Hacking ISIS

Title:                     Hacking ISIS

Author:                Malcolm Nance

Nance, Malcolm W. (2017) and Chris Sampson; foreword by Ali H. Soufan. Hacking ISIS: How to Destroy The Cyber Jihad. New York, NY : Skyhorse Publishing

LCCN:    2017015409

HV6433.I722 N36 2017


  • Hacking ISIS will explain and illustrate in graphic detail how ISIS produces religious cultism, recruits vulnerable young people of all religions and nationalities and disseminates their brutal social media to the world. More, the book will map out the cyberspace level tactics on how ISIS spreads its terrifying content, how it distributes tens of thousands of pieces of propaganda daily and is winning the battle in Cyberspace and how to stop it in its tracks. Hacking ISIS is uniquely positioned to give an insider’s view into how this group spreads its ideology and brainwashes tens of thousands of followers to join the cult that is the Islamic State and how average computer users can engage in the removal of ISIS from the internet — Publisher’s website.


  • The keys to the cyber caliphate — Understanding the cyber battlespace — History of the cyber jihad — The ISIS cyber hierarchy — The ISIS cyber fighters — Software of the global jihad — Jihadi cyber warfare units — The hackers, wannabees & fembots — Jihadi murder & cyber media — ISIS digital and strategic communications tool kit — All is great in the caliphate — The anti-ISIS cyber army — Tracking ISIS in cyberspace — The ghost caliphate — Appendix A. ISIS magazine issues — Appendix B. Al-Hayat video database.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      August 16, 2017

Reviewed in The Intelligencer[1]

Malcolm Nance, NBC News/ MSNBC terrorism analyst and author, and Christopher Sampson, cyber-terrorist expert have spent years collecting and exploiting terrorism media. For two years, their Terror Asymmetries Project has been attacking and exploiting intelligence found on ISIS Dark Web operations.

Hacking ISIS explains how ISIS produces religious cultism, recruits vulnerable young people of all religions and nationalities, and disseminates their brutal social media to the world. The book maps out the cyberspace-level tactics on how ISIS spreads its appealing content, how it distributes tens of thousands of pieces of propaganda daily, and is winning the battle in cyberspace and how to stop it in its tracks.

[1] Reviewed in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, pp. 140-141).

Posted in Cybersecurity | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Enemies Known and Unknown

Title:                     Enemies Known and Unknown

Author: Jack McDonald

McDonald, Jack (2017). Enemies Known and Unknown: Targeted Killings in America’s Transnational Wars. London: C. Hurst & Co.

OCLC:                   987984365

KZ6373.2 .M33 2017


Date Posted:      July 5, 2017

Reviewed in The Intelligencer[1]

President Obama was elected on an anti-war platform, yet targeted killings increased under his command of the “War on Terror.” The US sees itself as upholding the rule of international law and spreading democracy, yet such targeted killings have been widely decried as extra-judicial violations of human rights. This book examines these paradoxes, arguing that they are partially explained by the application of existing legal standards to trans-national wars.

Critics argue that the kind of war the US claims to be waging—transnational armed conflict—doesn’t actually exist. McDonald analyzes the concept of transnational war and the legal interpretations that underpin it, and argues that the Obama administration’s adherence to the rule of law produces a status quo of violence that is in some ways more disturbing than the excesses of the Bush administration.

America’s interpretations of sovereignty and international law shape and constitute war itself, with lethal consequences for the named and anonymous persons that it unilaterally defines as participants. McDonald’s analysis helps us understand the social and legal construction of legitimate violence in warfare, and the relationship between legal opinions formed in US government departments and acts of violence half a world away.

[1] Reviewed in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, pp. 139=140).

Posted in Counterterrorism, transnational war | Tagged | Leave a comment

Destined For War

Title:                      Destined For War

Author:                Graham Allison

Allison, Graham T. (2017). Destined For War: Can America And China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

LCCN:    2017005351

JZ6385 .A45 2017


  • “CHINA AND THE UNITED STATES ARE HEADING TOWARD A WAR NEITHER WANTS. The reason is Thucydides’s Trap, a deadly pattern of structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one. This phenomenon is as old as history itself. About the Peloponnesian War that devastated ancient Greece, the historian Thucydides explained: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Over the past 500 years, these conditions have occurred sixteen times. War broke out in twelve of them. Today, as an unstoppable China approaches an immovable America and both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump promise to make their countries “great again,” the seventeenth case looks grim. Unless China is willing to scale back its ambitions or Washington can accept becoming number two in the Pacific, a trade conflict, cyberattack, or accident at sea could soon escalate into all-out war. In Destined for War, the eminent Harvard scholar Graham Allison explains why Thucydides’s Trap is the best lens for understanding U.S.-China relations in the twenty-first century. Through uncanny historical parallels and war scenarios, he shows how close we are to the unthinkable. Yet, stressing that war is not inevitable, Allison also reveals how clashing powers have kept the peace in the past — and what painful steps the United States and China must take to avoid disaster today”– Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • POLITICAL SCIENCE / History & Theory.
  • HISTORY / Military / General.
  • POLITICAL SCIENCE / International Relations / General.
  • HISTORY / Asia / China.

Date Posted:      June 22, 2017

Judith Shapiro[1]

Two books are reviewed in this article: French, Howard W. Everything Under the Heavens[2], and Allison, Graham, Destined for War.

The Chinese superpower has arrived. Could America’s failure to grasp this reality pull the United States and China into war? Here are two books that warn of that serious possibility. Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power does so through a deep historical and cultural study of the meaning of China’s rise from the point of view of the Chinese themselves. Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? makes his arguments through historical case studies that illuminate the pressure toward military confrontation when a rising power challenges a dominant one. Both books urge us to be ready for a radically different world order, one in which China presides over Asia, even as Chinese politicians tell a public story about “peaceful rise.” The books argue persuasively that adjusting to this global power shift will require great skill on both sides if conflagration is to be avoided.

French says in his exhaustively researched and fascinating account of geopolitics, China style, that the Chinese era is upon us. But, he asks, “How will the coming China-driven world look?” To what extent will China support the international order that emerged when it was suffering humiliation at the hands of foreign powers? What are the drivers and motivations for the new ways China projects its power? How best should its neighbors and its rival North American superpower respond?

French, a former reporter for The Washington Post and The New York Times, argues that China’s historical and cultural legacy governs its conduct of international relations, a legacy that sits uncomfortably with the Western notions of equality and noninterference among states. China’s relations with its neighbors in Japan and Southeast Asia were for millenniums governed by the concept of tian xia, which held that everything “under the heavens” belonged to the empire. A superior civilization demanded deference and tribute from vassal neighbors and did not hesitate to use military force. China’s testy relationship with Vietnam became fraught whenever a Vietnamese leader dared to demand equal footing with a Chinese emperor; the Japanese claim to divine origins was unacceptable.

When China lost its regional dominance at the hands of colonial powers and invading armies, it saw the situation as temporary. The struggle in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan since 1895, for example, has long been a sore point in Sino-Japanese relations. But the reform-era strongman Deng Xiaoping advised China to “hide our capacities and bide our time” on this and many other issues. Hostility between China and Japan simmers in disputes over hierarchy, wartime apology and historical narrative, with the two “in a situation resembling galaxies locked in each other’s gravitational fields, destined to collide repeatedly only to sail past each other after wreaking their damage.” French shows convincingly that China’s goal is now to displace the American barbarians and correct historic humiliations imposed by those who dethroned China from its rightful position at the center of the world.

China’s recent spectacular land grab in the South China Sea is a fait accompli, given China’s superior power in the area and its assertion that the region is a core national interest. Arbitrators for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea issued a 500-plus-page decision against China and in favor of the Philippines in a dispute over the definitions of islands versus rock formations; they concluded that Chinese arguments had no legal basis. But as French explains in sobering detail, China has unilaterally determined to claim much of the sea as its own. The country rejected the arbitration tribunal, knowing that its growing surface naval power and nuclear submarine capability support a highly uneven contest. Oil rigs have been established in contested waters, while artificial “islands” constructed from coral reefs are serving as military bases just miles from the Southeast Asian coastline. Similarly, China’s projection of economic might through the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and One Belt, One Road initiative, which intends to bind a huge swath of Asia to China economically via new land infrastructure and consolidated control of the seas, generates “a kind of fatalism or resignation about the futility of trying to defy it.”

Everything Under the Heavens is splendidly elucidated by a series of maps that show the world from China’s perspective; the South China Sea is compared to a cow’s tongue or “enormous blue banner” that can be drawn as a logical continuation of China’s southeastern coastline. French’s book was written before President Trump’s repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, but clearly the resulting power vacuum is nothing short of a gift to an empire bent on restoring its tributary realm.

Graham Allison’s Destined for War, also helpfully illustrated with maps and charts, reinforces French’s arguments with wide-ranging, erudite case studies that span human history. The book asks why, when a new superpower threatens to displace a ruling power, the clash of hubris and paranoia often (but not always) results in war. Allison’s examples include the Sparta-Athens conflict of the famous “Thucydides trap,” when both sides labored strenuously to avoid war but were seemingly driven to it by forces beyond their control, as well as Germany’s challenge to the dominance of its neighbors at the start of the 20th century, which led to two world wars. Allison’s 16 cases also include four examples of power shifts in which war was avoided, as when Britain adjusted to the rise of the United States in the Great Rapprochement of the turn of the last century, choosing forbearance and eventually reaping great rewards through the countries’ “special relationship.”

Allison, the director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, resurrects the Samuel Huntington thesis of a coming clash of civilizations to explain that China thinks in longer time frames and with a greater sense of hierarchy than the United States. In order to avoid the Thucydides trap, he writes, American policy makers must reject the tendency to think that China is like us and that it will respond as we would to identical provocations. Numerous situations could spark military conflict between the United States and China despite efforts on both sides to maintain peace, from accidental collisions at sea to misunderstandings caused by cyberattacks to actions taken by third parties like North Korea or Taiwan. “Will it be more difficult for the Chinese to rationalize a cosmology in which there are two ‘suns,’ or for the U.S. to accept that it must live with another, and possibly superior superpower?” Allison asks in a discussion of the need for both sides to bring their brightest minds to the challenge ahead.

Both of these fine books show that China intends to evict the United States from Asia in order to restore its dominance over what it considers its historic spheres of influence. Unfortunately, Washington is poorly prepared to deal with a China that strategizes in terms of the symbolic undercurrents and sensitivities illuminated so dramatically by both French and Allison. Whether the resurgence of China will mean tragedy in the form of armed conflict will depend on how China, China’s neighbors and the United States understand and manage the deeper motivations and structural forces in play.

[1] Judith Shapiro, “America’s Collision Course With China,” New York Times (June 15, 2017). Judith Shapiro is the author of China’s Environmental Challenges and Mao’s War Against Nature. A version of this review appears in print on June 18, 2017, on Page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “China’s World.”

[2] French, Howard W. (2017). Everything Under The Heavens: How The Past Helps Shape China’s Push For Global Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

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Everything Under The Heavens

Title:                      Everything Under The Heavens

Author:                Howard W. French

French, Howard W. (2017). Everything Under The Heavens: How The Past Helps Shape China’s Push For Global Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

LCCN:    2016021957

JZ1734 .F74 2017

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      June 22, 2017

This book is reviewed along with Destined for War at the page for Destined for War[1].

[1] Allison, Graham T. (2017). Destined For War: Can America And China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

Posted in China | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Anatomy of Terror

Title:                      Anatomy of Terror

Author:                Ali Soufan

Soufan, Ali H. (2017). Anatomy of Terror: From The Death of Bin Laden to The Rise of the Islamic State. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

LCCN:    2016055805

HV6431 .S6465 2017


  • A compelling, definitive account of how and why bin Laden’s ideology keeps rising from the dead. When Osama bin Laden was killed by a U.S. Navy SEAL, many prophesied al-Qaeda’s imminent demise. In reality the opposite has occurred. Why? Watching the Arab Spring from his Pakistani safe house, bin Laden had seen an historic opportunity: “The next stage will be the return of the caliphate.” In the six years since bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda’s affiliates metastasized, and the Islamic State, its most brutal spinoff, proclaimed itself the reborn caliphate bin Laden had foreseen. Anatomy of Terror is told through the stories of the flagbearers of today’s Islamic radicalism, including a Jordanian drug dealer, an air force colonel who served Saddam Hussein, a reclusive Iraqi bookworm, and one of bin Laden’s own sons. Ali Soufan, a top counterterrorism operative, lays bare the psychology and inner workings of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their spawn and shows how the propagation of terrorism can be stopped.


  • Introduction : friends and enemies — Prologue : the old man of the mountain — The snake with broken teeth — Allegience — The disaster — The emir of the strangers — Doctor, wise man, teacher, traitor — The Syrian wars — Those who loose and bind — Steadfast sons — Conclusion : slaying the hydra.


Date Posted:      June 1, 2017

Review by Michiko Kakutani[1]

In his revealing and timely new book, Anatomy of Terror, the former F.B.I. special agent Ali Soufan compares Al Qaeda and its vicious spinoff, the Islamic State, to the Hydra from Greek mythology: Cut off one head and two more quickly sprout.

More than a decade and a half after Sept. 11, and a half-dozen years after the killing of Osama bin Laden, he writes, “the cancer of bin Ladenism has metastasized across the Middle East and North Africa and beyond, carried by even more virulent vectors.”

“Whereas on 9/11 Al Qaeda had around 400 members,” he goes on, “today it has thousands upon thousands, in franchises and affiliates spread from the shores of the Pacific to Africa’s Atlantic seaboard.” And he notes that bin Laden’s 20-something son Hamza—who “grew up with a fervor for jihad and a determination to follow” in his father’s footsteps—is “being prepared for leadership” with several of his father’s most trusted lieutenants. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has brought mass murder to Iraq and Syria, and conducted or inspired attacks in more than two dozen countries; the group claimed responsibility for last week’s deadly bombing in Manchester, England.

As he did in his best-selling 2011 book, The Black Banners[2], Soufan writes with immense knowledge and authority. He was the lead investigator of the bombing of the American destroyer Cole and a supervisor of counterterrorism operations and the investigation of events surrounding Sept. 11. He was instrumental in identifying the Sept. 11 hijackers and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the architect of those attacks, and he extracted such crucial information not by torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques” (E.I.T.s), but by building a rapport with his subjects, sparring with them over interpretations of the Quran, and using old-fashioned logic and psychology.

Soufan, who left the F.B.I. in 2005, has been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s so-called E.I.T.s, arguing that torture is both morally wrong and ineffective and dangerous—generating false leads and unreliable information, and helping terrorists find new recruits.

In The Black Banners, Soufan provided a compelling insider’s account of American efforts to track down the perpetrators of Sept. 11, and recounted the story of Al Qaeda up through the death of bin Laden. His new book covers some of the same ground, but focuses on that terrorist group after bin Laden’s death, and how it and the Islamic State have evolved since—their different philosophies and divergent trajectories, and how the personalities of their leaders have shaped the organizations. Of the relationship between the soft-spoken bin Laden and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the fiery militant who founded the group that would become the Islamic State, Soufan quotes an intelligence officer: It was a case of “loathing at first sight.”

Much of this has been covered in books like Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS[3] by Joby Warrick, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan[4], and ISIS: The State of Terror[5] by Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger. But Soufan brings firsthand, on-the-ground experience hunting down and interrogating Qaeda members. Anatomy of Terror not only tells a gripping story but is filled with insights that put today’s terror attacks by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in perspective with the history and complicated geopolitics of the region.

Soufan underscores the disastrous role that the United States invasion of Iraq and its bungled occupation played in fueling terrorism, creating chaos and a power vacuum in Iraq—the perfect incubator for insurgent violence and bloodshed. Two calamitous decisions made by the Americans (dissolving the Iraqi Army and banning members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from positions of authority) would prove fateful. Soufan writes that embittered and unemployed “former Baathists soon became the backbone of the new Islamic State of Iraq.” He adds, “With their governmental, intelligence, and military experience, these men made themselves essential both to ISI’s battlefield achievements and to the terror tactics it has deployed against ordinary citizens.”

He lucidly describes the nefarious modus operandi (borrowed, in part, from Hussein’s regime) by which ISI—which would be renamed ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), and later simply IS, the Islamic State—began aggressively conquering territory in Iraq and Syria in 2013. It would start, in each town, by opening what appeared to be a religious community center, then selecting fervent young men “to inform on their neighbors and spy on any rival rebel groups in the area.”

While gathering intelligence and blackmail material on residents, Soufan explains: “ISIL would begin concentrating its fighters in the area—typically foreigners who would have less compunction about killing or subjugating the natives. When the local faction judged that it had amassed enough manpower and enough leverage with the local population, it would go public and seize the municipal government, violently if necessary.” Leaders of rival groups would be assassinated, and anyone who opposed ISIL’s rule would be killed—terror tactics that compelled allegiance from local tribes.

In other chapters, Soufan gives a detailed portrait of Al Qaeda’s more bureaucratic operation, describing bin Laden’s long view of history and his penchant for micromanagement. (“Please send me the résumés of all the brothers who might be nominated for high administrative positions now or in the future.”)

Such passages give a keen sense of how these terrorist groups operate day to day. Soufan also uses some of the techniques he learned as an interrogator to get inside the heads of his subjects, mapping the factors that lead many to become jihadis, and the ways Al Qaeda and the Islamic State use publicity and propaganda to recruit members and promote their brand.

“Know your enemy,” he quotes Sun Tzu, adding that empathy is a useful tool in this war—“not in the colloquial sense of sharing another person’s perspective, but in the clinical sense of being able to see the world through another person’s eyes.” By understanding Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, he writes, we can better “combat the destructive ideology they represent.”

[1] Michiko Kakutani, “A Former F.B.I. Agent on Terrorism Since the Death of Bin Laden,” New York Times (May 29, 2017). A version of this review appears in print on May 30, 2017, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: “Bin Laden Is Gone. His Hydra Thrives.” Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani

[2] Soufan, Ali H. (2011) with Daniel Freedman. The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

[3] Warrick, Joby (2015). Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. New York: Doubleday

[4] Weiss, Michael (2015), and Hassan Hassan. ISIS: Inside The Army of Terror. New York, NY: Regan Arts

[5] Stern, Jessica (2015) and J.M. Berger. ISIS: The State of Terror. New York, NY: Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Posted in Terrorism | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

ISIS the State of Terror

Title:                      ISIS the State of Terror

Author:                Jessica Stern

Stern, Jessica (2015) and J.M. Berger. ISIS: The State of Terror. New York, NY: Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

LCCN:    2014481578

HV6433.I722 S74 2015


  • “Two of America’s leading experts on violent extremism and terrorism explain the genesis, evolution, and implications of today’s most barbaric jihadist army, Islamic State–and how we can fight it”– from publisher.
  • Though terrorist groups are a fixture of contemporary politics and warfare, the world has never witnessed the degree of sheer brutality demonstrated by the group known as ISIS– the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Its sadistic disregard for human life, sophisticated use of social media, acquisition of territory, and ability to attract foreign fighters is unprecedented. Stern and Berger analyze the tools ISIS uses both to frighten innocent citizens and lure new soldiers, and offer practical ideas on potential government responses.


  • The rise and fall of al Qaeda in Iraq — The rise of ISIS — From vanguard to smart mob — The foreign fighters — The message — Jihad goes social — The electronic brigades — The AQ-ISIS war — ISIS’s psychological warfare — The coming final battle? — The state of terror.


Date Posted:      June 1, 2017

Review by Michiko Kakutani[1]

The Islamic State and its atrocities—beheadings, mass executions, the enslavement of women and children, and the destruction of cultural antiquities—are in the headlines every day now. The terror group not only continues to roll through the Middle East, expanding from Iraq and Syria into Libya and Yemen, but has also gained dangerous new affiliates in Egypt and Nigeria and continues to recruit foreign fighters through its sophisticated use of social media.

Given the ascendance of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), it’s startling to recall that in January 2014, President Obama referred to it as a “J.V. team,” suggesting that it did not pose anywhere near the sort of threat that Al Qaeda did.

Since then, yards of copy and scores of pixels have been devoted to trying to chronicle and comprehend the group. Two new books pull together and analyze a lot of material on it. Although much of their coverage (on matters like the organization’s use of social media, its fueling of sectarian hatred and its combination of ultraviolence with civil governance) will be familiar to those who follow the news, the authors do nimble jobs of turning their copious research and their own expertise on terrorism into coherent, accessible narratives that leave us with an understanding of the Islamic State’s history and metastasis, and its modus operandi.

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror[2] by the journalists Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, draws upon the authors’ extensive reporting—including interviews with dozens of ISIS associates in Iraq and Syria, among them religious clerics, fighters, security officials and sympathizers—to give readers a fine-grained look at the organization’s evolution through assorted incarnations (Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Mujahidin Advisory Council and the Islamic State of Iraq) and its operations today. ISIS: The State of Terror by the Harvard terrorism scholar Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger, a contributor to Foreign Policy magazine, covers much of the same ground but with less granular detail. The authors also offer some vague recommendations on how they think the West should deal with the Islamic State: focus on “containment and constriction” rather than overwhelming military force, and exert more effective control of the digital battleground. (“Our power over the Internet is the equivalent of being able to control the weather in a ground war.”)

The most compelling sections of the Stern-Berger book are devoted to comparing ISIS and Al Qaeda. The authors describe Al Qaeda as an exclusive “vanguard movement,” a “cabal that saw itself as the elite intellectual leaders of a global ideological revolution that it would assist and manipulate.” Through the 1990s, they write, Al Qaeda “grew into a corporation, with a payroll and benefits department, and operatives who traveled around the world inserting themselves into local conflicts.”

ISIS, in contrast, is more of a populist start-up operation. Online, Ms. Stern and Mr. Berger note, “it amassed and empowered a ‘smart mob’ of supporters,” polling “its constituents and making shrewd calls about when to listen and who could safely be ignored.”

Al Qaeda’s vision for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate, they write, “is framed squarely in the long term”—”an idealized future that its leaders did not expect to see realized in their lifetimes.” Using “a classic extremist trope” (the defense of one’s own identity group against aggression), the authors assert, Osama bin Laden’s organization “framed its pitch to potential recruits in more relatable terms as ‘doing the right thing.’ “

The Islamic State, Mr. Berger and Ms. Stern say, dispensed with such intellectual argumentation and instead emphasized horrific violence (which served to stimulate and attract disaffected, angry young men) combined with the promise of a building “a Muslim society with all the trappings.” This utopian vision of “food aplenty, industry, banks, schools, health care, social services, pothole repair—even a nursing home with the insurgents’ unmistakable black flag draped over the walls,” they write, served as “a call for noncombatants, men and women alike, to build a nation-state alongside the warriors, with a role for engineers, doctors, filmmakers, sysadmins, and even traffic cops.”

Mr. Weiss and Mr. Hassan describe the Islamic State not only as a terrorist organization but also as “a slick propaganda machine effective at disseminating its message,” “a mafia adept at exploiting decades-old transnational gray markets for oil and arms trafficking,” a “conventional military that mobilizes and deploys foot soldiers” with professional acumen, and a “sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus that infiltrates rival organizations and silently recruits within their ranks before taking them over.”

As Mr. Weiss and Mr. Hassan see it, many reluctant supporters regard the Islamic State as “the only option on offer for Sunni Muslims who have been dealt a dismal hand in the past decade—first losing control of Iraq and now suffering nationwide atrocities, which many equate to genocide, in Syria. They view the struggle in the Middle East as one between Sunnis and an Iranian-led coalition, and they justify ultraviolence as a necessary tool to counterbalance or deter Shia hegemony.” The Islamic State has viciously exploited this sense of sectarian grievance, trying to fan the flames of civil war and incite Shia militias to violence—which the group could then hold up as proof to Sunnis that they “have no hope but the caliphate.”

These books note that in Iraq the sectarianism of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki (a polarizing figure who as prime minister increasingly moved to disenfranchise Sunnis and purge prominent Sunni leaders from the government) served only to push more Sunnis into the embrace of the Islamic State.

Both books also provide lucid assessments of the role that missteps and disastrous decision-making on the part of the United States played in fueling the rise of the Islamic State and its antecedents and affiliates. Ms. Stern and Mr. Berger write that the 2003 invasion of Iraq “reinforced jihadi claims about America’s hegemonic designs on the Middle East, providing a recruiting bonanza at a time when the terrorists needed it most.” They add that “while some politicians wanted to see Iraq during the allied invasion as a roach motel, we see it more like a hornet’s nest—with allied bombs and bullets spreading the hornets ever further, throughout the region and beyond.”

The occupation and postwar planning would prove equally disastrous. Both books remind us that decisions announced by L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civilian administrator in Iraq, in 2003—to dissolve the Iraqi Army and to ban Baath Party members from government—resulted in huge numbers of angry, unemployed Iraqis, easily recruited into a burgeoning insurgency and a dangerous lack of security. In fact, Mr. Weiss and Mr. Hassan contend that most of the Islamic State’s “top decision makers served in Saddam Hussein’s military or security services,” and in that sense, “ ‘secular’ Baathism has returned to Iraq under the guise of Islamic fundamentalism.”

Finally, both books point out that the United States’ withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011 and the Obama administration’s political disengagement have had lasting consequences for what Mr. Weiss and Mr. Hassan call “the country’s future instability.”

“The rise of ISIS,” Mr. Berger and Ms. Stern conclude, “is to some extent, the unintended consequence of Western intervention in Iraq. Coalition forces removed a brutal dictator from power, but they also broke the Iraqi state. The West lacked the patience, the will, and the wisdom to build a new, inclusive one. What remained were ruins.” They quote King Abdullah II of Jordan saying that the battle with ISIS will be a “generational fight.”

Mr. Weiss and Mr. Hassan sound an even more pessimistic note. “The army of terror,” they write at the end of their book, “will be with us indefinitely.”

[1] Michiko Kakutani New York Times (April 2, 2015). A version of this review appears in print on April 3, 2015, on Page C21 of the New York edition with the headline: “An Army of Terror Like No Other”. Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani

[2] Weiss, Michael (2015), and Hassan Hassan. ISIS: Inside The Army of Terror. New York, NY: Regan Arts

Posted in Terrorism | Tagged , , | 1 Comment


Title:                      ISIS

Author:                Michael Weiss

Weiss, Michael (2015), and Hassan Hassan. ISIS: Inside The Army of Terror. New York, NY: Regan Arts

LCCN:    2015930621

HV6433.I722 W45 2015


  • “How did a group of religious fanatics, clad in black pajamas and armed to the teeth, manage to carve out a violent, fundamentalist “Islamic state” in wide swaths of Syria and Iraq? How did the widely celebrated revolution against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad descend into a movement led by a psychopathically violent band of jihadists dedicated to the destruction of America? And just who are these brutal Islamic militants—many speaking unaccented English and holding European passports—beheading Western hostages in slickly produced videos? In ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Syrian journalist Hassan Hassan and American analyst Michael Weiss explain how the terrorists of ISIS evolved from a nearly defeated insurgent group into a jihadi army—armed with American military hardware and the capability to administer a functioning state. Weiss and Hassan, who have both been on the frontlines of the Syrian revolution, have interviewed dozens of experts, American military and intelligence officials, and ISIS fighters to paint the first comprehensive picture of the rise and expansion of America’s most formidable terrorist enemy. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror is destined to become the standard text on a terror group that, unfortunately, shows no signs of going away” — provided by publisher.


Date Posted:      June 1, 2017

Two accounts—from Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, and from Patrick Cockburn[1]—offer contrasting perspectives on the rise of jihadism in the Middle East

Review by Robin Yassin-Kassab[2]

ISIS feeds first on state dysfunction, second on Sunni outrage. In Iraq, Sunni Arabs are a minority displaced from their privileged position by America’s invasion. Their revanchism[3] is exacerbated by the sectarian oppression practiced by the elected but Iranian-backed government. In Syria, Sunnis are an oppressed majority, the prime targets of a counter-revolutionary tyranny headed by mafias but claiming and exploiting Alawi sectarian identity.

Under other names, ISIS first grew in Iraq, as it would later in Syria, by exploiting resistance to occupation, American in the first case, that of a delegitimized regime in the other. Drawing on research by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan show how Syria’s regime once collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist extremists, helping terrorists move to American-occupied Iraq, where their attacks against Shia civilians eventually precipitated civil war. This troublemaking was President Assad’s message to the US to leave his regime alone.

Eventually the jihadists were driven out of Iraq by the US-backed Awakening Movement. Their moment returned in 2013, when the Iraqi government repressed peaceful Sunni protests with live fire. Heading a Baathist-Islamist coalition, ISIS then captured huge swathes of the country and set about its reign of terror.

Weiss and Hassan have produced a detailed and readable book. Their informants include American and regional military officials and intelligence operatives, defected Syrian spies and diplomats, and—most fascinating of all—Syrians who work for ISIS (these are divided into categories such as politickers, pragmatists, opportunists and fence-sitters). The authors provide useful insights into ISIS governance—a combination of divide-and-rule, indoctrination and fear—and are well placed for the task. Hassan, an expert on tribal and jihadist dynamics, is from Syria’s east. Weiss reported from liberated al-Bab, outside Aleppo, before ISIS took it over.

Cockburn’s book is more polemic than analysis. While Weiss and Hassan give a sense of the vital civil movements that coincide with jihadism and Assadism in Syria, Cockburn sees only an opposition that “shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy”. He concedes the first revolutionaries wanted democracy, but still talks of “the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011”. By 2014, he writes, “the armed opposition” to Assad was “dominated by ISIS”. Yet from January 2014, in response to popular pressure, every Syrian oppositional militia declared war against ISIS, pushed it out of the north-west, and weakened it in its eastern strongholds. They gave hundreds of lives in this battle. Compare the success of these “farmers and dentists” (as Barack Obama disparagingly called them) to the failure of the US-trained Iraqi army, which in June fled from a small ISIS force in Mosul. ISIS brought the American weapons it captured to bear on Syria, and surged back to the areas it had lost.

For Cockburn, Sunni jihadism is an essence without context. The war on terror failed, he says, because it didn’t fully engage with Sunni states such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. He blames—rightly—Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ideology, a form of Islamism “that imposes sharia law” for the ideological background from which ISIS arises. Repeatedly he uses the comparison of Sunni jihadists to Nazis and Shia to Jews. He is almost silent, however, on the more immediate background.

For him, it is the Syrian opposition that “has allowed or encouraged the conflict to become a vicious sectarian war”. He doesn’t consider that Assad might have had something to do with it, by sending Alawi death squads into Sunni villages to murder and rape, or by releasing violent Salafists from prison in 2011 at the same time he was targeting secular, peaceful activists for detention and assassination. Nor does he blame the Iranian- ISIS backed Shia jihadist militias from Lebanon and Iraq who fight on Assad’s frontlines.

Cockburn exaggerates western support of the Syrian opposition, when the Americans’ main role was to prevent Arab states from sending the heavy weaponry Syrians so desperately needed to resist Assad’s blitzkrieg. One justification given by commentators for the failure to support the Free Army early on was that Islamists might benefit. Of course, the opposite happened—starved for funds, guns and ammunition, the moderate leadership was unable to win loyalty, or establish central control and discipline. Many of its fighters either despaired and left the country or gravitated towards the much better-funded Islamist brigades. Unhindered, Assad’s barrel bombs and scuds implemented a scorched-earth strategy, traumatizing Syrians and producing a vacuum in which jihadism flourished.

Cockburn has conducted no interviews with fighters. His informants tend to be government officials or those steered into his path by these officials, ranging from “one senior Iraqi source” to “an intelligence officer from a Middle East country neighboring Syria”. Unlike Cockburn, I have visited liberated parts of Syria unembedded, and have maintained contacts with democratic activists who oppose, and are targeted by, both Assad and ISIS.

Increasingly a deluded “realism” calls for cooperation with Assad against the greater jihadist enemy. It was precisely in order to provoke these calls that Assad did his utmost to create a jihadist threat, and why—until June 2014, when ISIS became a threat to his regime—he refrained from bombing the organization. Even today, when the Free Army and ISIS fight, Assad bombs the Free Army. Former State Department official Fred Hof describes the unofficial ISIS-Assad collusion like this: “Their top tactical priority in Syria is identical: destroy the Syrian nationalist opposition.”

[1] Cockburn, Patrick (2016). The Age of Jihad: Islamic State And The Great War for the Middle East. London: New York: Verso

[2] Robin Yassin-Kassab, “Isis: Inside the Army of Terror; The Rise of Islamic State—review. Two accounts—from Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, and from Patrick Cockburn—offer contrasting perspectives on the rise of jihadism in the Middle East,” The Guardian (28 March 2015)

[3] A policy of retaliating, especially by a nation or group to regain lost territory or standing; revenge.

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