A full-length book on ISIS/IS/Daesh could hardly be more timely, but is it actually any good? This work contributes to the developing sphere of scholarship about ISIS and makes its own arguments, implicitly and explicitly, about what one must understand about ISIS. Weiss and Hassan, by their resumes, form an interesting combination of journalistic experience and local knowledge about Syria that position this work well to cover the subject it tackles. Hassan Hassan, as the jacket describes, is a Syrian writer for the UAE based paper The National. Michael Weiss, for his part, is a regular columnist with Foreign Policy who also is active as the editor-in-chief of an online journal, The Interpreter. So how did their work turn out?
This book succeeds in being an introduction for the educated layperson with some background knowledge of the Middle East and its modern history. It begins with Abu Musab al-Zarwqawi, the Jordanian Al-Qaeda leader who actively fought the US in Iraq. It traces his successes and failures in fighting the US on the ground, leading up the the “Sahwa” or tribal awakening of 2005. It provides a good background history on this crucial series of events in the Iraq War, and becomes an integral part of the authors’ analysis and argument of how ISIS conducts itself now. Given that the Sahwa targeted ISIS’ forerunner, Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fil Bilad al-Rafidayn, the authors argue that ISIS sees the potential of another Sahwa as something that must be avoided.
The work jumps from here to significant detail most readers will likely not be familiar with about the Assad regime’s support of Al-Qaeda. This forms another major pillar of their argument- that the Assad regime experienced significant “blowback” as it is often called-from their policy of supporting Al-Qaeda as long as the group was only targeting American troops across the border in Iraq. The authors detail a real meeting between Iraqi Baathists and Al-Qaeda, but not one that would actually fit the US government’s claims about Saddam being involved with Al-Qaeda. According to these authors, it happened in Syria, under the aegis of the Syrian government, years after Saddam was already dead. They also explain well the connections between geography, local tribes, and the areas that various rebel militias have been able to control in Syria. The militias of the FSA, Jabhat Al-Nusra, ISIS, Ahrar Al-Sham, and others emerge here as much more fluid in their membership than is commonly understood, with many switching from one to another. Additionally, longstanding tribal differences have come to manifest themselves as clashes between various Islamist militias since the beginning of the war. The work ends emphasizing ISIS’ attempts to reach out to the tribes in Iraq and Syria. The authors argue this is integral to their governing strategy, and neutralizing the possibility of another Sahwa. They argue this has been achieved through a successful divide-and-rule strategy in which ISIS gets members of one tribe to fight each other.
In the end, this outline and emphasis makes a strong case, which the authors do not make explicitly, for ISIS’ roots in the American invasion of Iraq. This topic has been argued at length by different people for some time, with some arguing that ISIS was a deliberate creation of the USA while others argue it was an inadvertent product of the US invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein. Still others, most notably American Republicans, seem convinced that ISIS is a result of President Obama prematurely removing American ground forces from Iraq. The authors fall into the second category, never making any claims of conspiracy on the part of the USA nor blaming Obama. This is a strong position to take not because it’s the moderate one of the three, but because the first one has only weak circumstantial evidence behind it with many factors pointing against it, while the last argument is seriously shortsighted. Blaming the American withdrawal for the rise of ISIS cannot square with the empirics outlined in detail by the authors, because its proponents never took those things into account. While there is plenty of opportunity to criticize Obama’s policies towards the Middle East, especially seemingly endless drone strikes, withdrawing American ground troops from Iraq when he did isn’t one of them, and cannot be argued to be the root of the problem with ISIS.
Most broadly, this work will give readers unfamiliar with the detailed history of Al-Qaeda in Iraq a solid introduction, but it never situates this timeline and argument it makes in bigger trends of Middle East history. Readers looking for more about ISIS in relation to other well-known political Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizbollah, and others will not find that here. Questions about the rise of Islam in the Middle East since the 1970s that would place ISIS in that larger context are not present, nor is there significant exploration of the processes outside of the country that draw foreign fighters to join ISIS, often referred to as ‘radicalization.’ Significant questions about ISIS’ internal power structures remain, but that understandably is very hard information to get without spending time inside the group. Overall, this is a highly recommended book for someone with a beginning knowledge of the Middle East and its modern history, I would not start here if you’re starting from scratch.