Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, Public Radio International, and WGBH Boston.
Remember last week's headlines about al-Qaeda staging a comeback in Iraq? How major cities like Fallujah and Ramadi were falling to the jihadists. Well, it seems some local Sunni tribes switched sides and joined government forces, pushing back on al-Qaeda. And there is more bad news for the jihadis from Syria; rebel groups there have combined to attack al-Qaeda as well. Those two storylines are connected.
Borzou Daragahi of the Financial Times has been reported on both countries for year. Borzou, how closely related are the al-Qaeda branches in Iraq and Syria?
Borzou Daragahi: Well, you have a bunch of groups in both countries, but the group that everyone is sort of buzzing about lately is one called the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or the Levant, known by the acronym ISIS. And this ISIS is a very novel concept for a Islamic militant groups. It's focused on two countries at once, and it is lead by one person, a man named Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, who is in command nominally of forces in two countries, in Iraq and in Syria. And you know, this is the one group that many people have been very worried about. It's got sort of the trappings of a government. When it takes over a town, it begins painting buildings black and putting its sign, its logo so to speak, on government buildings. It sees itself as running territory once it captures it, rather than merely fighting against Bashir al-Assad, which is what many of the other militant groups in Syria have been doing.
Werman: So are the ISIS foot soldiers mostly Iraqis and Syrians, then?
Daragahi: I think that ISIS foot soldiers are mostly Iraqis and Syrians, but they include people from other Arab countries, and there are even units that include people from as far afield as Indonesia and Chechnya. This is a trans-national Islamic militant phenomenon. They don't believe in national boundaries. They believe in Islam as the only authority to which to answer. And, you know, in that sense, many people in Syria for example, many of the rebel groups, see them as somewhat alien to their cause.
Werman: I mean, as far as Iraq goes, it seems the turning of these Sunni tribes against al-Qaeda, it's almost like a rerun of the Anbar Awakening in 2007. Are these, in fact, the same tribes that became allies with the US back then?
Daragahi: Some of them are, definitely. For example, you had the Emir of the Dulaimi tribe, which is Anbar province’s largest, over the weekend declaring that they were opposed to the presence of ISIS in their region, and that people should rise up against it. Sort of throwing in his lot with the government even though there's huge tensions between the vast majority of Sunnis and the Shiite-dominated government Nouri Maliki. I mean, if this works in Iraq, Nouri Maliki really owes a lot, he owes his skin to these Sunni tribesmen, because he has not been good to them. He is, in many respects, the cause of al-Qaeda coming back to Iraq. His sectarian rhetoric, his policies, his security forces, have created a fertile ground for al-Qaeda to come back into Iraq. And if these guys save his butt, so to speak, he really owes them.
Werman: Borzou, you've been covering these kinds of conflicts for quite awhile now. And I'm just wondering how, you know, you see something like this. It's sort of like, "Well, Iraq, it's a country, it's emerged from this wreckage of war, but now this." I mean, how does it affect you?
Daragahi: Yeah, no, it's been a little tough to see where 2014 is heading, you know? We've now had three straight years of very intense conflict and political turmoil throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and it seems like 2014 is heading south really quickly. I was just in Beirut for the holidays and I was, you know, going to breakfast to see my daughter at breakfast. And, you know, all of a sudden there was a car bombing in the middle of Beirut and a big explosion, and it just sort of brought me back to those days in Baghdad, eight, nine years ago, and it makes you think about where the region is heading, and how much that sensation that a bomb could go off anywhere, at any moment, has really spread and really pervaded so much of the region.
Werman: Borzou Daragahi of the Financial Times, thank you.
Daragahi: It's been a pleasure.