The terror machine

A historically sound account of the origin, growth and reach of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Published : Aug 29, 2018 12:30 IST

T HE general public as well as international relations scholars will benefit from this eminently readable book by Stanly Johny, who combines academic rigour with the ability and mobility of the journalist to reach out to places and persons. He wrote this book in order to answer questions such as: How did the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerge as the most potent “terror machinery” of our time in a matter of few years? What enabled the ISIS to attract many thousands more fighters than Al Qaeda? “It was from this surprise and confusion that this book was born,” says the author.

The book has two parts. The first deals with the ISIS, its origins, growth and its defeat in Iraq/Syria. The second part deals with its connection with India. In the first part, we are given a historically sound account of the origin of the group. It is a rather complex story with many unfamiliar names, but Stanly presents it coherently.

‘True Islamic emirates’

The narration starts with Al Qaeda, founded by the Saudi Arabian billionaire Osama bin Laden in 1989 following the successful anti-Soviet jehad in Afghanistan. Inspired by Sayyid Qutub, the Egyptian thinker who wielded much influence in the Islamic world, bin Laden despised the Muslim countries as “un-Islamic”. He had a programme to establish “true Islamic emirates” where the Sharia would prevail. But, that programme was not implemented. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who had installed himself in a mountainous enclave in northern Iraq, controlled by Ansar-al-Islam, a Salafi-jehadist group of Iraqi Kurds fighting Saddam Hussein’s government, was destined to carry forward the idea of establishing a Caliphate. It may be recalled that United States Secretary of State Colin Powell had incorrectly asserted in his infamous February 5, 2003, speech in the United Nations Security Council that Zarqawi was in Iraq working with Saddam’s government. The author points out that Powell was wrong not only about Zarqawi but also about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Zarqawi and bin Laden met in Afghanistan, by then ruled by the Taliban who called it “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. The meeting did not go off too well as the two interlocutors had diametrically opposite world views. Zarqawi wanted to target Shias, whereas bin Laden wanted the support of the entire ummah that included Shias. However, bin laden handed over $5,000 as seed money to Zarqawi to set up a network in Herat, close to Afghanistan’s border with Iran. By the time U.S. President George Bush invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, Zarqawi had built up a force of 3,000.

After fighting the U.S. forces in Afghanistan for a while, Zarqawi, through Iran, came over to Iraq where he found a favourable climate as the U.S. had destroyed the Ba’athist state there. The Shias, until then suppressed under Saddam, gained power, a development that corroborated Zarqawi’s thesis that Shias needed to be put down at any cost. Zarqawi wanted to establish a foothold in “Greater Syria” with a view to establishing a Sharia-ruled state. He “welcomed” the ongoing sectarian war in Iraq.

Unlike bin Laden, who carried out attacks from his hideout without seeking to control territory, Zarqawi wanted to carve out territorial havens. Although a U.S. air strike killed Zarqawi in June 2006, the organisation that he had built up survived.

Caliph of the ISIS

The next important protagonist is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a “low-level Islamic academic” who rose to be the Caliph of the ISIS. His original name was Ibrahim bin Awwad bin Ibrahim al-Badri. His was a Salafist family. He was arrested by the U.S. security in Falluja when he went there to meet a friend who was on the wanted list. He was sent to a prison called Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, named after the U.S. firefighter Ronald Bucca, who died in the 9/11 rescue operation. Ibrahim led the prayers for the 24,000 inmates and gave Friday sermons. In short, Camp Bucca was “a pressure cooker for extremism”. The Americans respected Ibrahim and used him to settle quarrels among inmates. It assessed that he was not a dangerous person and released him after 10 months. That was in December 2004.

Ibrahim joined the Al Qaeda of Iraq and did propaganda work for it. In October 2006, Zarqawi’s successor, al-Masri, announced the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), but that announcement was not followed up by much action. Bin Laden was not pleased with the announcement either. But, Ibrahim was all for the ISI.

When al-Masri was killed in a raid by the U.S. in April 2010, Ibrahim emerged as the leader of the ISI with the support of military officers who had worked under Saddam. When bin Laden was killed by the U.S. Navy SEALs in April 2013, Ibrahim’s status as a jehadi leader was reinforced. Later, he transformed the ISI into the ISIS. That announcement was opposed by Joulani, who was heading a jehadi group called Al-Nusra, which held pockets of territory in Syria. Both Joulani and Ibrahim appealed to bin Laden’s successor, al Zawahiri, whose verdict was that Ibrahim should focus on Iraq and Joulani on Syria. Ibrahim rejected the verdict. The ISIS and Al-Nusra fought against each other and the ISIS conquered Raqqa in March 2013. By January 2014, the ISIS, which declared Raqqa as its capital and was formally expelled from the Al Qaeda family.

The author shows a good sense of history when he draws attention to the two failed attempts to establish a Wahhabi state by the Al Saud family. The still enduring Wahhabi state was finally established in Saudi Arabia in the 1920s. The author feels Saudi Arabia is the third Wahhabi state and the ISIS is the fourth in history. He points out that a crucial difference between the fourth and the third is that while the latter agreed to live in peace with its neighbours and accept the emerging international order, the former has adopted “continuous jehad” as the duty of every true Muslim.

Jehadism & the West

A remark or two might be in order at this stage. The author correctly refers to the anti-Soviet jehad in Afghanistan and bin Laden as the starting point of jehadism in our times and delves much deeper into Islamic history. It will be interesting to ask why the jehad in Afghanistan was necessary.

Obviously, because the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan. By now it is accepted by most scholars that the U.S. Special Forces were working in Afghanistan months before the Soviet military entered the scene and that Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, sent him a message congratulating him for giving the Soviets their “own Vietnam”. In short, if Carter had not maliciously drawn the Soviet military into Afghanistan we might not have had bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, and if Bush had been wise enough not to invade Iraq in 2003 even the ISIS might not have entered history.

Another point to be noted is that the ISIS became a force to reckon with only after it captured Mosul in June 2014. The U.S. under Barack Obama could have prevented the capture of Mosul, but chose not to do so as U.S. intelligence for a while considered the ISIS as a counterweight to be used against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Let us not forget that the Pentagon controlled Iraqi airspace and did know that al-Baghdadi was advancing towards Mosul from Syria.

In short, to understand the origins of jehadism, it is necessary to highlight the contribution of the West in different ways. Any account that leaves out the commissions and omissions of the West is historically unsound.

The India connection

The second part dealing with the ISIS’ India connection will no doubt be of greater interest to the public. The organisation got more foreign fighters than others in the same category mainly because it had territory. The ISIS looks at the world through a “core and periphery prism”. It does not believe in a nation state and seeks a “perpetually expanding Caliphate”. The South Asia operations are carried out from the ISIS wilayat ( province) of Khorasan in Afghanistan. Dhabiq, the ISIS’ online English magazine, once carried an interview with an ISIS leader who said that they would take over Kashmir in the near future.

Indians from India and West Asia have joined the ISIS in Khorasan. It is to be noted that the ISIS got many more operatives from the economically advanced south Indian States compared with the relatively backward States in the north. A study by Brookings Institution shows that of the 142 recruits from India, Kerala accounted for 37, Telengana 21, Maharashtra 19, Karnataka 16, Uttar Pradesh 15, Madhya Pradesh six, Tamil Nadu five and Gujarat four.

The Salafist

The author tries to explain the reasons for the relatively large number of ISIS recruits from Kerala. The Salafist movement in Kerala goes back to 1922 when the Muslim Eikya Sangham (Organisation for Muslim Unity) was founded. It started exhorting its adherents to live as the Prophet and the ancestors lived. Over time, Salafism moved away from its reformist currents and embraced the “puritanical Wahhabi ideals”. The strong connections with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are also a contributing factor. What is striking is that the young who are attracted to the ISIS are educated and employed.

Stanly has met and talked to parents of the young people from India who joined the ISIS and some of those who were arrested before they could leave. The case of two brothers, Ijaz Rahman, 34, a doctor, and Shihaz Rahman, 28, a management graduate, is particularly interesting and even intriguing. At some point of time in their life they turned “extremely religious” and started giving up “luxuries”. They left to join the ISIS with their wives and Ijaz’s son. Shihaz pretended that he was taking his family to Mumbai while Ijaz claimed that he was going to Lakshadweep. Rashid, supposedly the leader of the group of 21, including six women, who left India, is a 30-year-old software engineer associated with the Islamic scholar M.M. Akbar’s Peace International School. The family members of the 21 have said that they were influenced by online propaganda. Most of them sent messages to their families that they had reached Dawlatul Islam , an expression used by the ISIS to refer to territory it controls.

In the last chapter, the author correctly argues that despite the ISIS losing territory in Iraq and Syria, its “organisational network and fighting force are far from destroyed” as evidenced from terrorist attacks carried out in different parts of the world. Further, there is no guarantee that the ISIS will not come back to the cities it has lost as it might not be possible for the government to undo the huge damage caused by the war against the ISIS and restore harmony and normalcy. The ISIS has indicated clearly that it will be “globalising” its operations.

There is a useful glossary and some documents in the annexure. The detailed footnotes are helpful. The editing could have been better. It is stated (page 73) that at its peak the ISIS was as big as the United Kingdom, “ruling over 2 million people”. The comparison with the area of the U.K. is more or less correct. But, according to Rand Corporation, at its peak the ISIS had 11 million people under it. Mosul was captured in June 2014 and not in July 2014 as stated on page 101. In a book that contains so many unfamiliar names, an index would have been useful.

is a former diplomat and author ofDiplomacy: Indian Style.
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