Book Review: Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (Regan Arts., 2015)

In ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (Regan Arts., 2015), Michael Weiss and Hassan provide one of the most detailed and fascinating accounts of ISIS, how its seemingly meteoric rise occurred, and where the organization may be heading. Insights are provided on the concepts and intent of its leaders, both living and dead, as well as the organization’s inner workings. ISIS’ complicated relations with other terrorist organizations are discussed, as well as its relations with state actors, as allies and enemies.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has achieved international celebrity as the terrorist organization eclipsing that of Al-Qaeda, known infamously for its attacks worldwide including those in the US on September 11, 2001.   ISIS is known for its gruesome acts of violence against military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians as well as the fact that it has established a so-called Islamic State in the Middle East on territory greater in size than many Western countries. It is a priority policy issue for the world’s military superpowers, the US and Russia, although their responses to it vary.

In ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (Regan Arts., 2015), Michael Weiss and Hassan provide one of the most detailed and fascinating accounts of ISIS, how its seemingly meteoric rise occurred, and where the organization may be heading. Insights are provided on the concepts and intent of its leaders, both living and dead, as well as the organization’s inner workings. ISIS’ complicated relations with other terrorist organizations are discussed, as well as it relations with state actors, as allies and enemies. So rich is the text with information that it is a must have reference book on ISIS for every library.

Michael Weiss is editor in chief of The Interpreter, a news and translation service which serves as resource for journalists, diplomats, and policymakers globally. He also works as a columnist for Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, and NOW Lebanon and is on the staff of the Institute for Modern Russia. Weiss has covered the Syrian Revolution from its beginnings, reporting from refugee camps in southern Turkey and from the frontlines of war-torn Aleppo. Using leaked state documents, he broke the story that Iran is providing virtually free oil to the Assad regime. Hassan Hassan is an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. He is also a columnist for The National in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. He was formerly deputy comment editor for The National and research associate at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi, where he worked in journalism and research. Hassan’s focus is Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf States, but he also studies Islamist, Salafism and jihadist movements in the wider region. His writings have appeared in the Guardian, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and the New York Times.

A few short years ago, ISIS was really a matter of interest on to those focused on the Middle East or counterterrorism. A new media story on ISIS then hardly could have drawn the attention in the average household in the West away from popular reality television programs or the latest celebrity gossip. ISIS returned to the forefront among foreign policy issues when it began taking foreign journalists and aid workers hostage in order to secure massive ransoms by negotiations and placing online video of the beheading the hostages when payments were not made or not made to their satisfaction. ISIS became a priority in Western capitals when its fighters drove through Iraq in June 2014, capturing large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces. It was then that Weiss and Hassan decided to write ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Their purpose was to explain where ISIS came from and how it managed to do so much damage in such a short period of time that summer in an effort to answer the two questions repeatedly asked on the cable news programs at the time. They admit finding it a bit odd discussing ISIS as some “new sensation” when in reality the US had been at war with ISIS for several years. The two engaged in an impressive amount of research for this book and brought it all together brilliantly. Sources include US and regional military officials, intelligence operatives, and Western diplomats who tracked, fought, and jailed members of ISIS. Intriguingly, defected Syrian intelligence operative and diplomats, and Syrians who work for ISIS also served as sources.

Weiss and Hassan begin by discussing the complex history of ISIS in great detail, showing how ISIS had been present in Iraq under various titles for over a decade. It was once known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), then the Mujahidin Advisory Council. Its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was anointed the leader of AQI by Osama Bin Laden, himself. Zarqawi set AQI off on a virulent and costly struggle against US-led coalition forces. When Zarqawi was killed by US forces in 2006, his successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, renamed AQI, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). By 2010, ISI was being battered by a combination of US joint Special Operations Command raids, the operations of US surge brigades, the activities of the Sunni based Sons of Iraq militias, and ISI’s own poor communications. The Sons of Iraq were part of the Sunni Awakening—a response in part to atrocities committed by Al-Qaeda on tribes in the Anbar Province. ISI was pummeled by the US. Yet, after the US left Iraq, ISI managed to rebuild on foreign aid and the exploitation of decades old transnational grey markets for oil and arms trafficking.

Concerning Syria, the authors explain ISIS was initially active there under the auspices of their parent group the Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) for years prior to the civil war between the Syrian Opposition Movement and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  It was one of many Islamic militant groups active underground by 2012. AQI, itself, was formed following the US-led coalition’s initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. In Syria, its platform was the eastern region of Syria, bordering Iraq’s Anbar Province, a hot spot for Al-Qaeda activity. It was already the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the Syrian Opposition Movement’s Free Syrian Army (FSA). It was also the most active and successful group, conducting assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes. They were responsible for suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key Assad regime officials as well.  However, they soon became a concern due to their rogue acts within FSA territory, to include intermittent attacks on mainstream FSA groups, killing commanders and fighters. ISIS claimed it was in response to what they identified as corrupt, non-Islamic behavior. Yet, they also killed popular commanders who were key in the FSA’s fight against the Syrian Armed Forces. ISIS’ behavior was so abhorrent and its leaders so difficult to cope with that even Al-Qaeda’s leadership and its other affiliates in Syria broke with the group. By the time the Syrian Opposition Movement’s leaders “opened their eyes” to the problems ISIS was causing, the group had grown too large to reign in. Two years of mishandled arms deliveries and aid to the Syrian Opposition forces from Western and Arab countries allowed for that growth. The berm barriers between Iraq and Syria that stood for a little less than one hundred years as a result of a British-French colonial compact are gone now. Leaders of ISIS declared there would only be a caliphate. They feel it could possibly spread as far as Spain and capture Rome. Et sceleratis sol oritur! (The sun shines even on the wicked!)

The ISIS fighters above are standing on the “former” border between Syria and Iraq. The berm barriers between Iraq and Syria that stood for a little less than one hundred years as a result of a British-French colonial compact are gone now. Leaders of ISIS declared there would only be a caliphate. They expressed the hope that it would possibly spread as far as Spain and eventually capture Rome.

As explained in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, the leaders of ISIS have succeeded in summoning the fainéant, the misguided, the ignorant to their cause using demagoguery, violence and hatred dressed up with Islamic embellishments. Although they claim to be ample substitutes for God on Earth, they are little more than pied pipers. In the end, they never fail to lead their followers over the cliff to their destruction. An interesting history is provided on the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. After ISIS captured Mosul during its major offensive in June 2014, Baghdadi, made a rare appearance. As the authors described, Baghdadi was draped in black, keeping things obscure, a bit spooky. He gave the impression that he was a man who possessed answers to great mysteries of the universe. He went on to claim he was heir to the medieval Abbasid Caliphate as well as the embodied spirit of his Jordanian predecessor, Zarqawi, who spoke from the same Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq. Presenting the concept and intent of ISIS, the authors quote Baghdadi as explaining the nations of the Fertile Crescent no longer existed and all forms of citizenship no longer existed. There was only the Islamic State. He divided humanity into two camps: first, there was the “camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin [holy warriors], everywhere; and, second, the “camp of the Jews, the Crusaders, their allies.” As part of Baghdadi’s evil vision, and as well as his predecessor Zarqawi, there would be zero tolerance for the existence of “the Jews, the Crusaders, their allies” but certainly Shia, Allawites, and minority sects and ethnicities. Members of those groups have met grisly deaths at the hands of ISIS.

After ISIS captured Mosul during its offensive in June 2014, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made a rare appearance. He was draped in black, keeping things dark, a bit spooky. Baghdadi claimed to be the heir to the medieval Abbasid Caliphate as well as the embodied spirit of his predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Although ISIS’ leaders portray themselves as ample substitutes for God on Earth, they are little more than pied pipers. In the end, they will lead their followers over the cliff to their destruction.

Perhaps the dark and mystifying personage Baghdadi presented in Mosul in 2014 was also meant to reflect the very bloody, murderous side of ISIS. By its actions, ISIS has left no doubt that it is not only as a terrorist organization, but a pagan death cult. Its members exalt death and relish the act of killing. Murdering military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians is not viewed as wrongful, immoral. The author’s discuss a 2008 study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point that reported numerous foreign fighters sent into Iraq from Syria listed their occupations as “suicide bombers.” They accept themselves as being expendable.

Weiss and Hassan explain how ISIS skillfully uses social media to recruit members. They also discuss how prisons in the Middle East have become “virtual terror academies,” where known extremists can congregate, plot, organize, and hone their leadership skills “inside the wire,” and where ISIS is recruiting a new generation of fighters. The authors claim that in prison Zarqawi became more focused, brutal, and decisive.

ISIS has left little doubt that it is not only a terrorist organization but also a pagan death cult. Its members exalt death and relish killing. Murdering military prisoners, hostages, and innocent civilians is not viewed as wrongful, immoral. In a 2008 study produced by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, numerous foreign fighters sent to Iraq from Syria had listed their occupations as “suicide bombers,” viewing themselves as expendable.

What was particularly interesting in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror was the authors’ discussion of misguided and failed responses of state actors, particularly the US, Iraq, and Syria to ISIS woven through the text. Each state became alert to the opportunity to respond to ISIS with either force or manipulate ISIS for its own purposes. In each case, officials of the respective countries made the wrong choice. The administration of US President Barack Obama refused to take seriously what journalists and members of humanitarian aid and relief organizations on the ground were reporting about ISIS as well as what the administration officials were seeing for themselves in news media videos. Its murderous activities revealed ISIS as more than just another Islamic militant group fighting the Assad regime under the Syrian Opposition Movement’s umbrella. Still, the administration minimized the threat that ISIS posed. As the authors explain, “Five months before the fall of Mosul, President Obama had regrettably dismissed ISIS in an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick as the ‘jay-vee’ squad of terrorists.” Retired or anonymous senior officials in the US intelligence community occasionally leaked assessments of ISIS as something more formidable, but their efforts were always quieted. Alitur vitium vivitque tegendo! (Vice is nourished by being concealed!)

In no small part due to the Obama administration’s delinquency, Al-Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups in Syria reached a considerable size and strength. Having become a fixture in Syria guaranteed they would hobble a transitional Syrian government, and lead to its eventual collapse. Unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the opposition, they would never cease their struggle for control of Syria under any deal. The goals of ISIS and similar groups were never compatible with those the Syrian Opposition Movement. While mainstream FSA forces were directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups sought to create an Islamic state on Syrian territory. Since 2014, the US has been working on the margins, training and equipping of Syrian Opposition forces and Kurdish forces. It has also led a coalition of countries in an air campaign against ISIS. Weiss and Hassan provide evidence that puts the effectiveness of both operations in question.

Five months before the fall of Mosul, Obama dismissed ISIS in an interview as the “jay-vee” squad of terrorists. Due in part to the Obama administration’s delinquency, groups as ISIS reached considerable size and strength in Syria and Iraq. Since 2014, the US has been working on the margins, training and equipping of Syrian Opposition forces and Kurdish forces and leading a coalition in an air campaign against ISIS. Evidence provided by Weiss and Hassan puts the effectiveness of those operations in question.

When the US invaded Iraq, Weiss and Hassan explain Zarqawi found some of his most enthusiastic champions among the remnants of one of the very “near enemies” he had declared himself in opposition to: Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. Deal making between former regime military and security service leaders and Al-Qaeda made ISIS, then AQI, a potent foe for the US-led coalition. At the top of the Iraqi collaborators with al-Qaeda was Iraqi Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Long before US forces entered Iraq, Douri had established a state sanctioned organized crime network to evade UN sanctions. His networks were tied into the Iraqi security services such as the Special Security Organization (SSO). SSO was the most powerful security apparatus in prewar Iraq and was in charge of the Special Republican Guard and Special Forces. The safe houses of suicide bombers were adjacent to the homes of SSO officers. The SSO could also make use of an underground apparatus constructed by Saddam Hussein for counterrevolution against rebellious Shia and Kurds. The authors cite the work on the Second Gulf War by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (Vintage Books, 2013) in which they stated “networks of safe houses and arms caches for paramilitary forces, including materials for making improvised explosives, were established throughout the country.” Those networks proved invaluable to the insurgency. Added to the mix was the impact of Saddam Hussein’s Faith Campaign, designed to marry Baath ideology of regime elite with Islamism, which he also put in the hands of Douri. While Saddam Hussein hoped to reach into the society of Islamist scholars with his intelligence officers to control them, the authors indicate they were influenced by Salafist teachings. Loyalties had already shifted from Saddam Hussein to the Salafists before the invasion. By October 2003, when Osama bin Laden called for foreign fighters to enter Iraq, members of Saddam Hussein’s regime had already established “rat lines”—corridors for foreign fighters—to transport them to a variety of terrorist cells and organizations around the Middle East and North Africa. An Iraqi general named Muhammed Khairi al-Barhawi was reportedly given the responsibility for training jihadists. The authors cite a US military source as saying the idea behind this effort was one could avoid strikes from terrorists by understanding who they were and keeping them close. Most of the current top decision makers, planners, in ISIS are former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. The authors explained that the ability of ISIS to mobilize and deploy fighters with a professional acumen that had impressed the US military. ISIS has 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. Despite possibly participating in crackdowns ordered by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds and Shia, former regime military and security officers perhaps never foresaw themselves as being the force behind the endless killing of countrymen they once swore to defend and the disintegration of the country they once swore to protect. Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, the renowned Roman dictator, speaking against his reelection to the consulship spoke words apropos for the members of the Saddam Hussein’s military and security forces who have assisted ISIS. He stated, “Go on Conscript Fathers to imitate the inconsiderate multitude, and you who ought to show an example to the rest rather follow the steps of others in a wrong cause then guide them into the light.” Nosce te ipsum! (Know thyself!)

Many top military decision makers, planners, in ISIS are former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. They have allowed ISIS to mobilize and deploy fighters with a professional acumen and operate a sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus. Despite possibly participating in crackdowns ordered by Saddam Hussein, former regime military and security officers perhaps never foresaw themselves as being the force behind the endless killing of their fellow countrymen and Iraq’s disintegration.

In looking at the Syrian civil war, the authors explain that despite the Assad regime claims of being a victim of ISIS, Assad regime officials collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist militants, even before Saddam Hussein’s regime was brought down, to facilitate the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq to destabilize the US-led Coalition’s occupation. In doing so, they created the fertile conditions for such terrorism to take root inside Syria. Among the evidence, they report that in 2007, the US Central Command captured “a Saddam Fedayeen leader involved in setting up training camps in Syria for Iraqi and foreign fighters.” That same year in Sinjar, US forces also killed “Muthanna,” a man designated as Al-Qaeda’s emir for the Syria-Iraq border region. Muthanna reportedly possessed a cache of useful intelligence which became known as the Sinjar Records. The Sinjar Records indicated that foreign fighters were entering Iraq from the Syrian Province of Deir Ezzor, typically using the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, which is adjacent to the Iraqi city of Qa’im. It was in Qa’im that Zarqawi established his headquarters after fleeing Fallujah in 2004. Most of the foreign fighters that moved into Iraq from Syria were hosted by Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat. Working with Shawkat from Al-Qaeda was Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih or Abu Ghadiyah a Mosulawi from Iraq. He was named chief of AQI logistics by al-Zarqawi in 2004. Just as his predecessor Sulayman Khalid Darwish was killed by the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in 2005, Ghadiyah was killed by JSOC in 2008 and was succeeded by Abu Khalaf, who was killed by JSOC in 2008. Yet, the rat lines from Syria to Iraq remained open. It was through diplomatic talks between the US State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Daniel Benjamin and Assad’s Director for General Intelligence, Ali Mamlouk, that an agreement for Syria to halt the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq was quelled. Many of the foreign fighters who had move through Syrian rat lines to Iraq found themselves, upon their return, collated and arrested by the same Syrian intelligence service that facilitated their travel. Yet, in an odd twist, the Syrian Government saw opportunity in releasing them. Indeed, when the Syrian Revolution started they were released under a General Amnesty on the advice of Syrian intelligence officers who reportedly told Assad that although there were disadvantages to freeing them, there were was advantage, opportunity, because it would convince the world that the Assad regime was facing Islamic terrorism. That misguided act appears to have resulted in one of the worst cases of blowback in modern history. Invitat culpam qui peccatum praeterit. (Pardon one offense and you encourage the commission of many.)

Despite the Assad regime’s claims of being a victim of international terrorism, Assad regime officials collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist militants, even before Saddam Hussein’s regime was brought down, to facilitate the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq to destabilize the US-led Coalition’s occupation. In doing so, they created the fertile conditions for such terrorism to take root inside Syria.

Russia is the latest state actor to respond to ISIS. As Weiss and Hassan explained, of all the foreign fighters that have come to Iraq, ISIS holds fighters from South Russia in the highest regard. Chechens as a rule are viewed by the other fighters as the most formidable warriors. The possibility that Russian fighters with experience in Iraq and Syria may return home to engage in terrorist activities remains one of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s greatest concerns. By intervening in Syria with the Russian Federation Armed Forces, Putin seeks to prevent Syria from becoming a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. However, Putin also seeks to protect the Assad regime and support its ally Iran in-country. He certainly has no intention of allowing an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power. Some complain that Russia has done little directly against ISIS. Yet, the manner and pace of Putin’s actions are likely influenced by concerns he would disrupt and defeat ISIS only to allow the Syrian Opposition Movement to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad. To that extent, efforts to comfort the Syrian Opposition forces will likely impact Russia’s approach. What most likely matters most to Putin is the outcome. Festina lente! (Make haste slowly!)

By intervening in Syria with the Russian Federation Armed Forces, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin seeks to prevent Syria from becoming a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. However, Putin also seeks to protect the Assad regime and support its ally Iran in-country. Some claim Russia has done little directly against ISIS. Yet, the manner and pace of Putin’s actions are likely influenced by concerns he would disrupt and defeat ISIS only to allow the Syrian Opposition Movement to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad.

There is so much to discover in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Among those who have read it , the book has already become a source of endless discussion and debate about ISIS. It is a pleasure for greatcharlie to introduce many of our readers to this truly well-written, well-researched book on ISIS. The book is difficult to pull away from, and its readers are guaranteed to go through it more than once. Regardless of their degree of interest on ISIS, readers will greatly appreciate acquiring the book. Without hesitation, greatcharlie highly recommends ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.

By Mark Edmond Clark

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