In ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, authors Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan set out to answer a simple question that was repeatedly being asked on cable news shows in the summer and fall of 2014: Where did ISIS come from, and how did it manage to do so much damage in so short a period of time?
As they note, while this may have seemed like a compelling question at the time, it was also strange, given that the United States has been fighting ISIS in Iraq — in the group’s various incarnations — for almost a decade.
In the book’s introduction (which follows) we learn that the path which led many young men to fight for ISIS commonly began with the desire to fight against the Assad regime.
In late 2011, Abdelaziz Kuwan approached his Syrian uncle to connect him to Riad al-Asaad, a colonel in the Syrian Air Force and one of the earliest military defectors from the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Abdelaziz, a sixteen-year-old teenager from Bahrain, wanted to join the armed rebellion in Syria, but his parents forbade him from going. So he defied them.
In early 2012, he flew first to Istanbul and then, as so many other foreign fighters have done, took a thirteen-hour bus ride to the southern Turkish border town of Reyhanli. From there, he crossed into the Syrian province of Aleppo, the northern countryside that had by then completely fallen into the hands of the armed anti-Assad rebellion. Abdelaziz fought for moderate rebel factions for several weeks before deeming them too corrupt and ineffective. Then he migrated through various Islamist brigades, joining first Ahrar al-Sham and then Jabhat al-Nusra, which later revealed itself to be the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria. Having earned a reputation as a fearless and religiously devout fighter, Abdelaziz nonetheless grew disenchanted with his Islamist comrades and faced pressure from his family to return to Bahrain. He did at the end of 2012. Once home, Abdelaziz’s mother promptly confiscated his passport.
“I walk in the streets [of Bahrain] and I feel imprisoned,” Abdelaziz told the authors a year later, still pining for his days as a holy warrior. “I feel tied up. It’s like someone is always watching me. This world means nothing to me. I want to be free. I want to go back. People are giving their lives, that’s the honorable life.”
Abdelaziz’s family had moved to Bahrain from eastern Syria in the 1980s. His parents provided him with the means to lead a decent life. “His father raised him well,” one relative recalled. “He did not make him need anyone and wanted him to be of a high social status.” The relative added that Abdelaziz was “quiet,” “refined,” and “always behaved like a man.”
Abdelaziz stayed in Bahrain for three months before he managed to persuade his mother to give him back his passport. He left for Syria three days later. Once he arrived, Abdelaziz joined the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which was then rising in prominence as one of the most disciplined and well-organized jihadist groups in Syria. Abdelaziz later said that in his last few months in Bahrain he made the decision to join ISIS after speaking with “some of the brothers” in Syria via Skype. His prior experience with other Islamist factions ideologically similar to ISIS was an advantage in joining one that was dominated by foreign fighters. Abdelaziz rose through the ranks of ISIS, first becoming a coordinator among local emirs and other rebel groups, then delivering messages and oral agreements on behalf of his leader. When ISIS seized enormous swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014, Abdelaziz was promoted to a security official overseeing three towns near the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Albu Kamal, long a portal between the two countries for men like him.
In ISIS, Abdelaziz discovered new things about himself. He learned that he was violent, brutal, and determined. He beheaded enemies. He kept a Yazidi girl in his house as a sabiyya, or sex slave. She was his prize for his participation in battles against the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces and other Kurdish militias in Sinjar, Iraq, near the Syrian border. According to ISIS’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, one-fifth of the sex slaves taken from Sinjar was distributed to ISIS’s central leadership to do with as it so chose; the remainder was divided amongst the rank and file, like Abdelaziz, as the spoils of war.
Abdelaziz showed us a picture of his sabiyya. She was in her late teens. She “belonged” to Abdelaziz for about a month before she was handed off to other ISIS commanders.
Being a rapist didn’t seem to impinge on what Abdelaziz considered his moral obligations as a pious Muslim. One of his fellow warriors said that during news broadcasts Abdelaziz would cover the television screen to avoid seeing the faces of female presenters. He fervently quoted the Quran and hadith, the oral sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, and spoke pompously about al-Dawla, the “state,” which is the term ISIS uses to refer to its project. Asked what he would do if his father were a member of Jabhat al-Nusra and the two met in battle, Abdelaziz replied promptly: “I would kill him. Abu Obeida [one of the companions of the Prophet] killed his father in battle. Anyone who extends his hand to harm al-Dawla will have his hand chopped off.” Abdelaziz also called his relatives in the Bahraini army or security forces “apostates” because his adoptive country’s military was by then involved in a multinational coalition bombing campaign against ISIS led by the United States.
Before he went off to join the jihad in Syria, Abdelaziz had been a theological novice who barely finished a year of Islamic studies at a religious academy in Saudi Arabia. He had dropped out of high school in Bahrain and traveled to the city of Medina to study sharia, Islamic jurisprudence. In school, according to one of his family members, he avoided nondevout peers and mingled primarily with hard-line students. Soon he started to resort to “jihadi speak,” constantly referring to the dismal conditions in which Sunni Muslims in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia persist.
In Syria, his metamorphosis continued on the battlefield. He called himself Abu al-Mu’tasim, after the eighth Abbasid caliph, al-Mu’tasim Billah, who is known for leading an army to avenge the insulting of a woman by Byzantine soldiers. Abdelaziz said he wanted to emulate the Abbasid caliph in supporting helpless Muslims in Syria and Iraq. Even though he was appointed as a security official, he always looked for any chance to fight on the front lines. “I cannot sit down,” he told us. “I came here seeking martyrdom, and I have chased it everywhere.”
On October 23, 2014, Abdelaziz found it. He was shot dead by a Syrian regime sniper in the al-Hawiqa district of Deir Ezzor.
Fighters customarily write a will when they join a group, to be given to their families only after they die. Abdelaziz had addressed his to his mother: “As you know and watch on television channels, the infidels, and rafida [a bigoted term used to describe the Shia] have gone too far in their oppression, killing, torture and violations of Muslims’ honor. I, by God, cannot see my Muslim sisters and brothers being killed, while some of them appeal to Muslims and find no- body coming to their help, and I sit without doing anything. I wanted to be like al-Muta’sim Billah. And the most important reason is that I longed for heaven, near the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, and I wanted to ask for forgiveness for you in the afterlife.”
When ISIS stormed the city of Mosul, the capital of Iraq’s Ninewah province, in mid-June 2014, the world’s response was one of confusion as much as shock. Men very much like Abdelaziz had conquered an expanse of land in the Middle East roughly equivalent to the size of Great Britain. Only a thousand of their number had overthrown a city in central Iraq guarded by as many as thirty thousand American-trained Iraqi soldiers and policemen who vanished, forfeiting to ISIS tens of millions of dollars in American-made Humvees and Abrams tanks. What kind of terrorists drive armored vehicles and tanks? Is ISIS an organization, or is it more like an army?
Five months before the fall of Mosul, President Obama had rather regrettably dismissed ISIS in an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick as the “jayvee squad” of terrorists. Now the jayvee squad had razed the berm barriers separating the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq that had been in place for a little less than a hundred years. They declared that this physical and symbolic act of recombination was the end of a British-French colonial compact that had helped draw the map of the contemporary region even before the official terminus of World War I. There would no longer be any Western fingerprint on that map, according to ISIS. Instead, there would only be the caliphate. Eventually, intoned ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, if Muslims were strong, the caliphate would again reach Spain and even conquer Rome.
This book is personal. One of the authors is a native Syrian from the border town of Albu Kamal, which has long been a portal for jihadists moving into, and now out of, Iraq. The other author has reported from the Aleppo suburb of al-Bab, once a cradle of Syria’s independent and pro-democratic civil society; today, it is a dismal ISIS fief ruled by Sharia law. We set out to answer a simple question asked repeatedly on cable news shows in the haunting summer and fall of 2014: “Where did ISIS come from, and how did it manage to do so much damage in so short a period of time?” The question was understandable, given the images and videos then circulating around the world, most notoriously the horrifying propaganda beheadings of several Western hostages, beginning with the American journalist James Foley. But the question was also a strange one, because the United States has been at war with ISIS for the better part of a decade under its various incarnations, first as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), then the Mujahidin Advisory Council, and then the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). It was as if the Vietcong had returned under a different banner and laid siege to a third of Southeast Asia in 1985, only to be marveled at and sensationalized as a surprising and unknown guerrilla insurgency by everyone from the Reagan administration to CNN. If ever there was a familiar foe, ISIS was it.
And yet much about this totalitarian and theocratic enemy remains forgotten or occluded or simply underexamined. Debates about its ideology, war strategy, and internal dynamics persist in every country committed to its defeat. Is ISIS greater or less than the sum of its parts? Is it winning or losing seven months into a concerted multinational air campaign, backed by the provision of arms to select allies and proxies? Is the stated US objective articulated by President Obama to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS feasible given the current US policies in Syria and Iraq? Or will this latest iteration of war in the Middle East last for thirty years, as former defense secretary Leon Panetta recently suggested, spreading into North Africa and no doubt into our own backyard, as we may already be seeing in the January 2015 attacks in Paris?
We begin by examining ISIS as it is now but also as it evolved and adapted over the past decade. The early chapters deal mainly in this complex history of ISIS’s prior incarnations, drawing on dozens of original interviews conducted with former US military intelligence and counterterrorism officials and Western diplomats who tracked and fought and jailed al-Qaeda in Iraq. ISIS is actually the latest front in a bloody culmination of a long-running dispute within the ranks of international jihadism. Namely, how should this holy war be waged, and against whom? Are Shia, Alawites, and other minority sects and ethnicities viable targets for attack, or should they be spared in light of the more pressing evils of combating the Americans and their “Zionist-crusader” allies? The more fanatical side of this dispute was embodied by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, while the more “moderate” side was embodied by his own patron and nominal superior — Osama bin Laden. The recent split between al-Qaeda and ISIS was inevitable ever since al-Zarqawi and bin Laden first laid eyes on each other in Afghanistan in 1999. Allied they helped tear Iraq apart, inspired Shia counteratrocities, and took a bloody toll in American and allied lives. It is this history that ties together the past decade of conflict with the agendas of regimes in Iran and Syria, and without which we cannot truly understand ISIS today. Although it’s impossible to determine which side in the jihadist argument will ultimately win out, or even if there will be a winner, the fact that al-Qaeda has for the past year been in a state of fratricidal conflict with its former subsidiary will surely determine how the West continues to fight both.
We then look at the origins of the Syrian revolution, showing how the Assad regime, which had long facilitated and suborned al-Qaeda terrorism next door, attempted to portray itself not only as the victim of its erstwhile ally, but also perversely created the fertile conditions for such terrorism to take root inside Syria. Finally, we look at ISIS as it is today, under al-Baghdadi and his willing exe- cutioners, relying on interviews with active or now-deceased ISIS militants, spies, and “sleeper agents” and also their victims—Syrian tribesmen, rebels, and activists, and one brave and defiant school- teacher in Raqqa who said “enough.” One of the main recruitment centers and organizing hubs for ISIS is prisons. Whether by acci- dent or design, jailhouses in the Middle East have served for years as virtual terror academies, where known extremists can congregate, plot, organize, and hone their leadership skills “inside the wire,” and most ominously recruit a new generation of fighters.
ISIS is a terrorist organization, but it isn’t only a terrorist organization. It is also a mafia adept at exploiting decades-old transnational gray markets for oil and arms trafficking. It is a conventional military that mobilizes and deploys foot soldiers with a professional acumen that has impressed members of the US military. It is a sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus that infiltrates rival organizations and silently recruits within their ranks before taking them over, routing them in combat, or seizing their land. It is a slick propaganda machine effective at disseminating its message and calling in new recruits via social media. ISIS is also a spectral holdover of an even earlier foe than al-Qaeda. Most of its top decision-makers served either in Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. In a sense, then, “secular” Baathism has returned to Iraq under the guise of Islamic fundamentalism — less a contradiction than it may appear.
Most important, ISIS presents itself to an embattled Sunni minority in Iraq, and an even more persecuted and victimized Sunni majority in Syria, as the sect’s last line of defense against a host of enemies — the “infidel” United States, the “apostate” Gulf Arab states, the “Nusayri” Alawite dictatorship in Syria, the “rafida” one in Iran, and the latter’s satrapy in Baghdad. Even here, as with all conspiracy theories, ISIS relies on kernels of truth and awkward geopolitical realities to depict a satanic global enterprise ranged against it. Syria’s warplanes are now flying the same skies as America’s, purportedly bombing the same targets in eastern Syria — while the US government maintains that Assad has no future in Damascus. In Iraq, Iranian-built Shia militia groups, some of them designated by the US government as terrorist entities (because they have American blood on their hands), now serve as the vanguard of the Iraqi Security Forces’ ground campaign to beat back ISIS, with the advertised supervision and encouragement of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, another US-designated terrorist entity. These militias are also committing acts of ethnic cleansing in Sunni villages along the way, earning the censure of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — all while US warplanes indirectly provide them with air cover. Whatever Washington’s intentions, its perceived alliance of convenience with the murderous regimes of Syria and Iran is keeping Sunnis who loathe or fear ISIS from participating in another grassroots effort (like the earlier Iraqi “Awakening”) to expel the terrorists from their midst. Those who have tried have been mercilessly slaughtered; others have simply been co-opted and pledged fealty to the slaughterers.
At once sensationalized and underestimated, brutal and savvy, ISIS has destroyed the boundaries of contemporary nation-states and proclaimed itself the restorer of a lost Islamic empire. An old enemy has become a new one, determined to prolong what has already been an overlong war.
Michael Weiss is a columnist for Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, and NOW Lebanon. He is also a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia, where he is the editor-in-chief of The Interpreter, an online translation journal.
Hassan Hassan is an analyst at the Delma Institute, a research center in Abu Dhabi, and a columnist for The National newspaper. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and The New York Times.