As chance would have it, two weeks ago I began working on a review of the book ISIS: The State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. The main theme of my review was that, while the book provided some interesting context on the rise of the Islamic State and the evolution of global terrorism, it felt like the authors rushed the book in an effort to be among the first to capitalize on ISIS’s infamy. At that time, my recommendation would have been to wait until a more comprehensive book emerged on ISIS that filled in some of the gaps in this book and avoided some of the surface-level analysis that could be deepened over time with more data.
Then the attacks on Paris took place.
Within the span of the next three days, we all in some measure felt the shock that shook Parisians to the core, as well as those in Beirut, Egypt, and Russia who were also affected by ISIS attacks that week. We heard French President Francois Hollande label the attacks “an act of war”, declare a military state of emergency in France, and order French military planes to conduct a bombing campaign on ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa before the weekend was over. We saw presidential candidates in the United States advocating for the closing of America’s borders to Syrian refugees, except perhaps only for the few percent who are Christians. Over the next week, we lived through the cycle again as more details emerged on the perpetrators of the attack, and a raid in the northern Paris suburb of St.-Denis allegedly killed the mastermind of the attack. By the end of the week, we heard NATO’s military committee chairman warn that “anyone who is not following the values of ISIL should be afraid.”
And so, my take on this book has changed accordingly. No longer is it simply an interesting but flawed read that one could pass on until something better comes around. Rather, in spite of its flaws and sometimes-rushed feel, this is a book that is essential for this particular moment of time. Over the next few weeks, when so many decisions will be made that will surely have long-lasting consequences for societies around the world, we should at a minimum better understand what has fuelled ISIS’s rise if we are to have any hope of effectively countering it. And that is what this book offers.
Fall 2015 Book Club Selection
ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger (2015)
- Hardcover, 385 pp.
- Jessica Stern – lecturer on terrorism at Harvard University and served on the Clinton Administration’s National Security staff
- J.M. Berger – nonresident fellow with the Brookings Institution and author on the American jihadist movement
There is a certain kind of reassurance that comes with developing an understanding of how a group like ISIS comes to be. Rather than ascribing its power to an almost mythical, unexplainable turn of history, you can start identifying specific events and decisions that contributed to its growth – which, at least in theory, start illuminating a path towards countering its influence. For Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, two experts on terrorism who have floated between academia, government, and freelance writing, the story starts with the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the “de-Baathification” of the transitional government shortly thereafter. Because Saddam Hussein’s regime consisted of Sunni Arabs violently suppressing Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish communities, American policymakers early in the war decided to sharply break with the past in establishing what they hoped would be a new, democratic government. Nearly any officer or bureaucrat identified with Hussein’s Baath party was barred from taking part in the political process, leaving many powerful Sunni tribesmen with little stake in the success of the new Iraq. Moreover, the Shiite communities that had suffered for 25 years during Hussein’s reign were eager to take revenge. As a result, the authors claim, “Sunni Arabs were left disenfranchised, fearful of their government, and with few options other than supporting insurgency.”
That insurgency was soon led by a Jordanian petty criminal named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and arrived in Iraq shortly after the beginning of the war to form Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In the early days of AQI, Zarqawi worked in conjunction with al Qaeda’s global leaders, who ordered him to “establish an Islamic authority or emirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate – over as much territory as you can to spread its power.” Despite their initial coordination, AQI’s revenge attacks on Shiite Arabs, Western coalition forces, and even more moderate Sunni Arabs soon became even too brutal and sensationalist for al Qaeda’s global leaders. At the same time, AQI continued to gain strength in recruiting disaffected Sunni Arabs, especially in prisons that had been set up by coalition forces and the new Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. One of those prisoners, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, took control of the group in the years after Zarqawi’s death; it had since been rebranded as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).
The tenuous link between the global al Qaeda leaders and ISI began to break with the unravelling of Iraq’s neighbour, Syria. In the early days of the Syrian civil war, several Sunni-based groups fought against the Shiite-allied Syrian leader, Bashaar al-Assad – including moderate opposition groups, and the more extremist Jabhat al Nusra, which was formed in part by members of ISI. Al Nusra increasingly gained power and military victories through its external funding and seizure of military equipment after battlefield victories. By 2014, it became the dominant opposition force, and al Baghdadi unilaterally declared ownership over the group – the jihadi terrorist equivalent of a hostile takeover. ISI fighters poured over the border into Syria and quickly took control of territory, earning a final disavowal from al Qaeda. ISI officially became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State, that it has been called to this day.
Beyond providing context to the historical events and decisions that gave rise to ISIS – What would have happened had the American coalition pushed for inclusion of former mid-level Baath party members in the new Iraqi government? – Stern and Berger also illustrate how ISIS has enraptured the jihadist movement, by employing sharply different tactics from al Qaeda. In a bizarre way, the authors claim, ISIS’s appeal stems largely from its democratization of global terrorism. Whereas al Qaeda’s leadership largely consists of well-educated elites who pontificate at length on Islamic and jihadist theory, ISIS’s leadership consists largely of ex-prisoners who have “on-the-ground” jihadist experience, and who appeal to potential supporters’ emotions more than their minds. The very act of ISIS declaring a “caliphate” in 2014 – harkening to the idea of an Islamic kingdom whose leader is the leader of all Muslims worldwide – demonstrates its sophistication in playing on the emotions of its potential supporters, explain the authors. Whereas al Qaeda’s leaders have long preached a slow, deliberate approach to establishing a caliphate, rooted in jihadist philosophical literature, ISIS essentially decided to establish “facts on the ground” by taking control of territory and declaring victory. For disaffected Sunni Muslim jihadists who had long felt powerless or frustrated, this announcement represented an unequalled source of pride, and served to draw even more supporters away from al Qaeda and toward ISIS, as Berger and Stern write:
Identity-based extremism is frequently concerned with themes of purification, and the message of ISIS was extremism itself, purified. No more rationalizations about self-defence; instead, talk of revenge. No more subtle and embedded assumptions of weakness. Instead, aggression, shocking violence and strength. No more talk of a generational war to restore the caliphate. It was here, now.”
Another key contribution of this book is the authors’ analysis of how this democratization plays out in the online world. Stern and Berger describe in great detail the evolution of online jihadist forums from tightly-controlled message boards, run by al Qaeda’s leadership, to fluid digital communities that take advantage of new social media platforms to empower their followers. They trace the origins of this shift to the American jihadist fighter Omar Hammami, who joined the Somalian terrorist group al-Shabbab, only to break ranks with the leadership’s tightly controlled command structure. Hammami posted prolifically on Twitter, including his grievances against al-Shabbab’s leadership after their falling out, and became a celebrity among rank-and-file jihadists. In 2013, Hammami was killed by members of al Shabbab, but not before changing the game on how jihadists now use online tools. Stern and Berger describe the impact this online revolution had on ISIS and global terrorism more broadly:
The age of terrorist focus-group testing had arrived. Instead of the jihadi elite living (sometimes literally) on the mountaintop, reading the New York Times and watching Al Jazeera to gauge the mood of the Muslim masses, the newly rechristened Islamic State had adopted a feedback loop model, polling its constituents and making shrewd calls about when to listen and who could safely be ignored… It amassed and empowered a ‘smart mob’ of supporters – thousands of individuals who shared its ideology and cheered its success, all the while organizing themselves into a powerful tool to deploy against the world.”
Perhaps the most vexing feature of ISIS, and one of the most policy-relevant questions, is its ability to attract foreign fighters from Western countries. An estimated 20,000 foreigners have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIS, with approximately 5,000 individuals from Europe and North America. How can such a violent, extremist group attract followers from modern Western societies, some of whom had advanced university degrees (such as Mohammad Emwazi, the British computer scientist who appeared on multiple ISIS beheading videos)? This is where the book could benefit from more time and research. The authors don’t offer any definitive theories, and perhaps there is no single explanation that applies to all cases. However, Stern and Berger offer some clues worth following. Through interviews with criminal psychologists and historians, they identify that foreign fighters are often recruited during a period of deep personal transition – whether between jobs, finishing their studies, or changing personal relationships. For a very small subset of people, ISIS taps into their desire for a fresh start through a sophisticated marketing campaign. Much like an adventure travel company, ISIS uses slickly-produced videos to promote a “unique” experience – in this case, the once-in-a-millennium opportunity to live in an Islamic caliphate. And while most of the Western world only sees ISIS’s grisly execution videos, a much larger set of its targeted promotions campaign attempts to portray a positive vision of the caliphate – showing professional doctors, lawyers, and engineers living in a well-run Islamic society with good schools and hospitals. For psychologically-vulnerable people who are in transition and looking for a new adventure, the promised “caliphate experience” may prove attractive enough to give it a try, even if it doesn’t pan out in reality.
In the coming weeks and months, governments around the world will be making significant decisions around deploying military resources and increasing surveillance powers and border controls in an effort to combat ISIS. And while those measures may have an impact on ISIS’s capabilities in the short term, this book provides enough insight to prompt some important questions. For example, if a sustained bombing campaign in Syria destroys ISIS but also props up Bashaar al-Assad and his repressive regime, will another extremist group rise out of Sunni Arab anger, similar to the emergence of AQI during the Iraq War? If people in transitional states are prime recruiting candidates for ISIS, would closing borders to refugees ultimately contribute more ISIS followers in the long run? We may not have enough information to answer these questions yet – but we should at least reflect on the patterns we already see emerging, and what they mean for our upcoming decisions.
Suggested Discussion Questions:
- How did historical events and decisions contribute to ISIS’s rise? Would different decisions have prevented its rise, or was this inevitable?
- How do new social media tools shape ISIS’s communications and recruitment? Does this require a shift in thinking about how to counter its influence?
- The authors provide a historical overview of jihadist movements, from mujahadeen fighters combatting Soviet troops in Afghanistan, to al Qaeda and its affiliate groups, to the rise of ISIS. In each case, the pattern seems to trend towards increasingly extreme tactics and ideology. Would defeating ISIS contribute to this trend? Are there ways to counter this historical cycle?
Upcoming Book Club Pick: Exodus – How Migration Is Changing Our World, by Paul Collier