#Reviewing the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham: What, Who, Where, When

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. William McCants. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. Joby Warrick. New York: Doubleday, 2015.

Under the Black Flag. Sami Moubayed. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co LTD, 2015.

Although the administration refers to the Islamic State as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or ISIL, for the purposes of this article I will use the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham or ISIS to reflect the author’s usage.

“Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state… It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.” President Barack Obama September 10, 2014

President Barack Obama made the above statement and outlined his four-point strategy for fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) just weeks after he stated: “…we don’t have a strategy yet.” The administration’s ambiguous policy statements and its delay in reacting to ISIS operations has placed the U.S. and its allies in a quagmire without a good strategy to defeat ISIS, bring peace to the region, or foster democratic governments rooted in human rights and rule of law. To develop a strategy to win a war, planners and policymakers — as Sun Tzu advised — “must understand the enemy” and form a strategy based on this knowledge and the knowledge of their own capabilities.

Often the answers to the “who, what, and when” questions surrounding the swift emergence and growth of ISIS are distorted or wrong due to the lack of understanding by many Westerners of Middle Eastern cultural, linguistic, religious, and political dynamics.

Each of these three new books will increase the reader’s base knowledge about ISIS and answer many of the “who, what, and when” questions. Each author draws on their own expertise and presents their unique view of ISIS in a way where they are not duplicative but complementary.

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. William McCants is a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy, director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World and has served in government and think tank positions related to Islam, the Middle East and terrorism. He opens by asking the question that many were asking in 2014 after the first beheadings and the defeat of Iraqi Security Forces by ISIS.

“How had the Islamic State conquered so much land? Why was it so brutal? Why would such a murderous group claim to do god’s bidding and fulfill prophecy? Did it really have anything to do with Islam…what threat did it pose to the international community? To make sense of it all would require a guide proficient in Islamic theology and history, modern jihadism, clandestine bureaucracies, and Arabic.”

One question that is often misconstrued is what is ISIS’s relationship to al-Qaida? McCants opens with a discussion of this relationship. He uses primary source material to explain the early confrontation between al Qaida Senior Leadership (Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri) and the Iraqi franchise (Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqaw) which continued with the emergence of ISIS under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The controversy, McCants explains, is confusion regarding the bay`a or pledge given by the leader of a new group wanting to affiliate with al-Qaida. Is the pledge given to the person or the group? Does the pledge carry with it an “ironclad link,” for example, between al-Qaida and ISS? Or is it an act of convenience to obtain money, support, and the benefits of the al-Qaida name? McCants documents the tension between the senior leaders in Pakistan and the Iraqi franchise that started over the brutality and killing of Muslims that had cooperated or worked in the new Iraq government and reached its climax with the declaration of the Islamic State by Zarqawi. Additionally, McCants uses al-Qaida on the Arabic Peninsula as another example of the problems associated with having a local group operating autonomously with local goals and objectives that are not congruent with the al-Qaida Senior Leadership’s global strategy.

McCants’ use of primary source literature and his knowledge of Islam makesISIS Apocalypse a must read and a library addition for anyone that wants to understand the threat of ISIS.

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS.Joby Warrick, a Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize winning author, uses the Black Flag flown by ISIS and other Islamist groups in his book title to tie the group back to Muhammad and the origins of Islam.

“The black flags will come from the East, led by mighty men…”

What would become ISIS began in al-Jfar, a Jordanian prison where Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and where he was transformed from a petty thief to an Islamist fighter and the future founder of al-Qaida in Iraq. After Zarqawi’s release from the Jordanian prison, he traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahedeen against the Soviet Union. During the Afghan war, he gained not only combat experience but learned a more “radical brand” of Islam taught by the same clerics who later allied themselves with bin Laden and the other senior leaders of al-Qaida.

Warrick portrays a close relationship between the CIA station in Amman and the Jordanian Mukhabarat. After a 1999 plot to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy was disrupted, Zarqawi’s name was provided to a CIA officer. Zarqawi, however, slipped the dragnet and made his way to Pakistan where he reconnected with al-Qaida leaders who then sent him to establish a training camp near Abdul Mehdi near the Iranian border.

It is easily overlooked, but an important part of the early days of President G. W. Bush’s administration was the internal rivalry after 9/11 between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense Office of Special Plans over assessment of Iraq in addition to Saddam Hussein’s and Iraq Intelligence Service’s association with al-Qaida. Warrick describes the Office of Special Plans as a “shadow intelligence agency” run by Douglas J. Feith, a neo-conservative hawk and assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

There are numerous news articles about the uniqueness of the CIA’s al-Qaida cell which was comprised largely of female analysts. Warrick highlights the work of Nada Bakos, a CIA analyst with only two years with the agency. She quickly became the agency’s expert on Zarqawi and her assessments of al-Qaida and Iraq were more cautious than those furnished to the White House by Feith’s office. After sitting in a briefing room with Vice President Richard Cheney, Bakos and another Iraq analyst had to defend their assessment to then CIA Director George Tenet. Political appointees later directly contacted her regarding her analysis. This violated normal protocol which prohibited a political appointee from calling a CIA analyst directly, bypassing the chain of command.

Warrick’s story continues the story of al-Qaida in Iraq after Zarqawi was killed by U.S. special operations task force and Baghdadi moved to emerge as the leader in today’s fight. The book is essential to understanding the relationship between the Iraq front (Zarqawi and Baghdadi) and senior leadership in Pakistan. Additionally, Warrick’s description of Jordan’s role in the war, fighting covertly trying to protect its borders but pulled into the conflict and eventually joining the coalition air campaign, is important to understand the regional significance of each player. As the war enters its second year and most likely will spill over into the next administration, more decisions must be made regarding the United States’ role in fighting ISIS.

Under the Black Flag. Sami Moubayed is a Syrian based historian. In this book Mougayed traces the Islamic State, which he considers was born in the 2003 U.S. invasion, back to the early days of Islam.

Islamists believe the ultimate goal of true believers is to establish a state ruled by the laws of Islamic Shari`a and governed by a caliph as in the earliest days of Islam…”

The focus, after establishing the origins of the ideals of Salafism, is on the era that began with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and the demise of the caliph in 1924. Moubayed argues that “one cannot view ISIS through the clear-cut black and white frames of post 9/11 pre-Arab Spring politics.”

Western political thought made the split separating the government and the church during the Middle Ages. However, this did not occur in the Islamic world where all aspects of life are governed by the Koran. While Western thought also has gone through stages of modernization over the centuries, Osama bin Laden in 1996 said, “Real believers will instigate the ummah against its enemies, just like the ulema salaf Ibn Taymiyya.”

“Spreading the faith by sword, killing infidels and purifying the Islamic world from foreign ideas and lifestyles is the crux of Wahhabism and the cornerstone of jihadi thought and doctrine.”

The period between the end of the caliphate in 1924 and the declaration of the new caliphate are intertwined with the changes in governments that were first European protectorates or colonies. When granted independence, they went through short periods of democratic governance, monarchies, and authoritarian leadership until now many are faced with a return to early Islamic governments and sharia law.

It would appear that if al Qaida and ISIS were both working towards the same goal of a caliphate they would be allies, however the road to achieving a caliphate is different and there remains friction between the two groups. Moubayed presents an Arab view of ISIS and has the historical bona fides to discuss a century of turmoil in the region. Under the Black Flag fills in the historical perspective needed to fully understand ISIS.

These three books are very complementary and, when read together, provide a well-rounded dissertation on the regional and global threat which has disrupted economic growth in the region. I found all three extremely well written and sources of valuable information on the subject.

Dave Mattingly is a writer and national security consultant. He retired from the U.S. Navy with over thirty years of service. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, NETGALLEY Challenge 2015, and a NETGALLEY Professional Reader. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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