Dispatch

'ISIS Is Not ISIS'

In the refugee camps of Iraqi Kurdistan, the insurgents are not often what they seem.

ERBIL, IraqOn June 17, late at night, a man wandered between the neat rows of newly erected tents at the Khazer refugee camp, startling the Kurdish photographer Ali Arkady awake. After a long day among the displaced -- a few hundred Iraqis who had fled Mosul after it was taken over by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) -- Arkady had fallen asleep near where two local aid workers sat eating a late dinner. He watched as the aid workers shined their dim cellphone lights onto the face of the man, who looked "shocked," Arkady later told me, like he had been caught.

Single men who claimed to be displaced were not being allowed into Iraqi Kurdistan -- at least not without going through a lengthy process, including securing a local guarantor, to prove they were harmless. The man must have known that he would not have been offered refuge at Khazer, and so Arkady and the aid workers assumed he didn't plan on staying long. "That's why we thought he was from ISIS," Arkady told me.  

Arkady and the aid workers immediately suspected he had come to kidnap the Iraqi soldiers at this camp set up in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish north, which had become a makeshift home for Iraqis fleeing the fighting just south of the Kurdish border. ISIS's propaganda has lately centered on chilling photos and video of government soldiers who had either already been executed by the jihadists or were on the way to their death.

The Iraqis who have walked or driven through the Kurdish peshmerga's checkpoints to reach the Khazer refugee camp have divergent accounts of the extremist group that uprooted them. Nazir Mohammed, a 46-year-old father of three, told me he was more worried about the retaliatory shelling by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's troops than ISIS. So he hauled his family north: His young kids screamed in the car, tired from the heat, while Mohammed secured a small cage of birds to the roof, covering it gently with a blanket.

It was impossible to tell whether Mohammed's account was genuine or professed out of the kind of intense fear that can tail a person into safety. "[ISIS doesn't] interfere in people's lives," he said. "They tell us not to be afraid. Of course, we know it would be different if we were Shiite."

That shocked but sanguine -- and sometimes supportive or even grateful -- assessment of ISIS has been echoed throughout the camp as the community grows. Some observers and journalists see it as evidence that the extremist group was aided by local Sunni leaders, who had personal connections to the internally displaced people. Others read that politically savvy Baathists, dormant since the fall of Saddam Hussein, had helped ISIS win hearts and minds.

Whatever the implication in Mohammed's account, ISIS in Iraq was revealing itself to be a much more diverse organization than previously portrayed. "ISIS is just the cover," Hemin Hawrami, the head of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told me. "They don't have more than 2,000 fighters. Is it possible for 2,000 fighters to get control of a vast area.... [The territory ISIS has captured] is bigger than all of Iraqi Kurdistan!"

From Kurdistan, where most journalists have watched the crisis unfold, it was impossible to know exactly how ISIS was operating and who had the control within the group. Video footage played during television news segments tended to be plucked from the ISIS YouTube account, while a great number of photographs were likewise sourced from the extremist group's large and apparently deft online presence. The group was sweeping through Iraq, gathering, it seemed, local Sunni leaders along with remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime as they went. It was raising its black flag over Iraqi cities and towns, forcing locals like Mohammed from their homes, and doing so by aggressively perpetuating its reputation for brutality. It had money and weapons. It had the support of many Sunnis who considered it the beginning of a revolution, however harsh, against the Maliki government.

As the days went by, reports from internally displaced people and journalists circulated that ISIS had begun to crack down on the areas it had seized, enforcing its medieval version of Islamic law. "The euphoria of the first few days, about ISIS kicking out Maliki, is about to dissipate," Hiwa Osman, a Kurdish political commentator in Erbil, told me. As the group began enforcing sharia law, Osman anticipated that the locals would begin to recognize the supposed revolutionaries as terrorists.

Osman was himself trying to put together the ISIS puzzle. "ISIS is posting on Facebook and on social media," he told me. "They are doing an efficient job with that, putting up the right pictures to scare people off. The Baathists are providing guidance and help to ISIS to win small but yet spectacular battles in various areas, and then have it reported and put on Facebook. The tribes are bringing the popular support."

Closer to the fighting, the assessment was less clear. By June 20, the city of Kirkuk -- which had been captured and sealed off by Kurdish peshmerga after Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts and ISIS tried to march through -- was a ghost town. The oil-rich territory is claimed by Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen, and is accustomed to being the center of disputes. A local gold merchant and his family -- his wife, one young daughter, two grown sons, and his mother -- had not left their house since ISIS took the town of Hawija, just south of Kirkuk. "We heard that ISIS has no problem with the Kurds," the father told me, clasping his hands on his lap. He seemed to take little solace in this belief.

"ISIS has Afghans, Syrians, Europeans, all of them. And Saudi Arabia supports them," the father told me. "Nobody knows what they want. They say they want Iraq to be Islamic, but they are not real Muslims."

Nearby, in the stifling dormitory of a local college, six Hawija natives lay on foam mattresses in front of a wheezing air cooler, listening to music on a cordless radio. Their clothes were damp with sweat. One defended ISIS. Last year, the Iraqi Army brutally cracked down on an anti-government protest in Hawija, killing dozens. ISIS, among other things, is the manifestation of the townspeople's fury in the wake of the massacre.

Another was vague. "What is ISIS?" he said, tracing a question mark in the air with his forefinger. Four others remained quietly standing near the wall. "I know more about ISIS, but I can't tell," the second boy said. His family had fled to nearby Sulaimaniyah, and he didn't have enough money to visit them. "ISIS is the civilians," he said. "ISIS is not ISIS."

Even Kirkuk journalists struggled to understand the jihadist group. Haji Kirkuky has covered conflict for local newspapers in his native Kirkuk for decades, but he was unwilling to venture too close to the extremists a mere 30 minutes' drive from his office. Instead, he relied on phone calls from friends in Hawija for information. But they were aware of the consequences of their testimony.

"I ask my friends, 'Why aren't you telling the media what you need?'" Kirkuky said. "They are afraid. ISIS has made rules. They have set up checkpoints."

Kirkuky gave the impression of Hawija as one big hostage-taking. "They hate women. They don't want a civilian court," he continued, relating to me what his friends had told him over the phone. "Sunni groups made an agreement, not only in Mosul," he paused. "The story is much bigger than this."

On June 17, after the unidentified man had fled Khazer refugee camp into the night, Arkady and the aid workers were shaken by the incident. The Iraqi soldiers were like flares in the camp, drawing attention to the families huddled among them. They seemed to occupy the most wretched position in the conflict -- beholden to a corrupt government, mocked as deserters, hunted by extremists. In their lowest moment, comatose in the camp's dense heat, the Iraqi soldiers were straightforward about their experience with ISIS, who many had seen up close.

"One of the soldiers told me he wanted to kill himself," Arkady said. "That it would be better than this situation."

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Dispatch

Overheard in Warsaw

Warsaw's elite thought they were off the record. What happened next threatens Poland's politics and international relations.  

WARSAW, Poland — The Polish capital is a city of 1.7 million people, but the country's elite is tiny -- a few hundred people at most -- and the places that politicians, senior bureaucrats, and top executives like to meet are clubby restaurants like the Amber Room, a discreet dining room in a neo-Renaissance 19th-century palace, where the exclusive business club is a perfect setting for boozy, late-night off-the-record conversations.

At least that's what Warsaw's elites thought. It turns out that the Amber Room, and other chic and very private dining rooms in a handful of the city's best restaurants, were far less discreet and off-the-record than they could have ever imagined.

Waiters were apparently bugging some of those hushed conversations over expensive bottles of wine and the results have been splashed all over Wprost, one of Poland's leading newsweeklies. The stories, picked up around the world, are shaking the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, denting the reputation of the central bank governor and the foreign minister, and wounding Poland's relations with its closest allies, the United States and Great Britain.

Warsaw is now worried that Poland's age-old enemy, Russia, may have had a hand in what is turning into Tusk's most serious scandal since he came to power in 2007.

Speaking to parliament on Wednesday, June 25, before a vote of confidence in his government, Tusk said the leaks could be tied to the import of coal from Russia and to people interested in gas pipeline links between Poland and Russia, which avoid sending Europe-bound gas through Ukraine.

And even bigger geopolitical dynamics may also be at play, according to the prime minister. "In the background there is also the situation in Ukraine and in Europe," Tusk said. Poland has been a leading EU hawk on Ukraine, pushing for a tough response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for armed insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

"I don't know in which alphabet this scenario was written, but I know very well who could be the beneficiary of political chaos or the lowering of the reputation of the Polish state," Tusk continued. So far the evidence of any foreign link to the bugging scandal is a little sketchy, but if true it would allow Tusk to cover the humiliation of the leaks in the cloth of national security.

Wprost has published a series of illegally obtained recordings over the last two weeks, the latest coming from a January dinner between Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and former Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski. Although comparisons are being made with the impact of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden's revelations about U.S. spying, at least in Warsaw there is no precedent for so many senior officials having private, and often embarrassing, conversations become international news.

In a chatty dinner marked by a lot of salty language and a few off-color jokes, Sikorski, a noted anti-Russia hawk and strong advocate of NATO, also weighed in on what he thought of Poland's "worthless" alliance with the United States. "Complete bullshit. We'll get into a conflict with the Germans and the Russians and we'll think that everything is super because we gave the Americans a blowjob," Poland's top diplomat said.

Sikorski, who was educated at Oxford University and belonged to the same exclusive social club that was the fiefdom of upper-class toffs including current U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, then took a skewer to the British leader. He complained that Cameron had "fucked up" his policy towards the EU in a clumsy attempt to satisfy euroskeptics in his Conservative Party, and Sikorski fretted that the end result could be Britain leaving the European Union. Sikorski, foreign minister of the most pro-EU country in the union, has little patience with the U.K.'s ambivalence about staying in the club.

The former finance minister agreed. "That won't be good for us, because we want Great Britain to stay," responded Rostowski, who was brought up in the United Kingdom and still speaks Polish with a slight English accent.

The conversation has been blasted over the pages of the British press, damaging Cameron's reputation at home by being subjected to a blistering critique from someone who had been a friend. This comes at a time when he already faces fallout over his attempt to halt the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg who envisions a stronger role for Brussels, as the new head of the European Commission.

The leaked conversation put in public -- and in crude terms -- what was an open secret in recent years as Poland has tightened relations with Germany and the EU at the expense of historically close ties with Britain and the United States.

Poland's fraying links with Britain were made apparent at the beginning of this year, when Cameron tried to bolster his domestic popularity by hammering Polish migrants for supposedly abusing social benefits. 

Tusk immediately called Cameron and "fucked him over" for targeting the hundreds of thousands of Poles now living in the United Kingdom, said Pawel Gras, a former government spokesman, in another leaked conversation.

Sikorski appears to have also drifted away from his earlier robust pro-Americanism, disenchanted by U.S. reluctance to build part of its anti-missile defense shield in central Europe and by the bungled war in Iraq, in which Poland was a significant participant, and dismayed at the U.S. pivot away from Europe towards Asia.

Sikorski's frank assessment might have benefits in Europe. "Paradoxically, Sikorski's comments could actually help him in some European capitals because they show that in view of U.S. withdrawal from Europe, he views the relationship with the U.S. in more realistic ways," said Eugeniusz Smolar, a Warsaw-based foreign-policy expert.

But conditions have changed since the January recording was made.

Russia's policy towards Ukraine has forced Warsaw to reassess its foreign policy. Led by Tusk and Sikorski, Poland is again one of the most pro-U.S. countries in Europe. In recent weeks, Poland has promised to increase its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, one of the highest levels in NATO. And back in Washington, the United States has insisted that ties with Poland are "very strong," while the State Department has refused to comment directly on the recorded conversation. In April, several hundred U.S. troops were dispatched to Poland to allay worries over a possible threat from Russia. 

But if Moscow has thus far shown reluctance to prod Europe's boundaries militarily, it's been less reticent to employ other measures.

When the recordings surfaced, there was immediate suspicion in Polish political and media circles of a Russian link. That was not without reason: Moscow has delighted in embarrassing its enemies. Russia has been blamed for the February release of a conversation between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, when Nuland apparently said, "Fuck the EU."  

As Tusk unleashed Polish law enforcement to dig up who was behind the leaks, a Russian tie looked at least possible. 

Wprost has said only that the recordings were supplied by a "businessman" who signed his name as "Patriot." In recent days, Polish authorities have arrested two waiters working in restaurants where the recordings were made. Police have also detained Marek Falenta, a 39-year-old businessman worth about $145 million who invested in a coal-distribution company, reportedly on suspicion that he may have been the person who fed the recordings to Wprost. The company in question, Sklady Wegla, imports cheap coal from Russia and had been the subject of an investigation into tax fraud and other offences. Falenta's lawyer has denied his client's involvement in the bugging affair.

The Sikorski recording may have made the biggest splash internationally, but other embarrassing transcripts have been showing up on the pages of Wprost over the last two weeks, shaking up domestic politics. Others caught on tape include Treasury Minister Wlodzimierz Karpinski; Jacek Krawiec, the head of state-controlled oil company PKN Orlen; and Pawel Gras, Tusk's former spokesman.

Aside from the Sikorski-Rostowski chat, the most damaging was a conversation between Interior Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz and Central Bank Governor Marek Belka. The conversation, which included jokes about the penis size of a key member of the interest-rate-setting Monetary Policy Council, have damaged Belka's ties with that body and tarnished his reputation, which until now had been sterling. 

More worrying for Poles, if not markets, was the talk of political horse-trading over monetary policy. In the conversation, recorded last July, Sienkiewicz sounded out Belka on whether the Central Bank would be willing to intervene to prop up the economy in the hypothetical event of a slowdown, worrying that a sluggish economy could hurt the ruling Civic Platform party's chances for a third term in parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.

Remarkably for an apolitical appointee, Belka agreed, breaking a taboo for a central banker. "My condition is, excuse me, the dismissal of the finance minister," Belka said, referring to the minister as "Count von Rostowski."

Rostowski was removed as minister in a cabinet reshuffle last November, although both he and Tusk insist there was no pressure on him to go. Another of Belka's conditions, a change in central bank regulations, is working its way through parliament.

However, Belka is not quitting. Tusk has said that he did nothing illegal, and Belka has tried to patch up relations with the Monetary Policy Council -- although, if a lukewarm statement from the council is anything to go by, he still has some work to do to return to its good graces.

Tusk is also standing firm in the face of the firestorm over the leaked tapes. Instead of resigning, as demanded by the opposition, he has attempted to shift the debate from the content of the leaks to who made the recordings and why -- turning the issue of support for his government into one of patriotism by bringing the focus onto an issue nearly all Poles seem able to agree on: distrust of Russia.

"There can be no place for a scenario where criminals who record and make public recordings from bugs are going to dictate the actions of the parliament or the government," he told parliament on Wednesday.

Tusk's gamble is to calm the atmosphere by showing he still commands a majority in parliament and by trying to deflect questions over the embarrassing behavior of his ministers and the incompetence of the security services, which should have ensured that their bosses weren't being bugged. The danger for him is that there are still many recordings out there, according to Wprost, and the Polish media smell a wounded government vulnerable to more scandal.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images