Monday, April 13, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ISIS – THE STATE OF TERROR” by Jessica Stern and J.M.Berger (Harper-Collins, $NZ34:99)
Is it ISIS, ISIL or simply IS? Early in the piece, the authors of this book explain that IS (Islamic State) is the designation they prefer, but many Western governments choose not to use this term as it implies that these radical Sunni jihadists have already achieved their aim of creating an autonomous state. ISIL is the term that the US government prefers (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and that President Obama often uses in his speeches. However Western journalists prefer ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), which is now the best-known designation. So, willy-nilly, the authors opt for ISIS.
What sort of book is this book? Of course it’s the higher journalism, and like all journalism (as the authors openly acknowledge) it is provisional and perishable. Being published this year, it is up-to-date enough to mention the fall-out from the Charlie Hebdo murders. But it is an investigation into an ongoing situation that is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Doubtless that situation will look very different, and require a very different sort of book, in two or three years’ time.
It is also a book aimed principally at non-Muslim infidels like you and me. The text is preceded by a twelve-page glossary of Muslim terms and a timeline of recent relevant historical events. After the 256 pages of text, but before the 25 pages of index and the 84 pages of notes and the 5 pages of acknowledgements in which Jessica Stern and J.M.Berger separately thank their sources, there are 44 pages of Appendix, written by a doctoral student in religious studies, on the core beliefs of Islam and its various factions.
Finally I have to note that it is not boots-on-the-ground journalism. Jessica Stern is a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard. J.M.Berger is a fellow of the Brookings Institution and contributor to Foreign Policy magazine. Their report has been researched through secondary sources, interviews, declassified information and (as parts of the text make very clear) very close gleaning of what is – or has been – available on the Internet. Stern and Berger view the situation from a distance, but with a clear sense of the real danger ISIS entails.
ISIS – The State of Terror opens with the horror of televised ISIS executions of hostages and prisoners, who are dressed provocatively in orange, consciously echoing the garb of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. ISIS revels in publicising such public violence, as a sign of its resolve and its refusal to compromise, but also as a means of both provoking and intimidating the West. Immediately the authors describe the shocked Western reaction where:
“In corner stores and restaurants, on television and radio broadcasts, over dinner tables and on social media, people began to ask: Why can’t the most powerful nations on earth stop these medieval-minded killers? The question soon transformed into an anger not seen since the days after the 11 September 2001 attacks.” (p.5)
Rather than being a parade of such horrors, however, the book becomes an enquiry into how ISIS operates, to whom it appeals, what its aims are and what the appropriate response of the West should be. In their account, the group that eventually became ISIS was founded by Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al Kalaylah, whom they characterise as “a Jordanian thug turned terrorist”. He adopted the name Abu Mursala al Zarqawi. As a Sunni Muslim, he was motivated by the American occupation of Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship had been supported by Iraq’s minority Sunni Muslims. They were the backbone of his Ba’athist Party. Under the US occupation, however, over 100,000 Sunnis were dismissed from their government positions, and Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority waged a campaign against Sunnis. Sunnis were a great recruiting ground for a jihadist movement that opposed both the new Iraqi government and the American occupation. Enter Abu Mursala al Zarqawi to recruit them. He was killed in 2010 and succeeded as the head of the new movement by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi who “began on the path of jihad” during the US-led invasion.
As the authors note, ISIS got another major boost in recruits when it was able to infiltrate and take over groups fighting against Assad’s dictatorship in the ongoing Syrian civil war. One could say that the initial Western delusions about an “Arab spring” finally died in this civil war. Those who oppose dictatorships are not necessarily seeking to replace them with anything resembling democracies. ISIS was also able to access huge funding for propaganda once it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul and looted the wealth of its banks. It is now probably the best-funded terrorist organization in the world.
At first ISIS was affiliated to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, but there were tensions between the two groups. Basically al Qaeda, backed mainly by wealthy Saudi Arabians, was concerned to wage war on foreign infidels. They were happy to have ISIS as their followers but were very concerned that ISIS was as eager to pursue Shi’ite Muslims as infidels. To al Qaeda, ISIS seemed a bit of a rabble and, much as it may surprise non-Muslim Westerners, al Qaeda had qualms about Muslims killing other Muslims, or attempting to impose strict Sharia law too soon on converts to Islam. The authors of ISIS – The State of Terror quote an intercepted caution sent by one al Qaeda cell to another: “AQAP … advised AQIM to refrain from immediately instituting the jihadists’ harsh interpretation of Islamic law. ‘you can’t beat people for drinking alcohol when they don’t even know the basics of how to pray,’ one letter stated.” (pp.114-115)
There were broader issues on which ISIS eventually broke with al Qaeda, refused to see it as its superior, and embarked on its own course.
Al Qaeda saw itself as a “vanguard” group, carrying out acts of terror against the West on the assumption that this would lead to Western retaliation, which in turn would lead to a massive popular Muslim uprising. This was the concept of a “leaderless” Muslim revolution, where al Qaeda was simply lighting the populist spark.
ISIS had, and has, no such strategic approach. Its aim is quite simply the set up a specific territorial area as the base from which a new unified and international caliphate will spread. ISIS has no faith in a spontaneous Muslim popular uprising. Within this new caliphate, the people will be ruled strictly by the caliphate’s hierarchy. The propaganda presented to potential recruits is that the caliphate (proclaimed by ISIS in June 2014) is already here and is building and has a place for all classes of (strictly Sunni Muslim) society. The caliph will, of course, claim headship of the whole Muslim world. To make a crude analogy (mine – not the authors’), al Qaeda is like Trotskyists aiming for permanent international revolution. ISIS is like Stalinists building “socialism in one country”. The authors most concisely identify the difference between al Qaeda and ISIS thus:
“In the end, al Qaeda’s failure was the failure of all vanguard movements – an assumption that the masses, once awakened, will not require close supervision, specific guidance, and a vision that extends beyond fighting. Al Qaeda’s vision is – often explicitly – nihilistic. ISIS, for all its barbarity, is both more pragmatic and more utopian. Hand in hand with its tremendous capacity for destruction, it also seeks to build. Most vanguard extremist movements paradoxically believe that ordinary people are afflicted with deep ignorance, yet such movements also expect that once their eyes have been opened, the masses will instinctively know what to do next. ISIS does not take the masses for granted; its chain of influence extends beyond the elite, beyond its strategists and loyal fighting force, out into the world. Its propaganda is not simply a call to arms, it is also a call for non-combatants, men and women alike, to build a nation-state alongside the warriors with a role for engineers, doctors, filmmakers, sysadmins, and even traffic cops.” (pp.73-74)
Surprisingly, a very large part of this book is not taken up with further analysis of how the ISIS “state” runs, though atrocities, reported by defecting jihadists, are covered. What concerns the authors more is how ISIS is able to recruit, using social media, the Internet and television. Al Qaeda pioneered this, but did not quite get the electronic approach right:
“The terrorist group [al Qaeda] had generally kept up with the technology of the day, but in the realm of social media, it was slightly slower to adopt the latest trends. The centre of gravity for jihadist extremists online had settled onto password-protected message boards, highly structured discussion forums that were carefully moderated by activists who were members of al Qaeda, or very closely aligned with such.” (p.65)
In contrast, ISIS rapidly adopted “a feedback-loop model” for disseminating their propaganda on the ‘net, with as many accounts as possible fully open to comment by anyone who wished to look at them. The result was tens of millions of ISIS-affiliated tweets on Twitter and images shared on Facebook and a huge audience of potential recruits. As Stern and Berger tell it, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter were very slow to close down ISIS-related accounts, and some Western security services advised against closing them down because, they argued, such accounts provided intelligence information and helped our official Watchers to keep track of potential jihadists. To which the authors reply tartly
“… allowing child pornographers to operate on line without impediment would undoubtedly yield tremendous intelligence about child pornographers. Yet no-one ever argues this is a reasonable trade-off.” (p.141)
For Stern and Berger, ISIS’s public executions and dissemination of atrocity images are meant to serve a twofold purpose. The first is to warn what awaits anyone who resists (a bit like the old German military doctrine of Schrecklichkeit). The second is to inure ISIS followers and subjects to the murder, rape and torture they themselves might be required to commit:
“While ISIS may not articulate its reasons in this manner, we believe it is deliberately engaged in a process of blunting empathy, attracting individuals already inclined towards violence, frightening victims into compliance, and projecting this activity out to the wider world. The long-term effects of this calculated brutality are likely to be severe, with higher rates of various forms of PTSD, increased rates of secondary psychopathy, and, sadly, more violence.” (p.218)
What I find deficient in this book is a long term explanation of why jihadists in general (of which ISIS is the latest and, apparently, most virulent example) have come out of longer historical conditions. Yes, there is an account of how ISIS arose in reaction to the US-led war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; but the book scarcely glances at the longer history of Western exploitation of what we call loosely “the Middle East”.
For all that, ISIS – The State of Terror does not function as a drumbeater for Western intervention. By and large, the authors are critical of US foreign policy up to this point; and they speak negatively of earlier interventions, as when they declare:
“Armed with irrational exuberance and a handful of dubious pretexts for war, the United States and its allies invaded Iraq on 20 March 2003. The invasion had been justified by exaggerated claims that Iraq possessed or was close to possessing weapons of mass destruction, and by the false claim that Saddam Hussein was allied with al Qaeda. While Iraq had a long history of sponsoring terrorist groups, al Qaeda was not one of them.” (p.17)
They note the huge wasted effort, and wasted money, spent trying to build up credible post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi armed forces:
“The United States had invested $25 billion in training and equipping the Iraqi army over the course of eight years. That investment evaporated in the blink of an eye as Iraqi soldiers turned tail and fled in the face of ISIS’s assaults on Mosul.” (p.45)
The reasons given for the 2003 invasion are refuted and the results criticised:
“Terror can make us strike back at the wrong enemy, for the wrong reasons, or both (as was the case with the 2003 invasion of Iraq). We want to wage war, not just on terrorism, but also on terror, to banish the feeling of being unjustly attacked or unable to protect the blameless. We want to wage war on evil. Sometimes the effect of our reaction is precisely what we aimed to thwart – more terrorists and more attacks, spread more broadly around the world. While some politicians wanted to see Iraq during the allied invasion as a roach motel, we see it more like a hornets’ nest – with allied bombs and bullets spreading the hornets ever further, throughout the region and beyond.” (pp.199-200)
There are also these chilling, but necessary, words:
“The only thing worse than a brutal dictator is no state at all. The rise of ISIS is, to some extent, the unintended consequence of Western intervention in Iraq. Coalition forces removed a brutal dictator from power, but they also broke the Iraqi state. The West lacked the patience, the will, and the wisdom to build a new, inclusive one. What remained were ruins.” (pp. 237-238)
The authors also quote (on pp. 239-240) the disillusioned words of General Daniel P. Bolger (ret.), a senior commander in Iraq, on how little intervention in Iraq achieved and how foolish intervention was in the first place. I can imagine his words appearing in many an anti-war pamphlet should we once again be asked to furnish boots-on-the-ground in Iraq.
So what, finally, is the authors’ view on how the powerful part of the West should respond to ISIS? They suggests a rigorous surveillance of all social and electronic media, a blocking of all ISIS propaganda in any format, a complete ban on travel to ISIS-controlled areas, prosecution of anyone recruiting jihadists and arrest of suspected recruits before they can leave. They also imply an economic blockade. But they strongly suggest that any armed intervention would simply give credence to the apocalyptic ISIS scenario of a crusade by infidels against their holy state, and would thus serve only to recruit more jihadists to the ISIS cause.
I’m not sure that all will agree with this scenario. But despite both its provisional nature and its defects (including some passages that look like rhetorical “padding”), ISIS – The State of Terror is a very good primer on a major current issue.