Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Morning They Came for Us by Janine di Giovanni (Book Review #69 of 2016)



The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria - Janine di Giovanni

(This is one of several books I reviewed in 2016 related to the rise of ISIS and the war in Syria. See full list below.)

This is a 5-star intimate portrait of how war affects people, as well as a good chronicle of how the Syrian uprising unfolded and quickly spun out of control. I recommend it along with Reese Erlich's Inside Syria for a portrait of the early days of the uprising in 2011-2012. Giovanni has worked as both a journalist and for the UNHCR. Her career interest is the hardship of the hardship of women in war, but this book tells the tales of Syrian men and boys as well. This is not an easy book to read, of all the books on the war I've seen, this is the most vivid in the recounting the testimonies of survivors and what the author witnessed herself. I am friends with a few Syrian refugees from Homs, and her description of what (almost slowly) unfolded in Homs fits with what they have said. I retell some of the horrors below, reader beware, because the world needs to know. She is not a disinterested actor and records her own feelings as she tries to do unbiased reporting.

The author begins in Belgrade, years after the Balkans War, the latest of war-torn countries she has lived in. She is made sick by all the rape and war crime survivors who go about their lives while their perpetrators, sometimes now their neighbors, walk free, all living together in the same community--there is no real justice, everyone just wants to move on. The author has traveled all over the world and seen many wars, they all begin roughly the same. When the Arab Spring began and she heard of brutality against women she thought "we are allowing it to happen all over again," and went to Syria to report.

Giovanni has a great appreciation for Syrian history and culture, even the subtleties of the Syrian Arabic dialect. She gets written permission from Damascus to venture about, she has surprisingly few minders. She surveys a Syria that is only "Syria" by the post-WWI French Mandate and has plenty of factions. While they may have sung patriotic songs about "Syria is one" in school, regions of the area "feel" different depending on whether they are Alawite, Christian, Sunni, etc. But there are pro-Assad Sunni as well as anti-Assad Alawites; the war gets more sectarian as it goes. It seems that early on, 2011, Hezbollah or other Farsi-speaking armed groups were seen confronting protesters. Things get more sectarian as the violence continues. The Saudis are quick to put in arms, people start to get radicalized. The author never mentions that Assad released hundreds of anti-regime jihadis from jail intentionally, writing that even in 2011, before ISIS, people suspected and feared the Salafists.

The book is filled with examples and anecdotes from families the author comes across. As the war begins in 2011, Giovanni finds a Damascus in denial. People downtown are partying to the sound of shelling. Asma al-Assad is the elegant Western face that the Syrian government is keen to show the world, she was interviewed in Vogue and had friends in Western fashion and arts circles. Her popularity is part of the larger facade. Few are willing to acknowledge a war is beginning, much less that the Assad regime may be "putting down" its own people-- unless you're a member of the opposition. Giovanni interviews the fearless ones that are publicly opposed as well as the secret ones who run websites or write blogs. Some disappear publicly, some are taken from their offices. Everywhere there is the feared "Mukhabarat," Syrian intelligence forces. di Giovanni's connections are largely Western-oriented, initially it is actors, artists, and others with opportunities abroad. The denial is palpable until 2012, when things get bad enough that people begin to question what they're told-- namely that it's all foreigners doing the fighting against Assad. A large car bombing in Damascus in 2012 and the assassination of several in Assad's inner circle have people questioning, and the author meets some who want to travel to other provinces to find out what is going on. A mortician quietly tells her that he's seeing 105 dead Syrian soldiers a week, a number increasingly hard to hide; "No one likes to count the dead."

The first detailed story Giovanni tells is that of Nada, a female activist who was given up by a fellow activist while he was being tortured. She likewise is beaten mercilessly. Rape is listed as the primary reason that refugees have fled Syria, and Giovanni recounts several of the tales from survivors; males are also raped in the jails. Many of the acts were committed in prisons and in homes that were being raided by the Mukhabarat, although there are stories on both sides. With them come PTSD and large numbers of suicides. One estimate at the time put 36,000 held by the regime with another 12,000 detained by ISIS.

Giovanni details the war from a few cities: Ma'loula in the South, Homs in the North, and Aleppo. When she visits some famous sites she takes pictures knowing that these sites may never been seen again.

Ma'loula was the home of ancient Assyrian-speaking Christians. It was first attacked by the government, then retaken by Jahbat al-Nusra rebels with atrocities committed on both sides. In March 2012, the author makes her first trip to Homs where the battles began in 2011 and lasted until the opposition withdrew in 2014. She interviews people from the Baba Amr neighborhood, including boys who were tortured while their fathers were killed. There is one particularly gruesome story about a boy tortured by medical professionals, they throw him in a hospital morgue to sleep on top of corpses and the dying, among whom is his dead brother. He's rescued by a mortician who declares him dead and a nurse working with the FSA. She returns to Homs in October 2012, this time as a government-appointed embed with the Syrian army-- she is told by a press officer to report the "truth" about the foreigners fighting against Syria. She witnesses the battle from the Syrian side and the back-and-forth nature of urban warfare.

She retells what is known about the Darayya massacre in August, 2012. There were stories of FSA hostage-taking and prisoner swaps. There was a massacre of Syrian soldiers, but also stories of Farsi-speaking fighters committing atrocities. Who actually knows?

The author visits Aleppo and witnesses the siege, an outraged population, and barrel bombs. In 2006, Aleppo was an award-winning tourism spot that was having a renaissance as foreigners looked to buy property there, six years later it was hell. She interviews a FSA-supported bread maker, one of the last lifelines of food in the city. She witnesses a near-riot after the UN Security Council vote on Syria is blocked by Russia and China (2012). A man angrily berates her with news that the UN had promised that hospitals wouldn't be bombed, and yet they are. The author watched a young baby die in the hospital from an ordinary infection and it sticks with her because she is a mother herself; that has changed her view of war. She includes here own thoughts in prose "War is..."

Steve Sotloff, the journalist later beheaded by ISIS, was a long-time friend of di Giovanni's who had expressed interest in helping her own work interviewing refugees. She had also met Kayla Mueller before her capture. Later, di Giovanni would work recording the stories of women in UN refugee camps outside Syria. This book is not for the squeamish. She's still writing and editing for Newsweek, check out her website.

---------------------
Other Al Qaeda and ISIS-related books reviewed in 2016, in the chronological order I recommend reading them:
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)
The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria - Janine di Giovanni (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)

I also highly recommend Reese Erlich's 2014 book Inside Syria for other eyewitness accounts of the Syrian uprising (4 stars).

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)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Left of Boom by Douglas Laux with Ralph Pezzullo (Book Review #67 of 2016)



Left of Boom: How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Qaeda
(This book was one of several I reviewed in 2016 related to the US war on terror. See list below.)

This book had a lot to do with why I couldn't vote for Evan McMullin, even as a protest vote, in the 2016 election. I recommend reading it with Ali Soufan's Black Banners, which details the FBI's run-in with the CIA and their illegal, ineffective methods at interrogation and complicitness in terrorist activities by way of not sharing information the FBI could have used to prevent attacks. Laux's account of the CIA backs up Soufan's account for me. I have not yet read Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, Michael Morell's memoirs, and others, but I feel like I have seen and heard enough. Like Soufan's book and Mohamedou Slahi's Guantanamo Diary, much of this book is redacted by the CIA. Laux seems trying to blow the whistle on CIA incompetence but still does enough to glorify the CIA lifestyle that I'm certain the book will be a movie. What appears to be a highly-valuable field agent almost dies of an alcoholism-induced heart attack at age 29 from the stress of his work.

CIA officers are liars and killers trained and rewarded by your tax dollars and with little public oversight or accountability. They are not "bad" people, indeed recruits are generally disqualified if they drink or have smoked marijuana-- finding recruits that pass with such a clean record has become difficult in recent years. Hence, agents are made up of largely conservative people, it's easy to understand why a Mormon like McMullin would be an ideal fit. You just have to chuck your identity and morals at the door-- Country First. Surprisingly, most of the CIA is risk-averse, they are career-minded agents that are looking forward to retirement and pension just like any government worker. Hence, as Laux describes it, this culture contributes indirectly to one of the most inept operations in US government history--Afghanistan. (Maybe if it wasn't for all the other CIA follies such as Vietnam and not forseeing the fall of the Shah in Iran, etc.)

Laux gets an offer out of a college job fair and away he goes. Much of Laux's recruitment and CIA orientation is redacted, but he spends four months "on the farm" in Virginia doing interrogation training.  He comes across as the arrogant and immature type described by FBI agent Ali Soufan who decried CIA interrogators. He basically demands an action/hardship assignment and gets it. Laux has multiple romantic relationships in this book, all of which he has to keep his job as CIA officer secret. He's spent the last 10 months studying Pashto and can't explain that other than being a "contractor." In most cases, they're wise, but they want to be let in on a life he can't share. So, he becomes a good liar. Combine that isolation with the stress of keeping up with multiple, detailed, identities and passports and living in a hostile environment every day and you have the inevitable psychological self-destruction that occurs by the end of the book. Laux at least has the good sense to see a psychologist, who can't completely help him because Laux can't say exactly what he does. But the rapid spiral into very deep alcoholism is saved only by a angel-woman who does not know him but takes pity on him and saves his life. (Laux is probably a fascinatingly mysterious and physically strong specimen that attracts women, I imagine college students reading this and thinking "Jason Bourne-like life killing 'bad guys' while having romantic and dangerous rendezvous in Paris and drowning all your sorrows by hard-partying with alcohol sounds like an ideal life, sign me up!" After all, he's made the newspaper headlines in this book being courted like a Hollywood star.)

The author gets an assignment in Afghanistan in 2010 shortly after a bomber the CIA had thought was an Al Qaeda informant blew up a base and killed nine CIA officers. He's left at a remote Southern base (Wahid) with little info and from which the US military rarely ventures out. Alas, his Pashto training was for a Northern dialect and it takes him a while to get up to speed (but he does get to operate some in the North, which helps). "We haven't been in Afghanistan for ten years, but one year ten times," Laux writes of the one-year tours of duty that destroy any hope of policy continuation. Everyone wants to do their year as safely as possible, then punch out to their desk job in DC. Some CIA agents are simply learning names of wanted Taliban agents from locals who were learning names from US military radio broadcasts, and then selling them to the CIA agents for cash, who would then include the names in their reports back to Langley. Amazing incompetence. If an operation you helped design went bad, your "head rolled," so there was little risk in not actually doing anything.

Laux wanted to go after the Taliban itself, which were more dangerous, but the US had declared war on Al Qaeda so they were the target. As Richard Holbrooke would say about the war, "We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country." Laux recruits a Pashto driver to spy on Taliban activity and begins developing a network of informants, giving the military valuable intel on roadside bombs. He writes of pedophile warlords and other such things that have made the news in this quagmire. However, his own agency undermines him; one of his high-valued contacts is treated badly in Kabul by incompetent CIA officers and an opportunity is lost. The highest-value target that Laux identifies, codenamed Wolverine, is unmasked in a scene that is redacted-- Wolverine is funded by _______ and the government will not believe reports that connect him to _________, and he is eventually released. The reader is left to guess who the ____ is. Possibly Pakistan's ISI, possibly the Saudis, or someone else? The supply chain through Pakistan was frought with problems. At one point, 600 trucks carrying weapons and supplies from Pakistan and Afghanistan were either hijacked or stolen from and the government did nothing.

There are trips back to DC and rendezvous with one of his girlfriends in Paris, in which he's tailed by some counterintelligence. Relationships are all built around lies and emails are obviously difficult. At one point, he has emergency surgery that he refuses to let slow him down. He has so many identities in his head that his life is a maze of confusion and he basically tries to destroy himself. A woman named Emma, who was keeping bar during one of his benders, sees how hard he's trying to kill himself and vows to help him.

Laux ends his career working on Syria, he was on a team meeting with Syrian opposition in an undisclosed country (he needs a translator, suggesting to me this really happened). After Sec. of State Clinton visits Turkey and claims the US is considering a no-fly zone, the US lost all credibility. Barack Obama's "red line" was crossed and all hope was lost; the Syrians refuse to meet with him or the CIA any longer. He writes that the Free Syrian Army has lost all faith in the US. Supposedly, a plan Laux had worked on was eventually presented to Obama. In the book, his policy advice on Syria is to either get all the way out or get all the way in, don't muddle around and stick our fingers in the dike like we have been doing making false promises. Getting all the way in would mean setting up a multi-national decades-long occupation that can keep peace and rebuild in Syria and Iraq, something no one has the stomach or desire to do-- so the US should stay out, as hard as that may be for Syrians and others.

Much of this book is redacted, if you've read other CIA-redacted works then this won't surprise you. But some of the redactions are more tantalizing than I've seen in other works, which actually make me question their authenticity or purpose--mystery makes things more attractive. I give this book 3.5 stars. It contributes a good chapter to the failed campaign of Afghanistan and takes a shine of the CIA's work as an opaque agency, even if it seems to make the work the agents do sound "cool" to a generation raised on video games. But take Laux's testimony to heart, the demons of his work almost robbed him of life at age 29, they certainly ended his career.
-----------------------------
Other related books reviewed in 2016:
Foreign policy/Americans traveling in Middle East and Central Asia:
Between Two Worlds - Roxana Saberi (2.5 stars)
Children of Jihad - Jared Cohen (4 stars)
The Taliban Shuffle - Kim Barker (4 stars)
A Rope and a Prayer - David Rohde and Kristin Mulvihill (3.5 stars)
Left of Boom - Douglas Laux (3.5 stars)
Fault Lines - ...Understanding America's Role in the...Middle East - Don Liebich (2.5 stars)

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  - Erick Stackelbeck (2.5 stars)
Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow and David French (1 star)

Also useful for perspective on Afghanistan/Pakistan:
Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Rope and a Prayer by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill (Book Review #66 of 2016)



A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill

(I reviewed this book with several others on Americans living in Afghanistan and Pakistan and other parts of the Middle East. See list below.)

If you want to know what it's like to be a hostage in a hostile land, or the wife of a hostage trying to maintain a normal life while also working on whatever channels are available to free your husband, this is your book. If you enjoyed the season of Serial that looked at the captivity of Bo Bergdahl, you might like this book better. This book might be The Taliban Shuffle if a kidnapping had happened.

Rohde was already an accomplished journalist working with the Christian Science Monitor at the time he was kidnapped in 2008 and held for seven months. A decade before, he had been kidnapped by Serbians while reporting on the Balkans war; his reporting gave the world evidence of Milosevic's war crimes. Richard Holbrooke had negotiated his release and once Holbrooke learns he's going to Afghanistan, he almost jokingly cautions him on getting captured a second time. Rohde had been in New York on 9/11, had already made a career reporting on the harsh treatment of US prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo-- making him an ironic kidnapping target. Rohde admits that his ambition got the best of him, he reached out for one great story, one risky interview that would have really made the book he was working on Afghanistan valuable. He had just gotten married and his wife deserves great credit for helping his situation. The proceeds of this book go to Kiva.org and another non-profit, meaning the author did not personally benefit from his (and his employees') captivity, which I greatly respect.

Rohde gives a depressing account of the war in Afghanistan, of the lack of coordination and aid. At some point, President Bush favored a "Marshall Plan" for the country, but this was shot down by Donald Rumsfeld who publicly said the US did not have the resources to engage in nation-building. So, the US would muddle through, particularly after the Iraq invasion began and world attention was diverted elsewhere. USAID had few members (and according to Kim Barker's book there was no central agency coordinating military and civilian efforts). Rohde decries the amount of aid going to Afghanistan as inadequate from 2001-2005. But judging from World Bank statistics over that period, Afghanistan received $2.5 billion in aid in 2005, an ever-increasing amount. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/DT.ODA.ALLD.CD?end=2005&name_desc=false&start=2001 Other countries, like the Congo, received similar amounts and perhaps that works to Rohde's point-- Afghanistan was a bigger mission than was funded (Iraq, by comparison, received over $22 billion in foreign aid in 2005). Rohde writes that much of the aid was lost to corruption and to the Taliban-- that's sad but true in just about every war-torn country.

Rohde is kidnapped with his translator Tahir Ludin, and their driver, Asadullah "Asad" Mangal, mostly likely by the Haqqani network. Like Bergdahl's kidnapping, there is a hierarchy the kidnappers are subject to, and whom they want to impress. Pashtun Wali is what keeps the men alive, they are shown hospitality. (See Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor for a similar tale, as well as the similarity of a husband-wife team telling the story from different sides.) Unlike Bergdahl, they were fed well and had electricity, warm water, fruit, etc. The Taliban wanted a prisoner swap, and then millions of dollars.

Perhaps the most amazing part of the story is that multiple news agencies worked together to keep the kidnapping a secret. Wikipedia even agreed to combat efforts to put the news on their pages; the less public the kidnapping, the lower the ransom and the less incentive for others to be kidnapped. Initially, the Taliban wanted to keep it out of the media because they did not want elders to know. The Red Cross does not get involved in negotiations, and Kristen has to work a network of sources while keeping her day job. The US government officially does not negotiate with terrorists but off-the-record encourages families to negotiate. Mulvihill has a love-hate relationship with the newspapers' lawyers, government experts, and others that are helping. She decides to hire a private firm to do the negotiation. They hire a team of ex-military contractors who are supposedly doing scouting on the ground. It's never clear whether the intelligence they are gathering is accurate or whether the family is just being played/extorted by these guys. (The company was later investigated for shady dealings with the military.) Kristen has to keep her hopes up but realistic. Their families offer a great deal of moral support. The Taliban are cheap enough to make a collect phone call in November, 2008. They believe Kristen's family is made of money, like millions of dollars are no big deal for Amerians. Another time, David calls home and leaves a message on the answering machine. There are negotiations and demands. At one point, Mulvihill meets the new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and gets a strong word of support.

Rohde ponders a hunger strike as well as fakes a suicide attempt, putting pressure on his guards. A nearby drone strike shows the company is in grave danger and enrages his guards. One night in Pakistan, he and Tahir make their escape, leaving their house ostensibly to use the bathroom and lowering themselves out a window with a rope. David feels bad that they did not inform their driver, Asad, but he also does not know if Asad or anyone is trustworthy. Once they arrive on a Pakistani base, things get tense again as they want the Americans contacted before the ISI can find out-- as they do not trust the ISI since they are so complicitly working with the Taliban. The Taliban guards apparently beat Asad after finding him alone, but he later is able to escape as well. Fears of the ISI are not unfounded, but the men are safely carried away and Rohde is reunited with his family.

It's a good story and the reader is glad that it only lasted months and had a happy ending. While deplorable, the Taliban were much more humane to their guests than, say, ISIS would be. From a 2016 vantage point, there does not appear to be much long-term hope from the international community regarding the country-- we never fixed the problems Rohde identified. Rohde advocates somehow empowering Pashtu moderates in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help counter the extremism of the Taliban. In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. Some of the political commentating was perhaps a bit much, but Rohde is as credible a source about what happens there as one can find.
-----------------
Other books by Americans abroad, in the general region, reviewed in 2016:
Between Two Worlds - Roxana Saberi (2.5 stars)
Children of Jihad - Jared Cohen (4 stars)
The Taliban Shuffle - Kim Barker (4 stars)
A Rope and a Prayer - David Rohde and Kristin Mulvihill (4 stars)
Left of Boom - Douglas Laux (3.5 stars)

Other books on US intervention in Afghanistan/Pakistan related to the review above:
Lone Survivor - Marcus Luttrell
Descent Into Chaos - Ahmed Rashid

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Taliban Shuffle aka Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Barker (Book Review #65 of 2016)


The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan

I found out about this book just as the movie was coming out in 2016, I listened to an interview on WBEZ World View's podcast in early 2016 where she described some of the events in the book (published 2011) and what it is like to try and readjust to life in the States after her journey. I am glad to have found the book but doubt I will see the movie.

The author worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2004-2009. Much of the book is about the relationships and their inevitable awkwardness, particularly the ones one builds as an expat who lives in a foreign culture while tied to their home culture. Being an "unaccompanied woman" in Afghanistan and Pakistan is hazardous duty; the same qualities that allowed her flexibility to get the difficult assignments--single, childless--mean she will endlessly be asked about her marital status. There's also a loneliness that comes from covering traumatic events in those cultures, like terrorist attacks, that most back home could never understand. She is likely PTSD, witnessed a lifetime of bad things in her five years, and like many expats finds comfort in the expat community where smuggling in alcohol and "hooking up" with each other is how one copes. Some over there are adrenaline junkies, struggle with depression, have multiple identities, etc.

Barker worked Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Chicago Tribune for several years. She has to deal with the shrinking budget of newspapers as they wither from internet competition as well as compete for news-worthiness in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq. "There are no 'Green Zones' in Kabul," there is no hiding from the risk or culture. Barker writes of the checkpoints in Afghanistan where women guards basically get to molest other women. Probably the greatest scandal from the book is that now-Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif tried to become her "friend" (wink) after months of establishing a more formal relationship with her, including offering her a job, helping her get interviews, trying to arrange romantic relationships for her with others, buying her gifts, etc. Barker turns him down. It's an example of the problem of relying on various nationals' hospitality and not knowing whether it's hospitality or with some sort of strings attached. In some cases, Barker knows she's being used or what the motive is, but she needs the story and the connections that it will open for her.

Another official who Barker had an awkward relationship with was Abdul Sabet, who Hamid Karzai had appointed Attorney General. Sabet was supposedly rooting out corruption but was corrupt himself. He made enemies on all sides. Barker is not sure what to think about him, but at one point he apparently begins stalking her.

Barker relies on her interpreter, Farouq, for much of the book; apparently they are still friends. He gets her into places and helps her out; but relationships with nationals you pay to help you can be awkward for both sides. If she has to cut his pay, for example, the friendship gets threatened.

Barker is able to have hidden and not-so-hidden romantic relationships with Westerners; one of whom goes nuts. Her travels and their travels make relationships difficult. Like several books on my 2016 list, relationships dealing with mysteries and secrecy generally are frought with tension and don't end well. One could see how scenes where Barker gets to fire guns while out in the wilderness with warlords would make for a good movie.

But the book is also a unique window into how badly the war in Afghanistan was going, how incompetent and dangerous the work really was, and how low morale was among troops. Eight years into the war, there was no single agency coordinating the military and civilian efforts. May, 2006 saw the beginning of a downward spiral in the country, roughly the same time as the insurgency was at its peak in Iraq as well. Provincial elders were losing ground to the Taliban and frustrated with the Americans. Everyone knows that Pakistan's ISI is complicit with the Taliban, but this does not change anything. Barker witnesses the poorly-named Operation Mountain Thrust in the summer of 2006, trying to oust Taliban from the south of Afghanistan. The US have an outpost that is turned over to the Brits, abandoned, and then the Taliban move in and kill all the local chieftans who had agreed to a truce with the NATO troops. Troops with extended or repeated rotations because of stop-loss puts an enormous strain on the morale of US troops as well. There are constant problems of training Afghan police, many of whom are illiterate and their lives are in danger. There are ethnic tensions among all the players in Afghanistan. The struggle is truly reminiscent of everything I've seen and read about Vietnam, and confirms much of what I've read in books like Left of Boom (3.5 stars) and Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos (3.5 stars). The author suggests that the only solution would take a long-term commit from the entire world that does not appear to be forthcoming.

Barker witnesses the Afghan elections, and the comical difficulty of having 390 candidates on a ballot-- too many for them all to have symbols, and people might vote based on the symbol chosen. Warlords, of course, are included on the ballot, along with any variety of characters.

There are some breaks in the action as Barker returns home to the US on leave, to Indiana, Chicago, and elsewhere. Vacations are cut short as she's always on call, needing to go anywhere in Central or South Asia on a moment's notice. Amazingly, she's highly allergic to dust and is debilitated eight times a year in Afghanistan with a sinus infection, eventually having surgery in the US. There are definite bright spots. Besides favor with Nawaz Sharif, President Obama apparently helps her get a much-covereted interview with Hamid Karzai.

Barker fell "in love" with Pakistan in her time there. She writes of how women were treated better in Pakistan, she did not have to go through the molestation of checkpoints there. Maybe the hardest part for her was the coverage of Benazir Bhutto's campaign. There is a danger and the inevitable feeling that an assassination will occur; Barker is on the scene when it does. She is there to write the story just steps away from the bloody aftermath. We take the mental health of foreign correspondents for granted. Even her going away party coincided with a terrorist attack in which she received a concussion. Barker never fully unpacks all of this for the reader, but she tells of the difficulty returning to the US to write about more mundane topics and deal with US domestic life. Having lived a few years overseas myself, I can empathize, but not to the depth she experienced. She now writes for the NY Times, but the WBEZ interview I heard suggested she may end up overseas again one day.

I enjoyed this book and the insights into Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the life of a rare female journalist there. The reader may find some parts of her personal life uninteresting, or perhaps like the personal parts but find the war uninteresting. 4 stars.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Fault Lines: The Layman's Guide...by Don Liebich (Book Review #64 of 2016)

Fault Lines: The Layman's Guide to Understanding America's Role in the Ever-Changing Middle East

(I reviewed this book with others examining 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.)

The description on the book from the cover by a former US Ambassador to Moldova tells you what kind of perspective you will get in this book:
"After a successful career in domestic business, Don Liebich turned his talents to foreign affairs, serving as an unpaid international consultant and developing deep expertise, especially in the problems of the Middle East. He has shared his knowledge and policy perspectives through publications, blogs, oral presentations, and the leadership of study tours."

Maybe I will be Don Liebich one day, traveling the globe and attending conferences, talking to business people and, occasionally, an important person; publishing on my blog and in minor publications while being unknown to the Very Important People who actually make and carry out policy. He's been on Twitter for years and has fewer than 90 followers; his blog looks like it gets about that much traffic. Like Liebich, I have spent time living/working/traveling abroad and keep up with the news in these countries. I've used several languages to do so, I don't see an indication of that from him. He writes from his perch in Idaho, having written a blog about his observations on ten trips to the Middle East from 2006-2014 doing "economic development, citizen diplomacy and human rights projects," which includes things like building Habitat houses in Jordan. Apparently, there really is something called the "Boise Committee on Foreign Relations." He's a chemical engineer and that shapes his mentality, as he writes on his blog: "If thinking that 'every problem has a solution' is a crime, then I plead guilty. The attitude that we are capable of solving our problems is one of the things that makes America great." What the world truly *loves* about America is that we're ready to condescend to "solve their problems." Hence, on his website he feels he can assign letter grades to Obama's foreign policy, country by country.

What Liebich's book lacks is a deeper understanding of the history of foreign policy and an understanding of political science-- governments are set up to operate differently in each country. Affecting policy at a local level by pulling whatever levers are available in Washington is difficult, frustrating, and held hostage by budget and random factors. There's a whole history of religion and ethnicity that matters; a businessman you meet in Beirut will have a widely different perspective than a villager in Northern Iraq, and the matter is entirely different if you actually live there 365 days a year. This book is a bit dated now that we know more about Obama's views on foreign policy from Jeffrey Goldberg's interviews published in 2016, particularly Obama's desire to pivot to Asia and get out of the Middle East. This book does not really acknowledge that pivot so much, but does seem to generally approve of the more non-interventionist policies as outlined in those interviews. Nonetheless, Liebich's 2016 letter grades found Obama quite lacking.

Liebich began his third career (Navy, Sysco Systems and business consulting, Middle East observer) in 2006 when he was on a trip during the height of the Iraq insurgency and felt that he wasn't getting a complete picture of the Middle East from the media. So, he started blogging his observations. He'd been involved in international consulting, he watched Russia crumbling in 1994. He's traveled the former USSR. He's an ally of Andrew Bacevich, a pretty strong critic of neocon interventionism. (Liebich is really just Bacevich lite. You'd get the same thing from a Bacevich book, just a lot more of it). Liebich begins his history with 1914, which is a big red flag. Liebich claims that the Armenian genocide, the Balfour Declaration, and rolling back of imperialist policy under the Wilson administration somehow moved us into the Middle East. He ignores that Wilson contradicted himself on his policies of self-determinism (I recommend the chapters of Gaddis' biography of George F. Kennan related to this). There's a lot of other bits of his timeline that are left out.

The author is not a huge fan of Israel. He gives a decided non-Israeli summary of 1967 and the Six Day War. He's seen the damage done to Israel's neighbors by war. He's a realist, though, and favors strategies such as conditional aid for peace; maintaining the status quo of aid-for-nothing has made matters worse.

He disagreed with Obama's Afghan troop surge since it simply delayed the inevitable. (Who should we blame for that "inevitable")? He critiques the intervention in Libya pretty harshly. He argues that intervention in Syria would make it worse. He doubts reports that Assad used any chemical weapons. I'd recommend a host of books and articles on Syria from people who have lived there over Liebich's thoughts on it (see list below). Hebollah vowed to hit Israel if the US intervenes, he writes, so we need to be aware of collateral damage. I'll note that in 2016, Liebich has given Obama an F on Syria, even though Obama also didn't seem to take reports of Assad's chemical attacks that seriously and did not intervene such that Hezbollah felt the need to hit Israel yet. I agree with those that point out that Syria and Iraq must be dealt with simultaenously. While Liebich concedes that Obama inherited a "a mess," he seems to not appreciate the full timeline of ISIS' development from 2006 onward.

The US has a dilemma in in Egypt. Supporting free elections brings to power the Muslim Brotherhood, which showed itself not to be as committed to democracy and human rights as one would hope. Saudi Arabia has too much influence on Washington policymakers. Nuclear weapons don't concern the West so much but economic power certainly does. The author doubts that Obama would be able to finish a negotiated settlement with Iran, we see how that turned out. We now have over 600 bases on foreign soil, that's a problem.

The one area where Liebich seems to give Obama credit for success is Sudan. I'll just leave that one right there.

"While it is clear that Obama inherited a mess in the Middle East from the Bush administration and has succeeded in reducing America’s direct involvement in conflicts, the situation in the region is, in many ways, more unstable and chaotic than it was in 2009" (on his blog in July 2016).

I doubt this book will be assigned reading in any foreign policy departments anytime soon. The world isn't looking for someone to solve each problem case-by-case like this is a case management exercise or chemical spill to clean up, especially when they are all so intertwined. But keep writing, Don. The new Trump Administration seems keen to listen to non-establishment, non-academics such as yourself. 2.5 stars.

--------------------------------------
Books I have reviewed in 2016 related to US policy and the history of the Middle East that you may enjoy if you enjoyed Liebich's work:
A History of Islam, The Middle East, and Arab nations:
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)

Al Qaeda and ISIS-related books reviewed:
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  - Erick Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)
The Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow and David French (1 star)
The Jihadis Return - Patrick Cockburn (review forthcoming)

Books by American non-academics related to foreign policy and travels in Middle East and Central Asia:
Between Two Worlds - Roxana Saberi (2.5 stars)
Children of Jihad - Jared Cohen (4 stars)
The Taliban Shuffle - Kim Barker (4 stars)
A Rope and a Prayer - David Rohde and Kristin Mulvihill (3.5 stars)
Left of Boom - Douglas Laux (3.5 stars)
Fault Lines: A Layman's Guide  - Don Liebich (2.5 stars)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Rise of ISIS by Jay Sekulow (Book Review #63 of 2016)


Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can't Ignore

(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.)

A short book that even includes a link to Jay Sekulow's band playing a patriotic song. Not scholarly or well-cited; it seems a quick publish to make a buck on the line of books with "ISIS" in the title. The mission of the book isn't to talk about ISIS at all, but to redirect attention back to terrorist attacks against Israel by Hamas and Palestinian organizations. Sekulow is an attorney affiliated with the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). David French, One of the listed co-authors, is a writer for National Review who (with his wife) rejected Trump as a political candidate and felt the wrath in the form of anti-semitic threats.

The book is a bait-and-switch to compare ISIS to Hamas as well as a call to arms for a defense of the world against ISIS and Israel against its enemies. The author rails against the "International Left" that has its head in the sand about radical Islam. Another goal seems to be informing the reader of how to talk to his Congressman or Senator. Sekulow seems ignorant of what the "surge" in Iraq and the strategy of COIN did-- namely pay militants not to fight the US and to consolidate Sunni tribes to fight for their own interests.

There is little deep examination of ISIS in this book. ISIS, Hamas, and Al Qaeda don't hesitate to attack from schools, mosques, hospitals and others where children and innocents will be killed if nations respond in self-defense. Sekulow writes that the Red Cross is somewhat complicit in that it does not condemn this behavior. He makes a war crimes case against all the extremists. ISIS violates Sharia law in its brutality and murder of other Muslims, the author writes. Hamas uses international aid to buy weapons and dig tunnels under Israel. The author does not acknowledge any Israeli overreach in the occupied territories over the last 40 years. I am not sure it helps his cause to mix Hamas in with ISIS, especially when he is selling a book on false pretenses. The ACLJ is intent on confronting "lawfare" by sympathizers of radical Islam.

The author is very critical of Obama, writing that he has "lost all moral credibility" in his policies of withdrawal from Iraq, appeasing of Palestinians, and refusal to do much of anything about ISIS. Again, there is no wider context given for any of Obama's decisions, or the realities he inherited from the Bush administration. I give this book 1 star. Don't waste your time or money.

-----------------------------------------------------
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  - Erick Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)
Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow and David French (1 star)

ISIS Exposed by Erick Stakelbeck (Book Review #62 of 2016)


ISIS Exposed: Beheadings, Slavery, and the Hellish Reality of Radical Islam

(I reviewed this book with a host of others examining Islam, 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.)

Unlike other books on ISIS, this one focuses more on ISIS' effect or potential danger for the West rather than its origins, development, and operations. Basically, this book is warning Americans of the threat of Radical Islam and President Obama's foreign policy. The endorsements on the cover by various Fox News personalities tells you the audience.

Stakelbeck begins with a look at "Little Mogadishu" in Michigan, where many Somalis live and the Muslim call to prayer wakes up residents. Palestinian-American Imam Jabril preaches at a mosque in Dearborn, encouraging listeners (sometimes tacitly) to join ISIS fighters in Syria. (I'm reminded of Mohamedou Slahi's book where such a character would risk a drone strike from the US if he lived overseas, but is protected by the First Amendment here). Supposedly, many Americans who went to Syria to join the fight had connections to him via social media. The anti-defamation league is apparently tracking US fighters abroad and Stakelbeck tells stories of foreigners on US soil, illegal border crossings, and sociopath recruits for the jihadi cause in the US. He discusses the Islamic Society of America's ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and its funding of mosque construction, among other things.

Stakelbeck examines the ISIS caliphate and how the organization has eclipsed Hamas and Al Qaeda in terms of recruiting and operations. He repeats what info was publicly known about al-Baghdadi when the book went to print. He interviews an Iraqi-American who had his accounts hacked and was threatened by ISIS and accounts of interviews with survivors. He makes the claim that 15% of Muslims worldwide hold radical views. How one determines a way to poll that and determine "radical" is beyond me. He turns rather snarky about Obama and his Iraq policy, particularly the troop withdrawal. He seems to ignore more nuanced politics about the situation as described by people like Robert Gates in his memoir-- the Iraqi government pushed back on US troop immunity and the Obama administration didn't try as hard as it possibly could to convince them otherwise.

One aspect he examines is the diversity of Westerners joining ISIS' jihad in Syria. One group I found insteresting were the British women going to establish brothels filled with kidnapped Yezidis and Christians within the would-be caliphate. (I have found some news websites with this story circa 2014, but the reports don't seem to be heavily substantiated.) Stackelbeck predicts attacks in Europe from current residents and jihadis returning from Syria, particularly in Holland where there were openly pro-ISIS marches chanting "Death of Israel" in 2014. Mohammad Chaudry in England was collecting welfare while preaching jihad openly on the streets. I picked up this book shortly before the the world was shocked by large bombing in Amsterdam in 2016 by either ISIS or its sympathizers after a similar attack in France shortly beforehand and it felt like Stackelbeck had called it correctly. This aspect of ISIS has been largely untouched by the other books on my list, which focused almost solely on Iraq and Syria.

The author's criticisms of President Obama are more foreign policy complaints without recognizing the ideological and philosophical differences between West and East as well as the theological nuances of Salafists and ISIS' embrace of prophecies regarding Dabiq and the Mahdi. Stackelbeck works for a pro-Israel outfit and closes the book with questions about what the difference is between ISIS and Hamas in terms of their goals-- both want to see Israel wiped off the map. Why does the media treat one as horrific but the other with less scrutiny, asks the author? He asks why the Obama administration hasn't embraced Islamic reformers and why haven't other policymakers done enough to publicize dialogues between moderates. His solution to the problem is the same as that of Maajid Nawaz, Reza Aslan, and others who seem to anticipate a a reformation period. Where exactly are those public dialogues?

The book largely re-reports news stories, some of which may be foreign to people like myself who mainly read mainstream publications like The Atlantic and the New York Times. The book lacks for a deep philosophical, historical, or psychological thinking about ISIS and the Middle East or foreign policy. It lacks any thinking about the rise of ISIS in the context of the recent histories of Syria and Iraq. But thinking about how and why people in the West are influenced to leave lands of liberty to pursue death in a caliphate is worthwhile, so the book gets 2.5 stars.

-------------------------------------------------
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  - Erick Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)
The Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow and David French (1 star)

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)

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.)"
http://www.islamformankind.net/Islamic%20Prophecies/Black%20Banners%20from%20Khurasan%20Afghanistan%20to%20Jerusalem.html
(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)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Black Flags - The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick (Book Review #59 of 2016)


Black Flags - The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick 

(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.)

This is the best of the books on the origins of ISIS. There are articles on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with more recent and useful information than this book, but it's hard to understand Baghdadi without understanding his forerunner Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and this book tells Zarqawi's story well. There have been several long-form articles on ISIS and what is known of their leadership over the years, the one that maybe gives a synopsis of Baghdadi closest to this book is Graeme Wood's "What ISIS Really Wants" I highly recommend the interview with Nada Bakos by PBS Frontline. Also helpful are the sections of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's memoir on hunting Zarqawi, which I reviewed last year.

What I liked about Warrick's perspective is that he begins and ends in Jordan and highlights the difficulties that the new King Abdullah faced when he assumed the Hashemite throne. Jordan maintains a rather secular society by housing an intelligence aparatus that is notorious for its methods but effective at stopping terrorists; King Hussein had survived 18 assassination attempts. Abdullah's initial amnesty to potential enemies included the pardoning of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's associates. Zarqawi had been a high school dropout, a dissident who was harsh and never smiled but would become like a little boy when his mother was around. Zarqawi's parents signed him up for Islamic training after his rebellious youth, in which he perfomed many sadist acts including raping boys. His gang wanted to relive the glory days of Afghan jihad. By the time of Zarqawi's release from prison, he'd been both well-radicalized and interrogated/tortured many times.

From Jordan, Zarqawi fled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he was initially snubbed by Osama bin Laden. After 9/11, Zarqawi goes mostly independently to Iraq to try and impress Al Qaeda by setting up a mini-Afghan training camp but kept his distance from Baghdad. Zarqawi's focus was on operations in the Levant rather than trying to strike the US. While the US would later claim Hussein was harboring Zarqawi, Saddam was scouting for intelligence on his operations just as the CIA was. Those operations included experimenting with poison gas, among other things. Colin Powell's speech at the UN mentioning Zarqawi gave him more publicity than he would have had otherwise; recruits flooded in and preparations were made to fight a prolongued struggle against the US and its allies.

A CIA analyst that kept tabs on Zarqawi, Nada Bakos, fits an interesting profile. She grew up in the continental US and was hired right out of college with an economics degree; she applied for the CIA on a whim. She had no intelligence background but became an excellent analyst. Sam Faddis, analyst operating in northern Iraq (probably living among the ethnic Turkmen) scouts Zarqawi's activities and passes word that there are chemical operations, and a lot of terrorists, and the US should consider a strike on the camp. President Bush, however, turned down the idea of a strike before the US' deadline for Saddam to surrender. He doesn't want to look like he's striking before he said, or start the war before he said he would. Bakos maintains that the problem of ISIS could have been nipped in the bud then, but the US missed a golden opportunity and thousands of lives have been needlessly lost as a result.

The author writes that King Abdullah hated Saddam Hussein but felt the American invasion was a grave mistake and would only lead to an outcome that would favor Al Qaeda and the other extremists. VP Dick Cheney, on the other hand, violated protocol by calling CIA agents individually to try and sway their analysis to show an Al Qaeda-Hussein link to help persuade Congress and the world that Iraq itself was a threat. Once the invasion ws on, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Cheney did not want to hear about an insurgency. The CIA warned that Zarqawi's network was growing and beginning an insurgency but it fell on deaf ears; this is remarkable since Zarqawi was listed as a reason for justifying the invasion in the first place. Many CIA officers actually lost their jobs. (Reading Left of Boom and other books about CIA incompetence and gross violation of US law makes me unsympathetic to the CIA on these points.) While the war spirals downward, Zarqawi writes a raving plea to Bin Laden to endorse his war, including the large-scale killing of Shia. Al Qaeda rejects the targeting of Shia and other Muslims who might turn against Zarqawi and Al Qaeda.

Zarqawi uses his own suras and hadith passages to justify his suicide attacks and other measures. Some scholars furiously debated Zarqawi's positions. The author points out the apocalyptic beliefs about the mahdi and the caliphate that some hadiths indicate will be set up in Syria. Sunni Islam is often compared to Protestantism in Christianity-- there is no central authority which determines correct doctrine. Sunni imams can issue contradicting fatwas and rulings. But Al Qaeda was critical of Zarqawi's alienation of a majority population in Iraq and this led to conflict.

Warrick chronicles the battle of Gen. Stan McChrystal and JSOC against Zarqawi, and the long road to Zarqawi's death. Task Force 626 works 18 hour days and ride a series of small victories toward their overall objective of capturing or killing Zarqawi. Meanwhile, Shiia reprisal militias also fight against Zarqawi-backed Sunni insurgents. Jordanian intelligence picks up a large plot to bomb a target in Jordan, but King Abdullah's concerns are only met with a rebuke from USVP Cheney. Throughout the book, Warrick weaves in a story about a would-be female suicide bomber in Jordan who came in from Iraq. Prior to the war, Zarqawi had succeeded in killing a USAID worker but had failed to do anything larger in Jordan. (Zarqawi's group succeeded in blowing up the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad in 2003.) The woman was arrested in 2005 after arriving at a hotel with her husband intent on blowing it up. Her husband's bomb worked and killed 60 people, while hers did not. The woman allegedly claimed she did not intend to kill innocents, had been duped in Iraq, and had never met Zarqawi. Her story is relevant because ISIS demanded her release in 2015, shortly after which she was executed.

The February 2006 bombing of the Samarra mosque, which the US claimed was an Al Qaeda plot, prompted hundreds of reprisal killings which might mark the peak of the insurgency. The Jordanian government set up successful traps for Zarqawi soldiers. Task Force 626 was able to launch pre-emptive raids and finally succeeded in killing Zarqawi by aerial bomb in June. Nada Bakos had mixed feelings on his death. On the one hand, he was dead; on the other, the US had missed the earlier opportunity to eliminate him and now Zarqawi was a martyr with many disciples. Iraq might be pacified for a time, but disgruntled and fearful Sunni would take up arms again if they felt threatened and Zarqawi's network was still out there.

Meanwhile, a parallel set of events was unfolding in Syria. Future Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was stationed in Iraq from 2004-2006 where he witnessed US policy ramifications first-hand. Syria had been strongly opposed to the US-led war and its porous border with Iraq allowed a an easy way for fighters to come in easily and refugees to go out. Syria re-established formal diplomatic ties with Iraq in 2006 just as Ford was departing for a position in Algeria. The Syrian government would later be implicated in pro-Sunni attacks within Iraq. As a college student in the 1980s, Ford had spent time in Syria and enjoyed Syrian hospitality there, and President Obama appointed him US Ambassador in 2010. Warrick notes that King Abdullah in Jordan began to implement modest reforms to placate any nascent protest movement and encouraged Assad to do likewise. (PM Erdo─čan of Turkey supposedly encouraged him likewise) On the eve of the Arab Spring, Ford had angered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by lecturing him on human rights. During the early days of the protest movement, Ford visited Hama which was interpreted as a tacit backing by the US of a rebellion against Assad. Assad responded to protests with force and by releasing hundreds of Zarqawi-style extremists from prison in order to prove his point that there were indeed an extremist threat within Syria, and Ford was forced to leave in 2011. Pandora's box was now open as the Arab Spring freed many other extremists to operate across the Middle East and North Africa.

The least-known character in the story is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who would rise to a prominence Zarqawi would have envied by adopting many of his tactics. Warrick recounts what was known of Baghdadi at the time of authorship: He was 32 and working on his doctorate when the US invaded Iraq. He was released from an American-controlled prison because he came across as a scholarly figure and not seen as a threat; he got his doctorate in 2007. His time in prison with other jihadis allowed him to form a network and as Sunni felt threatened by an increasingly vengeful Shiia-led government, and events unfolded in Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring, there was a chaos that Baghdadi was able to tap into. Baghdadi's group attacked Iraqi prisons, freeing people they could immediately employ. While the CIA warned the White House that ISIS was headed toward Baghdad, everyone was surprised by the rapidity at which the larger US-equipped Iraqi army abandoned entire regions of the country to a few head-strong fighters.

Warrick also tells the story of a Syrian-American lobbyist who looks for aid for the Free Syrian Army and the frustrations he experiences as Syria is torn apart. As the radical Al-Nusra Front forms to fight Assad, King Abdullah allegedly opposes Gulf state money going to arm them, forseeing a worsening of the problem. Warrick recounts the debate in the White House about arming the FSA and quotes from Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton's memoirs (both of which I have reviewed here), which Obama would not back, especially during the 2012 election season. Mustafa had a hard time helping the Syrians, but his group are the ones who captured samples of Assad's chemical weapons attacks. Robert Ford resigns from the State Department in 2014 because he can no longer support US policy. Warrick's account ends as ISIS is in full control of the situation. While there are calls for introspective Islamic reform from Egypt's President Fattah al-Sisi, it remains to be seen if influential Muslims worldwide follow.

I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. Warrick does a great job telling the stories of those who saw the precursor to ISIS and understood best how it was formed. He also does a good job showing the perilous position of Jordan who has to live with the consequences. This is a very informative book, the best of four I have finished thus far on the origins ISIS. Warrick does not focus as much on the methods and operations of ISIS itself.

--------
Al Qaeda and ISIS 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 - Jessica Stern (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed  - Eric Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)
The Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow (1 star)