Review of The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from “Islamic State”

As accounts and interviews with those who have lived under Daesh rule in Syria and Iraq emerge, I have eagerly sought them out. It is one thing to study Daesh, to seek to understand its structures, its finances, its media, its violence. It is another, however, to understand the impact it has on people’s lives. Headlines that talk about capturing a new city, or losing control of one for that matter, obscure so much of the pain and violence that comes along with those noteworthy events. Their shocking nature also pushes us to dehistoricize, to forget what came before, all too easily slipping into assumptions that things there have been this way for some time. The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from “Islamic State” is a powerful antidote to these assumptions, generalized by those far away about events they only know through already simplified headlines.

The book is the result of the brave writing by a young man who lived under Daesh rule in Raqqa, the group’s organizational hub in Eastern Syria. With the help of Mike Thompsen, a BBC journalist, “Samer” the activist managed to smuggle his accounts out of Syria, to a third country, where they were translated and edited for presentation in this book. The end result is easy to read and accessible, at least on a literary level. On an emotional level, it is anything but easy to read, and is in fact very challenging. Readers will find it hard not to imagine themselves in Raqqa with Samer, experiencing the pain and trauma through his words.

Samer’s narrative of his life in Raqqa chronicles three broad periods to acquaint readers with Syria. Through memories, Samer discusses growing up under the Assad regime. He chronicles how his father had problems with regime intelligence services, and disappeared for some time (p.39). Readers see the toll this takes on Samer’s family. It turns out Samer’s father had been reported to the Assad government as a political dissident by his manager at work and had been detained. His family ultimately had to bribe the boss who had leveled the charges against Samer’s father. Samer’s mother sold her jewelry and a small piece of land they owned to get him out, but even in freedom Samer’s father had already lost so much. “I couldn’t understand how someone could take everything we knew from us like this” Samer says on p.46. “Not only was all this happening under the eyes of the (Assad) government, it had their complete support.” Additionally, Samer mentions the 1982 Hama Uprising and how it was crushed by government violence. Because it was not covered in the media, Samer states that Syrians have learned from this and approached things differently this time, making sure to film and put images online of government actions (p. 47).

image taken from the book p.48-49

Once the uprising began in Syria several months after the initial movements of the Arab Spring, events in Syria snowballed from peaceful protest marches to violent escalating clashes with the Assad government, recalcitrant in power. Samer describes his arrest, interrogation, and torture at the hands of the regime (p.50). “This didn’t stop me,” he states. “If anything, it made me more rebellious.”

The final period the book details, as its name suggests, is life under ISIS rule once the organization seized control of Raqqa. I won’t quote the details here, but Samer describes many of the repressive and violent realities he was exposed to. The public sphere loses its vitality, and becomes a place where bad things happen. Samer and others want to stay home just to avoid interactions with Daesh. The store Samer’s family ran for years can’t make money anymore, it is too hard to move goods through the war zone and they reach Raqqa with very high prices. These give a tiny glimpse into the very real changes Daesh rule brought to Raqqa.

On specific anecdote about life under Daesh in Samer’s account caught my attention. While walking home, Samer was warned, cryptically, not to walk down a given street. He had an idea what this meant, but his human curiosity got the best of him. What he saw was shocking enough I will leave it out of this review. Even if he hadn’t been warned, such a sight would shock and traumatize anyone, but the human element of his inability to stay away was the most telling to me. Everything Samer had experienced was easily enough to make him avoid such sights, to take the advice of his friend. Yet those who live under ISIS rule are just as human as anyone, in all their virtues, vices, tendencies and shortcomings.

This account should be considered a primary source for the study of life under ISIS, and as such I highly recommend it. It brings the humanity, emotions, and trauma of those who have experienced life under ISIS into detail on its pages. Where other works I have read mostly deal with the history leading to the group’s emergence, this work is head and shoulders above the others to give one a sense of human life in Syria before the uprisings, during the Syrian War, and finally under Daesh rule.


Book Review: Hunting Season by James Harkin

“By the time it was rolled out, ISIS wasn’t so much a meeting of jihadi minds- one buttressed by networks of recruits that had already been established in Europe.” (p.94)

Such are the kinds of insights that pepper Harkin’s work on the wave of kidnappings of foreigners in Syria in the first two years of the war in Syria. By tracing a series of kidnappings of journalists and the mystery that followed, Harkin is able to follow an important, if largely ignored thread of the story about Daesh. Yet it is just that: a thread. Readers looking for a work that explores the history and development of Daesh in the manner of works by Gerges or Weiss and Hassan have come to the wrong place.  Harkin’s work succeeds inside its circumscribed limits:

“{B}ased on his reporting for Vanity Fair, James Harkin’s groundbreaking book investigates the abduction, captivity, and execution of American journalist James Foley and the fate of 23 other ISIS hostages.”

Through interviews with some of the released hostages, Harkin is able to provide descriptions about the treatment of hostages by the ISIS captors, details about how they were moved multiple times, and details about the coping strategies the different hostages used. With the lens focused on the captives, Harkin brings in details from the broader war that help illuminate the context surrounding their captivity. He also mentions something I have repeatedly pointed to in this blog, prison radicalization for  jihadis:

“When he taught Arabic in a prison near Antwerp, Pieter Van Ostaeyen saw petty criminals morph over the space of a few months into zealous Islamists under the influence of powerful Salafi preachers. The way he sees it, puritanical Islamism has become just another prison gang culture, just like the Aryan Nation in the United States.” (p.101, emphasis mine)

Harkin’s work, while definitely journalistic and not academic, nonetheless is able to tie in useful details about changes in ISIS as an organization. He barely touches upon it, but read alongside a recent work about ISIS “Emni” branch, a very clear picture comes together.

This lens  Harkin uses also becomes a very interesting one in relation to international dynamics and intervention in the conflict in Syria. All of the journalists kidnapped by ISIS had varying chances of ever being released, largely if not completely determined by the government’s willingness to pay ransoms in kidnapping cases. Italy, France, Spain and others all were willing to pay ransoms albeit as secretly as possible. The United States and the UK, however, refuse to pay ransoms as policy, which they claim takes away the financial motive to kidnap their citizens. It’s highly controversial, and families of the kidnapped understandably don’t like it.



Harkin and others ran headlong into these issues at the beginning of the wave of kidnappings. The only clue to the abnormal nature of the kidnappings was the absence- of clues, of demands, of any info. Indeed, for some time, many were convinced that the Shabiha (regime thugs- literally “ghosts”) had kidnapped them as no traces of them were found among rebel groups. Only later, some time after many had already disappeared for some time, did it become clear that all the kidnappings were by the same people.

Harkin argues there was “an effective conspiracy of silence” even among governments who do pay ransoms as it was thought that higher profile cases would command higher ransoms. ISIS, unlike others, didn’t even announce it had the hostages or make any demands publicly, so Harkin argues the silence about their kidnappings- by the families, governments, and ISIS didn’t help the situation (p.78). Harkin argues it failed to notify other journalists about the situation and those who went in later were in greater danger.

This kidnapping industry, or K&R (kidnapping and ransom) that emerged in Syria from 2012 on also supported a whole range of shady actors. Given the instability of the war, it was not possible for families to easily reach Syria to investigate and a small industry of individuals popped up who attempted to fill this need. Many, as Harkin demonstrates, had no real leads or info and were out to scam the families looking desperately for traces of their loved ones.

recent report by FT corroborates Harkin’s account that as the war has shifted, so has the K&R industry in Syria. Whereas Harkin shows how ISIS began kidnapping foreigners before it gained larger notoriety, FT’s report shows that ISIS defectors have become common kidnap victims by other rebel militias in Syria. FT interviewed a rebel commander named Abu Yazan, who insisted that every rebel faction trades in ISIS fighters. Once these men and women flee ISIS, they’re on their own, and the K&R industry actually ransoms some of them back to their nation of origin.

FT 1/9/17

In equally clear yet depressing fashion, Harkin’s work details John Cantlie’s time in captivity, his bond and quarrels with James Foley, all leading up to him being the very last remaining captive. Since 2014, Cantlie has been known to the outside world as the man who appears in ISIS propaganda from time to time, describing how things in Mosul were not as western media portrayed them, among other things. It sparked questions, did he have Stockholm Syndrome, was he pretending for his own survival, or something else? For this reader, Harkin’s book gave a backstory to Cantlie’s survival, how he avoided being beheaded alongside Foley and others, yet remains trapped.

Finally, Harkin’s work is an easy read given his journalistic approach and good editing overall. As I said in the beginning, it’s not academically rigorous and there are better works to learn a comprehensive picture of ISIS, but it doesn’t need to be. Read alongside those, this book is an interesting and easy to read supplement. On those terms, I recommend it.

Book Review: The Syrian Jihad by Charles R. Lister

This review has been some time in the making. 393 pages in the making, to be exact. It is by far the longest of the books I have read and reviewed about Daesh so far, but does that length equal quality?
syrian jihad cover

Lister’s work is ambitious. In these 393 pages, he only covers a time span of about 4 years. The chapters are divided into periods of time of about 6 months each, and his periodization of the conflict is among the most systematic and detailed of its kind. The subtitle of the book is Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Evolution of an Insurgency. Lister has become a controversial figure, especially on Twitter. That is to be expected, however, in a conflict as confusing and complicated as the one in Syria. Any position one takes will anger at least two others, for different reasons.

As readers can discern from the title, it is not exclusively about the Syrian Civil War. This becomes clear as the reader moves through the book, where attention is paid to the regime and its foreign backers, but much more attention is paid to the various jihadist groups. Having read the book cover to cover, I don’t remember coming across Qassem al-Suleimani once. If the book were about the war more broadly, such an omission would be inexcusable- a leading general from Iran on the ground in Syria would need to be discussed. Thus, Lister’s focus necessitates detailing battles, alliances, and the changing balance of power in the conflict, but with a pronounced emphasis on one side of the war. That makes it come deceptively close to a history of the war itself.

Inside of its own boundaries, the book does several things very well. Chapter three, “Syria’s Flirtation With Jihadism” had my jaw on the floor the entire time. Bashar al-Assad’s government here is shown to have not only fostered Al-Qaeda and other jihadists, but that it did so for more than a decade leading up to the outbreak of war in 2011. The chapter not only made multiple pieces fall into place in my mind, but it makes an argument publicly that needs a lot more attention. It is in line with the argument of Jean-Pierre Filiu’s work From Deep State to Islamic State in its focus on intelligence agencies and their role in sponsoring jihadism. The coldest irony out of all of that is that Assad’s Syria was actually guilty of ties to Al-Qaeda that Saddam’s Iraq was accused of. It makes those still defending Assad’s government look even more ridiculous, especially if they repeat his lie that his government is fighting terrorists, especially given that a) it sponsored them for a decade, and b) released all of the jihadists it had in prison at the time of the beginning of the war. Enter Wikileaks, an organization with a mission I otherwise support. They published a book which summarized the revelations of the Wikileaks documents in multiple chapters, each devoted to a separate country.  As much as I like Wikileaks challenging the powerful and demanding transparency, I must say the chapter about Syria is so myopic in this regard it fails to take into account any of the scholarship available about Syria. It is entirely based on Wikileaks cables, and blames US empire entirely for the rise of Daesh, even incredulously asking how the US dare accuse Syria of supporting terrorism. If the author of that chapter, Robert Naiman, drew on other works, especially Lister’s, he’d have the clear answer to his question.

Non-Daesh Jihadists in Syria
One of the things that stands out most about this work is the sustained detail about the plethora of non-Daesh groups in Syria. There are about 5 total militias that have name recognition for many people, and for even more Daesh is the only one they could name. The FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham are the most recognizable ones besides Daesh, but there are many more smaller militias which fought or still fight today. Note I am not saying the FSA are jihadists, just that they are usually known to non-specialists.  While many lazily say that the uprising in Syria has been jihadist in character from the beginning, Lister’s book lays out the timeline in detail. I remember writing a research paper in the spring of 2012, and there were only rumors at that time that Al-Qaeda was showing up in Syria, with no solid evidence. It was a question that hung in the air, but that was decisively answered later as history unfolded. Chapter 6 details the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra specifically in late 2012 and early 2013. Lister presents a victory at al-Taana Defense base east of Aleppo on the road to Raqqa in October as what he believes was the first major victory in the war by salafist-jihadist forces (87).

Readers unfamiliar with the messy details can get a good picture of the complex nature of rebel alliances and coordination. Jabhat al-Nusra, especially, has been presented as the most extreme non-Daesh group with its connection to Al-Qaeda emphasized. The chapter also finds the emergence of Ahrar al-Sham (107). Other rebels, however, have more often than not collaborated with Nusra rather than trying to shun them. This broad statement doesn’t apply to the entire conflict, but Nusra collaborated with both Ahrar al-Sham and the FSA at various points. Nusra collaborated with a number of “secular” militias despite the explicit decrees from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death. The basic story of Nusra appears clearly for readers- something started by the Islamic State in Iraq in 2011 inside of Syria which they never publicly acknowledged until some time later.  The name Jabhat al-Nusra, literally “the support front” points to this role. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a recording claiming as much in addition to the fact that ISI had financed Nusra for the first two years (122).  Baghdadi announced the cancellation of both the old name “Islamic State in Iraq” as well as “Jabhat al -Nusra” and their unification under one, new name: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (122). The problem was that Jolani, and the Nusra front he led did not want to be subsumed under ISIS and instead pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda more broadly (123), where ISIS had broken away from AQ some time ago. Thus ISI was previously Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Nusra was initially an extension of ISI, but by mid 2013 they were separate groups with Nusra going back to AQ while ISIS remained on its own.

There have also been numbers of rebels who have changed militias as the war continued, and Lister at various points helps point out why others might join militias they don’t necessarily agree with ideologically. Ahrar al-Sham is a group that Lister is particularly well placed to cover, as he uses his personal connections with the leaders to interview and quote them at length throughout the book. Some have used this as a criticism of Lister, that he’s too close to this group in particular to be objective. Readers can decide for themselves.
The Syrian Jihad as a History of Daesh?
Readers who pick up this book expecting to learn about the Islamic State will likely have mixed feelings. In his layout, Lister covers the emergence of the group in the context of the war in Syria, and chapter 7 is especially good in this regard. Often lost in the discussions that begin with the seizure of Mosul in June 2014 is the complex and violent 18 months (more or less) that led up to that. Violent infighting between jihadists and Daesh, especially in the second half of 2013, culminated in a series of coordinated jihadist offensives against Daesh in early 2014. This infighting especially became more prominent after the split between ISIS and Nusra described above. Daesh had targeted the leaders of other groups, had attacked their positions, and even kidnapped and killed the leader of one militia sent to negotiate with them. In October 2013, The most powerful jihadist factions, including Ahrar al-Sham, Suqur al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Jaish al-Islam and others signed a joint statement demanding Daesh cease attacking other jihadis, to no avail. Not long after in November 2013 the Islamic Front was formed, a coalition of these and other groups (174). This wave of attacks by the aforementioned groups and the FSA helped push Daesh out of many areas around Aleppo, forcing the group to withdraw to Raqqa, al-Bab, and Manbij.

Chapter 11 actually exits from the timeline Lister had followed until that point to follow the history of Daesh back into the late 1990s. His timeline here is largely the traditional one found in other works, starting with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his activities in Afghanistan. His analysis brings more detail into the inner workings of the various jihadi groups in Iraq, laying out a coalition formed between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and five other groups, called the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen. This transitions nicely into the Sahwa, an important topic that doesn’t get enough attention in discussions of Daesh. The Sahwa was a tribal uprising out of the Anbar province in western Iraq which arose to challenge the violent imposition of sharia law by then Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). One can see the importance of the Sahwa now in the fact that it entered Daesh discourse to refer to  local resistance against the group, which they stereotype as having been bought by western money. Thankfully absent here are lazy attempts to blame Obama for pulling out of Iraq for the rise of ISIS, or counterfactual claims that Saddam had done enough in the 90’s to bring about Daesh independent of the criminal and catastrophic US invasion.

Overall, Lister’s work is far too detailed for me to evaluate in more depth in a blog post. This is good for those looking for a solid source to begin with about the conflict, especially those seeking to grasp the transformations that have taken place over its course. Unfortunately, it is not a very easy read- it gets very formulaic and boring at times. The upside of that rigor is that it helps Lister’s work stand out from other books, but also makes the barrier to entry for non-experts high. I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you’re ready to really go at it with a highlighter and take a ton of notes. It is not airport reading you can breeze through and finish feeling more informed.

He only briefly discusses the issue of Shi’a jihadis in the war, noting on page 386 right before he wraps up that upwards of 10,000 Shi’i jihadis had passed through Syria, immediately making one ask why he didn’t cover it more. I guess the title of the book should be “The (Sunni) Syrian Jihad”. That said, Lister makes an interesting and provocative point about Jabhat al-Nusra in the introduction that he picks up again in the final chapter, that it has been more successful in moderating itself (relative to Daesh) and has been successful at building coalitions unlike Daesh, culminating in an arguably more established presence in Syria than Daesh. Only time will tell how this argument holds up. Finally, if my own use of the book is any indication, you’ll see me citing it a lot in my upcoming work about Daesh.

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State: Review

For one week only, 10/19-10/23 subscribe to follow my blog by email (the button is on the right hand side of my blog below my twitter feed) and you’ll be entered to win a free copy of The ISIS Apocalypse.

The ISIS Apocalypse by William McCants is short, surprisingly accessible, and does an excellent job inside its parameters. Readers will appreciate McCants’ concise presentation of a series of important factors about ISIS. McCants draws on letters written inside the Al-Qaeda organization to elucidate otherwise opaque organizational relationships. Osama Bin Laden, long demonized (and justifiably so) is revealed here to be the moderate and frustrated “parent” in relation to many branches of Al-Qaeda less restrained than OBL. Over and over again before his death we see accounts of Bin Laden urging other AQ branches to moderate themselves, to not hastily seize territory they won’t be able to keep, and to tone down the hudud punishments that so many outside ISIS find so shocking. Additionally, I really appreciated his ability to weave tweets into his analysis, something I hadn’t seen done as well as McCants does it here. If anything, I’d like him to do it even more. The readers not only get a startling picture from inside AQ but they also see the way these material issues were discussed in parallel in the digital sphere. After analyzing some of these important issues, I will get to the ultimate question I think hangs over McCants work: do the parameters of his argument work as he’s drawn them up?

In Chapter one, McCants begins with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and outlines his biography and importance to the historical development of the Islamic State. Here in chapter one we already see some of the new details that McCants is able to weave into his analysis from interactions between OBL and Zarqawi. The two had very different views, especially over how to use violence, and if the group should declare a caliphate or not. Zarqawi was much more extreme than OBL, and he wanted to strike violently at Shi’ites, whom he detested, and draw them into a larger, more violent confrontation. Zarqawi thought this would not only force Sunni groups on the sidelines to join the fight, but it would also help them defeat the transitional government in Iraq. OBL, on the other hand, saw these as unnecessary provocations that would not benefit Al-Qaeda’s cause, but would provoke a larger coalition against them they wouldn’t be capable of handling. OBL and Ayman al-Zawahiri were both more focused on getting the Americans to leave Iraq and were not interested in provoking a conflict with Shiites in the short term. This tension remained after Zarqawi was killed by American forces in 2006, a key split on the jihadist side for years to come. If there’s something I wish McCants would have included here, it would be the fact that these tensions in jihadist camps are largely traceable in the 20th century to Sayyid Qutb. This is one element I am sure McCants knows well, but chose to draw outside the scope of the analysis.

Chapter two begins with the failures in leadership by Abu Ayyub al-Masri. The picture McCants paints here is nuanced and will serve readers well who oversimplify and speak of all jihadis as the same. A short passage on page 34 illustrates well the same tension we found in chapter one:

“ It is a major taboo in Islam to kill a fellow Muslim. But the Islamic State argued that those who defied its rule were apostates or rebels so it could kill them without blame.”

This again goes back to Sayyid Qutb, for it didn’t matter to ISIS if these people under their rule considered themselves Muslims or if they practiced all of the 5 Pillars- if they didn’t engage in jihad and support the jihad of the Islamic State, they were shirking a fundamental duty as Muslims, and thus they were apostates. This extreme interpretation fueled significant amounts of violence and bloodshed directed at Sunni groups and populations that crossed paths with the Islamic State at this time, and drew the ire of these people towards ISIS. Chapter two does a good job detailing a large conflict inside of Al-Qaeda when AQ leaders outside of Iraq heard these complaints and demanded that Masri answer for them. These complaints also came from tribes frustrated at the extreme violence directed at them by the Islamic State, and we see the first traces of resentment that would explode later in the Sahwa. The cooperation between the tribes and the American troops after the surge proved too much for the organization to handle at that time, and the Islamic state was largely defeated. McCants cites an interesting document about the Islamic State’s internal assessment of its own failures, but it doesn’t seem to hone in on OBL’s advice to them to stop being so brutal. Instead, they blamed mismanagement, bad communication, and tensions inside the organization between Iraqi fighters and foreign ones.

Chapter three finds the unlikely beginning of IS propaganda in the suggestion of a young member, Nayif al-Qahtani. The trajectory traced out of how the propaganda grew afterwards is quite interesting indeed. McCants continues to trace the organizational tensions of the group, and we really see the central argument start to take form here. The split at the top leadership over whether or not to declare a caliphate, whether or not to seize territory, and how much to consequently use violence against groups under their control was fundamentally won by the more extreme wing of the group, culminating in the complete separation of the Islamic State from its former parent group Al-Qaeda. OBL and others still wanted to drive out the far enemy and win hearts and minds in the process rather than skipping straight to declaring a caliphate and expanding it, yet those on the ground like Zarqawi, Masri, Baghdadi and others wanted nothing to do with this patient approach. I see a parallel here not only between the question of whether or not to act like a state, but also the very dynamics other studies have found in states themselves; central governments often have proven unable to get distant territories to be governed by their deputies exactly as they wished. As much as the transnational dimension of Al-Qaeda scares counterterrorism officials, it proved to be a divisive force which prevented the organization from acting more cohesively.

Chapter four brings readers up close to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi by acquainting them with his personal trajectory. He studied Islamic studies in the 1990s, at a university founded in 1989, which McCants characterizes as “an integral part of (Saddam’s) effort to patronize Islamic Studies to offset the growth of ultraconservative salafism, which he viewed as a threat to his rule.”  After being thrown in prison by the American occupying forces, Baghdadi made many connections inside prison, something well documented by Martin Chulov, among others. I found very interesting the connection here to Haji Bakr, the man described in Christoph Reuters’ exposé about the Ba’thist roots of the Islamic State. Haji Bakr was apparently an important ally of Baghdadi’s inside the group. Not long after his rise to power, Baghdadi carried out a Saddam-like purge of opponents inside the state. On pages 81 and 90, McCants engages with one of the important ongoing discussions that has emerged in studies of ISIS, that of the relationship with the tribes in areas where the Islamic State rules.

Chapter five details the various understandings of the apocalypse influencing those fighting from the Sunni or Shi’i sides, though that’s not to imply the war is entirely about that difference. It is certainly viewed as such by some of those fighting, though. It’s important to highlight, as McCants does here, that some of those fighting are not there because they feel they must overthrow Bashar al-Assad, but rather because they see their participation as part of the events leading up to the apocalypse. It’s important that McCants details this but doesn’t take it too far- he doesn’t insist the entire conflict must be understood this way, but rather that some on the ground are influenced by these ideas. The chapter ends by returning to the author’s central argument, and questions of declaring a caliphate and acting like a state. The quote he adds here from Islamic scholar  Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi speaks volumes, and gets straight back to the ongoing argument detailed earlier:

“ What concerns me greatly is… whether this caliphate will be a refuge for oppressed people and a haven for every Muslim or will become a sword hanging over the Muslims who oppose it.” 

Chapter six proceeds from June 2014 in Mosul, connecting the ongoing argument over Islamic governance to the events on the ground. McCants explicitly argues that those who insisted on declaring the caliphate not only won the argument against their more reserved, and now displaced leaders, but that it proved to be quite a successful tactic for them. McCants shows that even after the declaration of the caliphate dissent continued even amongst jihadist scholars, with prominent scholars like Maqdisi quoted above and Abu Qatada al-Filistini speaking out in opposition to the caliphate, while Al-Qaeda took a different route and attempted to declare their own caliph, Mullah Omar. The section ‘Governing the Caliphate’ begins on p. 135, and I really wish it were longer. This is the material I really hoped there would be more of, the details on the ground of how the Islamic State has been governing the territories under its control. He comes, on p.139, to an interesting point about smoking. McCants argues that the jihadist reaction to smoking is a kind of bellwether; one can seem to guess a lot about how the jihadist in question will approach larger questions of governance based on their view of whether or not smoking should be banished. McCants calls this the ‘hearts and minds’ debate and his choice of words is quite interesting, as it overlaps with much of the counterinsurgency doctrine developed by the USA. The Americans came to see that they could not achieve their military objectives in areas where the populations remained hostile to them, and that they needed to “win hearts and minds” on the ground. This ties into the jihadist debate over governance through the question- how much should Islamic authorities antagonize the populations under their rule while they are still attempting to establish themselves? OBL and Zawahiri, among others came to see the tactics of hudud punishments as something that alienated more people than they won over or brought in line. McCants pounds nails into the argument in the conclusion when he asks why the Islamic State was willing to be so brutal to Muslim and non-Muslim groups alike by stating bluntly that “..gore and violence work.” He ties together the rest of the argument’s loose ends- many of those fighting for ISIS on the ground are indeed ignorant of the complexities of Islamic scripture, but “brutal insurgency doesn’t necessarily follow from Islamic scripture.” He re-emphasizes the extent to which this group left Osama Bin Laden behind, and argues that contradictions in the group’s actions can be understood by looking at how they’ve put building a state above all else and do not act with the reckless abandon one would expect of people convinced the apocalypse is near.

McCants closes with his answers to the question, “what should be done?” by arguing for policies he admits are basically identical to the coalition’s current military strategy. I don’t take issue with his answers about how to proceed, but rather as I stated at the outset, I am not sure about the boundaries of McCants’ study. I think his argument about jihadi governance and the ‘hearts and minds’ approach is well formulated and he uses his sources well to support it. It also helps readers trace the questions of doctrine and strategy well from the arguments over them to their implementation on the ground. Readers leave with a nuanced picture not only of the groups involved, but of jihadists and Islam more broadly. This is where I see McCants’ study to be most successful. It’s especially hard to argue with because he used so many primary sources from the individuals involved.

More broadly, details about the power vacuum in Iraq after the American invasion are not present, drawn outside the bounds of the book. Likewise, details of the developments on the ground in Syria are barely present if at all. McCants teases around the question of tribes and ISIS at multiple points in the book but I see this as one of the most important points to be analyzed. As McCants acknowledges, if the Islamic State was defeated by the combination of the Sahwa uprising among the Iraqi tribes and the surge of American troops, this open question remains a hot topic of debate. Can another Sahwa take place to once again displace the Islamic State? McCants answers this in two sentences in the conclusion, and even refers to Assad’s government as “Shiite” in the process, an oversimplification at best. I would’ve liked a much more thorough treatment. What about questions of historical changes in Iraq and Syria? Or the lasting influence of Saddam’s brutal rule? He most certainly covers the “strategy” and “doomsday vision” of the Islamic State, it’s the “history” part I think could have been broader. My picky complaints aside, this is very well written and will be a very informative book for many that is easily readable. This is a solid book to recommend to people who don’t know much, or anything about the topic besides what they’ve seen on the news.

Book Review: From Deep State to Islamic State by Jean-Pierre Filiu

It should be said at the outset that very little of the book is actually about the Islamic State. Filiu covers some of the very recent developments of the Islamic State in chapter 8, “The Evil Twins in Yemen and Syria”. For those who want to read about the actual members and development of the state-for example the Al-Qaeda networks and details of the chaos in Iraq post-2003- the work by Hassan and Weiss I reviewed here is a much better choice.  However, for those with some knowledge of the region, this work is a worthy read that should not be ignored. The author, Jean Pierre Filiu, makes a nuanced and original reading of 20th century Middle Eastern history. This will certainly have its critics and detractors.

Traditionally, the historiography saw a series of dictators, some ruling through monarchies and others through republics. A different categorization groups these regimes into those which have and haven’t normalized relations with the West and/or Israel. These regimes also cooperated with the West to try to fight various terror groups and shared intelligence with the West- Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, all of the Gulf countries, Yemen, Oman, and finally Algeria renewed relations with the USA just before 9/11. Libya, Syria, Iraq (pre-Saddam) were those still in their own category, largely hostile to the West. More recently, a phrase coined by King Abdullah of Jordan stuck, labeling the Shiite Crescent as Iran, the Maliki regime in Iraq, Syria, and Hizbullah in Lebanon, clearly contrasted with the rest of the countries which are overwhelmingly but not exclusively Sunni Muslim.  Filiu doesn’t use any of these traditional categorizations and adds a different reading. He argues for a different categorization of regimes he calls “the Mamluks”, including Yemen, Algeria, Syria and Egypt. This term comes from Middle Eastern history itself and refers to a military caste of people, many of whom were slaves, who ascended in power across a wide swath of land and remained influential in the medieval and early modern periods. Filiu refers specifically to:

“…the original Mamluks who ruled Egypt from 1250-1517 along with Syria from 1260-1516. I draw a parallel between the legitimacy derived by those founding Mamluks from the vulnerable ‘Caliph’ under their control and the one derived by the modern Mamluks from the popular ‘votes’ held under martial law.”

Filiu then connects this categorization of the Mamluks to the concept of the deep state from contemporary Turkish history. When Filiu says deep state, he is referring to a series of secretive and opaque institutions and actors who guide important policy decisions out of public view. His example from Turkey is a shocking story from 1997 when a car accident in the city of Susurluk exposed a previously secret reality for Turks. A local police chief, a gangster with right-wing nationalist connections, his girlfriend, and an MP aligned with the Kurdish PKK were all in the car together when it crashed, killing the first three I described. These men who were supposed to be on opposite ends of everything ideological were secretly working together. Filiu proceeds to describe the next 18 years of Turkish politics and the rise of the AKP, the party represented by current President, and former Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He characterizes the Ergenekon trial and a later trial known as “Sledgehammer” as examples of the AKP using the police and the courts to go after the deep state. He emphasizes that these were very divisive tactics which arguably broke the deep state but had a lot of collateral damage in Turkish politics, especially in polarizing the various parties.

Filiu uses the vast majority of the book to set this argument up and trace it through the specific countries he argues to be “neo-Mamluks” which are Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Yemen. Each of these includes a detailed reading of the history to set the reader up to understand how these “Mamluks” came to power in each one. Filiu argues that “(T)here lies a clear distinction between, on the one side, the Arab Mamluks, and, on the other side, police states like Tunisia (under Bourguiba or Ben Ali) or would-be totalitarian regimes like Qaddhafi’s Jamahiriyya or Saddam’s Iraq. Monarchies who had survived the turmoils of the early 70’s (Black September in Jordan and the two failed military coups in Morocco) were also spared the Mamluk curse.” (p. xi). Filiu does not argue that the regimes have secretly colluded along these lines or publicly identified as such, but rather argues we should classify and understand them as the Mamluk regimes.

Once Filiu has developed this idea, he turns to the most recent events from the American invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring until the present. He looks at Egypt and Yemen in chapter 7, “The tale of Two Squares” which refers to Tahrir Square where the first mobilizations of January 25 took place in Cairo, and Rabiya al ‘Adwiya, where a large group of Muslim Brotherhood supporters gathered post-June 30 Coup and some 1,000 plus were massacred by the Egyptian state. It is here we find the most explicit new formulations of argument and ultimately the connection to the Islamic State. Filiu argues that these Mamluk regimes all played with Jihadi fire in their counterrevolutionary actions to deal with the Arab Spring (some before as well) and in doing so, fed the beast that grew into the Islamic State. All of these regimes, in their own unique ways, saw these groups emergent and quietly supported or tolerated them because they met various needs- most centrally the justification of security rents that Filiu focuses on in Yemen and Egypt. When Filiu refers to security rents, he means money supplied to the government from outside donors to preserve security there. I’ve read this idea of a state nurturing a jihadi presence to justify security rents from the West before in The Warrior State, an interesting book about Pakistan.

To this reviewer’s mind, his answer to how Tunisia came out so differently from Egypt (an already fraught topic) gets some parts right and others wrong. Filiu is correct to point to the use of the justice system in Tunisia to deal with post-revolutionary terror as a more effective means than the brute state violence used by the Mamluk regime in Egypt. For Filiu, Tunisia represents a successful path out of the problems. Despite (or because of?) Tunisia’s transition and new constitution, it has been one of the largest sources of jihadis going to join the Islamic State. He emphasizes the power of the established trade unions in Tunisia as something that helped the revolution succeed, but I was left scratching my head because Egypt indeed has a complex and strong tradition of trade unions. It has been studied in depth by Beinin and Goldberg among others, so readers can go to them and judge whether Filiu is wrong to write off Egyptian trade unions as he does. Another headscratcher for me came when Filiu seems to argue to let NATO off the hook for the chaos in Libya by instead arguing the problems there came from the failed implementation of plebiscites and compares these to more successful ones in Tunisia.

Ultimately, I see Filiu’s argument here to be less than stellar. He describes in the beginning of the book how he invests heavily in a new conception of the “Mamluk” regime, spends the better part of 200 pages developing it, and then argues it to be the strongest causal factor leading to the rise of the Islamic State. This reviewer indeed agrees that authoritarian regimes and their willingness to tolerate and even foster jihadi groups is indeed real, and it is indeed part of what brought about the Islamic State. Is it, however, the largest factor? Does it justify the book-length development of the argument? This reviewer finds it highly questionable at best. I would have preferred to see more here about the prosecution of the war on terror, especially by the USA, and how this has certainly exacerbated the problem of global terrorism rather than smothering it. Filiu should get credit here for addressing this in regard to the Mamluk regimes, but he does not address it more broadly. I would likewise emphasize to a much stronger degree how the outbreak of the Syrian uprising that turns into a civil war ripped open whatever fragile gains had been made in Iraq after the combination of the Sahwa and the US surge. What of the roles of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia? They are not present. Finally, given that we now know that many ex-Ba’thists are involved in the Islamic State, these dynamics of the failed invasion of Iraq and the changes in Saddam’s regime post-1991 need a more thorough examination here. If I had to rank the factors in strength, I would put the failed invasion of Iraq and the consequent issues there above the consistent support of jihadis by authoritarian regimes in the region, regardless of whether the categorization of “neo-Mamluk” can hold water. I see no real opening for ISIS to control territory or create chaos on the level they have absent the power vacuum created by the wrong-headed overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It is indeed counterfactual, for we can’t know how Iraq would have changed or how its own people and regime would have reacted to the Arab Spring playing itself out there. Given the events of 1991 in Iraq, it is not unreasonable to assume that Saddam would have responded with brute force as he did before. What that would have become is something we can only imagine.

Finally, in praise of Filiu, his use of the ‘deep state’ concept that he takes from Turkey in the 1990s is quite stimulating. This places the AKP in a unique position as the one example here that succeeded in breaking the deep state, and begs the question, on a new level, of whether or not we can then think of Turkey as some kind of model for other states in the region, or at least the other Mamluks as Filiu classifies them. This would clearly be different than the way many have talked about Turkey as a model for a so-called “Muslim Democracy.” One cannot help but notice that Turkey’s reaction to the Gezi Protests and the way it has carried itself until today bears striking resemblance to the patterns Filiu outlines in Yemen and Syria where the regimes deliberately provoked wars with the jihadis and presented themselves as the saviors to protect people from terror, much as Erdoğan’s AKP now does with regard to the PKK. Clearly, the PKK is not the same as Al-Qaeda. Neither is the democracy in Turkey, however weak, comparable to the regimes in Yemen and Syria. It does, however, then beg the question of what this will lead to in Turkey and whether or not Filiu should be thinking of the AKP as similar to the Mamluks. Should Filiu then be willing to say authoritarianism is a part of the the condition to be a Mamluk, if supposedly democratic Turkey is acting in a similar manner to the Mamluks? That Erdogan is also willing to start a war with the PKK to stay in power? History will have to play itself out before that question can be answered.

Let me reiterate again that whatever criticisms I have here are my attempt to hold a strong historian accountable for his arguments and to evaluate them in a reasoned, scholarly manner. The book is worth reading for anyone ready to get into the deeper dynamics of 20th century history that led to the emergence of the Islamic State.

Here is a great documentary that goes into more depth about the Yemeni state supporting Al-Qaeda there as Filiu talks about:

If you’d like to purchase a copy of the book, you can go here. Thanks to Hurst Publishers for providing me a review copy:)

The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution by Patrick Cockburn: Review

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.

Book Review: Rise of ISIS A Threat We Can’t Ignore by Jay Sekulow

R51tqIdqGUGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ise of ISIS by Jay Sekulow definitely is not what I expected. At the Itunes page promoting the book, it is described as “the definitive book on ISIS” and is “A must-have for anyone who wants to better understand the conflict that exists in the middle east” (sic). Unfortunately, the book is neither of those things.  In fact, it veers so far from ISIS that it does not give any reader what they need to know about ISIS. Readers would be better served reading the work by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan I already reviewed here, despite not being ideal for beginners, because it actually focuses on ISIS.

Why am I being so negative? It’s certainly not for the author’s qualifications. Jay Sekulow clearly has credentials in the field of law and acts as a public voice on legal issues. Very early into the book, I was puzzled about the nature of the material being covered. The foreword describes how Sekulow clarifies “1) the fractured relationship between ISIS, a radical jihadist group that was founded in Iraq and Syria and has directed its efforts toward the creation of the Islamic Caliphate, and Al-Qaeda… 2) the breathtakingly rapid advance of ISIS in Iraq…3) the ideological and visionary links between ISIS and Hamas that combine to threaten Israel’s existence; and 4) substantial evidence revealing how radical jihadist groups like ISIS pose a mounting threat to the American people.” (p.x) The author fails at points one through three and we didn’t need a book to argue for point four. Read next to Hassan and Weiss’ work, no other conclusion is possible.

The book all too briefly digs into the relationship between ISIS and Al-Qaeda, but readers without a developed knowledge of the specifics won’t find them here. I barely got to p.4 before Sekulow had jumped to Israel and Hamas describing a harrowing experience with his son narrowly avoiding death by a Hamas rocket. On page 7, after continuing about Hamas, the author states bluntly: “The goal of this book is simple: to understand the horrific jihadist threat to Christians and Jews in the Middle East, a threat that will undoubtedly come to the United States if it is left unchecked abroad. Through ISIS and Hamas, Christians and Jews face a wave of persecution and violence that is, quite simply,  genocidal in scope and intent” (emphasis mine). Chapters four through nine are entirely devoted to Hamas and Israel.

This review, to avoid getting as off topic as Mr. Sekulow’s work does, will not engage with his presentations of the history of the conflict between Hamas and Israel in chapters four through nine. Readers can do that for themselves, should they so choose, but instead I will focus on this link he makes between ISIS and Hamas. I have argued elsewhere that no reasonable comparison can be made between ISIS and Hamas, I stand by those arguments, and I won’t rehash them here. Chapter one is so broad it could appear anywhere really, and it adds nothing of substance to the reader’s knowledge. Thus, chapters two and three are the only places a reader will find any specific elaboration on ISIS.

In chapter two, the author covers some useful background history on Islam, especially the split between Sunni and Shi’a. He details how Ataturk dissolved the last Caliphate after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI. He quotes a speech by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, one of the only primary sources related to ISIS this reviewer found. He gives some background, a paragraph’s worth, about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s personal history, then gives a truncated description of the Iraq War that is heavy on sensationalist stories (the veracity of which this reviewer doesn’t doubt) about the experiences of American troops in Iraq. There are no voices of Iraqis here, and the vision that emerges feels as if its through the the rosy night-vision goggles of American soldiers, cleansed of ethical issues like Abu Ghraib, Falluja, or torture. The expanding role of SIGINT intelligence in the surge is absent. He provides an oversimplified account of the surge in Iraq,  giving no meaningful account of the Sahwa or its role. Instead, “these gains happened primarily through sheer force of American courage and will.” One of the most important parts of the story, the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011 and its impact on a still fragile Iraq, gets a paragraph of treatment here. For the complicated details of this history, readers will have to look somewhere else.

In Chapter three, Sekulow gets right that ISIS actually does un-Islamic things, namely killing Muslims in a manner not allowed for by Sharia. This is a point he should get credit for. A reader might ask themselves, why is that? Here, Sekulow lapses again, and does not effectively explain why ISIS targets other Muslims, and what interpretation that actually stems from. Equation of jihad with the five pillars of Islam by ISIS and other extremists is the central point here, and explains why ISIS does this. Differently than the vast majority of Muslims, ISIS believe that a Muslim must wage jihad just as that Muslim must pray, fast during Ramadan, visit Mecca, give alms to the poor, and believe fully in the shahada that there is only one God and Muhammad is his messenger. All Muslims agree on the other five pillars, but only a small fraction believe jihad to be obligatory. Thus, ISIS views those Muslims who refuse to engage in violent jihad as shirking one of their basic duties. That is an extreme interpretation, clearly, but one readers of this book do not get explained to them by Sekulow.

Chapter three is where Sekulow has to convince readers that the transition he will make into chapter four, where he leaves ISIS behind and jumps to Hamas, is a legitimate one. The entire structure of the book hinges on this part of the argument, but Sekulow does not give it the attention it deserves. He does not show any proof that the two groups have been in contact, or have coordinated with each other in any way. He does not address the fact that ISIS is, by any rational standard, levels worse than Hamas. He does not acknowledge that Hamas, other issues aside, has won legitimate elections to represent the people of Gaza. ISIS has never won a democratic mandate. Similarly, Sekulow’s presentation of Egypt post-revolution leaves much to be desired, and pushes an all-too-simple line of that the Muslim Brotherhood are bad and the new government under Sisi is good. The much more complex post-revolutionary reality is glossed over. Finally, the fact that Hamas has been doing what it can to stifle, rather than collaborate with, the emergence of ISIS in Gaza proves Sekulow’s position oversimplified and of no value. In reality, these two groups are clashing and Hamas is seen as not Islamic enough by ISIS.

In sum, this book isn’t really about ISIS, and it makes a fundamentally flawed comparison between ISIS and Hamas. Readers looking to learn about ISIS should not waste their time. Indeed, if Sekulow really wanted to make points about Hamas and the laws of war, which comprises the vast majority of the book, he should have made the book explicitly about that topic. That is a worthy topic indeed.