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.