Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State by Nicolas Henin (Book Review #61 of 2016)
Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State
(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.)
While the author was held captive by ISIS in Raqqa for 10 months and witnessed the murder of his friends/colleagues and is well-qualified to comment on the behavior of ISIS, he instead finds it more imperative to write about the larger tragedy in Syria that has taken over 200,000 lives and displaced millions. His story goes untold in favor of making a plea to the world about greater understanding about this conflict. The book is a history of the war from the vantagepoint of Syria's failed state. Syria and Iraq are forever linked, they are both in the vicinity of the "cradle of civilization" and the political solution to ISIS must be implemented simultaneously between Iraq and Syria. Henin offers observations as well as opinionated recommendations. His ultimate aim is to "drain the swamp" of myths that feed both ISIS' and Assad's power thus the ongoing war.
Henin quotes most frequently from Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan's co-authored book. Being French, he quotes heavily from French sources and is able to criticize the work of French intelligence in collaborating with the Assad regime. He also frequently cites the work of James Glassman. Beyond those, I would recommend reading Jessica Stern and JM Berger's book ISIS along with Joby Warrick's Black Flags as complementary, particularly on events in Iraq. Reese Erlich's Inside Syria is also helpful on the corruption of the Assad regime and the early days of the Syrian uprising.
Henin's first goal is to counter Syrian government propoganda, produced by well-paid marketing firms, that Bashar al-Assad is somehow running a secular state akin to Turkey; Syria is sectarian, not secular. His father had a long history of murdering Sunnis, and Assad has maintained a policy of doling out favoritism to minority groups in exchange for tacit support. He writes that Assad's regime was likely more corrupt than his father's, his own family further consolidating the oligarchic economic structure to enrich the Assads. He cites specific examples of this, including a contract over a cellphone monopoly. He gives a quick bio of Bashar and cites others that there have been three major transformations in Assad's life: The first was when his older brother died, the second was his military training to make him look more manly upon return from the UK (where he earned his doctorate in opthomalogy; a field he chose because, he claimed, he "could not stand the sight of blood"), and the last was when his father died and he assumed power and began to think of himself "as God."
Assad's state has proven "fundamentally incapable of reforming itself." Early Assad concessions to give greater rights and ostensibly freer speech were met with harsh crackdowns, reversals, and disappointment. The "mafia state" that has been erected will not share power or profit, and much of this war is about who controls the resources to enrich themselves. Before the Arab Spring, there had been a two-year drought that left the wider peasantry outside the major centers of Damascus and Aleppo impoverished and angry. These joined the uprisings, first peacefully, then were met with bullets. In 2013, Assad released thousands of radical Islamists from prison at the behest of Syria's security services because now they could be justified in saying they were fighting criminals and terrorists. That was an opening of Pandora's Box that gave fledgling radical groups the manpower they needed. As groups like ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front formed, the Assad regime began collaborating with them. Nusra was allowed control of certain oil fields, providing they send shipments to regime-held territories. (Not mentioned by the author, but Russia would later accuse Turkey of being similarly involved in these deals-- support for Al Nusra against Assad in exchange for oil). Henin cites evidence that Assad and ISIS have collaborated at some points, Assad is able to play groups off each other to his own advantage. It is a "symbiotic relationship," ISIS needs Assad as a foil and recruitment tool, Assad needs ISIS to maintain the support of minorities.
Perhaps it all started Assad seized on the the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 to export potential threats to his regime from Islamic fundamentalists. He ostensibly paid fundamentalist clerics to identify and recruit jihadi fighters to send across the border. His intelligence services saw this "honeypot" as a good way to rid the country of young potential terrorists; they would either die or be arrested in Iraq. As terrorists flowed from around the world down the Syrian "jihad highway" they could be identified. ISIS is partly blow-back from this. A cleric who had engaged in this traffiking was later found mysteriously assassinated, perhaps by government cover-up or revenge by those who got wise.
It became all too easy once Colin Powell made his speech to the UN claiming that al-Zarqawi was the magic link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, elevating Zarqawi to a status that caused recruits to flock to him. Henin retells those days of Iraq (he was there), the near civil war that had unfolded by 2006, and noting that US officials were largely ignorant of Sunni-Shiia rivalry. When Bremmer disbanded the army and banned the Baathist party, the stage was set for Sunni insecurity. Henin notes the support ISIS got in Northern Iraq in 2014 from Baathist strongholds, once again responding to what they saw. ISIS and Baathists both essentially share a goal of "Sunnistan" free of Shiia threat. Gen. David Petraeus was the first to incorporate sectarian recognition into his strategy, based on his reading of French strategy in colonial Algeria. Petraeus' greatest contribution was the brilliant idea to pay insurgents not to fight-- people forget that this is essentially what COIN is about. But Henin explains setting up city councils with proportionate representation from all sects lessened the value of the title "Iraqi," and succeeded in dividing rather than uniting. The Iraqi army doesn't need military training today, it needs allegiance to a state; that is unlikely anytime soon and Henin concedes a united Sunni-Shia-Kurd Iraq is probably unrealistic going forward. Henin cites psychological studies of various cultures in making his point that it is stability what people crave. They will always trade individual freedom for stability. Hence, villages could embrace ruthless ISIS because they at least established a law and order.
After Zarqawi was killed, COIN succeeded in getting insurgents to lay down arms, and relative order was established, the Islamic fundamentalists either moved on to other countries or faded into the Iraqi background. When al-Maliki consolidated power among the Shia and replaced competent Sunni officials (particularly in the army) with cronies, Sunnis looked to themselves for security. Once the Syrian uprising created a power vaccuum in Syria and thousands of jihadis were released from Syrian prisons, the stage was set. Once Iraq responded to the ISIS threat by inviting the Iranian government into the country, giving up sovereignty, it confirmed Sunni suspicious and likely ended any hope of reconciliation.
Henin maintains that Assad exacerbated sectarian tensions in Syria by historically doling out favors and tax breaks to non-Sunni minorities. If Syria is a "secular" regime, why was Hezbollah invited in and supported to attack Syrian civilians of all stripes? Why are non-Alawite neighborhoods left untouched by bombs? Even before the war, Christian clergy got cars and tax breaks. He cites some evidence that stories of ISIS' persecution of Christians may have been exaggerated by Assad's apparatus in order to gain Western support, indeed Western Christians immediately signed petitions calling for further attacks on ISIS and mentioning very little about Assad. This may be the most controversial of Henin's book. He does not discuss the mass kidnappings and rapes of Yezidi Kurds, for example, and writes that while ISIS' deeds are indefensible, they pale compared to the bombings, chemical weapons attacks, and systematic dismemberment of Syria by Assad while the West stands by and watches. Christians must pay the Islamic head tax and are forbidden to proscelytize, display crosses, pray publicly, or ring church bells, but is that so bad, asks Henin?
Henin writes favorably of the Free Syrian Army and a missed opportunity by the West to arm them. He would seem to side with the Petraeus-Clinton-Panetta side circa 2012 that the US should have armed them. He notes the agreements that FSA affiliates signed in Europe committing themselves to peaceful coexistence and no reprisals after the war as a better alternative than whatever we'll get now. But the rebels face a few problems that weaken this argument: First, Henin admits they do not want to be seen as Western puppets. Second, the Gulf states and Iranians have vested interests in controlling the outcome of this war and who gets the upper hand. They have influenced rebel groups and will continue to do so. Third, Henin writes that much of the war is now about who controls the commanding heights of the economy. In Iraq and Syria, tribes and warlords are fighting for their own self-interest and not some united end result. There has obviously been a massive "brain drain" in the millions who have fled the country as well.
Henin is critical of support and hype for the Kurdish PYD; they are weak, widely unpopular, and are avowed Marxists. He seems to resent how the fight for Kobane was portrayed as a heroic turning point while the rest of Syria was continually ignored.
Some of the Free Syrian Army and other groups were seemingly easily radicalized because they had to parade themselves like devoutly religious peacocks in order to compete for Gulf money and weapons. It was a show. Arms went to the most devout, and recruits went with whatever group was best equipped. Henin wishes we could go back in time to when Assad crossed Obama's "red line" and Obama did nothing about it. (Former Ambassador Ford and others have also pointed to this moment as what demoralized the resistance and kept anti-Assad forces within the government from betraying Assad.)
What can/should the West do, according to Henin? First, recognize Assad for what he is: the head of a mafia state seeking to enrich himself as much as any totalitarian dictator ever has. Henin applauds John Kerry on this point. Second, the media needs to stop feeding into ISIS' hype and meeting its objective of getting attention for itself. ISIS was too small and lacked the support to ever take Baghdad, such fears were ridiculously unfounded. Even at its height, it could not support a very large swathe of territory. (Henin would probably have underestimated what it is taking for the coalition to drive ISIS out of Northern Iraq today.) The media needs to stop making such a big deal of small-scale attacks in Europe and the US when hundreds are dying daily in Syria. Henin is critical of media coverage of his journalist friends' death and how ISIS exploited Western outrage. Henin is outraged that the West suddenly started bombing once an American was beheaded rather than when thousands had been gassed by Assad. As Stern and Berger wrote in their book, the US needs to not "rush into war every time someone waves a black flag" because this is also what ISIS wants. ISIS' magazine is called Dabiq because of the prophecy of an endtimes battle that will take place there; ISIS desperately wants US boots on the ground to fulfill that prophecy and cause recruits to flock to its side. Henin further recommends looking into "humanitarian corridors" and a no-fly zone intent on protecting civilians from the one-sided bombardment. (I'm sympathetic to a tit-for-tat no fly zone that many others have proposed and Turkey has been calling for since 2011.) The war would still take place on the ground, but it would be much less tilted toward Assad and less costly in terms of human life. Assad would be more likely to quit than he is now, at least. As it is, Syrians see US fighter planes flying sorties while Assad and the Russians are flying sorties bombing civilians and see obvious coordination in the air. Lastly, the West should treat citizens who leave to join ISIS differently than today; it should look to deradicalized those who return home (particularly disgruntled ones) rather than promising to imprison them. Some truly regret their decisions after living a day in ISIS territory and need psychological help rather than a jail cell which has shown only to further embitter and radicalize.
Henin warns that, ultimately, any solution to the Syrian conflict must be political, include both Iraq and Syria entirely, and must have everyone at the table-- from Hezbollah to democrats. How we get from now to then is impossible to see. In all, I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. I've found there is not one book you can read on ISIS that tells the whole story. This should definitely be part of any collection of books looking at the problem from all angles. It does not delve much into IS theology or practice.
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)
Jihad Academy: The Rise of the Islamic State - Nicholas Henin (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)