ISIS as an Iranian conspiracy

Ten years after the arrival of ISIS in Iraq, the question still remains: what exactly happened? Was ISIS an Iranian conspiracy? The arrival and fight against the terror group changed the demographics of Iraq, benefiting pro-Iranian forces.

Ten years ago, on June 10, 2014, the terrorist group ISIS invaded the Iraqi city of Mosul. The rest is history. The group occupied a third of Iraq and part of Syria, declaring a caliphate there. Two months later, they took over Sinjar province and advanced towards the Kurdish capital, Erbil.

In Sinjar, thousands of men and elderly women were killed, and women and children were kidnapped. The advance towards Kurdistan led the Americans to finally intervene from the air.

I was living in the Kurdistan capital of Erbil, and the shock was immense. How could this happen so suddenly? Why did no one see it coming? But that wasn’t really true of course. Since January, the group had controlled the Sunni city of Fallujah, and the authorities in Mosul had long warned Baghdad about the danger of the training camp outside the city.


I recently returned to see how Iraq is doing ten years later. I spoke with Iraqis of various backgrounds. And I concluded that one of the most significant consequences is that the demographic change in Iraq due to ISIS and its atrocities has accelerated.

In the three years that ISIS maintained its caliphate in Iraq – where bits were continuously chipped away until finally, in July 2017, all territory was back in Iraqi hands – its violence was mainly directed at dissenters. Firstly, the Yazidis, against whom a genocide was carried out because they were seen as unbelievers. But also the Christians, even though they are recognized by the Quran. And homosexuals and others from the LGBTQ spectrum. And thereafter, everyone who did not live according to ISIS standards.

This triggered a massive wave of displaced people, many of whom lived in camps for years (and some still do). But it also sped up the departure from Iraq to elsewhere. Particularly Christians, who had already suffered years of attacks by radical Muslims, lost faith that things would ever improve in Iraq.


Hanaa Edwar, who at 78 is still active and leads the NGO Amal (Hope) in Baghdad, called the decrease in their numbers in Iraq alarming. But thousands of Yazidis have also gone to Europe. They spent a lot of money to be smuggled there because they no longer believed they could ever return to their homeland, Sinjar. And they no longer felt safe elsewhere in Iraq, for the same reasons as the Christians.

Edwar pointed out to me that the number of departures is so large that it affects the composition of society. The social mix with minorities is crucial for a healthy society. She believes that there is partly a deliberate plan to change the demographics.

One of the problems for Yazidis in Sinjar is that Shiites are settling there; buying land, houses, taking control. For Christians in Nineveh province, it’s the Shabak, a Shiite minority, who are buying land (from departing Christians) and expanding their territory with help from Baghdad and Tehran. In Baghdad, there are fewer and fewer mixed neighborhoods; in Mosul, only a small portion of the Christians who fled ISIS have returned.


When I talk to displaced Christians or Yazidis who have fled to the Kurdistan Region, they see only two options. Return home (which is difficult) or go to Europe. Staying in Kurdistan and trying to rebuild a life there is not high on their wish list. The fear of a repeat of what happened with ISIS is too great. Radicalism has not disappeared with the defeat of ISIS.

And that applies not only to the radicalism of Sunni, Salafist groups. There is also a split among Shiites, which can most easily be described as pro-Iranian versus more liberal, though that is of course too simplistic. The fact is that these pro-Iranian Shiites are in power in Baghdad. And they are behind the land grabbing in Yazidi and Christian areas.

One of the consequences of the arrival of ISIS, and especially the fight to drive them out, is that Shiite militias were formed that now see themselves as the great victors. They have made significant sacrifices and believe they should be rewarded. However, that victory was mainly possible because the Iraqi army received international air support.

The militias were notorious during the fight against ISIS for their violence against anyone they saw as a member of the radical group – and these were often innocent civilians. Ten years later, however, none of the militia members have been prosecuted for this. It is this lawlessness that has increased partly due to ISIS.


Edwar also pointed out the danger that with the formation of the militias, many weapons ended up outside state institutions. While militia members now receive their salaries from the Ministry of Defense, they still obey their militia leaders and not Iraqi army generals. This undermines the power of the elected government in Baghdad.

At the same time, segregation and sectarianism have greatly increased. Sunnis complained to me that they hardly get jobs in the Iraqi government anymore, and are equally barred from the army. The Shiite majority is increasingly disregarding rules designed to distribute such jobs among the various population groups.

This is the intent behind what happened with ISIS, former Mosul governor Atheel Nujaifi told me in Erbil. Like Edwar, I have spoken to him repeatedly over the years. Ten years ago, he predicted ‘chaos, with the worst-case scenario being that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard would eventually liberate Mosul’. He believes that ‘the fall of Mosul was necessary to create a Shiite situation in the region as part of an Iranian project’.

Those who take into account how the then Shiite Prime Minister Maliki ignored all warnings from Mosul and Defense, the mistakes he made, and how quickly the army melted away, must listen to the former governor. Many Sunnis somehow agree with him. The fact is that they were indeed saved by militias trained by Iran. And now these militias cannot be removed from Mosul, where they have become a sort of second power.


Nujaifi wrote a book about the arrival of ISIS. (I did too: The War of ISIS, the English version has been updated). Is it one of many Iraqi conspiracy theories to say that ‘ISIS happened to create a new situation in Iraq’, as Nujaifi believes? The fact is that he is right that history is often written by the (over)winners.

And, says Nujaifi, the ‘radical Shiite plan led to a large number of Shiite casualties, while the issue could have been much more easily solved politically.’ By preventing the discontent among Sunnis that led to ISIS, he means. By sharing political power with them, instead of demonizing them as a group.

The real history of what exactly happened ten years ago has still not been written. Only different versions of it. Almost every ethnic group in Iraq has its own, it seems. Which version do students in Iraq learn? That of the victors. It is good to keep this in mind, ten years after ISIS invaded Mosul and a dark chapter for Iraq began.

My trip to Iraq was made possible with support from the Pascal Decroos Fund for Special Journalism. Follow my publications in MO*, De Groene, and Trouw.

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