The Power of ISIS

Two recent books give a much thicker account than daily news reports of the group behind the Paris attacks, writes Scott McLemee. But he doesn't recommend them for anyone whose nerves are easily jarred.

November 18, 2015

Between the Boston Marathon bombing and too many spree killings by heavily armed men with grievances to keep count, we’ve all had plenty of recent experience with 24-hour coverage of horrific events such as the Paris massacre last Friday. There seem to be two major ways to manage attention. They don’t exhaust the possibilities but definitely mark the limits of a not especially broad spectrum.

One option is to keep track of breaking developments more or less in real time -- in extreme cases, checking for updates every few minutes. You expect the worst but try to get a jump on it, somehow, by absorbing each new crumb of pertinent information as it becomes available. The opposite extreme is to make like an ostrich and find some sand. Or at least to wait for fact, rumor and guesswork be sorted out. Only at that point does catching up make sense; until then, there’s more noise than signal.

By temperament I lean toward the first pattern: obsessive scanning. But not after Friday. Maybe the thought of the worst being yet to come was too much to handle. In any event, I opted for burying my head in a couple of recent books, starting with Michael Griffin’s Islamic State: Rewriting History, published this month by Pluto Press and distributed by the University of Chicago Press. The other, The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution by Patrick Cockburn, was released by Verso earlier this year. Neither can be recommended to anyone whose nerves are easily jarred. But they give a much thicker account of the group that inspired the attacks than nonspecialists can piece together from news reports over the past couple of years.

The authors seem to have turned in the manuscripts to their respective publishers around this time in 2014. At that point, the potential for the new “caliphate” to inspire terrorism beyond the Middle East was a less pressing issue than its unprecedented arrival as a force in the region.

Cockburn’s book, which incorporates his reporting on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for the London Review of Books, vividly conveys the speed and range of the group’s expansion and consolidation: ISIS, “as though intoxicated by its own triumphs,” proved capable of “defeating its enemies with ease even when they were more numerous and better equipped.” From one of a number of “nonstate actors” in the region, ISIS transformed into something that, beyond simply proclaiming itself as the Islamic State, effectively dissolved the border between Iraq and Syria and imposed its own religious and military authority over “an area larger than Great Britain and inhabited by some six million people -- a population larger than that of Denmark, Finland or Ireland.”

At the same time, ISIS remains, if not invulnerable to air strikes, then certainly prepared for them. It “operates as a guerrilla army,” Cockburn says, “without easily visible movements of personnel or equipment that can be targeted. Its leadership is well practiced at keeping out of sight.”

But it’s Griffin’s book that actually tells in detail the story of where ISIS came from and how it transformed over time. The author is a political analyst and commentator for BBC World and Al Jazeera. He draws almost entirely on English-language publications, in contrast to Cockburn, who quotes an array of friends, interview subjects and bits of popular culture from around the Middle East. But Griffin integrates his sources to good effect. He traces the growth of ISIS out of what had been Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization Al Qaeda in Iraq -- a group that had managed to alienate both Osama bin Laden and Iraqi insurgents fighting the U.S. occupation. The death of Zarqawi in 2006 seems to have created less of a power vacuum than an opening for more capable strategists to assert themselves.

They learned to adapt to and exploit specific local and tribal concerns while building up both an effective economic infrastructure and formidable propaganda skills, taking advantage of the new-media skills of European-born jihadis who joined them. The ISIS cadre were also exceptionally lucky -- astonishingly, uncannily so -- about getting hold of new weaponry and tools. The psychological impact of the fall of Mosul in June 2014 was magnified by the sight of ISIS fighters “speeding towards outflanked enemies in hundreds of looted Humvees, bristling with assault rifles and rocket launchers.”

Plus the jihadis had “a fleet of white Toyota Tacoma pickups, double cabbed with mounted machine guns.” The vehicles, custom-made for U.S. Special Forces, were only available from a Toyota assembly plant in Texas. “How they managed to reach the frontiers of the caliphate,” Griffin says, “is anyone’s guess.”

Reading these books quickly was difficult, and the marginal notes and highlights I made along the way are evidence of how much more time it would take to grapple with them -- especially with regard to the authors’ differing understandings of the Arab Spring, and of the Syrian uprising in particular.

What they concur on, and no surprise, is the emerging status quo, with the Islamic State obliging the United States and Iran to act as allies for the foreseeable future, despite the saber-rattling impulses toward one another. The situation was paradoxical and hard to imagine as stable even before the terrorist attacks of last week. Is there even a word for how things stand now?


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