Book Review

Finding context in the chaos of the Islamic State

By: Aaron Noonan

ISIS, Army of Terror

Weiss, Michael D and Hassan Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. New York: Regan Arts., 2015. Pages: 288. £10.99 (paperback). ISBN-10: 1941393578

In a defiant interview with The Sunday Telegraph in October 2011, just as the Syrian uprising was beginning to transition to civil war, President Bashar al-Assad declared: ‘Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region.’ [1] This was a cautionary piece of advice to the West not to intervene against his regime, as it battles the ‘terrorists’ that it proclaims to have sparked the uprising. The problem however, is that Assad’s regime wasn’t fighting the terrorists – it was nurturing them.

That is according to ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael D. Weiss and Hassan Hassan. Weiss is a journalist who has reported from inside Syria for publications such as The Daily Beast, while Hassan Hassan is a Syrian analyst who has written for The National newspaper and now works with Chatham House. The book seeks to place ISIS (now termed the Islamic State or IS) within the broader context of the Middle Eastern strife over the past two decades. Despite taking the world by surprise with its lightning advance through Mosul in northern Iraq in June 2014, IS has existed in various incarnations for well over a decade.

Meticulously researched and using original interviews conducted by the authors with extremists and military officials, the book traces IS’ origins from the radicalisation of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Jordan in the 1980s. His turbulent alliance with Osama bin Laden in the early 2000s spawned IS’ predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI’s takfir ideology, which saw the group actively target Shia muslims during the Iraq War, became a point of contention between al-Zarqawi and bin Laden, as core al-Qaeda feared alienating the Muslim population. Their fears turned to reality, when AQI were beaten back by the US-sponsored tribal militias, the Sons of Iraq, during the Surge in 2007. The book is adept in analysing the various forces that have allowed IS to perpetuate since its early Zarqawist days. In addition, the book seeks to explain how IS is no longer merely a terrorist organisation, but rather a brutal proto-state thriving on chaos and war. The authors are perhaps at their best however when accounting for Iraqi Baathist influence within IS, and when examining the Assad regime’s complicity in allowing the organisation to exist in northern Syria.

The fall of Saddam in 2003 saw the disintegration of the Baath Party in Iraq, though by that time many of those former regime elements, under the influence of the Faith Campaign, had become more Salafist than Baathist. [2] The authors note that many members of Saddam’s regime now hold key positions in IS. [3] From the ashes of decades-long Sunni minority rule came a Shia political resurgence in Iraq, under the guidance of US occupation, which in turn inspired al-Zarqawi’s all out sectarian war against Shia Iraq. The authors make clear that US nurturing of Shia politicians in Iraq through the ‘de-Baathification’ programme, which left many former regime employees ostracised and unemployable, certainly played a role in exacerbating tensions. [4]

The section of the book perhaps most important to understanding the Assad regime’s position in the Syrian Civil War today, is the one addressing the regime’s relationship with AQI member Abu Ghadiyah. The Assad government actively facilitated the crossing of foreign fighters from the Syrian border at Deir Ezzor into Iraq, oftentimes through ‘rat lines’ maintained by Abu Ghadiyah. Despite the international community’s awareness that Syria was aiding Ghadiyah’s activities, Assad refused to put an end to it. It took a cross-border raid into Syria by US Forces in 2008 to finally eliminate Ghadiyah. [5] The authors expertly draw attention to an often overlooked aspect of the Assad regime that continues to affect the civil war today: its state sponsorship of AQI, IS’ predecessor. [6] Indeed, the authors suggest that the Assad regime is at the very least allowing IS to exist unfettered in northern and eastern Syria, despite the regime’s insistence that it is ‘fighting terrorists’ within its borders. [7]

Assad effectively sought to design his own binary narrative of the civil war, spreading the notion that it is his government versus the terrorists, a ploy used to avert the prospect of Western intervention. According to the authors, Assad allowed IS to make strong gains in Syria in order to present himself as the last line of defence against jihadists. [8] This is a bold claim to make, but one that is backed up by well-researched sources and interviews, including with radicalisation expert Shiraz Maher, the radicalisation expert at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, who argues that Assadist forces actively sought to incite a Sunni uprising through state-sanctioned sectarian violence. [9]

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror is a book that at its core seeks to contextualize IS within the broader confines of recent Middle Eastern history. Whilst the seemingly unexpected advance of ISIS across northern Iraq in the first half of 2014 propelled the terrorist organization onto the international stage, the book argues that IS is just another incarnation of a decades old group. The need to cover a wide spectrum of aspects pertaining to IS leads the book to adopt a broad analytical focus which, at times, is disadvantageous to particular topics. Notably, its chapters on life within IS and its ability to draw in foreign fighters through internet recruitment are sparse. However, the authors are most skilled at tracing the group’s murky origins and explaining how both the Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War allowed IS to flourish. In drawing attention to the indisputable link between the Assad regime and its sponsorship of Sunni terrorism, the authors do a great service to our understanding of how the Syrian Civil War is playing out. Assad may have warned that ‘any problem in Syria will burn the whole region,’ [10] but as Shiraz Maher points out, it is Assad himself who ‘set the Sunni Muslim world on fire.’ [11]

Aaron Noonan is currently undertaking an MA in Intelligence and International Security at King. His interests include Middle Eastern sectarianism, terrorism, and CBRN weaponry. He can be found on Twitter @custerdome, or on his blog Louder than Bombs.

Bibliography

[1] Gilligan, Andrew. 2011. “Assad: challenge Syria at your peril.” The Telegraph, October 29. Accessed October 7, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/ 8857898/Assad-challenge-Syria-at-your-peril.html.

[2] Weiss, Michael D., and Hassan Hassan. 2015. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. New York:

Regan Arts, p. 23

[3] Ibid., p. 124

[4] Ibid., p. 26

[5] Ibid., p. 108

[6] Ibid., p. 102

[7] Ibid., p. 147

[8] Ibid., p. 219

[9] Ibid., p. 135

[10] Gilligan, “Assad.”

[11] Weiss and Hassan, “ISIS”, p. 135

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