Perhaps the world’s most infamous terrorist movement—the Islamic State of Iran and Syria (ISIS), owes something to the world’s foremost state-sponsor of terrorism—the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yet, most major media outlets have failed to note the complex history between theocratic, Shi’ite-ruled Iran and the Sunni group describing itself as the Islamic State. Instead, coverage has often fixated on sectarian differences and the simple narrative that Shi’ite Iran is fighting Sunni ISIS. This omits the important role that Iranian mullahs and their policies have played in providing support—originally direct but now indirect in the wake of open conflict—to the Islamic State.
Currently ISIS is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but the group’s origins can be traced to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist who founded Tawhid wal-Jihad (“Monotheism and Jihad”). The Tawhid wal-Jihad terror cell eventually expanded into the Islamic State’s progenitor—al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
After fleeing Afghanistan following the arrival of U.S.-led coalition forces in Operation Enduring Freedom, Zarqawi was “based in Iran and northern Iraq” for “about a year.” After a brief arrest by Iranian authorities, he was allowed to “move freely” throughout the region to recruit, according to Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan in their book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. The authors assert that according to Jordanian intelligence services, “it wasn’t Baghdad America should have been looking at [for links to Zarqawi’s group]…it was Tehran.” (pg. 17)
“The Iranians have a policy: they want to control Iraq. And part of this policy has been to support Zarqawi, tactically but not strategically….In the beginning they gave him weapons, uniforms, military equipment, when he was with the army of Ansar al-Islam [a Sunni terror group based in northern Iraq]. Now they essentially just turn a blind eye to his activities, and to those of al-Qaeda generally.”
After receiving Iranian support, al-Zarqawi eventually would turn to sectarian warfare in Iraq, targeting Shi’ite holy places and murdering members of that Islamic sect. Long-dominated by Sunni members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, post-U.S. invasion Iraq saw the rise of Shiite officials. While this better reflected the country’s demography, it also provided both an opportunity for Tehran to project its influence and concurrently for al-Zarqawi to exploit Sunni fears of being shut out. As Weiss and Hassan observe, the election of Shiite Iraqi officials—some of whom had lived in Iran prior to the U.S. occupation—allowed al-Zarqawi to exploit an “incipient but real problem in Iraq’s political evolution…the creeping takeover by chauvinistic Shia politicians, many of whom were spies or agents of influence of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).” (pg. 29)
Following al-Zarqawi’s death in a 2006 U.S.-drone strike, the subsequent U.S.-led surge of forces and the so-called “Anbar-Awakening”—in which Iraqi Sunni tribes rejected the brutality of AQI in favor of U.S.-provided security, Sunni extremist terror groups briefly receded in key provinces. Yet, with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq—comprised of many former AQI terrorists—“ISIS has couched its current campaign in Syria and Iraq in exactly” the same sectarian terms as al-Zarqawi used. Meanwhile, the movement hopes to spur Sunni recruitment by targeting Shi’ites and prompting a fierce counterreaction.
Atrocities committed in Syria’s civil war by Tehran-backed Shi’ite militias and U.S.-listed terror organizations like the Quds (Jerusalem) Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Kata’ib Hezbollah among others provided considerable help to ISIS in recruiting disenfranchised Sunnis.
In May 2011, Quds Force head Qassem Suleimani was sanctioned by the United States for “complicity…in the human rights abuses and repression of the Syrian people.” As Weiss and Hassan note, Suleimani used the head of Tehran’s Badr Corps and Iraqi Transportation Minister, Hadi al-Amiri, to funnel weapons to Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate—munitions often used in documented human rights abuses, including the targeting of civilian populations. The extensive level of Iranian involvement in Syria has also been noted by former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab who—after defecting in August 2012—declared: “Syria is occupied by the Iranian regime. The person who runs the country is not Bashar al-Assad [Syria’s President] but Qassem Soleimani.” (pg. 139)
hters into Iraq and elsewhere as well as connections of ousted Iraqi Ba-athist leaders connections to ISIS. (“Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State,” April 18 2015, Der Spiegel)
The rise and growth of the Islamic State—beginning with the foundations of AQI and associated terror groups—would be hard to imagine without the initial Iranian-provided weapons, funds, and sanctuary for its founding father or the steady stream of Sunni recruits reacting to the rhetoric of sectarian holy war mouthed by Iranian-backed clerics. Such rhetoric, along with the anti-Sunni brutality of Iranian terror groups and Iranian-trained militias, has helped boost the Islamic State numbers in Syria and Iraq.
In May 2014, amidst battles between Iranian militias and ISIS and a break between ISIS and al-Qaeda, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani noted in a message to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri that their organization had not attacked Iran since its founding. Further, despite enduring allegations of collaboration with the Islamic Republic, the group had “refrained from targeting it” acting “upon the orders of al-Qaeda to safeguard its interests and supply lines in Iran.” The Islamic State spokesman proclaimed, “let history record that Iran owes al Qaeda invaluably.” (pg. 18-19)
It may also be said that the Islamic State owes the first Islamic Republic “invaluably”—and that people in the region and those in the West are paying immeasurably. Public understanding would be much better served by news media coverage that goes beyond the simplified narrative of Shi’ite Iran fighting the Sunni Islamic State.