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Historical Hangovers, New Millennial Crusaders

Review of The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution by Patrick Cockburn.

It once looked as if America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might provide, if not victory, at least a fig leaf—a “decent interval” during which anti-U.S. terrorists would be in remission. At this point, even that lackluster denouement is far beyond reach.

America remains in both countries because their U.S.-trained militaries are incapable of confronting the threat of terrorism alone. There is war in Syria, where insurgents have recently scored a string of reported advances. Hundreds of thousands are dead and millions displaced. Yemen is in flames. Libya is a failed state. In Iraq, as the Iran- and U.S.-backed government flails, insurgents have retaken Ramadi, capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province. Much of the mayhem can be summed up in a single acronym: ISIS.

ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, threatens not only Western allies in the Middle East but also the West itself, as it cannily turns the Internet and social media against its creators, drawing in recruits and “inspiring” attacks in Europe and against the American homeland. Federal agencies have sent out warning bulletins to police departments around the United States, while New York City, Los Angeles, and others have placed themselves on high alert over the July 4 weekend.

Is there any strategy, much less a clearly articulated one, to defeat ISIS? Attempts so far have been more fumbling than effective. To take just one recent example, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), speaking before a congressional hearing on “Jihad 2.0,” made it seem as though bringing down this latest jihadist threat was mainly a question of tweaking our social-media stratagems: “Let’s face it: We invented the Internet. We invented the social network sites. We’ve got Hollywood. We’ve got the capabilities . . . to blow these guys out of the water from the standpoint of communications.” Full steam ahead, and damn the hashtags!

The United States and its Western allies no doubt wish that the defeat of this Islamist enemy turned on identifying the optimal social media delivery system. In one recent episode, an ISIS militant posted an online “selfie” that the U.S. Air Force says allowed it to quickly locate and obliterate one of the group’s command centers in Syria. But the much deeper problem is that ISIS represents a comeuppance to the grand illusions of American and Western policy since 9/11. For all the invective heaped upon ISIS, the chief factors powering its expansion are less a study in online programming glitches than the dismal heart of Greek tragedy—remorselessly punishing hubris with nemesis, and historical blindness with layer upon layer of luminous irony. The remarkable consolidation of power that ISIS is carrying out in the proxy battlefields of Iraq and Syria represents a sustained indictment of the failed dreams of its opponents. “For America, Britain, and the Western powers,” writes Patrick Cockburn in The Rise of the Islamic State, “the rise of ISIS and the caliphate is the ultimate disaster. Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to unseat Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see a jihadi state spanning Iraq and Syria, run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organized than the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden.”

ISIS, for its part, is pursuing a simple if ambitious aim: it wants to get rid of un-Islamic regimes in the Middle East and around the world. By the group’s definition, that includes pretty much all of them. In the Middle East those regimes are autocratic and, in many cases, deeply corrupt by anyone’s definition. But that has never gotten in the way of their ability to win support from the United States and other Western powers, as well as from Russia and China. Against this backdrop, Cockburn offers a blunt and timely warning. “The likelihood of U.S. military success is remote,” he writes. “It’s important to recall that, with air bases throughout the country and 150,000 soldiers on the ground, neither of which it has today, the U.S. still failed to win an eight-year-long war.”

Yet rather than addressing underlying causes that propelled its astounding expansion, the enemies of ISIS seem focused largely on pursuing a military victory. One problem with that strategy is that what works on the battlefield does not make sense politically. In Iraq, the United States initially refused to provide air support to Shiite militias, but now is doing so, a belated admission that the militias are the strongest anti-ISIS force in the country. The cause of America’s hesitation is obvious: the Shiite forces and their Iranian backers repeatedly clashed with and killed American troops during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In Syria, with a few exceptions, the United States has hardly gone after ISIS, partly for fear of undermining another major priority, the overthrow of dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Unfortunately for American war planners, ISIS is uniquely positioned to exploit such strained alliances and strategic miscues. Cockburn points out crucial differences between ISIS and Al Qaeda. The latter was an idea, with comparatively few adherents. ISIS, he explains, “is a well-run military organization that is very careful in choosing its targets and the optimum moment to attack them.” In Ramadi, for example, ISIS took advantage of a sudden sand storm, which limited the Americans’ ability to launch air strikes. After a sequential campaign of infiltration followed by assassinations and nearly thirty vehicle-borne bombings, ISIS staged an all-out, pell-mell assault to capture the city.

Cockburn recalls watching a professional-grade ISIS video in the spring of 2014 that showed members of the group, probably in Syria, burning their passports to demonstrate their permanent commitment to jihad. He notes that from the color of the passports it is possible to ascertain their origin, and that most were Saudi (grass green) and Jordanian (dark blue), although many other nationalities including Canada, Egypt and Chechnya were also represented. “As each man rips up his passport and throws it into the flames,” Cockburn observes, “he makes a declaration of faith, a promise to fight against the ruler of the country from which he comes.”

The Power of Anachronism

These renunciations of contemporary state affiliation also drive home a little-recognized feature of the ISIS rebellion: the group is essentially seeking to recreate the conditions of the original Islamic uprising in the seventh century. ISIS is deeply focused on the successful conquest of the region by the Prophet Muhammad’s immediate successors nearly 1,400 years ago. Within little more than a century of the Prophet’s death in 632 AD, jihadists’ control had spread from Arabia to the Levant, Mesopotamia, and North Africa, along with Persia, the Caucasus, Khorasan, and the Iberian peninsula. ISIS is unlikely ever to rule a comparable swath of territory, but is wreaking havoc well beyond Iraq and Syria, where it has established a “caliphate,” a term that explicitly evokes the era of Islam’s early conquests. ISIS or its affiliates have reached out to militants or been active in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Sinai, Europe, and America, while thousands of overseas recruits have traveled to join the caliphate, as others commit atrocities at home with an assist from the Internet and Twitter.

As gloves come off in the current struggle for power, few hands are clean.

Even though the majority of Sunni Muslims say ISIS does not speak for them, the group’s broad appeal is undeniable. Its ideology admits no doubt, embracing the extreme subordination of women and hatred of other faiths—especially Shiite “apostates.” The group’s signature head- and hand-choppings, stonings, and other depravities in the name of religion captivate some Islamics, including young men, not a few women, and converts to Islam in the West.

Cockburn, a seasoned Middle East correspondent for the UK Independent, focuses on the litany of miscalculations that enabled the rise of ISIS, an initially improbable ascent that has lately gained a sense of inevitability. Success, touted as evidence of divine favor, has fueled the group’s millenarian bent, its desire to expunge “apostates” (i.e., any Shiites and Sunnis who happen to oppose them) and Christians in preparation for the end of times.

Few but regional specialists had heard of ISIS even eighteen months ago. Yet the group and its antecedents have been around for more than a decade, staging atrocities associated with Abu Musab Zarqawi, a terrorist killed in Iraq by the United States in 2006. Abetted by remnants of Iraq’s outlawed army and Baath Party, ISIS attracted only intermittent attention until a series of increasingly bold strokes, beginning with victories over Syria’s Assad and a June 2014 conquest of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, with some 1.8 million people. Just a few years earlier, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus was headquartered there.

Cockburn’s chronicle ends in October 2014. Among the events he thus could not cover is January’s murderous attack on a kosher deli in Paris, whose perpetrators were linked to ISIS. Then there are the videotaped beheadings of various American and other hostages, the immolation of a Jordanian pilot, a series of ritual murders of Christians on the coast of Libya, assorted crucifixions, and the recently reported public beheading of two women, and their husbands, on suspicion of “sorcery” in Syria.

ISIS, moving from atrocity to atrocity, has made fools of more than a few of its enemies. Some, like Saudi Arabia, various Gulf states, and Turkey, initially supported the group, or saw a strategic advantage in a posture of neutrality toward the ISIS uprising, with the presumed knowledge and possible connivance of Western intelligence agencies. This was largely done in furtherance of their shared goal of hastening the destruction of Assad’s dictatorship in Syria.

Assad, the geeky one-time ophthalmologist, emerges as one of the group’s principal (if also inadvertent) enablers. Though Cockburn virtually ignores the fact, it was Assad’s mishandling of what began as peaceful protests against his rule in the southern Syrian city of Daraa that morphed into a full-fledged rebellion. ISIS and its then ally (and now rival), the al-Nusra Front, are the main groups behind the anti-Assad uprising.

Assad’s brutal repression of his country’s Sunni majority became a crucial foil for ISIS, which champions the Sunni identity. The Obama administration, fearful of a quagmire, reluctantly launched limited airstrikes and other anti-ISIS measures in Syria. But a point that Cockburn does not make is that by drawing a “red line” and then appearing to waffle when Assad crossed it, the administration inadvertently created a vacuum that ISIS eventually filled—first in Syria, and then across the border in Iraq, allowing it to emerge as the preeminent defender of Sunni rights.

The Sunni Counter-Surge

Iraq, its frontiers inscribed by British colonialism, had not known democracy since the dawn of civilization. Now it offers a second home to ISIS. Was this, too, inevitable?

The West is seemingly allergic to pondering the Crusades even as militant jihadists in the region compulsively summon memory of them.

Cockburn’s narrative suggests otherwise. As a somnambulist march toward disaster, America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq was a tour de force. After the ill-conceived initial conflict, the by now familiar drama unfolded with America’s dismemberment of the country’s overwhelmingly Sunni army and Baath party, paving the way for a Sunni rebellion. The White House, as if cued by Iran, organized elections won by the Shiite majority, installing in power an incompetent if ruthlessly sectarian Shiite government, aided by Shiite militias allied with Tehran. America’s “surge” only delayed the looming catastrophe. Then came U.S. military withdrawal in 2011, by which time ISIS was on its way. Given the repression by militias and the U.S.-backed government, Sunnis, as Cockburn notes, “have no alternative but to stick with ISIS or flee, if they want to survive.”

Iran also stumbled badly over ISIS. After waiting out America’s defeat of Saddam Hussein, an arch-enemy, Iran’s rulers were eager for the United States to leave. But unable to halt the advance of ISIS in Iraq, they were forced to accept U.S. help to get the job done. This cannot have pleased the legendary Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, leader of the Quds Force—the anti-American, brown-shirt guarantors of Iran’s revolution. Suleimani has been sent to Iraq to direct Iran’s on-the-ground efforts against ISIS, mobilizing Shiite militias to fight on the many occasions when the U.S.-trained Iraqi army is not up to the task.

For its part, ISIS has conjured a communications strategy based on the precept that there is no such thing as bad publicity. As Cockburn notes, “By producing a visual record of everything it does, ISIS has greatly amplified its political impact.” Western and Arab cable and TV networks have gone along for the ride, turning the group into an ironic punch line for late night comedians and an endless loop on the news. ISIS propaganda has gained a well-deserved reputation for horror and distortion, but the Pentagon did itself no favors by recently releasing a map showing the group had lost 25 percent of its territory since the huge gains of last year—the problem being that the map didn’t include parts of Syria, where ISIS has scored major gains. Politico recently reported that, in what appears to be an admission that the fanatics are winning the propaganda war, senior State Department and Pentagon officials have contacted the networks, asking them to stop using B-roll footage showing ISIS “at the peak of its strength last summer.” Meanwhile, a recently leaked memo prepared by the State Department’s under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs concludes that the information campaign waged by ISIS has effectively “trumped” countermeasures ginned up by its technologically more advanced regional and Western enemies.

Notwithstanding the parade of grotesqueries committed by ISIS, the battlefield tactics of its opponents do not always present a stark contrast. When, for example, Assad agreed to surrender his supplies of the nerve agent sarin in 2013, he substituted barrel bombs and chlorine gas for use against Syria’s civilian population. News reports indicate that Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen has resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties, and perhaps more. As that conflict has spread, Human Rights Watch recently accused the United States of supplying the kingdom with cluster bombs—banned under a 2008 convention signed by more than 110 countries, but not by America, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen. (In domestic matters, Wahhabi Saudi Arabia has shown a taste for blood that recalls the thirst of ISIS. According to an AFP report, the Kingdom recently advertised vacancies for eight executioners after beheading nearly as many people since the beginning of 2015 as it decapitated in all of 2014.) Turkey, which supposedly anchors the eastern flank of NATO, has meanwhile emerged as the main transit zone for ISIS recruits traveling to Syria and beyond. Many of the Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar, have reportedly provided financial or individual aid to ISIS at one time or another. The upshot seems to be that as gloves come off in the current struggle for power, few hands are clean.

A Not-So Distant Mirror

The carnage in the region that the West and its allies are now struggling to tilt in their favor calls to mind long-ago historical forerunners of the present conflict—the Crusades and the colonial period. The West is seemingly allergic to pondering these enormous and bloody power grabs in the Middle East even as militant jihadists in the region compulsively summon memory of them as part of their campaign of historical reenactment. Indeed, Christian Europe’s centuries of religious conflict claimed many more victims than ISIS’s current mediagenic rebellion. That savagery gave way to mechanized death in two global wars and the use of nuclear weapons. ISIS, by contrast, so far wields mostly swords, guns, and some ordnance, a good deal of it reportedly of U.S. origin, either captured from opponents or bought on the open market.

Culture warriors and conservative political leaders have nourished their own pallid, Christianized mirror image of ISIS’s religious ideology.

As a practical matter, some in the West argue that formerly subject peoples, including Muslims, should simply get on with their lives and avoid dwelling on past centuries of conflict and exploitation. But these sunny prescriptions for adapting to the present, Western-branded canons of modernity misread a fundamental feature of ISIS’s appeal: the group continues to win an international following precisely via its obsessive recitations of the glories and injuries of the past. This litany is inextricably bound up with the group’s backward-looking theological outlook: both serve to bind the group’s adherents together, while promulgating in its true believers an all-purpose and (to them) admirably utilitarian sense of grievance. Indeed, ISIS may suffer from an apotheosis of the historical hangover, which compels them not merely to cling to, but to perversely celebrate, the revival of medieval customs and the recollection of Crusader and colonial atrocities, treating as part of living memory what began a millennium ago.

And in the face of this powerful hangover, America’s political and military leaders have proven enabling bartenders, offering up round after round of the hair of the dog. Early on, George W. Bush offered startling examples of the foolhardiness in ignoring such vibrant historical allusions. Only days after 9/11, he referred to the war on terror as a “crusade,” a formulation his spokesman was obliged to walk back after a gaggle of Muslims and European leaders vigorously protested the notion. (Tellingly, Bush’s loaded characterization went all-but unnoticed at home.) “We have to avoid a clash of civilizations at all costs,” French foreign minister Hubert Védrine warned at the time. “One has to avoid falling into this huge trap, this monstrous trap,” which Védrine argued was deliberately “conceived by the instigators of the assault” on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

And yet the trap was laid, and fallen into, over and over again. Indeed, it was hard, in almost all of the cross-cultural misapprehensions hamstringing the Bush White House’s war on terror, not to see a pattern haunting the self-styled new millennial Crusade against Islamic fundamentalism. As Western strategists have tried, and mostly failed, to engage the Islamist enemy on the field of battle, America’s culture warriors and conservative political leaders have nourished their own pallid, Christianized mirror image of ISIS’s religious ideology when it comes to the repression of sexuality, the subordination of women, the censorship of art, and a kind of historical revisionism that portrays America’s founding fathers more as marching Christian soldiers than as refugees from a religiously intolerant Europe. This parallel also offers the crucial reminder that fundamentalist ardor in its various forms can be as much a problem for liberal democracies as Arab autocracies—and that ISIS and its supporters are prosecuting a clash of civilizations for their own self-interested reasons, just as Western evangelicals and neoconservatives have.

Some in the West argue that formerly subject peoples, including Muslims, should simply get on with their lives.

Soon after 9/11, the Pentagon switched the moniker for its impending attacks on Afghanistan from “Operation Infinite Justice” to “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld explained in a press conference that Muslims had been offended when the term “infinite,” an attribute belonging only to God, was used to christen an American military campaign. But it may have been too late: Bush had already given another speech in Alaska referring to the war on terror as a “crusade.” He later repeatedly cited divine Providence and “the hand of a just and faithful God” as guiding the exercise. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin, a fundamentalist Christian and deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence, referred in public appearances to Muslim “idolatry,” dubbing America’s enemy in the war on terror nothing less than “Satan.”

This ready demonization of Muslims without bothering to distinguish between the majority of the faithful and extremist jihadist leaders has outlived the Bush administration, and spread well beyond the ambit of America’s evangelical culture warriors. In Europe, xenophobic and right-wing elements have formed significant voting blocs in the EU parliament, as well as in countries like France, Italy, and Germany. Norway’s Anders Breivik, who massacred nearly eighty people on a summer day in 2011, is an avowed anti-Muslim.

Back in the United States, meanwhile, the domestic crusade against the threat of homegrown jihadism has taken on a more ardently confrontational edge. So-called hate crimes directed against Muslims spiked after 9/11 and have consistently hovered in a range five times higher than the pre-9/11 rate, according to FBI data. A steady stream of anti-Muslim statements also come from anti-Sharia law groups with names like Jihad Watch and Now the End Begins. Another group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, cofounded by the redoubtable anti-Muslim alarmist Pamela Geller, recently offered a $10,000 prize for the best cartoon depicting Mohammad—a competition that apparently stoked a pair of American-bred ISIS followers to plan an attack on the group before they were gunned down by local police in Garland, Texas.

That violent outcome was something of a nightmare wish-fulfillment for all parties. Geller’s group would claim the mantle of free-speech martyrdom, alongside the slain editors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. And ISIS would boast that it had unleashed an operation targeting its U.S.-based enemy of enemies—earning for itself another round of the breathless cable coverage that it readily transmutes into more aggressive recruitment drives.

The Jihadist Quagmire

Yet it’s hard to predict much in the way of longer-term territorial gains for ISIS in the Middle East. Its increasingly united opponents will eventually retake territory and try to kill off ISIS’s leadership. Recent reports, widespread yet unconfirmed, indicate that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current caliph, has been injured or killed, an account that gained credence when his deputy subsequently addressed the faithful at Friday prayers in Mosul. But unless something is done to help the millions displaced by ISIS and deal with the misrule that led to the group’s empowerment, other violent extremists will likely take the place of ISIS if it is defeated.

None of the root causes behind the rise of ISIS have so far been significantly addressed. As Cockburn notes, with the exception of Tunisia, the Arab Spring did nothing to break a longtime pattern of autocratic government in the Arab world. Iran, wealthy Gulf nations, Russia, the United States, and other Western powers are still playing power politics and propping up dictatorial regimes. Progress toward reversing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, a chronic factor in Middle East radicalization, remains deadlocked.

Rami Khouri, the well-known Beirut-based political commentator, recently offered his ruminations on all this. Speaking to a group in Washington, he warned that “the midwives of [ISIS] cannot be its pallbearers,” because it is futile to try “to defeat ISIS with the same combination of factors that created it—Western jets and Arab autocracy.”