too well on the battlefront, they want the news to be dominated by some assertion of power on their part, which may be a hideous atrocity, usually is, but they feel they’ve achieved their aim if that’s what everybody’s talking about. They said at one moment on their social media that media is half jihad. So it’s something they do very consciously, and it’s something they use, particularly foreigners entering the Islamic State, as a method of publicity.
AMY GOODMAN: And will they last? Patrick Cockburn, will they last, do you think, Islamic State? And what do you think should be done?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Will they last? Well, at the moment—last year, they had a 100-day campaign in which they captured an area which is larger than Great Britain. They defeated the Iraqi army. They defeated the—inflicted defeats on the Syrian army, massive defeats on the Kurds, the Iraqi Kurds, on almost everybody else. Since then, they haven’t been quite so successful against the Syrian Kurds and others, but they control pretty well the same area. And they’re recruiting vast numbers of people. I was at the battlefront here west of Erbil yesterday, and I was talking to a commander. And although he said that ISIS was losing a lot of men in attacks they had been making, they’ve still been able to recruit people and recruit people from the local area. I think, abroad, people get the impression somehow it’s all foreign jihadis. Actually, it isn’t. It’s mostly Syrians and Iraqis. And there are at least six or seven million people within the confines of the Islamic State. And if you’re calling up all the young men, you can put a very large army into the field.
Now, to defeat them, we have the Iraqi army here. But as I said earlier, the Iraqi army has not recaptured a single city or town since January last year. So talk of them defeating the Islamic State, of taking Mosul, taking these other cities, looks pretty optimistic. In Syria, the Syrian Kurds are fighting pretty hard. They’ve been advancing. That’s one of the reasons that these poor Assyrian Christians have been kidnapped by Islamic State. They’re supported by U.S. airstrikes. But that only really happens where there are a lot of Kurds in Syria, which is not that big. In the rest of Syria, it’s very noticeable the U.S. airstrikes are not against the Islamic State where it is combating the Syrian army. So, the pressure is there, but it’s not sufficient to defeat the Islamic State, to my mind. And the Islamic State’s many enemies are all there, but they’re disunited, and they distrust and hate each other almost as much, or if not more, than they hate the Islamic State.
AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Cockburn, we want to thank you for being with us, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. His latest book, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. We’ll link to your article, “Private Donors from Gulf Oil States Helping to Bankroll Salaries of Up to 100,000 ISIS Fighters.”