Fear and fundamentalism: inside the terror group ISIL
The shock of the terrorist group ISIL’s rise is that it was a shock at all. Politicians in the United States considered Al Qaeda in Iraq to be defeated by 2010: another mission accomplished. In the years since there’s been a dismaying lack of analysis to counter this misleading narrative.
In ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan tackle this by detailing the rise of ISIL from its roots in Al Qaeda in Iraq and the inner workings of the group today. The authors reveal new depths to the Bush Administration’s lack of foresight in planning its 2003 invasion of Iraq, how the long-standing partnership between Baathists and extremists brought the terror group into dominance in parts of Iraq and Syria, and the Assad regime’s de facto reliance on the group to protect itself.
In digestible prose, the authors also know how to make a point, with punchy sentences such as: “The ISIS emir was calling his boss a has-been and a sell-out.”
The rebellion by a younger generation of extremists against an older one is at the heart of the book. The battle over ideology and how to employ terror remains a key argument between ISIL and Al Qaeda today.
The unblinking ease with which the authors describe the horrific reality of this debate reflects the degree to which violence has become normalised in the age of ISIL. The authors’ use of the term “head-loppers” to describe men who have beheaded hundreds of Iraqis and Syrians, along with several Europeans, and US and Japanese citizens, is a rather graphic shorthand and one that’s indicative of how casual the daily horrors have become, at least at a distance.
And ominously, the conflicts are likely to get worse, the authors suggest. There are few options other than to fight ISIL, but a series of well-researched examples show how deeply the group has embedded itself within the largely conservative and previously disenfranchised communities they now rule. Mapping out how ISIL learnt to divide and conquer tribes in Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq and Syria, Hassan and Weiss show it to be an organisation that cleverly markets itself as both a defender against Iran and a mediator in tribal disputes. It allows local rule in many areas it conquers, but makes clear that an attack on any of its supporters will result in annihilation. This mixture of local empowerment and fear is key to its success, according to the authors.
“It has followed a divide-and-rule policy to ensure that social and tribal rivalry and hostility are more pronounced than any unified enmity to ISIS. That will undoubtedly complicate the issue of working with tribes to defeat ISIS, because even if some members of one tribe decide to [rise up], chances are they’ll be fighting their own kinsmen.”
A columnist for The National and researcher for a think tank based in Abu Dhabi, Hassan is originally from Syria’s tribal areas along the country’s border with Iraq and proves himself capable of distilling interviews with extremists, revolutionaries and ordinary people living in conflict zones into meaningful analysis. Michael Weiss, a New York-based journalist, has argued that the US must shift policy and increase aid to Syrian rebel groups to force Bashar Al Assad from power.
Even as ISIS explains the allure of the group through in-depth interviews with individuals that joined it, the book’s most fascinating sections pull together under-examined history. For instance, ISIS offers families of US soldiers killed and wounded in Iraq a deeper understanding of what went wrong; why the troops faced an insurgency when they toppled Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator, in the name of offering Iraqis freedom.
It describes how, after the first Gulf War, Saddam constructed “an entire underground apparatus for counter-revolution and took precautions to strengthen his conventional military deterrents”. Secret networks of safe houses and arms caches, along with militias, were created by men such as Saddam’s vice-president Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri to crush internal rebellion, but were deployed against US troops. Al Douri, the highest-ranking Baathist official to evade capture, is believed to have taken refuge in Syria, only re-emerging in news reports when ISIL took Mosul last June.
Yet, as Hassan and Weiss write, collaboration between extremists and former Baathists began years before the takeover of Mosul. Unable to work in the public sector in post-Saddam Iraq because of US-imposed “de-Baathification” policies, many former members of the party instead joined the insurgency. In its final years, when Saddam had tried to give his regime more of a religious tinge, men like Al Douri, part of a Sufi order, held great sway. It was Saddam that prepared Iraq for the joining of Baathism and radical Islam.
“We tend to remember his regime as ‘secular’, which it was up to a point. But after the First Gulf War, he sought to fortify his regime against foreign fundamentalist opponents, such as Iran’s mullahs. Thus he Islamised his regime, adding the phrase Allahu Akbar to the Iraqi flag and introducing a host of draconian punishments, most of which were based on Sharia law: thieves would have their hands amputated, while draft dodgers and deserters from the military would lose their ears.”
The decade-long marriage of extremists and former Baathists, with their military skills and intimate knowledge of Iraq and Syria’s tribal landscape, goes a long way in explaining the success and sustainability of ISIL. “In a sense, then, ‘secular’ Baathism has returned to Iraq under the guise of Islamic fundamentalism – less a contradiction than it may appear,” the authors write.
The extremist group was quick to see potential in the Sunni-dominated uprising against Bashar Al Assad in Syria. The regime was also desperate to portray the uprising against it as run by extremists, and the authors describe how Assad’s intelligence agencies facilitated the extremists’ rise.
The detailing of these relationships between extremists and Assad is one of the strongest sections in the book. In showing how Assad and Saddam were able to manipulate the West, ISIS paints a picture of a wealthy movement that is around to stay, fostered by inaction, the allure of militancy and regimes willing to tolerate it exactly because it is such a chilling threat.
By detailing the history and inner workings of the world’s most-feared terror group, Hassan and Weiss lay out the wide ranging and complex nature of the challenges the Middle East faces in the coming years.
The book is available on Amazon.
Justin Vela is the Gulf correspondent for The National.
Updated: February 5, 2015 04:00 AM