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About ISIS

In August, the New York Review of Books published "The Mystery of Isis," an essay built upon the books ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and ISIS: The State of Terror. The piece was written by a 'former official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East' and good reason to remain anonymous.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but just to wet your appetite, here are some key excerpts and insights:

"Ahmad Fadhil was eighteen when his father died in 1984. Photographs suggest that he was relatively short, chubby, and wore large glasses. He wasn't a particularly poor student - he received a B grade in junior high - but he decided to leave school. There was work in the garment and leather factories in his home city of Zarqa, Jordan, but he chose instead to work in a video store, and earned enough money to pay for some tattoos. He also drank alcohol, took drugs, and got into trouble with the police. So his mother sent him to an Islamic self-help class. This sobered him up and put him on a different path. By the time Ahmad Fadhil died in 2006 he had laid the foundations of an independent Islamic state of eight million people that controlled a territory larger than Jordan itself.

"The rise of Ahmad Fadhil - or as he was later known in the jihad, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - and ISIS, the movement of which he was the founder, remains almost inexplicable."


One takeaway from this is just how weird Zarqawi was - and just what a mystery it remains as to why so many people followed him, as opposed to a more charismatic, intellectual and ideologically rigorous figure like Osama bin Laden.


"Zarqawi was killed by a US air strike in 2006. But his movement improbably survived the full force of the 170,000-strong, $100 billion a year US troop surge. In 2011, after the US withdrawal, the new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, expanded into Syria and reestablished a presence in northwest Iraq. In June 2014 the movement took Mosul - Iraq's second-largest city - and in May 2015 the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra, and its affiliates took the airport in Sirte, Libya. Today, thirty countries, including Nigeria, Libya, and the Philippines, have groups that claim to be part of the movement."


More than anything, it seems ISIS filled a vacuum created by the U.S. invasion of Iraq - though it remains unclear why ISIS was successful doing so instead of the many other groups seemingly better positioned to do so.


"U.S. policies such as de-Baathification in 2003 began the alienation of Sunnis, and . . . this was exacerbated by the atrocities committed by Shia militias in 2006 (fifty bodies a day were left on the streets of Baghdad, killed by power drills inserted in their skulls)."

So there's that.


"U.S. Army studies of more than forty historical insurgencies . . . suggest again and again that holding ground, fighting pitched battles, and alienating the cultural and religious sensibilities of the local population are fatal."

Which is also a lesson for the U.S. Army.


"By June 2010, General Ray Odierno claimed that 80 percent of the movement's top forty-two leaders had been killed or captured, with only eight remaining at large."

We can keep trying to decapitate ISIS's command-and-control structure, which is President Obama's strategy, but the movement is far too large (20,000 fighters are said to have joined) for that to be an effective way to end the threat.


"When, as recently as April, the movement lost Tikrit and seemed to be declining, the explanation appeared obvious. Analysts were on the verge of concluding that ISIS had lost because it was reckless, abhorrent, over-extended, fighting on too many fronts, with no real local support, unable to translate terrorism into a popular program, inevitably outmatched by regular armies."

It is not a strategically coherent movement.


"In Ramadi, three hundred ISIS fighters drove out thousands of trained and heavily equipped Iraqi soldiers. The US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter observed: 'The Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight.'"

Does that remind you any recent American war?


Go read the whole thing. My take is that ISIS has become a giant catch-all for all sorts of alienated and aggrieved (mostly) teenage boys that is "successful" exactly because it is not coherent, like its rivals. It's just "against," and you don't need to know a more solid program than that to join up and fight.


In April, Michiko Kakutani paired the same books in a piece for the New York Times, writing:

The most compelling sections of the Stern-Berger book are devoted to comparing ISIS and al-Qaeda. The authors describe al-Qaeda as an exclusive "vanguard movement," a "cabal that saw itself as the elite intellectual leaders of a global ideological revolution that it would assist and manipulate." Through the 1990s, they write, al-Qaeda "grew into a corporation, with a payroll and benefits department, and operatives who traveled around the world inserting themselves into local conflicts."

ISIS, in contrast, is more of a populist start-up operation. Online, Ms. Stern and Mr. Berger note, "it amassed and empowered a 'smart mob' of supporters," polling "its constituents and making shrewd calls about when to listen and who could safely be ignored."

al-Qaeda's vision for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate, they write, "is framed squarely in the long term" - "an idealized future that its leaders did not expect to see realized in their lifetimes." Using "a classic extremist trope" (the defense of one's own identity group against aggression), the authors assert, Osama bin Laden's organization "framed its pitch to potential recruits in more relatable terms as 'doing the right thing.' "

The Islamic State, Mr. Berger and Ms. Stern say, dispensed with such intellectual argumentation and instead emphasized horrific violence (which served to stimulate and attract disaffected, angry young men) combined with the promise of a building "a Muslim society with all the trappings." This utopian vision of "food aplenty, industry, banks, schools, health care, social services, pothole repair - even a nursing home with the insurgents' unmistakable black flag draped over the walls," they write, served as "a call for noncombatants, men and women alike, to build a nation-state alongside the warriors, with a role for engineers, doctors, filmmakers, sysadmins, and even traffic cops."



"As Mr. Weiss and Mr. Hassan see it, many reluctant supporters regard the Islamic State as "the only option on offer for Sunni Muslims who have been dealt a dismal hand in the past decade - first losing control of Iraq and now suffering nationwide atrocities, which many equate to genocide, in Syria."


By now, we should all know this:

"Both books also provide lucid assessments of the role that missteps and disastrous decision-making on the part of the United States played in fueling the rise of the Islamic State and its antecedents and affiliates. Ms. Stern and Mr. Berger write that the 2003 invasion of Iraq 'reinforced jihadi claims about America's hegemonic designs on the Middle East, providing a recruiting bonanza at a time when the terrorists needed it most.' They add that "while some politicians wanted to see Iraq during the allied invasion as a roach motel, we see it more like a hornet's nest - with allied bombs and bullets spreading the hornets ever further, throughout the region and beyond."


Finally, ISIS might now really be a vehicle for something not at all what it outwardly seems:

In fact, Mr. Weiss and Mr. Hassan contend that most of the Islamic State's "top decision makers served in Saddam Hussein's military or security services," and in that sense, "'secular' Baathism has returned to Iraq under the guise of Islamic fundamentalism."


On that point, see also Liz Sly's "The Hidden Hand Behind The Islamic State Militants? Saddam Hussein's" for the Washington Post.


Comments welcome.


Posted on November 16, 2015

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