ISIS: The Anatomy of the Army of Terror

"Contrary to popular portrayals of ISIS as a pathological terrorizer, Weiss and Hassan present ISIS as a strategic actor with a nuanced combination of carrots and sticks at its disposal."

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan (New York: Regan Arts, 2015).

As the United States struggles to grapple with a strategy in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is growing more diffuse yet more salient. In Kuwait, a suicide bombing at a Shia mosque on June 26 killed 27 people. In France on that same day, one man was beheaded in an attempt to blow up an American-owned chemical plant. In Tunisia, the massacre of 38 tourists at a beach resort in Sousse has prompted the Tunisian government to declare a state of emergency. ISIS claimed responsibility for all three attacks and is now actively recruiting Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. These events ignite fears that ISIS could gain formal footholds in other states besides Syria, Libya, and Iraq and mobilize sleeper cells to perpetrate remote terrorist attacks.

“The army of terror will be with us indefinitely.” This argument, made by columnists Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan in their new book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, seems supported by recent events. The book seeks to answer the question: “Where did ISIS come from, and how did it manage to do so much damage in so short a period of time?” Starting from the early life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS’s organizational ancestor Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the authors paint a detailed historical narrative of the ideological and political evolution of ISIS.

Most importantly, their argument strikes down the assumption often embedded in government statements, media stories, and public sentiment that ISIS’s power is only temporary and that it, like its peers and predecessors, can be resolutely targeted, denied safe haven, defeated and ultimately destroyed. ISIS is not merely a terrorist group, Weiss and Hassan point out. Rather, ISIS is a “conventional military that mobilizes and deploys foot soldiers with a professional acumen that has impressed members of the U.S. military.” It is also a “mafia adept at exploiting decades-old transnational gray markets for oil and arms trafficking.” ISIS is an experienced “intelligence-gathering apparatus.” The extremist group is a polished and effective “propaganda machine.” These differences, Weiss and Hassan argue, distinguish the success of ISIS from the stagnation or failure of its predecessors, namely Al Qaeda. ISIS is here to stay.

Hassan and Weiss note that ISIS, for all its singularity, still borrows a number of traditions from its jihadi progenitors. Many of ISIS’s current trademarks—fondness for televised beheadings, mobilization of fighters through mass media, and fixation on killing Westerners, Shi’ites, and non-Salafist Sunnis alike—find their origins in al-Zarqawi’s fringe interpretation of takfiri ideology, which emphasizes targeting Shia and non-Salafi “apostates” before turning to the United States and Middle Eastern regimes colluding with the “far enemy.” The group has learned from the mistakes of its predecessors and actively creates its own narrative, rather than allowing the foreign press to drive popular perceptions about the group.

The law of unintended consequences is the most common refrain in Weiss and Hassan’s narrative. American disbandment of the Iraqi army and prohibition of former Ba’ath members from government induced top Saddam-era officials and experienced fighters to join the ranks of ISIS, leading Hassan and Weiss to note, “‘Secular’ Baathism has returned to Iraq under the guise of Islamic fundamentalism—less a contradiction than it may appear.” The Anbar Awakening—the grassroots resistance movement initiated by Sunni tribal leaders fed up with AQI and incorporated into General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy—showcased the ability of Sunni tribes to fight far more courageously and capably than the Iraqi army ever did. 

However, American military and political disengagement, beginning with the Status of Forces Agreement signed between Washington and Baghdad in 2009, eroded all progress combating Al Qaeda. More substantially, it sowed the seeds for ISIS by leaving Sunnis to be harassed, marginalized, arrested and killed by a highly sectarian Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Today, the United States seeks to win over the same Sunni tribes that it once abandoned, while ISIS has heeded the lessons from U.S. miscalculations by making tribal outreach central to its governing strategy in order to prevent another “Awakening.” Struggling to regain Sunni Arab trust, the United States has since turned to Shiite militias supported by Iran to battle ISIS, even though Iran is one of the world’s foremost sponsors of terrorism. These ironies, prolific in Hassan and Weiss’s narrative, make the current situation in Iraq and Syria all the more serious.