- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The nine orders listed on the one-page document are as chilling as they are brief. Torture and kill innocent civilians. Assault women. Blow up mosques. Lure civilians into explosive-laden buildings and blow them to bits. And make sure cameras are in place to capture the brutality.
American officials say the document was distributed by the Islamic State to its fighters in Fallujah in recent weeks as a bloody “to do” list before abandoning the city in the face of the eventual Iraqi army and Shiite militia assault on the Sunni bastion. But before unleashing chaos on the local population, the ISIS fighters were instructed to don the uniforms of Iraqi soldiers and their Shiite militia allies in order to portray the carnage as acts of revenge by Shiite vigilantes.
The document was handed out to reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday as proof of the brutality of the terrorist group. “Clearly, this isn’t the behavior of a legitimate government or of a legitimate military force, it’s the behavior of thugs,” said spokesman Col. Steve Warren. “It’s the behavior of killers and it’s the behavior of terrorists.”
But as some U.S. intelligence analysts point out, it’s also the behavior of some Iranian-backed Shiite militias, who are fighting alongside Iraqi army troops to push ISIS out of Iraq and have been accused of abuses against Sunni civilians. And those analysts are skeptical of the authenticity of the document.
“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Michael Pregent, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer and adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute.
Pregent, who served as an advisor to U.S. military commanders in Iraq throughout the Surge years of 2007 and beyond, said that “the way these things work is that the document would be called, ‘Discrediting the Shia,’” and not “Withdrawal from Fallujah,” as it is titled. He added, “Shia militias have done everything in those nine points” over the past several months.
Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias in Iraq, is also skeptical, tweeting Tuesday of his “having serious doubts with claim IS is circulating this doc as orders for Fallujah,” and “if it is a forgery, it may demonstrate an attempt to obfuscate Iran’s/Shia militia role.”
Iranian-backed Shiite militias have played a key role in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq over the past year, and the militias are a possible source of the document some believe, since it would provide cover for killings and mayhem once they eventually enter the city.
Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led effort in Iraq and Syria, said in an email Wednesday that the document was found by Iraqi security forces. He also said that it was vetted by U.S. analysts and “we processed it as a piece of intelligence.”
The logic behind the document raises questions, however. According to a translation provided by the Pentagon, it says that the Islamic State’s leadership has concluded “the State of Fallujah [has] became more harmful than useful therefore we realized that withdrawal is the right thing to do” in the event that the Iraqi army and Shiite militias conduct assault on the city.
Abandoning Fallujah without a fight — ISIS has held the city since January 2014 — would not be in keeping with the bitter defenses that the Islamic State has mounted in places like Kobani, Baiji, and Tikrit over the past year, all of which eventually fell after months of hard, back-and -forth fighting. The militants also put up a long defense of Sinjar in northern Iraq against overwhelming odds last month when peshmerga forces swept into the town, and several hundred ISIS fighters are currently fighting to the death in Ramadi, despite being outnumbered 10 to 1 by government forces, according to Pentagon estimates.
Photo Credit: HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images