Whether the so called Islamic State will be an important part of history books in the future, nobody can actually tell. Nevertheless, the rapid and apparently sudden rise of the extremist group led by the self-anointed caliph Abubakr al-Baghdadi has pushed many researchers and journalists all around the world to focus on this bloody and dreadful armed group.
No less than five books on the subject appeared in less than six months: Patrick Cockburn’s, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s, Jessica Stern and JM Berger’s, Abdel Bari Atwan’s and Jean-Pierre Filiu’s contributions were all released between February and July. In these conditions, pretending that one can add new information or insights about one of the most inscrutable realities in present-time Middle East sounds quite unrealistic. But, probably, this is not what Andrew Hosken aims to do in his latest book, which is also dealing with the subject. If compared to the already mentioned work of Weiss and Hassan (by far the most well-documented piece of research on what used to be known as ISIS), in fact, Empire of fear. Inside the Islamic state, seems to be less detailed but also more readable for the average public.
All can be said about the experienced BBC 4 radio corresponded (he covered, among others, the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks in the Usa and the 7 July 2005 London bombings) except that he lacks clarity, even when he has to deal with events dating back to more than 15 years ago, which most non-experts probably do not remember at all. However, names such as Moqtada al-Sadr, Paul Bremer and, most importantly, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are essential to understand the Rise of what would have eventually become the self-proclaimed Caliphate of the 21st century.
As many other experts Hoskens correctly traces back the roots of the so called Islamic state to the aftermath of the second Iraqi conflict, unleashed by the attack of the US-led coalition to the Saddam Hussein regime, in 2003. The foreign policy of the superpower and its western allies, in fact, created more favourable conditions for the rise of Isis than anyone could have imagined. The BBC journalist, in particular, points his finger at Paul Bremer, who at the time was deemed George W. Bush ‘proconsul’ in Baghdad. His hasty decisions and poorly planned politics when dealing with the remnants of the Ba’athist regime, the book argues, pushed many former army generals, officers and foot soldiers to join the insurgency in which al-Zarqawi would have played an increasingly important part.
Also to blame in Hoskens’s opinion, are Shi’ite Iraqi politicians, such as Nouri al-Maliki, and leaders, such as Moqtada al-Sadr, who were unable – or even unwilling – to stop the sectarian conflict between the formerly oppressed Shia majority and their Sunni rivals in the country. Together with the Syrian civil war and its international implications, they are also part of the “toxic combination of factors” which helped the caliphate to gain ground: “a poisonous witches’ brew of sectarianism, proxy wars and competing national, and international interests”, as the author also says. Uncovering the Islamic State’s roots, obviously, does not exonerate its fighters and leaders from their responsibilities, which the BBC journalist widely exposes: crucifixions, beheadings, stoning people to death or selling and using them (including women and children) as slaves. Detailing this savagery, in the author’s view, has two purposes. Firstly, underlining that in the Is-occupied territories and maybe even within the movement itself, there is growing discontent, which in the future could lead to a revolt against al-Baghdadi’s thugs. Secondly, the more we know about this enemy, Hoskens seems to think, the sooner we will defeat it. If we really want to get to that point, however, the experienced correspondent warns, we must absolutely avoid repeating our own past mistakes: a victory on the battlefield will not be enough of the root causes of extremism are not dealt with and removed. So, in the areas where the appeal of the would-be caliph resonated, sectarianism, injustice, corruption, poverty have to be addressed. Otherwise, the risk is fulfilling the prediction that counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen formulates at the end of the book: “ISIS may eventually be destroyed but don’t imagine something worse cannot come along and take its place.”
Andrew Hosken, Empire of Fear, Inside the Islamic State, Oneworld, London 2015, 336 pp.