Before reading this book, several things raised my expectations. Foremost among them was Cockburn’s book, Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq. Cockburn’s book about the enigmatic and important Muqtada Al-Sadr showed exactly what he was capable of- a gripping journalistic account that mixed his willingness to go to risky places (Iraq post-American Invasion) to get the info he needed along with his skills as a writer. I left that book wanting to read more and I remember being disappointed that my copy was all but destroyed after being lent to some friends. Second, Cockburn regularly writes for The Independent, and his columns are consistently solid. Knowing that he wasn’t just another writer jumping on the opportunity to write about ISIS without the actual background needed to do so, I expected a lot.
After reading Cockburn’s latest, my expectations were not entirely met. Cockburn’s work here seems solid in the beginning but as I advanced through the book, I started to wonder where he was going next and why. The structure of the book, if we can say it has one, leaves a lot to be desired. The only thing that makes up for this is Cockburn’s otherwise sharp analysis and clearly deep knowledge of the subject at hand. Cockburn opens and makes a clearer thesis statement, finding the origins of ISIS in the War on Terror as a response to 9/11. “ISIS is the child of war” he states (p.8). He bluntly argues that the USA limited the potential effectiveness of the War on Terror from the beginning by refusing to seriously confront Pakistan or Saudi Arabia for their roles in stimulating and supporting Islamic extremism. Chapter one follows this theme, broadly exploring the role of Saudi Arabia in stimulating extremism both in sermons and violent groups. Saudi Arabia propagates Wahhabism (5) and puts up money for the building of mosques and the training of imams (6). In response to the Arab Uprisings of 2011, known to many as the Arab Spring, Cockburn argues that it “was the jihadi and Sunni-sectarian militarized wing of rebel movements that received massive injections of money from the kings and emirs of the Gulf” (8).
In Chapter 2, Cockburn lays his argument that the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June 2014 was a turning point in the history of Iraq Syria and the Middle East (13). He elaborates on the widely reported stories of the disintegration of the Iraqi Army, but emphasizes that there was a popular element that has been overlooked (16). He explains how residents of Mosul mobilized independently of ISIS to push Iraqi forces (Shi’a) out of Mosul whom they perceived to be Iranian proxies. Whether or not these troops were actually more loyal to Iran than they were to Iraq, it must be noted here (and Cockburn doesn’t) that this is one of Saddam’s lasting legacies. After the 1991 Intifada, Saddam’s government labeled the Iraqi Shiites who had dared to try to overthrow his government by force as Iranian interlopers, itself a discourse his government had propagated throughout the eight-year long war with Iran.
Cockburn attacks the idea that the surge by US troops in 2007 had actually wiped out the jihadist threat. He cites multiple examples from Mosul about how Al-Qaeda in Iraq (the predecessor of ISIS) ran protection rackets in Mosul, with local businesses having to pay monthly bribes for security even after the supposed success of the surge(12). He quotes a Turkish businessman who claims he went to the central government in Baghdad to complain about these problems. Al-Qaeda was supposedly demanding $500,000 per month from his business but Baghdad told him to just factor it into his cost of doing business, apparently unwilling or unable to address the issue. Chapter 3 continues this account, focusing on the weakness of the Iraqi government. Cockburn arrived in Baghdad not long after this fall of Mosul, and perceived a state of denial among both citizens and government figures.
Chapter 4 rambles too much for my liking. It has some useful info here and there, but it significantly overlaps with other chapters and even ends up enforcing the thesis put forward in chapter one. Given that thesis in central to the book, it should be clear, but the wandering structure here does it no favors. That said, there is useful info in chapter 4. Chapter 5 returns to issues already explored in previous chapters, and the reader isn’t clear why these things are getting mentioned now and not earlier. It supports the feeling one gets that a series of already written pieces were strung together for this book.
Chapter 6 is a nod to various writers, especially foreign leftists, who insisted that the uprisings in Syria began in a predominantly peaceful and secular way, only to be taken over as the violence intensified and war began to swallow all in its reach. This is put forth in contrast to some who argue the uprisings were a Western plot to overthrow Assad, never involved Syrians real Syrians, and that all Syrians supported the Assad regime against its Western challengers. Cockburn emphasizes that those rising up against Assad in the beginning were from lower classes, especially in rural areas where drought and government neglect had led to years of hard times (83-84). Cockburn balances this with his description of how the Syrian FSA was heavily funded and supported by various Arab governments like Qatar, Saudi, and others. Chapter 7 returns to the arguments about Saudi elaborated in chapter 1 (p 100-105). He does add new substance to the arguments here, discussing broader Saudi foreign policy, how the Kingdom has handled its own citizens becoming jihadis, and whether or not the Saudi government is genuine in its attempts to leave its divisive and sectarian ways behind (Cockburn is doubtful).
Chapter 8, “If it bleeds, it leads” is an interesting segue into a discussion about the complexities of media coverage of war. Cockburn’s chapter is stimulating at multiple points and the reader, even one already familiar with these ideas, leaves with an interesting critical angle to the coverage of the Syrian Civil War and ISIS. It doesn’t add any new information about ISIS specifically. Chapter 9 returns to the fall of Mosul in June 2014, adding to what Cockburn previously argued about that topic in chapter 3. Cockburn really wants to emphasize that the collapse of the Iraqi Army should have been foreseen, and that the spreading instability is largely a result of spillover from the Syrian Civil War destabilizing Iraq (137).
Cockburn closes with an afterword about Kobane, the Syrian Kurdish town where PYG forces and ISIS battled fiercely. As of Cockburn’s writing, the battle hadn’t ended so Cockburn points fingers at Turkey and the USA for failing to come to the aid of the Kurds. Cockburn speculates that if Turkey does get involved, Iran would foment violent irredentism among Kurds inside Turkey. Cockburn points to the history of the mid 70s and 80s when Saddam invaded Kuwait and Iran reignited a Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq that Iraq thought it had solved in 1975 (158-159). What has transpired since the book was published is that despite heavy losses, the Kurds chased ISIS out of Kobane with the help of many coalition airstrikes. The chance of Turkey invading Syria remains palpable, with rumors of its impending implementation swirling from late June 2015 until now, late July 2015. ISIS seems to have ‘successfully’ started just this kind of violent irredentism in Turkey after it carried out a suicide bombing in Suruç, which had led to Kurdish reprisal attacks against Turkish police and escalating protests by Kurds in southeast Turkey as well as Istanbul. Where this will lead, no one can be sure.
Overall, if I complain and criticize Cockburn’s book it’s because I hold him to very high standards. His regular columns remain influential and enlightening and should be read by anyone interested in the topics explored in his book. Readers new to the topics will definitely learn a lot and be glad they picked up this book- it is easy to read, makes solid points, and has a coherent argument. It is certainly better than Sekulow’s book I already reviewed, and is a better intro than Hassan and Weiss‘ book, though more advanced readers will prefer Weiss and Hassan’s work to Cockburn’s for its better structure, coherence, and details.