ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan
As you can guess this is another nonfiction book about the middle east. If all you were doing was going off this blog I suppose you could be excused for thinking I was very focused on it. In a way I guess I kinda am. I served in the Marines (I think that's been mentioned a lot here) and the climax of that service was the Iraq invasion of 2003. I wasn't in Iraq very long. So you would think that would be a very minor part of my life. It is and remains a pivotal moment in my life. Much of who am I and what I've become is because of Iraq and because that I think my gaze in one way or another may always be drawn back to the middle east. Metaphorically speaking. That's all I really want to say on that front.
Written by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, both these men are very experienced journalists and writers who have appeared in Foreign Policy, the Guardian, the New York Times and other papers. Now one might wonder if it might be to soon to analysis ISIS. I can understand that view but here's my stance. While it may be to soon to analysis the effects of ISIS or to write even the middle chapter of it's existence. It is no where close to soon to start analyzing it's history and it's structure. That's how we learn about them and to quote Sun Tzu here, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” In Iraq we did not know our enemy and look what happened. It's time to start addressing that flaw.
Either way Weiss and Hassan have convinced me in this book that to soon or not, they are capable of doing the job. To get the information for this book they used the connections and skills built up from years of covering the middle east to interview members of the Syrian and Iraqi Government, ISIS members both those who left and those still in the organization, various middle eastern analysis, US military offices and people who live in the areas in question. Additionally they sourced a vast number of articles and other written sources to put together this book. Each of these sources are listed in the notes pages (divided by chapter quoted in as well) which are over 20 pages. This is the first time I've mentioned this but I just found that fairly impressive. Especially since a good number of the other ISIS books I found were political screeds that could be summed up in the words “Thanks Obama,” you may in fact be able to hear me roll my eyes at that but this review isn't about American politics.
Side Note: I prefer to use the Arabic name for the organization of Daesh (which in Arabic also has implications of thuggishness and brutality making it a perfect fit) but the book uses ISIS, so I will in this review to prevent confusion.
The book covers the origins of ISIS and it's “founding fathers,” many of whom were members of Al Qeada or the Saddam government. It traces the ideological underpinnings of the movement (in this it goes all the way back to Abdullah Azzam a mentor of Osama Bin Laden who published works arguing Muslims must expel all occupying armies in Islamic lands), it's embracing of Takfirism (a Takfiri being a Muslim who accuses other Muslims of apostasy basically) and it's evolution away from the doctrine set down by Osama Bin Laden. In face it may shock you to learn that Osama was a moderate Jihadists. In this book you'll meet the guys who thought he didn't go far enough. This book also details the shady deals that ISIS has cut with the remains of the Saddam government. Mostly the men who put in charge of the gray and official black markets (seriously how do you have a government sanctioned black market? What is this shit?). Many of these men started out secular but found religion in the 1990s. ISIS encourages that to whole new levels. This is one of the more interesting parts of the book (although if you're like me you'll have to write down the names to keep them straight) that reaches back decades upon decades ago to trace out the inter-linkage between Al Qeada, ISIS and the Baathist of Iraq. A lot of it is economic and I'll get to that later.
This book also discusses the history of ISIS, it starts as a part of Al Qeada in Iraq, it survives the Awaking in Sunni Iraq by going underground and waiting and is protected and fed by the Assad regime in Syria looking to use it as a boogeyman. A very dark moment in this book was when I learned that the US prisons in Iraq were considered wonderful recruiting grounds and educational organizations by the various Jihadists. I delivered men to those prisons and I find even more reasons to feel grief about it now. Not that the prisons of Assad were any better. Many of ISIS's best troops and low level leaders were recruited in either prison system and neither side was very capable in even slowing this process. Going through this part really made me want a drink. There also a discussion on the tribal system, Arabic tribes remain major players in that part of the world and a government must either work with that fact or face trouble for the rest of it's days. The Awakening was the US working with that fact, deciding to stop pretending the tribes didn't matter and enlisting them whole sale. We basically did this by offering them positions within the government and paid jobs. Many young men from the tribes were hired to be the local security, which they were doing anyways, hiring them just meant that they would now side with us instead of Al Qeada. This happened right when the forefathers of ISIS got to big for their britches and decided they could run roughshod over the various tribes and treat them as conquered vassals. That didn't work out to well for them and they found themselves rebuilding in Syria, where Assad thought he could use them as a threat to force the US to talk to him.
Speaking of Assad, the book gives a real in depth at everything Assad has done to nurture and strengthen ISIS. No, I didn't mistype this. ISIS when the Syrian civil war started was the ragged remains of a Al Qeada organization that only survived because Assad wasn't gonna arrest all of them without at least some kind of a bribe from Washington. When the revolution turned violent, mainly because people who go to funerals and get machined gun tend to have dark violent thoughts, Assad did everything he could to make sure that the rebellion would have a Islamist, Sunni character. Including releasing every Islamist Jihad fighter and preacher he ever arrested and making sure they could get guns. I had to reread this chapter because the first time I literally could not follow the logic of what even now seems a move of pure insanity.
In the end, I think it springs from Assad's overconfidence. Which has marred his stragerty repeatedly during the war. Assad believed that the biggest threats to his rule were a Libyan style western invention (which I think was unlikely even then) and/or the various minority groups deciding to jump ship and ally with the Sunni. The second one I kinda get because the majority of the Sunni had already decided to wreck his shit if they got a shot. So if the Christians, Kurds and other minorities decided fuck it... Well he would be up shit creek. Assad figured the best way to do that would be to ensure that the rebellion was full of religious lunatics (I say as a practicing religious man myself) who were burning for the chance to kill them all. His sells pitch to the minorities and to the West being “Look it's either me, or a bunch of howling savages bent on genocide and slavery, who do you want?” These days I'm wondering if maybe his plan might have gone a bit to well. That said, it has had some success. The west has refused to this date to support fully any rebel faction (although money and weapons do get sent out from time to time) and while the Kurds have gone their own way, the Christians and other Muslim sects are hanging pretty close to Assad, you know to keep from being hung. Hell for that matter on Space battles and other forums, I've seen plenty of reasonable people argue that Assad is the best person to support. Personally I think we've supported to many mass murdering torturing rapists as it is, so we should let the Russians and the Iranians spend money and lives to keep his ass on the throne if they want to. To be honest my ideal solution to this whole mess would be to tie Assad's and Al Baghdadi's left hands together, throw them in a room with a single knife, lock the door and never open it again. But that wouldn't do anything expect make me and a lot of other people feel better I think.
But wait! That's not all, also covered is a brief civil war within a civil war when the other major factions in the rebellion (including Al Nursa of all people, I mean God Help Us all, we're cheering on Al Nursa, that's how fucked up this is!) decided they had had enough of ISIS (who they accused of not doing a lot of fighting against Assad, but very happy to steal turf from other rebels). This fight took place last year in 2014. The FSA, Al Nursa and a lot of other factions all got together and attacked ISIS. ISIS started having to pull back but was winning a lot of the fights. That's when Assad jumped in and attacked everyone who wasn't ISIS... Given the recent actions by ISIS to overrun a number of important military bases... If I was a Syrian Army General, I would be very unhappy with my boss. To be fair, I think of to many people who should be happy with Assad. He has basically hand raised a monster and unleashed it on the people on Syria, to either scourge them for wanting to be free or to force them into needing his protection. I really can't over state my contempt for these kind of tactics. Before you say they worked, I'll remind you the war isn't over yet and it's been going worse and worse for Assad.
The book also takes a look at the economics of ISIS and how they govern their territory. They raise money by a combination of charging for services and instituting strict price controls to prevent gouging or profiteering. They also seize the assets of anyone who is convicted in their religious courts. All those folks who have been beheaded or fled? ISIS has helped itself to their stuff (and in some cases their family members). ISIS also uses a number of black market connections inherited from Saddam officers who joined up back when the US first invaded. They of course ruthlessly murder all their competitors when they get a chance, but that shouldn't surprise anyone. An interesting thing to note it that ISIS also makes cash by selling artifacts and antiques mainly smuggling them into Turkey for sell to private collectors. Finding out this has put their rampant destruction of archaeological sites into a new context for me and a less flattering one. See by destroying these sites, they're driving up the price of the artifacts they sell. Don't get me wrong there's certainly a manic zeal for destroying all traces of non Islamic life and a rampant disregard for their fellow man (what can you expect from a band of slavers anyways?) but there's also some underhand calculation going on here. Of course the main source of revenue is... Oil they sell to Assad...
Reading this book has led me to question if Assad understands which side ISIS is on?
We also get a peek into how ISIS governs and expands. ISIS gains popularity in areas by moving in slowly first getting rid of bandits and abusive individuals (many FSA units had turned to theft and ISIS clamped on that). As they slowly become the strongest force in the region they add more and more Islamic rules until the people there realize they're living in a theocracy run by armed lunatics. ISIS is also willing to embrace the tribal system, making allies within tribes by giving them positions and putting armed men at their command with the provision that they keep order and follow ISIS' rules. There has been scattered resistance to their rule within these territories but for the most part, ISIS's willingness to resort to swift, savage force has cowed most people. ISIS also maintains a strong PR machine aimed both at it's captive population and at possible recruits outside their borders. They even adopted a motto... Don't Hear About Us, Hear From Us.
ISIS Inside the Army of Terror gets an A. Clearly deeply researched and drawing from 1st, 2nd and even 3rd hand sources to create a picture of what ISIS is, where it came from and what it wants.