Tuesday, November 29, 2016
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn (Book Review #68 of 2016)
The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising by Patrick Cockburn
Mr. Cockburn has worked as a journalist on the ground in the Middle East for years and seen the mess up close, he is also familiar with the Lebanese civil war that he often compares Syria to in the book. He advocates the "bang bang journalism" that gives readers an up-front picture and criticizes colleagues (without names) whose newspapers have them cover war from, say, Istanbul. But the reality is that this book is short and other larger books give a wider view, and you can get most of what Cockburn has written from the various articles of Cockburns in The Independent and other authors in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and others. It is limited in the time period prior to 2013. Cockburn's own analysis only differs from the mainstream at points, and subtly, and not always correctly. Joby Warrick's book gives a more complete backstory of Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq that was the forerunner to ISIS that Cockburn summarizes without as much detail. Other works like Stern & Berger's ISIS and Henin's Jihad Academy delve into the eschatology, operations, and psychology of ISIS better, and several other books do a better job on Syria as a whole (see list below.)
One criticism I have of the book is that the author ignores all of the hawkish advice that President Obama did NOT follow on Syria; Cockburn makes it sound like Obama went with the military/CIA/Saudi recommendations all along. He writes that Obama asked Congress for money to arm rebels in 2014 without recognizing that he went through all of 2012 and most of 2013 without arming rebels against the advice of Clinton, Panetta, Petraeus and others. Obama has famously given interviews being critical of the idea that "a bunch of farmers and school teachers" could take up arms against Assad and win. Cockburn praises the more hawkish Sec. Clinton's criticism of the Saudis' funding of Wahabbism, which makes his criticism of Obama seem a bit uneven.
Further, there is a blurring of all the Sunni jihadi groups into one. Cockburn writes that "Al Qaeda is an idea, not an organization." That would seem to make all the books and intelligence on the details of that organization's structure seem fanciful. If he'd said "The Caliphate is an idea, not an organization" that would be correct as he is basically saying their Sunni-based theology and eschatology are the same. But their organizations are different enough that they are literally killing one another. Cockburn notes a video threatening Jordan in which ISIS claimed they were their descendents of Zarqawi and writes about how in 2013 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi broke from the Jahbat al-Nusra group he helped founded, but he does not mention the reasons. Nor does he mention the history of Zarqawi's issues with Al Qaeda prior to 2003. (Cockburn does not provide much detail about Baghdadi himself, maybe strange given the title of the book, but I think he simply leaves it to other authors to cover.)
Cockburn recounts the failures of Nuri al-Maliki as PM in Iraq, which could only have been made complete by the simultaneous Sunni uprising in Syria that led men to arms and created furhter Sunni insecurity. He surmises that Iraq could soon descend into a civil war similar to that of Syria that could likewise rage on for years. The end of sectarian hostilities in 2006 was only temporary; hostilities have picked up where they've left off (and now Iran is playing a more obvious role). Cockburn surmises that drawing a map with sectarian boundaries could lead to more bloodshed similar to what was seen in India. (One wonders if the Balkans might be a better, more eventually peaceful outcome.) In reality, there was never a dividing line between radical jihadis and "moderate" rebels (although Cockburn later calls some elements of the FSA "secular"). Weapons going to Syrian rebels were always going to end up in ISIS' hands either by force or because ISIS had a lot of money-- even before Mosul and Northern Iraq fell, Cockburn writes that ISIS was collecting taxes in the millions, even in Northern Baghdad (is this substantiated?).
The author writes that it does little good to combat the symptoms of terrorism without attacking its cause--massive funding of Wahabbism by the Saudis. He notes the 9/11 report, reports from the EU and elsewhere that criticize Wahabbist funding of activities. Saudi primary school textbooks demonize Shiia, Jews, Christians, and others. He writes that Sunni Wahhabism crowds out other sects mainly because non-Sunni groups don't have access to Saudi funding to build mosques, centers, and other things Saudis are willing to fund worldwide. The Saudis bulldozed Shiia shrines in Bahrain. The 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, just as the Taliban operate freely in Pakistan and attack coalition troops in Afghanistan and we reward both countries with more weapons and aid. We do nothing to those countries precisely because they buy our weapons and other goods. Cockburn writes of how the Saudis (and other Gulf states) were quick to arm rebel groups. The Gulf States perhaps underestimated how quickly Assad would fall, that would seem to have been what global intelligence estimates indicated since Obama publicly stated his belief in such. He notes that two of the Saudi ministers meeting with Syrian rebels in Ankara in 2013 have lost their jobs, a rare event in the Kingdom suggestive of recognition of failure.
Another problem with the book is that perhaps Cockburn's distaste of Gulf actors tints his vision a bit too much. He is skeptical that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons and does not mention evidence to the contrary. He doesn't report much on events from 2011-2012, although he does note that Syria has always had deep sectarian divisions that the Syrian regime has tried to gloss over. Janine di Giovanni was on the ground interviewing rape and torture victims but Cockburn does not indicate much awareness of this period. It seems from the timeline of all these books that Assad was the first to call on Hezbollah and Iranian-backed troops for help before the Gulf states decided to counter by arming rebels. But Cockburn is correct with his reminder that truth is the first casualty of war. One reason ISIS was so effective is that their media showed a much more real portrayal of events than Iraqi or Syrian state television did, and the whole internet noticed.
The greatest value of this book is the author's reminder that the Lebanese civil war lasted 15 years and was a similar cast of characters with no good choices. There were 600 ceasefires that were ineffective or even laughed at, but they saved a lot of lives. He suggests that local ceasefires among the various factions will do a lot to save lives, but what ended the Lebanese civil war, ironically, was when the West finally allowed Syria to assert its control and its army into the country. People finally just got tired of fighting, writes Cockburn. Partitioning Iraq and Syria now would difficult and bloody. Frustratingly to the reader, the author offers no suggestions for ending the conflict in Syria or even a next step. 3 stars out of 5.
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)
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn (3 stars)
ISIS Exposed - Erick Stackelbeck (2.5 stars)
Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow and David French (1 star)
The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria - Janine di Giovanni (review forthcoming)