Whilst the conflict in Syria enters its fifth year, the crimes of the Assad regime have been obscured by the enigmatic rise of ISIS. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan's latest book, ISIS, Inside the Army of Terror, is a gripping account of the organisation's rise and its inner workings. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan are seasoned journalists based in the Middle East. They are not arm chair analysts monitoring ISIS on social media and have been inside the country during the conflict. The book incorporates a lot of Arab source material making the book incredibly rich and valuable for the specialist and non-specialist alike.
In the early chapters of the book the authors chart how ISIS started with its founder Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. The Jordanian Jihadist, having missed the Afghan Jihad, moved his operations to Iraq following the US invasion in 2003. More importantly, they illustrate how the complex relationship between the Zarqawists, Iranians and former Baathists work. The fact that ISIS could ally itself with a former Baathist such as al-Douri, the founder of the Army of the men of the Naqshbandi order is evidence of the organisations pragmatism. Especially as the latter would be considered heretical by ISIS; they are Sufis, adherents to a mystical tradition within Islam. In later chapters, the extent and limits of its political relationships are further explored in the Syrian context. Whilst the authors reject the charge that ISIS is some sort of Zionist concoction or a GIA-esque creation of the Assad regime, they do demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between Assad and ISIS.
In particular, there is a key point in chapter three, made by Derek Harvey, on the Iraqi political milieu that is very perceptive and often ignored. Harvey says:
"There were a lot of regime organisations that we didn't figure out very well. The key person might not have been the head guy, but the second or third guy- and this rule of not knowing exactly who's running the show applied to the Saddamists as much as it applies to ISIS today"
Harvey's point suggests that we shouldn't assume that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is necessarily in charge of ISIS. He has after all only appeared in public once and his speeches are inspirational in nature. Abu Ismail, a Syrian who was involved in trying to negotiate Alan Henning's release, told me that a letter sent for the British hostage's release to al-Baghdadi had been intercepted by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani's men. Abu Ismail implied that it was Adnani who was really in charge of ISIS. This proposition is not wholly implausible, considering that Adnani is indeed Harvey's "second or third guy" and his speeches seem to be making all the orders and commands to ISIS followers.
The latter chapters are insightful on account of the original field research with former ISIS members and sheds much needed light on how the organisation operates. Particularly interesting is the way ISIS takes over opposition towns like al-Bab near Aleppo, and how it manages the tribal dynamics of Syria and Iraq. Having visited ISIS territory, I found many of the aspects described in the book to be true. In one of my visits in 2013 to ISIS controlled Najiyeh, a sort of Mos Eisley for Jihadists, I witnessed how organised the town was in comparison to my previous visit six months earlier when it had been under FSA control. And yet, the day we left for Turkey was the day the rebels expelled ISIS. That day an ISIS suicide bomber allegedly killed seventy people in Darkoush and the lifeless tortured body of Dr. Abu Rayyan (mentioned in the book) was released by the group. It threw me off balance, one moment I had been wandering round a well administered town in complete safety, the next moment the very same organisation had shown a terrible disregard for human life. It is surreal to find cigarette vendors lamenting the loss of ISIS, or watching people rush to watch the latest ISIS release, as if it was a Hollywood premiere. The organisation possesses an aura that fascinates those who come in contact with it. To access ISIS' inner sanctum is near enough impossible. ISIS after all has its own media wing. But the fact that Weiss and Hassan have given such a detailed insight into the organisation is in itself an achievement.
However, the conclusion that ISIS will be with us 'indefinitely' is unconvincing. Patrick Cockburn's observation in The Rise of The Islamic State that ISIS are the children of war is pertinent. ISIS clearly thrives on war. In many ways, ISIS is similar to Almoravid and Almohad movements in the eleventh and twelfth century North Africa. The founder of the Almoravids, Ibn Yasin, like ISIS believed that anything outside of Islamic law was tantamount to rebellion and had to be quelled. Ideas that contradicted them were destroyed, and there were public book burnings of al-Ghazzali, the leading thinker in the Middle Ages. These veiled Berber tribesman mobilised and expanded all the way to Andalusia and were crucial in stopping the Christian Reconquista. The Almohads that followed them under Ibn Tumart, were more messianic. Ibn Tumart proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi, a saviour figure in Islamic apocalyptic literature and took over from the now decadent Almoravid dynasty. Like ISIS in the initial phases, both movements thrived on war. The fourteenth century author of the Promologena, Ibn Khaldun, notes that once these militant movements became sedentary, they lost their militancy, but their contribution to Islamic and North African culture has lasted to this day. Whether ISIS can achieve the same remains to be seen and one should be careful in drawing too strong parallels with medieval dynasties. But there are modern groups that are similar to ISIS, Khmer Rouge is one such example. ISIS, in this regard, is not unique and dealing with them does not need extraordinary measures just very good politics.
However unpopular it may sound, the solution to dealing with them is not to fight them. When the rebels tried to expel ISIS by force in January 2013, the latter's support grew and the organisation benefited from mass defections. Whilst coalition bombing has prevented the group's expansion, its support has not dampened. Containment, then, appears to be the solution. The success of Turkish hostage negotiations suggests that ISIS is not wholly unreasonable; not only did they retrieve their citizens but they have also managed to avert ISIS attacks on Turkish soil even though the coalition has used their bases to attack ISIS. The authors, too, have demonstrated that ISIS can maintain trade agreements with the Assad regime and act, if you will, like a 'state'. Whether treating ISIS like a 'state' is palatable for policy makers is, of course, a different matter.
But this criticism should not overshadow the detail and ideas of this book. It is a rich and nuanced piece touching on all the points that the arrival of ISIS has raised in Syria and Iraq. Typos aside, this is an important contribution to the emerging literature on ISIS and will surely be on any academic reading list for years to come.