Left Foot Forward: ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, is brilliantly easy to read. Concise yet thorough the book charts the history of a group, “[a]t once sensationalized and underestimated,” that is simultaneously a terrorist organisation, mafia, conventional army, sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus, propaganda machine and the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime which controls an area the size of Britain in the heart of the Middle East.
The book begins with an underemphasised point: neither the Islamic State (ISIS) nor its governing method – extreme violence coupled with distributing stolen oil revenue and extortion – is new. The United States battled ISIS, then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), as the US tried to stabilise and democratise Iraq in the last decade. Moreover, ISIS is built out of the ruins of the Saddam regime.
In the late 1980s, Saddam launched the Faith Campaign and “Islamised his regime”. The campaign pushed a hardline Salafism combined with a cult of the leader, and involved setting up of elaborate networks of patronage, informants, militias and weapons to control the religious institutions and prevent a renewed Shi’a uprising as followed Saddam’s eviction from Kuwait in 1991. In tandem, Saddam’s deputy, Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, to this day an important insurgent, set up smuggling networks into neighbouring States. These networks would come under ISIS’ control as the Ba’athist-Salafist remnants of the regime fused with foreign al-Qaeda forces in the post-Saddam insurgency.
ISIS was initially led by a Jordanian drug-taker and street-thug turned religious militant named Ahmad al-Khalaylah. Khalaylah had arrived in Afghanistan in time to see the Red Army leave, and then been imprisoned when he tried to take jihad home. In prison, Khalaylah gained status over his mentor, al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and migrated to Taliban Afghanistan in 1999, where he was given start-up funds for a terrorism camp by Osama bin Laden. The world would come to know Khalaylah as Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, and his group would become AQI in 2004. Zarqawi’s supporters would brand him the “Shaykh of the Slaughterers” because of his fondness for decapitating prisoners on film.
While AQI primarily stayed in Iraq, Zarqawi often targeted the homeland he fled: the first attack of the Iraqi insurgency was against the Jordanian Embassy in August 2003; and there was a massive attack against hotels in Amman in November 2005
In post-Saddam Iraq, many Sunni Arabs joined the insurgency to thwart Shi’a power, and others joined because they were made jobless by the disbanding of the army. If the insurgents were not radicalised beforehand they were after time in American prisons, which were “little more than social-networking furloughs for jihadists”.
“If you were looking to build an army, prison is the perfect place to do it,” one expert says. “We gave them health care, dental, fed them, and, most importantly, we kept them from getting killed in combat.” AQI also actively infiltrated the US prisons to help make them jihadist production facilities. [Continue reading…]