Since June 2014, when it announced the establishment of a Caliphate in the areas it controlled, the so-called Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) seems to have become one of the shaping forces in world geo-politics.
From the Middle East to North Africa, from the Sub-Saharan region to Europe, many groups and individuals (including the Nigerian sect known as Boko Haram and the French gunman Amedy Coulibaly, involved in the killing of a policewoman and in the taking of hostages in a Paris supermarket in January 2015) have pledged allegiance to the group. The followers of the self-declared ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ (commonly known as Abubakr al-Baghdadi) seem be poised to represent in the second decade of the twenty-first century what Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda had been for years after 9-11: a transnational menace and an arch-foe for the western diplomacies and their allies.
Most analysts were taken by surprise by what seemed the sudden emergence of the group’s military power. At least until it took control of the Syrian city of Raqqa between late 2013 and early 2014, ISIS had been described as one of the scores of militias fighting in Syria where rebels were – and still are – battling against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Reality, however, could not be more different, at least according to Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, the authors of ISIS – Inside the army of terror. “ISIS – they write in the introduction – is a terrorist organization, but it isn’t only a terrorist organization, it is also a mafia adept at exploiting decades-old transnational markets for oil and arms trafficking. It is a conventional military that deploys foot soldiers with a professional acumen that has impressed members of the US military. It is a sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus that infiltrates rival organizations and silently recruits within their ranks before taking them over, routing them in combat, or seizing their land.
It is a slick propaganda machine effective at disseminating its message and calling in new recruits via social media”.
Even this short description makes evident the extent of the work that Weiss and Hassan committed to, and yet there is still one key factor that has not been mentioned: history. ISIS, in fact, as the two journalists show, has much deeper roots in the area than the average Western reader could imagine. The man who is considered by the authors the ultimate “founding father” of the militia is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which was later to become al-Qaeda in Iraq. The book traces his history since his early years, also mentioning his presence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) area during the last days of the Soviet invasion. Zarqawi is, for Weiss and Hassan, an access key to both the military and security developments following the US-led invasion of Iraq and the relationship-to-be between ISIS and al-Qaeda.
When dealing with the roots of the dreaded fundamentalist group, nevertheless, the book looks well beyond the underworld of Islamic radicalism. From this point of view, at least two elements are worth mentioning. The first one is the well documented account of the heavy presence of former Iraqi Baathists (i.e. members of the ruling Baath party under the Saddam Hussein regime) among ISIS top decision makers. In other words, according to Weiss and Hassan, “Baathism had returned to Iraq under the guise of Islamic fundamentalism”. On the other hand, when the two journalists, after having examined the Iraqi side of the story, turn to Syria and – before focusing on al-Baghdadi himself – discuss in depth the Assad regime’s relationship with extremist fighters during the US-led invasion of the neighbouring country and in the following years. The role played by Damascus in facilitating the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq, as well as the regime’s complicity in terrorist attacks against the government of Nouri al-Maliki are analyzed in detail.
In conducting their historical, political and ideological analysis (which is quite hard to summarize in a few lines) of the newest avatar of jihadism, the authors are far from relying on theoretic studies and documents only. They quote a large number of firsthand sources, including military officials from the US; American, Jordanian and Iraqi intelligence operatives; former Syrian spies and diplomats and even some of those who work or cooperate with ISIS itself. Also Hassan and Weiss’s own role in covering Middle Eastern politics and in particular the Syrian conflict plays a role: Hassan, whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, UAE’s The National and The New York Times, is a Syria-born analyst and Weiss is a renowned columnist who also reported from al-Bab before ISIS took it over from the anti-Assad rebels.
The result of their combined efforts is an accurate yet extremely readable book. Even if the less experienced reader might at first feel frightened by the large amount of details given throughout its 270 pages, ISIS – Inside the army of terror is a recommended reader for anyone from the specialists to the general public willing to be informed about the group and its genesis. These topics, actually, should interest anyone, the authors seem to suggest. Even if they refrain from speculating about both short and long-run developments, they cannot avoid taking a glance at the future, and their verdict is not encouraging: “Thousands have lined up to join it and even more have already fallen victim to it. The army of terror is staying with us indefinitely”. (D.M.)
Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, ISIS. Inside the army of terror, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2014, 270 pp.