Born in the Iraq insurgency, Islamic State has morphed into an extremist cult.by Shashank Joshi / April 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)
ISIS: the State of Terror by Jessica Stern and JM Berger (William Collins, £14.99)
There is a pronounced pessimism in our thinking about international politics. We are told the world is getting more dangerous. That the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation was a pale shadow of the turmoil we see around us from Ukraine to Syria to Pakistan. Where states are strong—Russia and China—they are challenging the liberal order. Where states have crumbled, powerful rebel forces have arisen. In the Muslim world, a new caliphate has sucked thousands of previously peaceable European citizens into foreign battlefields. In a speech in March, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond caught the dystopian mood, warning of “new and unprecedented dangers” facing our world.
This panic hasn’t been eased by the spectacular rise of Islamic State (IS). A group dismissed by United States President Barack Obama in January last year as nothing more than a “jayvee team” wearing “Lakers uniform”—the British equivalent would be a pub team donning a Chelsea strip—has gone on to conquer territory the size of the United Kingdom, generating annual revenue of $300m a year and boasting 30,000 fighters. It has unleashed on the region its worst slaughter since Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988, in addition to systematic enslavement, torture and other war crimes. IS is a serious military threat to the Arab monarchies, and a lesser, though still serious, challenge to western countries.
But our inclination to treat IS as a unique phenomenon is clouding our judgement. As the journalists Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan point out in their book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, the militant group is not a jihadi start-up that emerged from the ashes of Syria. It is a network whose roots long predate the Arab Spring and the age of social media.
Weiss and Hassan document the prehistory of IS, tracing its previous incarnations as al Qaeda in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi during the US occupation from 2003 onwards. They emphasise IS’s similarity to the jihadi groups from which it evolved:…