Book Review: A new book by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) offers a comprehensive look at the formation and underpinnings of the world’s most notorious terrorist organization.

An Indian Muslim man holds a banner and listens to a speaker during a protest against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in New Delhi, India on Nov. 18. Photo: AP

The review was first published at Russian International Affairs Council.

The emergence in the Middle East of the powerful terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which managed to seize vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria within a little over a year, came as a surprise for world public opinion and the media. Even now, Russia continues to sort out the implications of the sudden rise of ISIS in Syria.

In an introduction to their new book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, co-authors Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan declare their aim of sorting out this phenomenon. In the process, they seek to answer two important questions: Where did ISIS come from? And how did it manage to achieve so much in such a short time?

A guide to modern jihadism

The early chapters are devoted to the background to the appearance of ISIS. They demonstrate that the phenomenon grew out of the jihad against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

They begin their narrative with the story of the ideological father of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a juvenile delinquent turned dedicated Salafite who was too young to fight in Afghanistan but joined the struggle in Jordan and Iraq. The chief Al-Qaeda ideologist, Ayman al-Zawahiri, also gets his share of attention.

Special attention should be paid to Chapter Four, which describes in detail the links between Iran and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, a subject that has not got enough coverage in the literature in this country. The chapter has a section devoted to the AQI’s sources of income. According to Weiss and Hassan, in 2005–2010 AQI made up to $200 million a year, while Western sponsorship accounted for just 5 percent of the income, the rest coming from criminal business.

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Chapter 5 is devoted entirely to the phenomenon of “Awakening” and the role of the Sunni militias in the struggle against AQI. Weiss and Hassan lament that the challenge today is much tougher because the tribes mistrust Baghdad and with rare exceptions are unwilling to cooperate with the Shia militias against ISIS. They put the main blame for the current crisis on the former Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki. This position is at odds with the prevalent view in Russia that the ISIS phenomenon was entirely inspired from without.

The authors believe, however, that Syria played a significant role in strengthening the AQI by using Islamists to achieve their own goals in the region. This is detailed in Chapter 7. After 2003 the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad used Islamists to contain the U.S. so that it would get bogged down in Iraq and forget about regime change in Damascus. Later ending support for jihadists in Iraq was offered to Washington in exchange for softening economic sanctions.

The most important and interesting chapter is arguably Chapter 8. It provides some useful information: a thorough biography of the current ISIS leader, Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The authors say that there were three reasons why he was chosen to lead ISIS: He belongs to the influential Quraysh tribe, is a member of the ISIS Shura Council and is a generation younger than other would-be candidates.

Al-Baghdadi is also positioned as a successor to Iraq's former President Saddam Hussein who combines the ideas of Pan-Arab nationalism. Weiss and Hassan scrutinize the composition of the ISIS ruling elite and note that it has many former Hussein military and security men. There is a section devoted to Abu Omar al-Shishani and the Chechens fighting on the side of ISIS.

Chapter 9 focuses on the start of the Syrian revolution and the actions of the regime. The authors argue that the anti-Assad uprising had nothing to do with external forces. As for the Jabhat al-Nusra group, according to Weiss and Hassan this was an ISIS project approved by al-Baghdadi, which was supposed to have local roots in order to gain the support of Syrians.

Chapter 10 looks at various types comprising ISIS supporters. It is based on interviews with the members of the group. They include teenagers duped by propaganda, former moderate Islamists, politically motivated Sunnis (the ISIS protects them from Shiites), pragmatics (ISIS maintains law and order on the territories it controls), foreign jihadists and adventure-seekers.

Washington, Tehran and Baghdad are to blame

Essentially, the authors conclude that the blame for the triumph of ISIS lies with the U.S., Iran, Syria and Iraq (both under the current purportedly democratic regime and under Hussein). In their opinion, Washington is chiefly to blame for deciding to change the regime in Iraq, having no idea of what kind of country it was, only to create chaos there that became an ideal spawning ground for jihadists of every stripe.

Iran and Syria, in turn, were the immediate sponsors of ISIS forerunners, using them to further their own foreign policy ends (mainly to counter the U.S. in Iraq). Finally, the Iraqi regime also helped ISIS by its chauvinism and faith-based cleansing, which so embittered the Sunnis that they preferred the religious fanatics backed by the shadow structures created by the Baath regime to the Shia “satrapy” in Baghdad. The book shows convincingly the role the slogan of protecting Sunnis from Shiites plays in ISIS propaganda.

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There is nothing new or sensational about these conclusions, certainly not for the Russian reader. Former U.S. President George W. Bush in 2003 acted as he did, ignoring the opinion not only of the region’s countries (who understood better than anyone what the collapse of the Baghdad regime would mean), but also even of his own advisers. As for current U.S. President Barack Obama, one gets the impression that he was concerned more about his approval rating than stability in the region when he decided to withdraw his troops from Iraq.

The contention that Iran and Syria had direct links with Al-Qaeda in Iraq is more debatable. There is no denying the fact that Tehran and Damascus had strong reasons to try everything to get the U.S. bogged down in Iraq. However, there is no direct proof of this. Besides, if Iran and Syria were afraid of an American strike anyway, they would hardly have furnished another pretext for such a strike, helping a branch of Washington’s archenemy at the height of the U.S.’s declared war on international terror.

At the same time, criticism of the government of Iraq's former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be perfectly justified. Instead of taking the Sunni interests into account, the Shiites after the toppling of Hussein tried to turn the situation in Iraq upside down and take over the state, the army and security forces and business. The result could only be anger on the part of the Sunni community.

What the book doesn’t mention

What Weiss and Hassan chose to keep silent about is far more important. They practically sidestep one of the key issues connected with ISIS, namely the role of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region.

Even if that role, as the authors argue, is insignificant, they should have said it in so many words, and if it was at all significant, they had even less reason not to write about it. Moreover, in the context of unabated regional confrontation, the Gulf monarchies see the Shiite regime in Baghdad as Tehran’s stooges, hence any force that harms Iranian interests can be seen as a de facto ally, even if only temporary.

However, Weiss and Hassan only mention the issue in passing. For example, they keep plugging the line that foreign financial aid was only a small part of the incomes of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later ISIS. They mention the rival Syrian opposition groups vying for supplies of arms and money from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The remark that a Qatari journalist need not be afraid of ISIS militants while any other (for example, representatives of the Saudi-financed al-Arabia channel) would face certain death is intriguing to say the least.

The merit of the work though lies elsewhere: the authors present a thorough and copious body of details concerning what was happening in Iraq and Syria over the past 10 years. Drawing on numerous interviews with eyewitnesses and actors in the events (militants, rights activists, military, officers and analysts of security services, politicians) they managed to paint a complete, vivid and three-dimensional picture of the post-Saddam Middle East, which gives insights not only into ISIS, but also the environment that produced that monster. In that respect the book would be useful for people who know little about the reality in the Middle East and for well-versed readers who are sure to learn new facts and details.

The White House and Pentagon draw lessons

It has to be noted that the book delves into the sources of modern jihadism, tracing them to the 1980s and analyzing the role of the Arabs who fought in Afghanistan. They believe it was then that the jihadist ideological platform was formed and many of their current leaders started their careers: in the first place, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the book provides his detailed biography) whom Weiss and Hassan consider to be the father of the project of the Islamic State in the expanse of Mesopotamia.

A very important and relevant conclusion that may surprise the uninitiated reader is that ISIS is by no means a new phenomenon and that it did not spring up overnight. Weiss and Hassan trace the whole history of that group from the moment it was created as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), then morphed into Mujahedeen Shura Council and finally into the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. This goes a long way to explain the recent successes of ISIS, which proved to be stronger and more dangerous than the Free Syrian Army cobbled together within months.

After reading the book, the triumph of ISIS looks anything but accidental: a powerful underground structure under experienced leaders, with fanatical supporters and massive material resources was simply destined to take advantage of the chaos that the Arab Spring had brought to the region.

The book pays special attention to how the U.S. created conditions for the rise of ISIS. Weiss and Hassan describe in detail the role of prisons in forming the jihadist underground, especially, Camp Bucca which the Americans created in Iraq for suspected terrorists, which became a sort of university for extremists.

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The book analyzes other mistakes of the U.S. occupation forces, which had no inkling of the structure of informal ties, the role of tribes, or the complicated nature of the Sunni-Shia quarrels in modern Iraq. The authors explain why after the Americans betrayed Sahwa (the Sunni rebels who helped fight the AQI), they were unable to again mobilize the Sunnis (notably the tribes) to fight ISIS. They lament the fact that as a result of the mistakes and miscalculations of Bush and Obama, the U.S. found itself in an embarrassing position: Iran (formerly almost openly fighting Washington for control over Iraq) turned from an enemy into a de facto ally helping it to fight ISIS.

Weiss and Hassan also look at the role of the former Baath party members within the Islamic State, their motivation (revenge, the wish of the former officers to earn money to sustain their families): Hussein, Assad and Zarqawi knew what the Americans had learned at a dear price in terms of money and human loss, that the most serious threat to democratic government in Baghdad was not jihadism or Baath, but Sunni revenge-seeking.

In the opinion of Weiss and Hassan, the Americans underestimated the middle-level Saddam officers who actually were the most competent part of the Iraqi officer corps since the position of a general could be obtained through connections and bribery. The authors conclude, interestingly, that ISIS is not only a terrorist organization, but also a mafia that skillfully uses the oil and arms smuggling channels created under Hussein.

How the terrorist state is run

Chapter 14 (“The State”) looks at various aspects of the functioning of ISIS and its absorption of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The interest of the Assad regime in strengthening ISIS, allegedly so that the jihadists destroy the FSA and other Islamists, is pointed out. A particularly interesting passage is devoted to the kind of economy ISIS created in the territories it controls. The main sources of the group’s income are oil contraband, utilities rates, taxes, military booty and trade in antiquities in the black market.

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Although donations from foreign sponsors account for a small portion of the treasury, rich individuals (foreign donors or those who have jointed the group) continue to finance the group, the authors write, while studiously avoiding the issue of foreign financing of jihadists.

In the epilogue the authors write that so far there is no force in Iraq capable of challenging ISIS. Even the Iran-trained groups backed by U.S. aircraft cannot inflict a decisive defeat on the group or at least diminish its sphere of influence. Eleven years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the deadly group savvy in all kinds of warfare is proving to be viable, resilient and combat-ready, they point out.

The review was first published at Russian International Affairs Council.