ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror
Reviewed by Steven Negus.
A masked militant with a drawn knife, preparing to slaughter a helpless captive: This is how the group that was to become the Islamic State, more commonly known as ISIS, grabbed the world’s attention in 2004. The Islamic State has renamed and reinvented itself many times since then, but it still makes such scenes a staple of its propaganda.
“One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, deterrence and massacring,” Abu Bakr Naji wrote in “The Management of Savagery,” the group’s key theoretical work. Other forces in the Middle East, like Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, can be just as brutal. But they try to conceal their brutality, while the Islamic State revels in its. Just as unusually, the Islamic State and its predecessors always seem to be seeking out new enemies. It bombed Iraq’s Shia majority while fighting an American occupation in 2004, and it killed Americans in 2014 to draw the United States into a war the Islamic State was already waging on many fronts: against the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, and other Sunni rebels.
Making so many enemies, and giving them so much motivation to fight, might seem self-defeating. Even Al Qaeda, the Islamic State’s patron-turned-rival, balks at its blood lust. But depressingly, its extremism appears to work: The Islamic State has eclipsed dozens of rival insurgent groups that at first glance look to be more deeply rooted in their societies; routed armies many times its size; and taken on every power in the region, from the United States to Iran to Al Qaeda, holding its own against all of them. Of these three new books on the Islamic State, only one quotes Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” but the others must have been tempted. Why must the “worst” — the most wantonly cruel — elicit the most passionate intensity?
These books each highlight different aspects of the group’s success. “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, the most comprehensive of the three, traces the group’s evolution and sheds particular light on how it both cows and co-opts the populations in the areas it controls. “ISIS: The State of Terror,” by Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger, is heavily focused on its online presence. Patrick Cockburn’s “The Rise of Islamic State” is a more argumentative work, centered on how errors made by ISIS’ foes paved its way.
Taken together, the books show that the Islamic State’s strategy can be remarkably sophisticated. It portrays itself as eager to rush in at the slightest sign of unbelief in order to cut throats, but in fact it has a more subtle and long-term design. The phrase “management of savagery,” which could be read as how to exploit terror, actually refers to something else: how to break down “apostate” regimes so that Muslim regions fall into a state of “savagery,” and then build a new order on top. The cruelty and the willingness to make enemies are necessary elements in both the breaking down and the building up, but they are only part of the equation.
Stern, a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard, and Berger, a nonresident fellow with the Brookings Institution, dissect the Islamic State’s messaging in some detail, showing how the cruelty is aimed at recruiting a very specific demographic, “angry, maladjusted young men” attracted to a total war against unbelief. The Islamic State also chooses its foes and battles so that it appears to be fulfilling Islamic End Times prophecies. Only a tiny percentage of the world’s Muslims may be receptive to such a message, but the Islamic State’s social media tactics reach so large an audience that the payoff is huge: Nearly 20,000 foreign volunteers have come to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, according to one study cited by Stern and Berger.
The authors contrast the Islamic State’s messaging with Al Qaeda’s, and show why ISIS has ultimately been more successful. Al Qaeda may look down on its rival’s crudity, but ultimately, Stern and Berger argue, its worldview is more naïve and “nihilistic.” They locate Al Qaeda in the (mostly leftist) tradition of vanguard revolutionary movements that hope to awaken the masses via dramatic acts, but then take for granted that the masses will instinctively know what to do next. The Islamic State, rather than expecting radicalized Muslims to engage in spontaneous acts of resistance throughout the world, wants them where it can guide them closely: in its newly proclaimed caliphate. It intersperses beheading footage with images of pothole repair, clinics and apparently grateful civilians. Al Qaeda offers its followers martyrdom. Its caliphate won’t come into existence for generations. ISIS offers them a place in its nascent utopia today.
Weiss, a columnist for Foreign Policy, and Hassan, an analyst at the Delma Institute, a research center in Abu Dhabi, provide a detailed explanation of how the Islamic State “manages savagery” on the ground. They trace the group’s full history — how the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi made his way, from Afghanistan and Iran, to Iraq; how his “Monotheism and Holy War” movement exploited the security vacuum created by the American invasion to build his organization; how it established its mystique by plunging into key battles and federating with Al Qaeda; how it sparked a sectarian war with the Shia; how it antagonized powerful Sunni tribes and was brought to near extinction by the American-backed Sahwa (“Awakening”) movement; how it surged forward as Iran-backed Shia leaders who considered the Sahwa a threat persecuted Sunnis until they rebelled.
This account of the Islamic State in Iraq is a valuable summation, but it really shines when it reaches the group’s entry into Syria starting in 2011. Weiss and Hassan use their own interviews with members to draw out the range of motivations for why Syrians join such an extreme organization. Scholars may scoff at the group’s interpretation of Islam, but some Syrians appear to have been genuinely persuaded by the Islamic State’s theological arguments. Others have been disenchanted with less disciplined rebel movements, or decided that only ISIS could protect Syrian Sunnis from Shia or Kurdish aggression.
“ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” shows how the Islamic State, despite its “barbarians at the gate” self-image, is quite capable of picking its battles. Weiss and Hassan argue that tacit understandings with the Assad regime in particular helped the group expand. During the American occupation of Iraq, Damascus let militants transit through its territory to join the battle, which both kept the jihadists busy and dampened American enthusiasm for regional regime change. After the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Weiss and Hassan argue, Assad — who claimed from the beginning that the rebels were predominantly extremists — rallied non-Sunnis to his regime and reduced Western enthusiasm for his overthrow. Weiss and Hassan are not the first to make this observation, but they effectively lay out the evidence, including a mass amnesty for imprisoned militants and the Assad air force’s reluctance to hit ISIS targets.
Weiss and Hassan also show that the Islamic State learned from the backlash against it by tribes in Iraq. The group’s hostility to an economy based on patronage brought it into conflict with those tribes, so the Syrian branch now allows tribes to keep concessions in smuggling and other economic activity. But today’s Islamic State is just as heavy-handed as its earlier incarnation in its rigid enforcement of Shariah law, and its insistence on being the sole arbiter of disputes between tribes. This strategy might have led to resentment, but as things turned out, tribes valued its ability to keep order and curb banditry. Here, the Islamic State’s bloodthirstiness has proved an asset: The group’s enthusiasm for capital punishment extends to its own members if they are accused of corruption, allowing it to impose more discipline on its members than on less radical rebels. Its huge foreign contingent is also valuable, since those individuals can serve as impartial moderators and, if needed, be quickly deployed for shows of force.
Weiss and Hassan expect readers to know the general outline of the events they cover. Their book jumps from point to point and sometimes hangs sweeping assessments on a single analyst; it could use a lot more footnotes for its debatable assertions. But as the most serious book-length study of the Islamic State to be published so far, it may serve as the basis for a more definitive account of the group in the future.
Patrick Cockburn’s work is the most accessible but least detailed of the three. His account focuses on the miscalculations of the Islamic State’s foes. The United States is blamed not only for its original sin of having invaded Iraq but also for mishandling the Syria war. Washington assumed that Assad would go down to defeat and had no Plan B when he did not, nor did it grasp that a war in Syria would in time destabilize Iraq. Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, simultaneously backed the Sunnis into a corner while feeding a culture of corruption that left his military unable to handle the ensuing rebellion. Saudi Arabia funneled money to Syrian jihadis at the same time that its preachers railed against the Shia, ensuring a sectarian nightmare. Assad, for his part, overlooked the seeds of Syria’s uprising, then overestimated his security forces’ ability to keep it in check through brute coercion.
Cockburn, an experienced Mideast journalist, relies heavily on his own reporting. He offers revealing anecdotes on the decrepit state of the Iraqi Army, which collapsed before the Islamic State’s Mosul offensive, and some glimpses of the sluggish and brutal military stalemate in Syria. But his book does little to explain why the Islamic State, rather than its Sunni rivals, managed to seize the opportunities offered by its foes. Cockburn describes a continuing tragedy in which hubris and optimism destroyed a seemingly promising revolution, but few insights into the inner workings of the extremists who came out on top.
Were post-hussein Iraq and Assad’s Syria doomed to sink into the “savagery” that the Islamic State was poised to exploit? And is there any way out? Cockburn is unremittingly pessimistic, suggesting that the two countries may be finished as unified states. Weiss and Hassan, by stressing the role played by the Assad regime in the Islamic State’s rise, seem anxious to absolve Syria’s revolution of having led inexorably to extremism. But they are gloomy about the future: They do not see American bombing as having seriously shaken ISIS’ hold. Meanwhile, the group has taken steps to forestall a new Sahwa. Stern and Berger, with their emphasis on information technology, imply that the Islamic State is as much a consequence of its time as of its place: It cornered a niche market with a message of ultraviolence. But the authors hold out the hope that if the Islamic State is contained, it may rot under the burden of its inflated expectations.
The Islamic State’s defeat by Kurdish fighters and American air power at Kobane, and Baghdad’s assault on Tikrit, suggest that its days of easy victories may be coming to an end. If it is deprived of those, its mystique and ability to attract foreign recruits may wane. But at the same time, the group is metastasizing, with local groups in Egypt, Libya and most recently Nigeria pledging allegiance. Insofar as it can find new savagery to manage, the Islamic State may be with us for a long time.