Jihadists in Iraq: NYTimes reporting gets it right

After calling out the New York Times for misreporting several stories, I’m tempted to say the newspaper got religion in one of its latest reports on the collapse of Iraq under the blows of Islamic militants.

The report is not flawless, as we’ll see. But it gets maybe a silver medal.

It opens with the blend of faith and ferocity we’ve already come to expect from ISIS, the militant army known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria:

ERBIL, Iraq — When Islamic militants rampaged through the Iraqi city of Mosul last week, robbing banks of hundreds of millions of dollars, opening the gates of prisons and burning army vehicles, some residents greeted them as if they were liberators and threw rocks at retreating Iraqi soldiers.

It took only two days, though, for the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to issue edicts laying out the harsh terms of Islamic law under which they would govern, and singling out some police officers and government workers for summary execution.

For this story, the Times uses four reporters in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Washington, D.C. Much of it is the keen analysis and expert sourcing at which the newspaper excels. It includes a timeline of attacks that could be attributed to ISIS or its predecessor, the ISI — a sobering chart if true, because it reaches back a decade.

On the ground, via experts and through other media, the Times reports the ruthless nature of ISIS:

Perhaps the best indication of how the group sees itself these days is a recent promotional video called “The Rattling of the Sabers.”

The hourlong video is a slickly produced, hyperviolent propaganda piece that idolizes the group’s fighters as they work for two of their main goals: founding an Islamic state and slaughtering their enemies, mostly the Iraqi security forces and Shiites.

Some scenes show bearded, armed fighters from around the Arab world renouncing their home countries and shredding their passports. Other scenes show them preaching at mosques and soliciting pledges of allegiance to Mr. Baghdadi. Still other scenes emphasize attacks. Its fighters carry out drive-by shootings against men they accuse of being in the Iraqi army, in some cases chasing them through fields before grabbing and executing them.

No excuses for the downtrodden here. No misdirection about the need to solve the “problem” of Israeli settlements or the “treatment” of Palestinians. The focus is on the fighters, what they’re doing, what drives them and what they want.

And the religious nature of the group has been plain for years as well:

“What we see in Iraq today is in many ways a culmination of what the I.S.I. has been trying to accomplish since its founding in 2006,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS.

I guess it took a secular think-tanker to convince the Times that more than politics or ethnic differences were at work in Middle Eastern conflicts. The newspaper also calls ISIS a “Sunni extremist group” that wants a caliphate, which it defines as “an Islamic religious state.” And more:

Under this vision, religion is paramount over administering services. Referring to citizens under its control, the pamphlet states, “improving their conditions is less important than the condition of their religion.”

Fishman says also that the organization has been established near Mosul for years, outlasting setbacks both religious and military:

During the sectarian war that began in 2006, Sunni jihadists antagonized the public with their brutality and attempts to impose Islamic law, and suffered defeats at the hands of tribal fighters who joined the American counterinsurgency campaign, forcing them to retreat from western Iraq to areas around Mosul.

But with the outbreak of civil war across the border in Syria three years ago, the group saw new opportunities for growth. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria “invaded Syria from Mosul long before it invaded Mosul from Syria,” Mr. Fishman said.

The Times does blame — as do many other observers — Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq for failing to share governmental power with Sunni groups. That various factions are banding against the central government as a common enemy is seen as a grave danger for Iraq.

ISIS had been tightening control over the last two months in Falluja, Iraq, and in Raqqa, across the border in Syria, according to the Times. If this is accurate, it amounts to a double black-eye: for U.S. intelligence and for Iraq’s central government. After leaving the battlefield in Iraq, the U.S. may now have to return to it — although President Obama may choose bombing over troops.

America’s role in creating this dire situation is also examined, with less precision. Should Obama have armed moderate rebels in Syria? Do American prisons form “fertile recruiting grounds for jihadist leaders”? Those possibilities are thrown out with no attribution or attempt to prove them.

The Times also falls short on some religious details. If ISIS’ main value is the “condition” of someone’s religion, how is that to be judged? And who does the judging? No clear answer here.

And what of the opinions of Sunni leaders elsewhere, especially Egypt? To what extent would they agree with violence in defending and extending the faith? And what conditions should be met if a new Islamic caliphate is to be founded? Perhaps that’s outside the purview of this article. But it would be good for the Times’ assignment sheet. And soon.

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