The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising

Friday, October 31, 2014

Author: Patrick Cockburn

Paperback: 150 pages
Publisher: OR Books; 1ST edition (August 28 2014)
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-939293-59-6
E-book ISBN: 978-1-939293-60-2

Book Description

Though capable of staging spectacular attacks like 9/11, jihadist organizations were not a significant force on the ground when they first became notorious in the shape of al-Qa‘ida at the turn of century. The West’s initial successes in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan weakened their support still further.

Today, as renowned Middle East commentator Patrick Cockburn sets out in this explosive new book, that’s all changed. Exploiting the missteps of the West’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, as well as its misjudgments in relation to Syria and the uprisings of the Arab Spring, jihadist organizations, of which ISIS is the most important, are swiftly expanding. They now control a geographical territory greater in size than Britain or Michigan, stretching from the Sunni heartlands in the north and west of Iraq through a broad swath of north-east Syria. On the back of their capture of Mosul and much of northern Iraq in June 2014, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been declared the head of a new caliphate that demands the allegiance of all Muslims.

The secular, democratic politics that were supposedly at the fore of the Arab Spring have been buried by the return of the jihadis. As the Islamic State announced by ISIS confronts its enemies, the West will once again become a target. Cockburn cites an observer in southern Turkey interviewing Syrian jihadi rebels early in 2014 and finding that “without exception they all expressed enthusiasm for the 9/11 attacks and hoped the same thing would happen in Europe as well as the US.”

How could things have gone so badly wrong? Writing in these pages with customary calmness and clarity, and drawing on unrivaled experience as a reporter in the region, Cockburn analyzes the unfolding of one of the West’s greatest foreign policy debacles and the rise of the new jihadis.

From the Foreword

This book focuses on several critical developments in the Middle East that are affecting or will affect the rest of the world. The most important of these is the resurgence of al-Qa‘ida-type movements that today rule a vast area in west Iraq and eastern and northern Syria. The territory under their sway is several hundred times larger than any territory ever controlled by Osama Bin Laden, the killing of whom in 2011 was supposed to be such a blow to world terrorism. In fact, it is since Bin Laden’s death that al-Qa‘ida affiliates or clones have had their greatest successes, culminating in the capture of Raqqa in eastern Syria, the only Syrian provincial capital to fall to the rebels, in March 2013. In Iraq, they took over Fallujah, the city 40 miles west of Baghdad famously besieged and stormed by US Marines ten years earlier, in January 2014. The battle lines may change, but the overall expansion of their power appears permanent.

A reason so little attention is given to events in this enormous area is that control by al-Qa‘ida-type jihadis means the zone becomes too risky for journalists and outside observers to visit because of the extreme danger of being kidnapped or murdered. “Those who used to to protect the foreign media can no longer protect themselves,” one intrepid correspondent told me, explaining why he would not be returning to rebel-held Syria. This lack of media coverage is convenient for the US and other Western governments because it enables them to play down the extent to which “the war on Terror” has failed so catastrophically in the years since 9/11.

This failure is masked by deceptions and self-deceptions on the part of governments. Speaking at West Point on America’s role in the world on 28 May 2014 President Obama said that the main threat to the US no longer comes from al-Qa‘ida central but from “decentralized al-Qa‘ida affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused on the countries where they operate.” He added that “as the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.” True enough, but Obama’s solution to this danger is “to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists.” It is here that self-deception takes over the agenda because the Syrian military opposition is dominated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IsiS), formerly al-Qa‘ida in Iraq , Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the official al-Qa‘ida representative, and other extreme jihadi groups. In reality, there is no dividing wall between them and America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies.

An intelligence officer from a Middle East country neighboring Syria told me that Isis members “say they are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind because they can always get the arms off them by threats of force or cash payments.” Nor are these empty boasts, given that arms supplied by US allies such as Qatar and Turkey to anti-Assad forces in Syria are now being captured in Iraq. I experienced a small example of the consequences of this inflow of weapons when I tried in the summer of 2014 to book a flight to Baghdad on the same efficient European airline which I had used to travel there a year earlier. I was told it had discontinued flights to the Iraqi capital because it feared that Iraqi insurgents had obtained shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles originally supplied to anti-Assad forces in Syria and would use them against commercial aircraft flying into Baghdad International Airport. Western support for the Syrian opposition may have failed to overthrow Assad, but it is successfully destabilizing Iraq.

Editorial Reviews

"Patrick Cockburn has produced the first history of the rise of the Islamic State or Isil. No one is better equipped for this task ... This short book does not suggest any solutions. Perhaps there aren’t any. Western interventions in the past few years—such as Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2010—have been disastrous. But it is indispensable for anybody wishing to understand a terrifying new phenomenon which is already showing signs of inspiring emulators from North Africa to Pakistan." —The Daily Telegraph, London

"One of the most accurate and intrepid journalists in Iraq." —Sidney Blumenthal

"Quite simply, the best Western journalist at work in Iraq today." —Seymour Hersh

"A wonderful book." —Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, BBC News

"Excellent." —Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian

About the Author

Patrick Cockburn is currently Middle East correspondent for The Independent and worked previously for the Financial Times. He has written three books on Iraq’s recent history as well as a memoir, The Broken Boy and, with his son, a book on schizophrenia, Henry’s Demons, which was shortlisted for a Costa Award. He won the Martha Gellhorn Prize in 2005, the James Cameron Prize in 2006, and the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 2009.