Each evening the nightly news seems to zero in on another story that relates to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). We are bombarded with border crossings into Syria from Turkey, the state of the effort by Iraqi forces to retake Tikrit, fears concerning Iran’s role in Iraq should ISIS finally be defeated, the capture of a former American Air Force veteran seized at the Turkish border and extradited to the United States, and yesterday’s brutal attack in Tunisia. This nightly visual obsession has produced a number of new books on the rise of ISIS and suggestions on how we should deal with them. One of the better or perhaps the best of this new genre, explaining ISIS, is Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s ISIS: INSIDE THE ARMY OF TERROR. The book is written in a very straight forward historical narrative that tries to explain how we have arrived where we are today in trying to understand current events and how they relate to the last decade of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
The narrative traces the evolution of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) into the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) under the leadership of Abu Musa al-Zarqawi until his death in 2006 by an American air strike. It continues its discussion by zeroing in on the schism that develops between al-Qaeda and the emergence of ISI over strategy in the sectarian civil war in Iraq, and integrates events in Syria that will culminate in the movement to overthrow Bashir al-Assad. What stands out in Weiss and Hassan’s effort is their analysis of how the current situations in Iraq and Syria came to be, and what role the United States and Iran played. The rise of ISI is directly linked to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and American support for the Shi’a politician, Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister. The authors repeatedly point out that Iraqi Sunnis hoped to be treated fairly by the government in Baghdad. After the United States invaded Iraq, American decision makers fired Sunni bureaucrats, dismissed the Sunni dominated Ba’athist Party, and disbanded the Iraqi military, leaving Sunnis unemployed, and when Shi’a politicians, like Maliki did not deliver on their promises, very bitter. As Iran’s influence in Baghdad increased many Sunnis, particularly former policeman and military officers under Saddam Hussein turned to ISI. The authors provide details how Maliki became Prime Minister and his negative impact on creating a unified Iraq. The authors also delve into the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the supreme leader of ISIS and his split with al-Qaeda, a major schism for the jihadi universe.
The authors provide an depth analysis of the civil war that broke out in Syria in February, 2011. Weiss and Hassan make a number of important points that allows the reader to understand the complex political situation that exists and how it came about. Once the revolution gained a foothold it seems Assad’s strategy was to terrorize Syrian Sunnis so they would become radicalized and join the forces that sought to overthrow him. He wanted to create a situation where Alawites (Shi’a sect that Assad belongs to that made up 8-15% of the country’s population) and Christians felt endangered. By so doing he hoped to show the world that he was a victim of terrorists who wanted to overthrow his government. The groups that opposed Assad believed that his blatant use of chemical weapons, rape, and bombing of civilians would be enough to gain substantial support from the west, but this was not to be. The result was that the only means of support came from Iran. In fact, the authors argue that “Syria is occupied by the Iranian regime.” Assad doesn’t run the country, Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds force is in charge. (140) It is Iran that is opposing ISIS (ISI became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in 2011 once the Syrian civil war began) in Iraq and Syria and policy makers in Washington must wonder what will happen once ISIS is defeated with the Quds Force in Syria, and Iranian Shi’a militias in Iraq. It seems that the Iran-Iraq of the 1980s is now being refought.
What separates Weiss and Hassan’s work from ISIS: THE STATE OF TERROR by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger another useful monograph that has also been recently published is that within its narrative it analyzes the role of the tribal networks in Iraq and Syria. They compare how Saddam and Assad dealt with Iraqi and Syrian tribal structure and organization, and how ISIS manipulated tribal influence in order to gain support. Stern and Berger take a different approach as they provide a narrative history of ISIS’ terrorist methods, and the organization of civil society. Further, they devote a great deal of space to ISIS’ use of technology in order to gain support and attract foreign fighters, but spend much less time on the rise of key personalities, jihadi organizations, and the interests of nation states. Weiss and Hassan touch on the role of psychology and technology, but not in as much detail as they concentrate on the political paradigm that has brought together the common interests of Iran and the United States in opposing ISIS, and at the same time an alliance between Assad and Teheran also exists. Weiss and Hassan offer useful explanations for how this obtuse situation was created. One of which seems somewhat convoluted but accurate. According to Weiss and Hassan the closer ISIS gets to conquer an area, the less religion plays a part in gaining public confidence. For most people joining ISIS is a political decision as Sunni Muslims feel they have nowhere else to turn. They see the world as one between a Sunni and Iranian coalition. They believe that extreme violence is needed to counter the coming Shi’a hegemony. They feel under assault from Assad, Khamenei (Supreme leader of Iran), and Maliki (who was finally ousted six months ago) and are left with few options other than supporting al-Baghdadi’s new Caliphate. In their epilogue Weiss and Hassan paint a sobering picture of what the future holds. They examine the massive US bombing campaign that seems to have offered mixed results, and Sunni anger over what appears to be an American administration that is indirectly supporting Assad’s reign of terror from Damascus. They conclude that more than eleven years after the United States invaded Iraq, a deadly insurgency adept at multiple forms of warfare has proved resilient, adaptable, and resolved to carry on fighting.” (242) ISIS appears to have tremendous staying power and the sources of revenue to maintain their quest, not a very optimistic picture.
(Tikrit University, the site of fighting between Iraqi forces and ISIS)
If you enjoy well written narrative history based on numerous interviews including Iraqi, Syrian, American, and Iranian politicians; as well as military observers, foreign fighters and other jihadis then you cannot go wrong with Weiss and Hassan’s new book. If you want less of a historical narrative and are interested in more of a socio-psychological study you might find Stern and Berger’s work be more satisfying. The bottom line is that you cannot go wrong with either work.