ISIS: THE STATE OF TERROR by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger

ISIS: The State of Terror

At a time when we see images of Iraqi forces backed by Iranian supported Shi’a militias trying to retake Saddam Hussein’s home of Tikrit from the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and we witness young girls leaving their homes in London and make their way through Turkey to join the jihad in Syria, it raises enumerable questions for politicians and the public worldwide.  Foremost, is how did we arrive at this point with ISIS, ISIL, IS or whatever their name is at the moment.  In addition, how culpable is the United States for the situation that it finds itself in today; returning troops to Iraq, engaging in a major bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, spending millions, if not billions of dollars on an Iraqi army that when confronted with ISIS soldiers months ago fled in fear and left behind enough weaponry and equipment to enhance ISIS’ already burgeoning military machine.  The answers to these questions can be found in Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger’s new book, ISIS: THE STATE OF TERROR, one of the first books that seriously attempts to analyze the rise of ISIS; concentrating on the fallout from the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, its evolution under al-Qaeda and its eviction from that organization, to its announcement  of the new Islamic caliphate, and its employment of technology and advanced propaganda strategies to attract foreigners to fight and organize their new state.

Beginning with the horrific beheading of journalist James Foley on August 19, 2014 the authors begin to unravel the rise of ISIS and why the United States did not see the latest jihadi organization coming.  The origin of ISIS emerged from the mind of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian who joined the insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan as it was drawing to a close in 1989.  Partially radicalized by Sheik Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, the architect of jihadi Salafism, Zarqawi would spend the greater part of the 1990s in a Jordanian prison where he was further drawn to Islamic extremism.  Zarqawi brought a sectarian approach to his understanding of jihad, and the United States gave his beliefs a purpose when they invaded Iraq in 2003.  Zarqawi was able to develop al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) because of American policy errors.  When Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the Iraqi military and fired all of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party members from civil service positions there were few trained people left to maintain government services, and it produced thousands of angry Sunnis who had military and civil training.  The result has been the development of an insurgency that the US was unprepared for.  The authors correctly argue that the US created the environment for Zarqawi’s brutal tactics and rabid sectarianism.  The second major error the US committed was throwing its support behind Nuri al-Maliki, a supposedly moderate Shi’a Muslim to be Prime Minister in 2006.  Maliki would prove to be a very divisive figure with strong ties to Iran.  His policies turned Sunni Iraqis against his government as promises of political power and integration into the military never came to fruition.  By 2006 a full scale sectarian war had broken out resulting in the death of Zarqawi by an American air strike, and months later a coalition of jihadi insurgents announcing the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) under the leadership of Abu Omar al Baghdadi.  As Maliki cracked down on Sunni leadership and purged them from positions of power.  Sunnis, fearful of their government and Shia militias had no place to turn to, hence they looked to ISI.

Once the authors explained the origins of ISIS they move on to provide a detailed description of how ISI expanded and eventually moved into Syria, changing their name to the Islamic State if Iraq and Syria.  The authors review ISIS’ relationship with al-Qaeda and Osama Bib-Laden, exploring their differences in strategy, organization, and interpretation of the Qur’an.  ISIS took advantage of events in Syria and expanded their violent millenarian view of Islam and by February, 2014 Ayman al Zawahiri, who had taken over leadership of al-Qaeda after Bin-laden was killed, disassociated his organization from ISIS over their extreme tactics and their presence in Syria.  With Maliki’s partisan Shia approach to governance more and more Sunnis joined ISIS, many of which were Saddam’s generals.  The result was that by June 2014, ISIS had captured Fallujah, Mosul, and Tikrit.  On June 29, 2014, ISIS declared the Islamic Caliphate, an action designed to subsume all jihadi organizations, including al-Qaeda under their leadership.  ISIS abhorrent approach to human life continued, but their sophisticated messaging now included a vision of the type of society it wanted to create.

About half way through the book the authors switch their approach from a historical narrative supported by many keen insights to a sociological-psychological dimension.  Chapters dealing with the importance of how ISIS employs technology and social messaging, including how twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media are used to  recruit foreigners to join the new Caliphate, and spread their influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.  The authors explore how ISIS presents a strange dichotomy of ultra-violence and civil disorder as it streamed its propaganda and vision of society that went beyond the violence of jihadism, i.e, governing and social services.  The sophistication of ISIS’ approach to the media and the digital film world are detailed.  ISIS professionalization of film making and messaging are designed to attract fighters, but also “middle management.”  In effect what ISIS is engaged in is “cyber jihad” with electronic brigades that allow them to create new opportunities to expand their “brand.”  The authors examine the new psychology of terrorism and how it is used to influence their enemies and maintain control of other jihadi organizations world-wide.  The main problem they export is “disproportionate dread,” and the manipulation of perception that the west has yet to counter.

According to Stern and Berger ISIS’ message differed from the approach that was offered by al-Qaeda whom they saw as defeatist because they never believed that the Caliphate would be achieved in their lifetime.  Their message is one of extremism itself, but purified.  They offer no rationalizations of self-defense against the west, just revenge.  No longer will there be subtle assumptions of weakness, just aggression and shocking violence and strength.  No more talking about a generational conflict, the Caliphate had been proclaimed.  Their “combination of successful strategy, aggressive messaging, and an appeal to strength over weakness has proven unequally powerful and energized at least tens of thousands of ardent supporters.” (197)

The latter part of the book explores the current state of ISIS as of early January, 2015 and the authors are fully cognizant that things may have changed since the book went to press.  Stein and Becker offer advice as to how to deal with ISIS and suggest that a different approach than has been used in the past should be implemented.  Military action to decapitate the leadership of a country does not always prove successful.  Once the leadership is gone we are then faced with situations that have existed in Iraq since 2004, and more recently in Libya after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.  President Obama may call for the defeat and destruction of ISIS, but what we must accept is that this has become a generational problem as the authors point to the indoctrination of children by ISIS, so that once the current leadership has passed a new generation will take over.  The book also includes a detailed appendix dealing with Islamic thought and history that nicely supplements the main text.  Explaining the differences between Shi’a and Sunni Islam, Salafism and Wahhabism, and the different interpretations of jihad are important to understanding what has occurred and where we go from here.  The book is based on interviews and secondary sources and at this point, is one of the two best monographs on the topic.  The other, ISIS: INSIDE THE ARMY OF TERROR by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan will be presented in my next review.

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