Islamic State (IS) has been territorially destroyed and its first leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed while cowering in a suicide vest the detonation of which killed two young children alongside him. But jihadist and caliphate forces are still very much with us, and it is necessary to understand them “in [their] own words,” as the introduction to the recent book, The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement, edited by Haroro J. Ingram, Craig Whiteside and Charlie Winter, puts it.
Reading the book was tiring in the extreme—through no fault of the scholars themselves, I hasten to add, all of whom have direct experience of the areas affected by IS and two of whom have worked in counterterrorism. But reading the weird effusions of fanatics always is tiresome. Such a task is, however, essential, for such people are the enemies of everyone who cares about human flourishing—from feminists in the Middle East to liberals in the ivory towers of Harvard—and understanding the nature of such enemies is a prerequisite to defeating them.
The ISIS Reader’s three collators have provided an extraordinary resource for all defenders of pluralism and the free society. The volume collects the most important writings and speeches of IS and its predecessors and of their leaders, ideologues and propagandists, and gives us an expert analysis of them. As Ingram et al. remind us, IS is not a phenomenon of the last few years alone. Its roots go back to at least the 1990s, to the odious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose strategy of provoking bloody sectarian warfare did so much to poison post-Saddam Iraq’s chances of developing a stable, democratic, secular polity.
Zarqawi’s jihadist group became al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate which, after Zarqawi himself was killed in 2006, evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). By 2010, following US troop surges and the tribal Sunni movement’s uprising (the Sahwa) against the Iraqi jihadists, the movement was on the verge of annihilation. The 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq and the fizzling out of the Sahwa movement allowed ISI space to breathe, however, and it gulped in all the available air. It grew and expanded until, in 2014, it declared itself the Islamic State, a new caliphate, and seized swathes of Iraq and Syria. IS then split with al-Qaeda and became the new face of global jihad, encouraging many foreigners to emigrate to join its ranks and governing its territory through calculated brutality and terror.
Now that IS has been pushed back to the fringes by international military efforts, is it time to declare ourselves triumphant victors over the organization, as Donald Trump has repeatedly done (the fact that he has announced complete victory over ISIS several years in a row should give us pause)? Ingram et al. remind us that such a view would be dangerously complacent, for the caliphate—then known as ISI—has faced far more serious difficulties in the past and recuperated its power spectacularly between 2010 and 2014. Islamic State has been in this position before and, even in defeat, it has more resources and support than it did then: it’s well versed in switching from territorial state mode to insurgency mode. The self-declared Islamic empire is in a period of decline, yes, but it knows how to navigate these waters: indeed, it has thoroughly prepared for the storm. The ISIS Reader contains statements from the group from 2016 onwards, warning of a soon-to-come fallow period and stating that such cycles of decline and renewal are tests from God: in other words, those who stay the course can expect to reap the rewards, both worldly and heavenly, in due course.
We would therefore be remiss to dismiss IS and their like as merely mindless, bloodthirsty fanatics. Of course, IS are zealots whose breasts swell at the thought of blood and corpses- who “[desire] death more than you desire life,” as Osama bin Laden put it in a 2002 open letter to Americans. And jihadist movements have made various blunders over the years: did Islamic State really think it could hold on to Iraqi and Syrian territory forever; did bin Laden really think that 9/11 was worth the loss of Afghanistan, whose Taliban rulers provided him with a home base, resources and relative freedom? As Ingram mentioned in a recent online seminar, we should not be taken in by the bombastic claims of such groups or treat their strategists as latter-day Napoleonic geniuses, and opponents of IS have often failed to harness the group’s errors and weaknesses to full effect. But the most successful jihadist organisations are nonetheless highly skilled in the arenas of strategy, tactics, and propaganda.
IS is eminently adaptive. Its competitors in al-Qaeda have also survived, despite having been eclipsed by ISIS. They have recently engaged in a clever marketing campaign, portraying themselves as the legitimate face of Islamic holy war—unlike the IS fanatics. Bin Laden’s successor as al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a pitiable figure: the yesterday’s man of jihad, whose stodgy writings are dull by comparison with IS’ lively propaganda. But he is a veteran, who has survived while many other holy warriors, including bin Laden, at least two Taliban leaders and Baghdadi, have been cut down, and his writings refuting IS provide a fascinating insight into the split in jihadism caused by the declaration of a new caliphate.
These are only some of the points raised or suggested by The ISIS Reader. The book is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in comprehending the champions of jihad. Despite the on-going litany of current catastrophes, we would be foolish to forget that an extremely dangerous enemy is, at this very moment, still committing atrocities and regrouping and reorganising itself in order to commit many more and possibly far worse crimes.
In 2006 the leader of ISI, Abu Umar al-Husayni al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi (not to be confused with the late IS caliph Abu Bakr), stated that George W. Bush was correct that the jihadists sought to establish a caliphate “extending from China to Spain.” ISI is both ambitious and clever. The zealots’ unrepentant desire for a theocratic empire should long ago have provided a definitive refutation of those nauseating leftists—from Noam Chomsky to Tariq Ali and Michael Moore—who have equivocated or made excuses on their behalf, as if the jihadists represent some sort of third world revolt against globalism.
One of the main roots of this bloodthirsty fascism is religion and, specifically, Islam. The texts in The ISIS Reader, though picked to exemplify the group’s operational evolution rather than its philosophy, are steeped in Islamic theology and history. Religion, which posits all-encompassing rules with supernatural origins and omnipotent, omniscient enforcers, is totalitarian at its core: IS is merely one of the highest refinements of that ideal. IS’ English-language magazine Dabiq’s 2016 article, “Why We Hate You & Why We Fight You,” is quite clear on this: western foreign policy is a secondary motive for jihad and detestation of liberalism, atheism, secularism and freedom in general is IS’ main motivation (this revealing article is not included in the Reader, which is understandable given the book’s focus but nonetheless unfortunate).
As the Reader’s editors remind us, the jihadists have, at every stage, openly expressed their intentions and we have far too often neglected to take them seriously. As Victor Davis Hanson has noted, totalitarians and autocrats of all stripes, from Hitler to Gaddafi, have provided advance warning of their nefarious designs. We would do well to take such statements at something like face value and recognise the enemy.
Such recognition requires us to make some difficult decisions. Whether or not you think that the US and its allies should have ousted Saddam in the first place (a decision I defend elsewhere in this magazine), the 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq was, in part, responsible for the rise of IS. This is a lesson we should heed as the already disintegrating 2020 peace deal with the Taliban may open the door for a renewal of that organisation. Without a strong and committed anti-Taliban force to assist the reasonably democratic Afghan government, we risk a resurgence of the theocrats- and can anyone honestly say they would trust the fucking Taliban to keep to any half-decent deal?
In the aforementioned seminar, another of the Reader‘s editors, Craig Whiteside, pointed out the worrying failure of the international coalition against IS to take much concern in local politics and developments on the ground. In pushing back IS, there has been left a political vacuum and little effort has been made to engage on the local political level to prevent the caliphate’s resurgence. It would be shameful as well as foolish to declare victory while doing very little to ensure it is anything more than a very temporary one.
Accommodation with such people is morally reprehensible as well as impossible, but, as I recently discussed with Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, interventionism is not always justified or practical. Having involved ourselves so intimately with the affairs of the Middle East, we should retain a presence there—with the consent and leadership of the democratic governments we helped bring into being. We have a moral imperative to remain, precisely because we are already so deeply involved in local affairs- this is a long game, but one that must be played. To the late IS spokesman Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir’s question to America, “Have you not become tired while you were trying in vain to eliminate the mujahidin and their state?”, our answer should be an unyielding no. For all its many and profound flaws, the US is an exemplar of the secular democratic republic and still one of the great hopes for a freer world.
The best long-term solution to the crisis in the Middle East is the unremitting defence of the free society, and our greatest allies in this fight are the countless men and women of the Arab and Muslim worlds who, despite the persecution and suffering imposed on them, steadfastly oppose the jihadists, while championing free speech and human rights.
Such people could and can be found in Sarajevo, in medieval Andalusia (al-Andalus), and in other predominantly Muslim regions whose multiculturalism and pluralism, however imperfect, have enraged fanatics; think of the mainly Sunni Muslim Kurdistan, especially the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which has stood firm against the onslaught for far longer than we have in the west, with little recompense and many betrayals, while attempting to build a secular, pluralistic democracy; and think too of the little Syrian enclave of Rojava, where secularism, liberty, feminism and democracy continue to be championed, again mostly by the Kurds, despite theofascist attacks, American betrayals, and Turkish assaults.
The fight against totalitarianism may not be as intense now as it was in the twentieth century, but it is still very much alive- and the brave people of the Muslim world who are resisting the advances of theocratic fascism represent our very best hope in the battle and so deserve our unflinching support. Meanwhile, we must understand the enemy—and, thanks to the editors of The ISIS Reader and other collators and analysts of jihadism, especially Raymond Ibrahim, Donald Holbrook and Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, there are plenty of opportunities to do so.