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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3 Responses to ISIS

  1. Pingback: The Age of Jihad | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  2. Pingback: ISIS the State of Terror | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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

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