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

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One Response to ISIS the State of Terror

  1. Pingback: Anatomy of Terror | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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