How ISIS Ended Up Stocked with American Weapons


U.S. military airstrikes in Iraq are hitting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters bearing American-made weapons. That simple fact casts a harsh light on the history of U.S. policy in a country destroyed by American bombs and then a civil war.

Over the past week, the Pentagon has released triumphant statements on American military efforts against ISIS. (Others refer to the group as ISIL, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant.) The latest set of strikes against the Islamic extremist group, which has besieged the Yazidi religious minority and set its sights on oil-rich Kurdistan, took place on August 17 and 18. The Pentagon said on the 17th that “the strikes destroyed three ISIL armed vehicles, an ISIL vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft artillery gun, an ISIL checkpoint and an IED emplacement.” They were meant to damage ISIS’ positions around the Mosul dam, which the group captured on August 7, sparking fears that ISIS could flood parts of Iraq.

What went unmentioned by the Pentagon is that those armed vehicles and artillery guns they bombed were likely paid for with American tax dollars. The arms ISIS possesses are another grim form of blowback from the American invasion of the country in 2003. It’s similar to how U.S. intervention in Libya, which overthrew the dictator Muammar Gaddafi but also destabilized the country, led to a flood of arms to militants in Mali, where France and the U.S. waged war in 2013.

As ISIS, along with disaffected Sunnis fed up with discrimination and marginalization, rampaged through Iraq, they captured U.S.-made weapons. Starting in June, ISIS captured large swathes of territory in northern Iraq. The Iraqi Army, trained by the U.S., collapsed in the face of ISIS advances due to poor training, broken equipment and low morale. They left behind arms, munitions and equipment that were produced and paid for by the United States, which has given $25 billion to train and arm the Iraqi Army and other branches of security forces since 2003, the year the U.S. invaded Iraq. So now ISIS possesses hundreds of Humvees, pickup trucks, tanks and armored vehicles, as well as ammunition and artillery shells. They have used those weapons to continue to march through Iraq and to help out their fight in neighboring Syria, where ISIS is battling the government of Bashar al-Assad.

The story of how U.S. weapons ended up in the hands of what many describe as the most fearsome Islamic extremist movement dates back to 2003. That was the year the Bush administration, based on cooked-up intelligence, lied to Americans to justify a military assault on Iraq and the subsequent occupation of the nation. The U.S. disbanded the largely-Sunni Muslim Iraqi military, which fueled the rise of the anti-occupation insurgency, but then sought to put it back together without the influence of those who worked under Saddam Hussein.

By 2006, the man running the show to put the Iraqi military back together was Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia prime minister. Handpicked by the U.S., Maliki’s rise to power was a symbol of how the Iraqi power structure was turned upside-down. Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, the Sunni minority held much of the power, though Hussein’s Baath Party did include Shiites. But the U.S. invasion delivered all of the power to Shiites, leading to hardened sectarianism between the two Islamic sects. Maliki made no effort to create an inclusive governing structure.

Maliki’s rule alienated Sunni Muslims, who organized mass protests against him that were met with intense firepower, killing hundreds of civilians. He ordered the arrest of a Sunni vice president in 2011. Security forces arrested thousands of Sunni men without charges, accusing them of being terrorists. Many were tortured. Maliki also set out to purge the government bureaucracy of Sunnis. And the U.S. helped Maliki along as he sought to marginalize Sunni Arabs. The U.S. armed and funded Maliki’s government and security forces.

On August 15, under pressure from the U.S. and Iran, a country wielding great influence in the country, Maliki stepped down. The new prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, comes from the Dawa Party—the same party as Maliki. The hope is that al-Abadi will govern in a more inclusive fashion, though critics of U.S. policy, like journalist and Iraq expert Dahr Jamail, have cast doubt on that possibility.

Iraq is now fragmented, with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria imposing its harsh rule on communities in northern Iraq and executing those they see as un-Islamic. But it wasn’t just that ISIS strong-armed its way through these communities. It was helped along by disaffected Sunnis and former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Some Sunnis welcomed ISIS’ rule because they thought it was a way to get rid of Maliki’s deeply sectarian reign.

The combination of some Sunni support  for the group and the American-made weapons it captured helped ISIS take over parts of Iraq. The U.S. military is now stepping up airstrikes and arming Kurdish militias to attempt to defeat a monster they helped create and which is the ongoing recipient of funding from U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But if the history of U.S. policy in Iraq is any guide, airstrikes won’t work to solve Iraq’s crisis.

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