Tuesday, November 22, 2016
ISIS: The State of Terror by Stern and Berger (Book Review #60 of 2016)
ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and JM Berger
(I finished this book concurrently with other books examining Al Qaeda and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and this review should be read in the context of the other books. A list of many of the books is at the bottom of this post.)
I recommend reading Black Flags - The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick before this book. Warrick provides more of the context connected to the vaccuum that gave al-Baghdadi's group an opportunity, as well as the view of state actors who have been following similar activities for years. Stern and Berger include a summary of that history in their first 30 pages and pick up where it leaves off. Berger's expertise is in Islamic history while Stern has a background in intelligence. The book contains an appendix which is a doctoral thesis on Salafism and Islamic jihad written by Megan K. McBride. McBride and other well-documented sources provide Stern and Berger with insights into the mindset of ISIS as they examine their ideology (particularly eschatology) and psychology relative to other extremists. The book does a good job examining some of the details of ISIS' operations, particularly their recruiting strategies online and the services they provide to territories they occupy. They lay out a basic recommendation for US policy going forward (non-intervention).
The authors have to begin with definitions, namely so as to be PC enough to defend themselves in various circles. Books touching Islamic beliefs these days all have to define terms like "jihad," "Islamist," "Islamic extremist," and even defend which version of ISIS/ISIL they use so as to clarify their positions from authors of varying political persuasions; including a doctoral thesis as their Appendix appears to be as much a defensive measure as anything. The authors begin the story with the precursor to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi pioneered "management of savagery" that Baghdadi later perfected, both men were influenced by a tract by that name published in 2004 by a scholar under the pesudonym Abu Bakr al-Najri and ISIS' online publications seem to borrow heavily from it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Management_of_Savagery The authors also step back to the founding of Al Qaeda, its operational structure of autonomous/leaderless cell groups, its recruiting methods and involvement with affiliated groups, and its conflict with Zarqawi's methods in Iraq. Just as Al Qaeda was wary of Zarqawi and Zarqawi reveled in a US government bounty on his life equal to that of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda has also had violent disagreements with ISIS.
Like others with eschatological goals (see Trofimov's The Seige of Mecca), a connection needed to be found to the Prophet's family, and Baghdadi is believed to be descended from Muhammad. Dr. Baghdadi was imprisoned by the US during the invsation, a time that allowed him to network and gain respect among others with radical beliefs. Once Iraq had gained a semblence of stability and extremists were either captured or in hiding, Baghdadi's clan bided their time. The authors contend that the Obama Administration ignored warnings by Ambassador Ryan Crocker that al-Maliki's corrupt administration in Iraq was alienating Sunnis and could cause a widespread uprising. Al-Maliki's increased sectarionism combined with instability in Syria and the Assad regime's reprisals against Sunnis created an insecurity among Sunni tribes that helped provide fertilizer for ISIS' cause just as it had for Zarqawi's.
The authors draw on many sources to examine ISIS' use of social media and high-quality videogame-like videos for recruitment. The videos and the messages' psychological effects on the Iraqi army became clear as they retreated in 2014. (See a recent article in The Atlantic on "How Twitter is Changing Modern Warfare"). Message boards answer questions aspiring jihadis might have about joining the ranks and offer advice on traveling to the Levant. The message boards also reveal tougher questions like "If I join ISIL, could I be killed by other fellow Muslims?" Stern is familiar with the intelligence community's dilemma of needing to see communication to gather intelligence but also wanting to suspend Twitter accounts and shut down websites to reduce recruitment.
The authors examine the psychology of ISIS relative to various cults, extremists, and totalitarian regimes. ISIS deliberately uses mass images of violence to erode empathy, which begets more violence. ISIS rejects universal moral principles (see ISIS' fighters rape of non-Muslim women as "prayers"). They recruit children into their deeds similar to other totalitarian organizations. Baghdadi maintains the authority of a cleric, able to bend the Quran and hadiths as he chooses as he engages in "ijtihad." They see themselves as fulfilling endtime hadith prophecies such as "If you see him give him your allegiance, even if you have to crawl over ice, because surely he is the Caliph of Allah, the Mahdi. If you see the black (meaning war) flags coming from Khorasan (Afghanistan), join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice, for this is the army of the Caliph, the Mahdi and no one can stop that army until it reaches Jerusalem."
(Son of Majah, Al Busiri, Al Hakim, Ahmad Nuaym, Ad-Daylami, Hasan, son of Sufyaan, and Abu Nuaym.)"
(this website gives many hadith origins of black flags and Mahdi prophecies). The authors cite Karen Armstrong's study of religious fundamentalists--there is a universal belief among religious fundamentalists of all stripes that the "secular world" is determined to wipe out religion.
ISIS funding and operations get a bit of attention. Where it fills a vaccuum, ISIS seems to enjoy setting up civil services for communities. It enjoys setting up complaint departments where local citizens can bring their grievances and seek justice, electricity, water, etc. At the time of publishing, ISIS was in a fight with Kurds over Kobane, which was very much in doubt.
ISIS' operations have been enough to recruit thousands into Syria and Iraq from around the globe, including America. The authors ponder the evidence that several hundred American passport holders have gone over. They propose finding ways to counter ISIS' message, particularly by using the testimony of those who have left ISIS disgruntled to show the hardship and exploitation that takes place in the would-be Caliphate. Clearly, Muslims who reject ISIS' interpretations of the Quran also need to speak up. Stern and Berger argue against using ground forces for occupation in either Syria or Iraq. Iraq would have taken several decades of occupation and reconstruction to become viable, so don't bother occupying it again unless we intend to have a large long-term presence there. (I find most Americans forget that the Presidential campaign in 2008 featured John McCain explaining that a decades-long occupation would be necessary, just as we still have European and Japanese bases since WWII. Voters rejected that.) "Don't rush into war every time someone waves a black flag because this is just what Osama bin Laden predicted would happen." The authors would tell the President-elect "let's not become the enemy we are trying to fight," encouraging US policymakers to be judicious in done strikes and the use of enhanced interrogation. (I recommend former FBI agent Ali Soufan's book on these points as well.) (The doctoral thesis Appendix gives a brief history of Salafism ranging from the 1300s to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood to ISIS today. The author's point is that jihadi Salafism is not monolithic; there can be differences between Taqfiris from Africa and Salafis from Saudi Arabia. ISIS' beliefs make it a small sect; there are less-extreme extremists, if one can find that comforting.)
I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It attempts to combine recent history explaining the birth of ISIS with a psychological analysis of ISIS' beliefs, methods, and strategies, and that is a difficult blend. To really get into the depths of Islamic history and philosophy, I recommend the second list of books below.
Other Al Qaeda and ISIS-related books reviewed in 2016:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
ISIS: The State of Terror - Jessica Stern and JM Berger (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed - Eric Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)
The Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow (1 star)
Jihad Academy: The Rise of the Islamic State - Nicholas Henin (forthcoming)
A History of Islam, The Middle East, and Arab nations (mostly 2016 review):
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
In God's Path - The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Robert G. Hoyland (4 stars)
Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses)- John Esposito (1.5 stars)
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes - Tamim Ansary (4.5 stars)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield (3.5 stars)
History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (4.5 stars)
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 (Great Courses) by Salim Yuqub (3.5 stars)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1.5 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia - Scott Anderson (5 stars)