Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. New York, NY: Regan Arts, February 17th, 2015. 270 pp.
5 out of 5
This is the second book I have read on ISIS/Islamic State. I have previously read Black Flag. I appreciated this present work that details to the readers further insight into the Islamic State. The two authors definitely has done their research and while the future will no doubt have more scholarly books analyzing ISIS with more information this book is quite helpful at the moment given how little book length treatment currently exists on ISIS. I think this work would still be important even in the future among the collection of works that paved the way in terms of analyzing ISIS. Both authors are journalists who among other things contribute to the periodical Foreign Policy. Their background no doubt is helpful. The book essentially traces the history of how Al Qaeda in Iraq evolved into the Islamic state. The main question that the book focuses on is how is an insurgency group that at one time was as a “junior varsity” among terrorist’s organization eventually became its own self-proclaimed state.
The book starts off with the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and how he founded the group. It is intriguing to see the apocalyptic mindset of al-Zarqawi being described in which he seems to be much more evil than Bin Laden at the height of his terrorist career. The author pointed out that Bin Laden was largely silent about the question of the status of the Shiites orthodoxy whereas al-Zarqawi was adamant in his view that Shiites were the enemies that needed to the targets of suicide bombers. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi even managed to have his own father in law commit himself as a suicide bomber in 2003. I had to google that to see if there were other sources that mentioned that and not just something the book mentioned. Of course with al-Zarqawi’s hardline position against the Shiites and eventually other Sunnis this received the ironic backlash of Al Qaeda’s leadership condemning al-Zarqawi and calling him to practice restraint. It is also interesting to read in this book how al-Zarqawi was at one dismissed by Bin Laden but later with al-Zarqawi’s success in Iraq would later be spoken highly and praised by Bin Laden. Often those in the West think of all members of Al Qaeda as blindly following Bin Laden but here we see that al-Zarqawi was very capable of being his own man and courted the franchise of “Al Qaeda” in order to attract attention of potential recruits, funds and other support. Unlike Bin Laden, al-Zarqawi was also different than the other terrorist celebrity in an important regard: al-Zarqawi believes that he is destined to re-establish the Caliphate which means bringing about an Islamic empire again. This was the genesis of the “Caliphate” ideology that would become a part of the “DNA” of his followers long after al-Zarqawi’s death by the Americans going after him.
I also appreciated how the authors were able to get a wide array of sources for this book ranging from those who fought in insurgency in Syria against ISIS (and of course the Syrian regime) to those whom ISIS have oppressed and even former ISIS members who defected. One thing readers will find in this book that one probably won’t find discussed elsewhere is the different kinds of fighters that make up the rank and files of ISIS fighters. Some are die hard radical Islamists but the book pointed out there’s also degrees of radicalization and also those who have different motivation for fighting. On the one hand you have those who were a part of ISIS merely because of their identity with being Sunni in which the conflict in Iraq has pitted Shiites against Sunni while on the other hand you have those who were former Baathists of the previous regime of Saddam Hussein. I thought the book presents the argument rather persuasively that ISIS is not monolithic and at times bear signature of a coalition of disenfranchised Iraqi Sunni tribesmen, hard core Wahhabis, Sunni opportunists and former Baathists.
Another aspect of the book that I like is the authors exploration of the problem of the Islamic State beyond seeing this as merely as an Iraqi problem and conflict. Readers must not forget that the Islamic State presently occupy Syria as well and wishes to expand elsewhere. The book is wonderful in that explores the Syrian Civil War and how that contributed to the rise of ISIS. The authors argue that Assad’s Syrian regime have actually helped fuel and even created the problem it has today with ISIS: at first the protests and civil war against Assad by the rebels were largely a broad coalition of Syrians of various background despite religious and ethnic background but that changed with deliberate policies by the Assad regime. They intentionally released a lot of Sunni radicals from their prisons in order for them to fight against Assad and therefore in both the home front and the court of public opinion it would look like Assad was fighting a “war on terror.” At the same time according to the authors Assad regime also sent out killing squads from Alawites descent in order to divide the people on religious lines and therefore the minorities can be exploited to side with Assad against the Sunnis since the conflict is now crafted as a way for the survival of these minorities. Simply evil. It is easy to be conspiratorial when it comes to current events about the Middle East but the authors buttressed their views with further evidences such as the fact that the Syrian armed forces focused more resources and energy in attacking non-ISIS insurgents rather than attacking ISIS itself. Classic divide-and-conquer tactic.
There’s so much more in the book than this review can go over. I highly recommend this work if you want to be informed and understand the Islamic State.