An IS terrorist named Socrates illustrates Iraq's transformation

Master bombmaker and senior Islamic State leader Socrates Khalil must have had a very different father to have been given his name. It just shows the huge changes that Iraq has gone through.

An IS terrorist named Socrates illustrates Iraq's transformation

When the terrorist known as ‘Socrates Khalil’ was recently captured by security forces in the Kurdistan area of Iraq, it offered a rare insight for scholars of history, politics, sociology, and psychology. Khalil was a key associate of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for years and oversaw the group’s use of explosives in hundreds of operations that killed thousands of civilians.

Khalil’s participation in various conflicts led to his promotion to field commander, a position he held when IS controlled swathes of Syria and Iraq, although he later became a mobile envoy, procuring financing and logistical support for the group.

People called him ‘Abdullah Tafkhekh’ (Abdullah Booby-Trap), but his actual name was far more curious since it is that of the renowned Greek philosopher Socrates. What a stark generational contrast, then, between the anonymous father who named his boy after one of the pioneers of human thought and his son who became an international terrorist responsible for thousands of deaths. It serves as a poignant marker of the historical, political, social, and intellectual milieu that has shaped our region.

Athens to Mosul

To bestow the name of a Western philosopher on your son in such a conservative and traditional city as Mosul shows Khalil’s father likely harboured modernising tendencies, despite his deep-seated ties to the locale, and if Khalil was born in the 1980s, at a guess, his Iraqi father was likely born around the late 1950s.

This generation witnessed military coups in their formative years, grappled with ideological struggles and the progressive advocacy of political parties during their adolescence, and encountered the rapid social, educational, and economic advancements characteristic of the ‘first Ba’ath’ era in the 1970s.

His father’s generation represents the first wave of Iraqis to break away from the conventional rural lifestyle and entrenched conservatism of urban centres and assimilate into the broader global fabric of society. Although details about his father are missing, photos of school and university students from his era in cities like Mosul, Baghdad, and Sulaymaniyah offer a glimpse into the kind of life and upbringing he may have had.

To name his son after a Western philosopher in a conservative city like Mosul suggests that Khalil's father likely harboured modernising tendencies.

Similarly, images showing theatre and cinema enthusiasts in modern dress conversing with ease ahead of watching non-conservative films offer further context. This was a time when public parks and squares were tidy, ordered, and ambient. It was a period of security and stability, with funds made available from the oil price surge of the early 1970s. Saddam Hussein was then a youthful leader looking to modernise Iraq in a vein similar to Atatürk in Turkey or Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran.

A different Iraq

The young Khalil grew up with the benefits of wealth and the experience of living in other countries. We know from a video released by the Kurdistan Region Security Council that he had charm, eloquence, and social acumen.

Yet the future terrorist grew up in a different era, one marked by the repercussions of war with Iran during the 1980s, and an older, different, despotic Saddam, willing to brutally suppress Iraqis and commit atrocities, including in Halabja and the south. Fuelled by aggressive hostility, he invaded Kuwait. The world reacted, which led to his defeat and withdrawal, but he was left in power in Iraq. This led to a 'third Saddam', one who used religious and sectarian rhetoric to hold on to power in the 1990s.

What is particularly striking is the significant transformation witnessed in Mosul, where the young Khalil grew up, which evolved into a stage for various forms of hatred. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Saddam's end, the regime implemented sectarian policies and exerted reckless dominance over the city and its people. Mosul was seen as "a breeding ground for terrorism", and Baghdad acted accordingly.

This bred a profound resentment among many of the young Socrates's generation. They embraced a radical, extremist discourse, indifferent to the violence that followed. In this sense, the disparity between the lives of the father and son reflects Iraq's own fortunes and changes, as well as its successes and setbacks. Nowhere reflected these changes more than Mosul, with its strategic location, diverse population, and pronounced social and political dynamics.

The Iraqi regime that took over after the US invasion implemented sectarian policies that bred resentment among Socrates's generation.

'No one errs willingly'

Many have asked how someone who spent their entire life in a city could contribute to its destruction. What drove Socrates Khalil to become a master bomb-maker and then plan and perpetrate acts of violence? Why opt for this path?

Other questions are not directed at Khalil. Why, for instance, was the IS second-in-command only just arrested in 2024? Why was he allowed to pass through Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, carrying huge sums of money, for a decade without capture? What games were the intelligence agencies playing? Who gave him cover?

We are told that, to avoid detection, he adopted alternative lifestyles, sporting a contemporary hairstyle and even displaying signs of cosmetic enhancements. Well-dressed and using occasional English, he became a chameleon.

His crimes, and the crimes of IS, have not been camouflaged. Videos evidence Yazidi girls enduring horrific torture, abuse, and execution at the hands of the group, including being burned alive in a cage for refusing to have sex with IS fighters. Mass graves have been unearthed, with the remains of thousands from Mosul and other areas under terrorist control. Khalil would have borne witness to these horrors, yet still, they did not sway his fundamental beliefs or stir his conscience.

It reminds us of Socrates's famous dictum: "No one errs willingly." It also reminds us that simply naming our children after the 'philosopher of virtue' does not guarantee their eventual moral enlightenment.

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