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.
Parts of their work expectedly grapple with topics already covered extensively by news media: ISIS’s slick media propaganda machine; the phenomenon of foreign fighter flow to Syria; and rationales for joining ISIS, among others. But the most compelling parts of Weiss and Hassan’s narrative uncover with microscopic detail the symbiotic relationships of Al-Qaeda in Iraq with Damascus and Tehran. Interviews with experts and U.S. military and government officials depict the Assad regime as a double-dealing, compulsively lying “mafia crime family.” With one hand, it abets jihadi activity, complying with Al Qaeda kidnappings, facilitating jihadist movement into Iraq, and abusing and radicalizing its Sunni population. With the other, it reaches out to Washington as a viable counterterrorism partner receptive to normalized relations and dialogue. As Syria expert Tony Badran bluntly noted to Weiss and Hassan, Assad “creates the problems he then oh-so-magnanimously offers to solve.”
Iran similarly has sought to control Baghdad by inciting instability in Iraq through the sponsorship of jihadism. After al-Zarqawi left Afghanistan, Iran provided him with safe haven, weapons and military equipment and turned a blind eye to his and Al Qaeda’s activities. Iranian intelligence created the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its armed wing, the Badr Corps, as “Tehran’s fifth column in Iraq.” The Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards sabotaged countless American military operations in Iraq, such that U.S. forces found themselves fighting the Iranians as much as the Iraqis. Iran and AQI secretly but actively colluded with each other to accomplish their shared interest in bogging the Americans down in Iraq. Unlike Syria, however, Iran built direct inroads into the Iraqi government—SCIRI gained charge over post-Saddam Iraq’s Ministry of Interior in 2005—leaving Sunnis with the impression that the United States had planned from the outset to hand Iraq over to the Shia and the Iranians.
Hassan and Weiss’s analysis is also rife with characterizations of ISIS as rational strategist, savvy realpolitiker, and effective governing authority. Like a state, ISIS consolidates authority over its territory and establishes effective governance over its population. While it certainly employs torture, brutality and harsh social rules, it wins the trust, or at least minimum tolerance, of local populations by creating order and security and tackling profiteering, abuse and other forms of lawlessness. ISIS does not micromanage the towns under its control, preferring instead to keep local forces in charge of daily affairs. Anyone who fought for the Free Syrian Army, Al-Nusra Front or Ahrar al-Sham who defects to ISIS is given incentives, including quick promotion through ISIS’s ranks. 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.
The authors state that this work is personal. Hassan Hassan is native Syrian who hails from Albu Kamal, a prominent border conduit for jihadists traveling between Iraq and Syria. Michael Weiss has reported from al-Bab, a suburb of Aleppo that once spearheaded Syrian civil society but has since fallen under ISIS control. This intimacy pervades many of the book’s passages, turning the stereotypical journalistic inquiry of “What went wrong?” into an engaging story that makes some sense of an increasingly complex kaleidoscope of events and actors without forsaking intricate detail.
The future looks bleak. On the ground, setbacks dealt to ISIS have been tactical, not strategic. A counterterrorism approach to ISIS will not work. ISIS has utilized cunning strategic thinking and the examples of its predecessors to outmaneuver the United States in both Iraq and Syria, with help from regimes in Damascus and Tehran harboring ulterior motives, while the United States has repeated its mistakes and neglected to revisit its past. More importantly, ISIS is winning the ideological battle. ISIS promises a triumphant return to Islam’s former glory and advertises its struggle as a monumental undertaking in world history. The international community has failed to respond with a counter-narrative as appealing and visionary. Without effective strategies for reducing ISIS’s allure and countering radicalization, battlefield victories are useless. Armed with a grandiose vision, ISIS is prepared to carry on fighting as long as it takes, putting the resolve of the United States and the world to the test.
Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest. Courtney Bliler is a Research Assistant with the Middle East Program at the Center.
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