Posted by Aymenn Al-Tamimi on Friday, March 27th, 2015
ISIS: The State of Terror
By JM Berger & Jessica Stern
385 pp. (hardcover), HarperCollins
Reviewed by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
The ISIS phenomenon that has swept Iraq and Syria with global repercussions has produced a demand for information on the origins, rise, operations and future of arguably the most brutal jihadist movement yet. Following on from “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” Berger and Stern’s book is the second major title to come out on the subject. In 11 chapters, the authors begin with the origins of ISIS through Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and his predecessor groups in the days of the Iraq War, with the apparent fall of what then became the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in the aftermath of his death on account of the surge and Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq, to the rebirth of ISI under new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi since 2010. This rebirth culminated in the renaming to the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), expansion through Syria, and the eventual lightning surge through northern and western Iraq that led to the further rebranding as just the “Islamic State” or the Caliphate, currently controlling a vast swathe of contiguous territory from Mosul in Iraq to northeast Aleppo countryside.
What follows- and this constitutes the main bulk of the book- is an in-depth analysis of ISIS’ use of media techniques to advertise itself, including focus on video releases of military operations, recruitment of foreign fighters, manipulation of Twitter to inflate ISIS’ presence and the pushback against the ISIS presence on social media. The authors then analyze the ongoing international competition between ISIS and al-Qa’ida for support, while also exploring the psychological impacts of ISIS’ actions (e.g. child recruitment) and the apocalyptic nature of its ideology. The book concludes with a survey of Western policy responses, real and potential, to the ISIS phenomenon. There is also an appendix written by a doctoral student with a primer on Islam and notions of the Caliphate, jihad and takfir (the practice of declaring others who say they are Muslim to be non-Muslims).
The main strength of the book and its most original contributions come in the sections on ISIS’ exploitation of social media. Rather than simply stating the obvious that ‘ISIS is on social media and is good at it’ (a non-story), the authors explore in detail the manipulation techniques used, with a noteworthy account on the development of the “Dawn of Glad Tidings” application (p. 148f.), created by a Palestinian and designed to tweet out links to official ISIS media releases and promote hashtags ISIS wanted to use. The most notable result of this phenomenon- from April till June 2014- was to scare Iraqis in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Mosul with threats of an ISIS march on Baghdad to conquer the capital: qadimun ya Baghdad, as one of the Arabic slogans went.
Incidentally, there are two things about this instance of inflation on social media not noted by the authors. The first is that this scare tactic has contributed in no small part to the mythology that endures to this day among Iraq’s Shi’a (and also among many analysts) that had there been no mass Shi’a militia mobilization, Baghdad would have fallen. This mythology has helped to consolidate the sectarian paramilitary response ISIS wanted. Second, the particular slogan ISIS exploited is one widely known and used among Iraq Sunni insurgent circles in the belief that Baghdad should be under Sunni control. Indeed, it is most popular with ISIS’ main insurgent rival in Iraq- the Ba’athist-Sufi Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN). Arguably, this ISIS hijacking of a popular Sunni insurgent slogan helped it to gain the upper hand very rapidly over other factions in places like Mosul and Tikrit (where one thought JRTN might have been able to wield more influence), as locals and insurgents saw ISIS as the winning horse that would retake Baghdad, prompting defections to ISIS.
Besides the Dawn application, another notable strategy of online ISIS inflation highlighted by Berger and Stern is the use of so-called mujtahidun- supporters who would begin a process of obsessive retweeting with hashtags to further ISIS’ reach on social media (p. 155). The authors further make a sound argument on the net benefit of terminating ISIS/pro-ISIS accounts to reduce online appeal: though they note it is not full-proof to stamp out ISIS completely from the world of the Internet, suspensions seem to reduce the overall reach of replacement accounts, and trump the argument of allowing complete free space to collect intel. Indeed, as Berger and Stern point out, no one ever makes a similar argument to allow child pornographers to operate online- let alone open access social media- without impediment, even as doing so would allow much intel to be gathered on their activities (p. 141).
The concluding section on policy recommendations deserves credit for some insightful thoughts. Rather than proposing a grand master plan to ‘defeat/destroy ISIS’ as has become so common in think-tank circles, the authors broadly suggest a policy of containment and online messaging disruption, noting that the present approach of trying to defeat/destroy ISIS via airstrikes and some training of native ground troops in Iraq and Syria likely cannot realize such an ambitious goal. Critics of the terrorism analysis field often accuse those who work within it of overhyping the threat for personal gain. This charge certainly cannot be applied to Berger and Stern, who affirm that “ISIS does not represent an existential threat to any Western country” (p. 236).
Indeed, they rightly note media overstatement of the threat of ISIS helps to reinforce the group’s narrative of a cosmic clash between good and evil. The authors also wisely caution against simplistic policy solutions: for instance, an intervention in Syria that “simply removes Assad, as the Libyans removed Gadhafi, creates new and different problems for the Syrian people, and these new problems may be even more intractable” (p. 254). This does not mean the authors advocate the folly of forming an alliance with Assad (and/or Iran, for that matter), but rather there is sober warning here against monochromatic analysis and policy proposals, as Libya finds itself amid chaos post-Gadhafi engulfed with a significant jihadist phenomenon of varying stripes, including ISIS.
However, for all these merits, there are many substantial shortcomings to this book. When it comes to any book or extended dissertation on ISIS, one inevitably faces a problem of how much attention should be devoted to certain parts of the chronology tracing the group’s origin and rise. This is a common issue for a range of historical and contemporary subjects: compare Tacitus’ affirmed approach in the Annals of dealing with the lengthy reign of Augustus in brief and general terms (with focus on succession and the last days) with the year by year documentation of events in Tiberius’ reign. Since the bulk of Berger and Stern’s book deals with ISIS and its use of media, the group’s history is only covered in summary form and the account presented is little more than a readable rehash of what is already common knowledge.
Worse still, some serious errors have creeped into the chronology and historical narrative as a result of insufficient research. In the summary timeline, the authors put Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s release from the U.S.-run Camp Bucca prison in Iraq in “Fall 2009” [Timeline: XVII], and affirm that many of Baghdadi’s allies “had spent several years with Baghdadi in Camp Bucca” (p. 37). This chronology is wholly erroneous: Baghdadi was captured in early 2004 and released in December of that same year. Not only do detainee file records demonstrate this, but Jaysh al-Mujahideen, a Salafi nationalist Iraqi insurgent group, affirms that Baghdadi was among its ranks in 2005 following his release from Camp Bucca, rather than immediately joining al-Qa’ida in Iraq or its subsequent manifestations as the authors claim. Further, for “August 14, 2013,” the authors write: “ISIS pushes Syrian rebels out of Raqqa” [Timeline: XIX]. Actually, ISIS in that month expelled the rebel group Ahfad al-Rasul from Raqqa city, but Ahrar al-Sham remained in the city, undoubtedly content to stand by and allow ISIS to expel what it saw as a greater non-Islamist threat. The next month Jabhat al-Nusra marked its official return to Raqqa city.
For the date “September 25, 2013,” Berger and Stern write: “Rebel groups form the Islamic Front from eleven Western-backed opposition groups” [Timeline: XX]. In fact, the Islamic Front was not formed till November 2013, was initially composed of seven groups, and none of those constituents was ever Western-backed: on the contrary its constituents have been distrusted by the West because they are seen as too Islamist. The authors appear to have confused the Islamic Front with the al-Tahaluf al-Islami (“Islamic Alliance/Coalition”) formed in September 2013 that was primarily an Aleppo-based phenomenon, formed in opposition to the Western-backed opposition-in-exile and including a number of groups opposed to the West, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The Sykes-Picot agreement was in 1916, not 1906 [ibid.].
Nor did ISIS ever name Raqqa city the “capital of the ISIS emirate” [ibid.]. It is true there was talk of this notion on pro-ISIS social media following the seizure by ISIS of all major Raqqa province localities by the end of January 2014 and Raqqa city could be seen as the de facto capital where new aspects of ISIS governance were tested, but there was never any official declaration: had it been the case, it would surely have been referenced in the imposition of the dhimmi pact on the Christians of Raqqa by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in February 2014. Moreover, the term “emirate” was not applied to the totality of ISIS’ territory at this stage (or from mid-2013 onwards, when ISIS began to acquire strongholds in Syria where it could advertise governance) but rather for individual towns they controlled/intending to seize by force (e.g. Jarabulus, Azaz and al-Bab). It was this declaration of ‘mini-emirates’, together with the emergence of slogans like “The Promised Project of the Caliphate” in the fall of 2013 that really marked the beginning of ISIS’ testing of messaging of the coming establishment of the Caliphate, rather than the Twitter campaign in March 2014 demanding that Baghdadi declare the Caliphate (p. 157).
Interestingly, mid-2013 onwards presents an interesting discord in ISIS messaging by location. Though media output in Syria, given ISIS’ control of meaningful territory and urban areas, meant emphasis on the state-building project and the coming of the Caliphate, Iraq operations statements still tended to present attacks as revenge/in defence of Sunnis, emphasizing perceived ‘Safavid’ government crimes against them such as ethnic cleansing in the Baghdad Belt area. This is not touched on by the authors.
Some other errors: the authors claim that ISIS “captured Fallujah in January ” (p. 44). In fact, Fallujah fell to a number of insurgent factions including ISIS, which only came to dominate the city over its rivals (including the Islamic Army in Iraq, Jaysh al-Mujahideen and JRTN) after 5-6 months or so. At times, excess repetition leads to some more minor mistakes: “in early 2013, al-Qaeda in Iraq announced…” (p. 66) when the Islamic State of Iraq is meant; “in the spring of 2014, Zawahiri disavowed ISIS, which was at the time considered an al Qaeda affiliate” (p. 180) when February 2014 is meant.
The last of those aforementioned errors comes in the overview section of the competition between ISIS and al-Qa’ida. This section is generally adequate- and slightly outdated on Boko Haram out of no fault of the authors- but could have made for a more insightful discussion by e.g. delving more into cases of pledges of allegiance to ISIS that have not been officially acknowledged to lead to the creation of new ‘provinces’ (e.g. Ansar al-Tawheed in India and elements of Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines; for the latter, the scanty evidence does not suggest the whole group has pledged allegiance pace the authors’ assertion in the glossary [Glossary IX], which may be one reason why ISIS has not created a ‘Philippines province’). Though touched on briefly by the authors, more could have been said on the question of ISIS social media manipulation and allegiance pledges from (components of) other jihadist groups, such as Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Iraq and Syria– a group whose predecessor Ansar al-Islam is only referenced twice in the entire book, once in the glossary and once in the main content (p. 17).
In sum, parts of this book can serve as a useful primer for the general reader or university courses on ISIS regarding the relationship between ISIS and media, particularly open access platforms such as Twitter- a welcome relief from repetitive and sensationalist conventional media coverage. The book can also be a tab on some of the more infamous ISIS videos (such as the Saleel al-Sawarim/’Clanging of the Swords’ series) for those who may have missed them when they were released, with worthwhile background for those unfamiliar with how jihadis before ISIS have tried to exploit the online world.
Yet the opening historical narrative on the rise of ISIS is too terse, too unoriginal and has too many mistakes. We are also given very little insight into how exactly ISIS is managing territories it controls. More generally, there is over-reliance on secondary sources in the sections that are clearly outside the authors’ specialties, and the book is marred by lack of fieldwork and local contacts in Iraq and Syria. Hopefully the errors highlighted here will be corrected in a subsequent edition, but this work is by no means the definitive text on ISIS, which is still years, if not decades away from fruition- as the authors themselves implicitly acknowledge (p. 7).