History of a Death Cult: Review – ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (2015) by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan

The apparent advent of ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – took many by surprise. When it seized control of Fallujah in January 2014, it was categorised as an Al-Qaeda affiliate – not a separate entity – and while there were suggestions at that time of its ‘soaring capabilities’, very few can have predicted its tremendous rate of expansion, which added Mosul to ISIS’ burgeoning territory in June of that year.

One year on and it seems that the death cult is everywhere. In a calculated bid to increase its profile internationally, ISIS has opened (or co-opted) terror franchises in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria and further afield; atrocities carried out in its name have scarred the streets of Paris, terrorised tourists at the popular Tunisian resort of Sousse and attacked multiple Shia targets within Saudi Arabia.

Understandably this seismic event in international affairs has spawned a rash of books, each of them hoping to explain this terrifying but little understood organisation. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss, represents the exemplum of the genre.

The authors – each of them distinguished foreign policy analysts and writers – draw upon a wealth of source material and interviews to produce a thorough, accessible and ultimately transfixing account of the rise of the Islamic State.

The actions of this self-described state have generated a great deal of comment; much of it has been emotive, driven by either wishful thinking or sheer horror – witness the grisly reportage surrounding its propaganda, for example. Weiss and Hassan, through the use of an impressive number of interviews – with participants, witnesses and experts – succeed in compiling a thoroughly researched narrative which does not for a moment lose sight of the fundamental humanity of those at the centre of events. The human element is in evidence in abundance during many of these interviews, some of which took place with ISIS supporters and even ISIS members. Theirs is a perspective which is often inferred rather than documented; this book serves as a welcome antidote to the great tides of psychobabble offered by other sources.

The story of ISIS begins long before the stunning successes it achieved in 2014, which served to announce its presence to the wider world. The terror state’s ‘founding father’ was Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a particularly violent Islamist who formulated much of ISIS’ current modus operandi. Zarqawi met his end in an American drone strike in 2006, but the ideas of which he was a proponent, and the fury which drove their formation, continue to influence the day-to-day running of the Islamic State.

One of the most interesting of these is the institution of sectarian warfare as a matter of policy. ISIS and its ideological allies specifically target the Shia and other groups – such as the minority Yazidis, who face genocide and have fallen victim to the appalling practice of mass sexual slavery – in order to stir up sectarian conflict and to secure Sunni support in the face of retaliation.

It appears to be working; Iran – seen by many Shia as their defender against Sunni aggression – has extended its regional hegemony over the Assad regime in Syria and much of Iraq in recent years – as well as sponsoring the Shia militias which commit war crimes of their own in the fight against ISIS and have launched a corresponding jihad. (The name of Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, appears in the book a considerable number of times; it is he who assisted insurgents during the American invasion and occupation of Iraq – aiding and abetting the killing of a great number of US troops in the process – and he who has masterminded the Iranian-led campaign against ISIS.)

One positive aspect which arises from this narrative is the story of how Sunni tribesmen were convinced – through a combination of political pragmatism and American assistance – to unite against ISIS’ predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. This Sahwa, or Sunni Awakening, was able to force AQI out of some of its supposed heartlands in combination with the US Surge of the same period. The record of this successful action could provide an effective template for how effectively to combat ISIS in the same territory. But the opportunity for this kind of action is fading; unlike its predecessors, ISIS is increasingly adept at playing tribal fault-lines in order to guarantee local support. Part nation-state and part mafia crime syndicate, ISIS now appears increasingly entrenched. It has received some startling semi-official assistance in getting this far.

Weiss and Hassan dedicate a great deal of the book to a description of the Assad regime and the ways it has either assisted ISIS directly or created the conditions in which it can extend its terrible dominion. The regime and ISIS do not fight each other if they can help it, it seems; and both ISIS and the regime are willing to work in tandem when attacking moderate, secular rebel groups. And there is much evidence to suggest that Assad has deliberately bolstered the most brutal Islamist elements of those who operate within Syria – through the sponsoring of a sectarian war of his own, for example, and the deliberate release of many violent Islamist prisoners from Sednaya prison – in order to reduce the chance of his being overthrown by the West.

Hassan and Weiss also make the startling observation that much of the groundwork for the later Islamic State appears to have been laid inside US prisons. In fact, such was the desire of some to attend what have been christened ‘jihadi universities’ that many Islamists seemingly broke into prison in order to attend; a particularly pertinent example is Camp Bucca, an American-run detention facility in Iraq where one of the most well-connected inmates was the future ‘Caliph’ himself: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

Such astounding revelations, all of them backed up with copious evidence and rendered in the most accessible and illuminating prose, are legion. This book is a truly great achievement; it is simply full of intelligent insight into one of the most vital and complex issues of our time. It is to the immense credit of Hassan and Weiss that they have managed to produce so definitive a history of the army of terror in such a short time. And the existence of this addition to the historical record is – sadly – for the best, as it appears that ISIS, as the authors identify, will be with us for a very long time to come.

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