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?
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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.

ISIS: An Historical and Contemporary Overview by Spyros Sofos and Michael Degerald

NOTE: Click HERE to watch the video! Once the link opens, click “Del 2”. It may load very slowly, but it does work;)

This is the video of a public talk given at Lund University by Spyros Sofos and Michael Degerald on 12 November 2015. Michael speaks first and outlines changes in modern Middle East history and global history more broadly that help us understand the emergence of the Islamic State. Spyros follows this and builds on Michael’s historical outline with a synopsis of his research on the contemporary dimensions of the Islamic State.
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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.

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: ISIS Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan

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 comisis-9781941393574_hrbination 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.