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The Brutal Rise of a Terrorist Army
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By embedding himself behind enemy lines, Hall provides a riveting narrative based on firsthand experience and personal interviews. He goes beyond the vicious jihadis, to reveal a generation of chaos, and uncover a volatile region engulfed in turmoil. Hall reveals why ISIS is a problem that will define the Middle East – and the West – for decades to come.
Table of Contents
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Life inside the ISIS capital of Raqqa goes on, though with a cloud hanging over it. Thousands of foreign fighters roam the streets, "morality police" patrol the neighborhoods, businesses and individuals are subjected to extortion, and women live in fear as ISIS drives them back to the Middle Ages.
Every day people are beheaded in public, stoned to death, whipped, or have their hands chopped off. They are thrown into prisons where the sound of torture is constant, and from where many people never return. Music is forbidden and prayers are forced upon the people. Gay men are thrown from roofs as punishment, babies are slaughtered in battle, all while the fighters of ISIS laugh, joke, and encourage the enslavement of girls, whom they buy, rape, and kill.
Every day that passes it becomes harder to shake them from their hives. The longer we allow them to consolidate gains, the longer they have to persuade people that there is no alternative.
A new generation of children will grow up knowing nothing but contempt and blood lust toward us. Already they want to carry guns, they tell on their own parents, and they are forbidden any education other than the Koran. If we allow these children to be brainwashed, it will lead us toward a clash of civilizations and the end of any reformation—this is exactly what ISIS wants.
No, we must be proactive, we must root them out, and we must not give them the semblance of a state—they are not a state, they are terrorists. They are fanatics, and there's no room for them in today's world.
ISIS is intent on our destruction—there is no doubt about that—their beliefs are in direct contrast to ours, and they will continue attacking us as long as they breathe.
Even though the administration claims they're not gaining more ground, the situation is getting worse. They are increasing their hold in the cities, tightening control on the areas they rule, encouraging people to strike at us, and still murdering and torturing thousands of innocent people. We must not allow a fanatic state to grow strong in the center of Syria and Iraq, we must not allow these people—who are set on our destruction—to create a base from where they can attack us, and above all, we must not kowtow to others in our attempts to prevent this.
It's almost impossible to gauge their true numbers, but in December 2014, the CIA believed that ISIS could "muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters" between Iraq and Syria, and their ranks continue to swell as extremists flock from around the world.
I'll never forget the first time I faced ISIS; the first time I saw their black flags fluttering in the dry heat, and the first time I saw their men pacing up and down, just fifty meters away; laughing, playing, and goading us. There they were, on the other side of a bridge, a bridge that marked the front line between us and them, which marked the unfathomable gap between right and wrong, good and evil.
There was confidence in their steps, and I could hear them laughing. They brandished their weapons, put their arms around each other, and waved at us. They were better armed, better prepared, and better funded than the soldiers we were with, and they knew it.
They were eager to fight, hoping to die, and they hid behind nothing, while at the same time the company of Kurdish troops which was crouched beside me, hid low behind sand banks; peeking out, hoping for the best, and praying to be saved.
It was this confidence that really struck me, and which they exhibit to this day. Their soldiers, versus those they face, are so full of zeal, so eager to kill, so sure of themselves, that it's put fear into the hearts of their enemies. It's their sheer belief that is so terrifying to others. But despite their brutality and strength, they can be beaten.
Photographer Rick Findler and I have covered conflicts in the region for six years, moving, as others have, from conflict to conflict, watching revolutions intended to usher in freedom, be hijacked, as a far greater evil takes hold.
I remember the sheer joy of fighters in Libya, as they freed their cities and reclaimed their country—prisoners being freed and families reunited. I remember the early days of the Syrian revolution, when people believed they were shaking off their dictator, and cheered in the streets; and in Egypt, where Tahrir square symbolized a new democracy, one which would define the region. But today all that hope has gone—and the Middle East is faced with a greater enemy than before, one intent on spreading its web, and which is doing so successfully.
The story of ISIS is not just about vicious jihadis, or about Syria or Iraq or the Middle East. It's about a whole generation of chaos, a whole region in turmoil, and a whole world at threat. It is a problem that will define the Middle East, and in turn the West, for decades, and it is one that must be addressed now. This book will take you behind the scenes, inside their cities, training camps, and prisons. It will recount the battles which defined their rise, the recruitment process, the propaganda arm, the money, and the politics. It will take you inside their world.
In many respects this chaos was inevitable; so many different groups and countries in the region had their own agendas, and so many were intent on the destruction of others for religious and political reasons. Yet these internal divisions also create hatred toward the West, and are something we must deal with—that we should have been dealing with. But things have then been made worse, by the apparent apathy of the Obama administration. Obama's policy of strategic disengagement has led the Middle East to a tipping point, and unless something is done soon, this threat will define a generation—it may be too late. So many opportunities have been missed, yet we must act now. This is Al-Qaeda 2.0; more powerful and more brutal.
It is quite simply mind-boggling that the conditions ISIS needed to thrive, occurred at precisely the right time, in precisely the right place, aligning all the stars. And what it has grown into is not just an army that can be defeated on the battlefield, it is an ideology, and one that grows stronger by the day. It is a result of everything that has happened in the Middle East over the last century, and one that may well dominate for a century to come.
It is said that ISIS achieved in two years what Al-Qaeda could not do in twenty, controlling large swathes of land across Iraq and Syria. But unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIS is not hidden high in mountain caves; it is standing proudly on the plains of Nineveh, well armed, well funded, and crying out for battle. Nor is it an exaggeration to imagine that ISIS will have a base in the region for years to come; the grip they have on local populations amid the chaos of the Syrian conflict, the very sectarian nature of the war, the vast funds they now control, and the actions of the puppet masters fueling them, means weeding out this cancer will be immensely hard to do.
ISIS now poses a threat, not only to regional stability, but potentially to world order. The idea that we can contain chaos in the Middle East without it escalating is untrue, and without Western action so far, they would surely be controlling much more territory than they do. Their rapid rise to power and their continuing ability to confound even the United States, combined with all the factors in their favor, has laid the conditions for what is a perfect storm.
The rise of ISIS must also be seen within the context of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is an age-old battle for regional influence and ultimate domination of the other. Much as the Cold War between the United States and Russia escalated, so too is this one between Sunni and Shia masters, both intent on the other's destruction.
But this is also a tale of great sadness, and the human consequences are simply devastating. Caught amid the battles and the politics are millions of people who have lost everything. Families torn apart, civilizations destroyed, and whole cultures razed to the ground. The great tragedy is that for so many people, this is merely a game of chess.
The rise of the Arab Spring brought with it such hope that the overthrow of dictators would usher in new democracies, new freedoms, and new Western-friendly governments. But this simply was not to be. Too many countries were shorn in two, having lived too long under oppression, and forgiving sins of the past became impossible. The crucial example now is Bashar al-Assad, who by holding on to power, by stoking sectarian flames, is creating the perfect conditions for ISIS to thrive.
When we look at the origins of ISIS, it is a tale of new names, old names, of morphing identities, and twisting allegiances. They sprung out of nowhere, and in a matter of just two years have claimed to have established their caliphate.
For anyone who thinks these people are just raving mad terrorists, think again. They are immensely driven, incredibly organized, and adaptable, and will not think twice about committing genocide or ethnic cleansing. They are a threat that must be taken seriously.
ISIS has been called numerous names since its inception in 2013. ISIS, ISIL, IS, and DAESH. But what's in a name? Which is correct? To clear up any confusion I want to explain what each means, and why I've chosen to call them ISIS.
The first name we knew them by was ISIS; an acronym for "The Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham"—a literal translation of their Arabic name "Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham." Al Sham is the wider region of Syria—an area that includes Syria, Lebanon, parts of Turkey and Jordan. It is the historical Islamic province of the region as drawn up following the Muslim conquest of Syria in the seventh century.
Previously ISIS had just been ISI (Islamic state in Iraq) and by adding al-Sham to this, they quickly set their sights on conquering the rest of the region, and expanding.
The other name we know them by is ISIL, you will hear President Obama using this term. Effectively it's the same as ISIS, except the L refers to 'The Levant' rather than "Al-Sham" The Levant is the same area as Al-Sham, but is the English word for it—it's a bit outdated now. It's taken from the Latin word "Levare" which means to rise, and refers to the lands over which the sun rose across the Mediterranean during the Roman empire. This is Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and also includes parts of Egypt.
In June 2014 ISIS announced they would be changing their name to 'The Islamic State'. Amazingly much of the mainstream media followed suit, using the name the terrorist had picked themselves. Herein lies a great problem. By declaring that they were the "Islamic State" they sought to legitimize themselves—claiming ownership over the Caliphate, and declaring themselves a independent nation.
Not only is it ridiculous to allow a group of terrorists to decide their own name, but even more absurd to happily accept their announcement of statehood. Even the majority of Muslims around the world objected to this arrogance, yet the Media continues to use it.
Finally there is DAESH, which is the acronym you get if you use the first letter of the Arabic meaning. This is the widely use term in the Middle East, and although it's an acronym of their official name, it is also terribly derogatory; and the ISIS members can't stand it. That's because the alternative reading of the word Daesh means they are trampled under foot, and crushed in the dust. It's a word that, which if it had more recognition I would happily have used myself.
But for the purpose of the book we will go with the name they first came to be known as: ISIS.
Baghdad, Iraq, November 2013
The pilgrims walked slowly toward Karbala in the brisk morning air of the Iraqi winter. Men, women, and children shuffled along the crowded road, some praying, some waving banners, all tired.
The mood was jubilant for this was Ashura, the most important Shia pilgrimage of the year, and approximately fifteen million people were journeying to the holy shrine of Imam Hussein, to celebrate his martyrdom.
The highway had been closed between Baghdad and Karbala, and the whole length was lined with tents, offering rest and food for the pilgrims. People mingled inside, shared their food, and ate from large communal cauldrons filled with rice, meat, and vegetables, which had been supplied by the government. Families were celebrating.
It was into one of these tents that the suicide bomber walked. Avoiding the numerous security cordons along the way, he had found his way inside, intent on killing his Shia enemy.
Throwing his arms to the air, he cried out, "Allahu Akbar" (God is greater) before reaching down to detonate his vest. Soldiers nearby pounced on him, pinning his arms to his side, struggling to secure them. As the commotion grew and people panicked, he pushed away, freed one of his hands, and detonated.
The blast ripped through the tent, evaporating those nearest to him, and sent body parts up to 650 feet through the air. Ten people died instantaneously, among them two children, and thirty-four others were wounded.
There is nothing quite so sickening as the scene of a bomb blast. The rivers of blood cover the road, and body pieces lie everywhere: on walls, on cars, and on people. Arms, torsos, matted hair, and toes are everywhere. The wounded are rushed away however they can be carried. Men walk around filling garbage bags with body parts, picking up toes and hands, then taking the bags, dripping with blood and fat, into a van so relatives have something to bury.
Hundreds of police and soldiers from different units mill around: arguing, shouting, and fighting over jurisdiction. It's chaotic. Family members and friends trample over the scene wailing, leading to even more disputes, and very quickly riots erupt. As a Westerner the blame often falls on you: "Spies, Israeli spies!" people shout.
Bombs are just a part of life in Iraq. They're hidden in pens, torches, books, tea cups, and flagpoles; in discarded phone chargers and in shoes—anything that children or others might pick up and take home. Such is the indiscriminate nature of the attacks. It's this brutality that has defined the rise of ISIS, and while one can argue forever about who first escalated the sectarianism, today each side blames the other, and each side is to blame.
Maliki Does Wrong
"The coaching, and teaching, and mentoring, the thousands of interactions at the local level were all wasted by the government of Iraq that chose deliberately to follow a sectarian agenda and alienate entire segments of the population, which created an environment in which ISIS could return and could flourish"
Despite popular belief that ISIS grew out of the Syrian revolution, it was actually in Iraq that it was born and grew strong. It was the decade of suicide attacks by terrorists on one side and sectarian brutality from the government on the other that led Iraq to the brink. Daily attacks on both sides led to the conditions that allowed ISIS to thrive.
Yes, it was in Syria that ISIS became the power it is today, hidden among the splintered, chaotic battleground, but it was in Iraq where the seeds were first sown, and where sectarian discontent created the conditions that allowed them to prosper. It was during the years following the US led invasion of 2003, and the subsequent attempts to rebuild the shattered nation, that we saw a black cloud developing.
After defeating Saddam's army, the first thing the United States did was to create a new inclusive government, one that would take into account the sectarian divisions within the country. The prime minister would be Shia, the president would be Kurdish, and the deputy prime minister would be Sunni. However this soon failed, and President Nouri al-Maliki began to consolidate power around him, ignoring pleas for him not to. He created a politicized security apparatus answerable only to him, and he looked to his neighbor Shia Iran for guidance and support. As General Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, "We gave Iraq a chance—an opportunity. They failed to take that opportunity."
Iran had fought a decades long battle against Saddam Hussein, from 1980 to 1988, so when he was deposed in 2003, Tehran was determined to replace the enemy on their border with an ally. Controlling Iraq would also give them a direct passage to their allies and proxies in Syria and Lebanon, and allow them to project influence against their archenemies Saudi Arabia and Israel.
And so Iran began helping Maliki tighten his grip on the country by isolating Sunni regions in the west, and crushing Kurdish dreams of independence in the north. As Iran grew stronger in Iraq, Maliki began answering directly to Tehran. It's a great irony that Iran, America's great enemy, benefited most from the US war in Iraq.
The principal error made in the postwar years was the immediate banning of all members of Saddam's Ba'athist party. No former Ba'athists were allowed to join the newly established Iraqi army (a huge part of the country's work and security force), and as a result the country was left in the hands of people with little experience, while many disgruntled Ba'athists lost everything. Thousands were left jobless: teachers, doctors, professors, and soldiers were all banned from holding public sector positions because they had joined Saddam's party—which had been practically imperative under his regime.
They found themselves unable to support and feed their families, and their anger grew to the point that joining Sunni terrorist movements in the west of the country seemed to be the only alternative—the only way to change their downfall. This purge of Ba'athists is considered one of the major blunders of the invasion; it removed all experienced officers from the pool of candidates, leaving only inexperienced soldiers to run the newly formed defense forces, and although it was partly overturned in 2008, the damage had been done: Maliki's Shia had control, and they were not going to cede it.
"Here's the Saddamists who are assisting ISIS, who started the insurgency after Saddam was deposed as a regime, they started the insurgency with money, significant amounts of human capital, significant amount of weapons and ammunition, etc. It was probably the most solvent insurgency in the history of modern times."
Former Deputy Chief of Staff,
United States Army
During these postwar years, many Sunnis across western Iraq also grew nostalgic for the security of Saddam's era—a time when, despite the authoritarian rules, they had been closer to power and not indiscriminately bombed and attacked on a daily basis. His image started to become popular again in the north and west of Iraq, and his picture could be found hanging in many houses. Iraqi soldiers I embedded with in 2012 would unashamedly called out, "Father, father," while they watched video tributes to him and his sons.
Saddam's daughter Raghad Hussein, who now lives in Jordan, also gave an interview after the ISIS attack on Mosul voicing her support. "I am happy to see all these victories," she said. "Someday, I will return to Iraq and visit my father's grave. Maybe it won't happen very soon, but it will certainly happen." She has since been indicted by Interpol, for "inciting terrorism in Iraq."
For ten long years, members of the Ba'athist party hid in the shadows of Iraq, dreaming of the day they would take back the country. They lay low in their Sunni communities, gaining ever more support as a result of the attacks by the central government—they were regularly detained and tortured, and would disappear. Ultimately, it was the failure of the US government to include these elements in post-Saddam Iraq that created the conditions for ISIS to thrive, and it is one that came to define the current storm.
Tapping into strong tribal ties in the region and the vast military experience among them, these ex-Ba'athists were able to command countless followers, while also exerting influence over ISIS. The top three ISIS generals in the takeover of Mosul were Ba'athists, as were eight of the top ten in ISIS at the time. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former military commander whom Saddam considered to be like a brother, was widely rumored to be in Mosul overseeing the conflict, after hiding out in Qatar and Syria for a decade—he is still a leading figure in ISIS.
As ISIS pushed through Iraq in June 2014, it was this network that helped it control the villages and towns it captured along the way. The core army of terrorists and freed soldiers could continue moving forward toward others targets: Baghdad and the holy Shia cities of Karbala and Najaf, while the favorable, disenfranchised Sunni tribes kept control. "As an effective fighting force alone, ISIS would never have been able to hold such large territories," a Kurdish intelligence officer told me, "but with the help of Ba'athists and Sunni tribes (united under the new name the Naqshbandi Army), they have been able to keep the momentum going."
It will be the reversal of these allegiances that will be crucial in stopping ISIS, for ultimately many ISIS allies in Iraq are nationalists, rather than jihadis, who chose to pick what they saw as the lesser of two evils—and there is precedence for such a reversal.
ISIS certainly didn't grow strong exclusively as a result of ex-Ba'athists and disgruntled Sunni tribesmen. While this is indeed what gave them their early power in Iraq, their radical core has had a presence in the country for decades, and they have a fine pedigree as far as global jihad is concerned. It is directly from these groups that ISIS was born.
In 1999, a terrorist group named Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Tawhid literally means the Unity and Jihad group) came to prominence in the western Sunni region of Anbar. Tawhid had been founded in Jordan in the 1990s by the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the many fighters who had fought against the Russians in Afghanistan.
Upon his return to Jordan, Zarqawi was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for possessing guns and explosives. Upon his release in 1999, having attempted to blow up the Radisson Hotel in Amman, he fled to the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, where he set up training camps with the help of a two hundred thousand dollar investment from his old friend Osama bin Laden, whom he had known from his Afghanistan days. After fighting against the United States in Afghanistan until 2001, he eventually moved his group to Iraq having allegedly received safekeeping and support from an unlikely patron—Iran.
Shia Iran has been known to fund Sunni extremists throughout the region, despite their deep-seated hatred of each other. Initially this was to destabilize Saddam's regime and counter Saudi hegemony. It's known that many jihadi fighters have used the mountainous region between Iraq and Iran as a safe haven, and in 2000, Iran refused Jordanian extradition requests for Zarqawi, who had by now been sentenced to death. This balancing act played by Iran is a major factor in the ISIS story, and we see them supporting a number of various groups to use as tools in their own geopolitical game—including many of the elements that precede ISIS.
In 2004, following a number of major successful attacks in Iraq against US troops, Zarqawi swore allegiance to Bin Laden, and Tawhid morphed into Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—a group whose full name is Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, literally meaning the Organization of Jihad's base in the country of the two rivers. These attacks were both brutal and indiscriminate. Zarqawi is known to have used the mentally disabled as suicide bombers, to have hidden bombs inside coffins to target funerals, and to have personally decapitated the Western hostages Nick Berg and Eugene Armstrong.
Rising up against the United States-led invasion, and with much support among Sunni tribes who resisted occupation, foreign fighters from the region flocked to AQI to do battle with the United States, wreaking havoc throughout the supposed fledgling democracy. In the same way that US involvement today acts as a catalyst to recruit jihadists, it did so as well back then, leading to a war many saw as battling the crusading invaders.
By 2005, AQI was a potent force in Iraq, and Zarqawi was the most wanted man with a twenty-five million dollar bounty on his head. Seeking to grow, he merged with the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), a network of other jihadi groups, and the newly founded army became the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI)—the direct precursor to ISIS. ISI fought a brutal war against the United States, using many of the same tactics seen today, but in 2005, local sheiks who had become sickened by their brutality, and upset at their attempts to control their illicit businesses (principally oil and gas smuggling), founded a group called the Sons of Iraq to counter them.
It was the Sons of Iraq who ultimately rose up and defeated ISI in Iraq with extensive support from the United States, who began paying their salaries and providing logistical support and weapons. In 2006, Zarqawi was killed by a United States bomb strike, and in 2008, the Sons of Iraq and local "Awakening Councils" had effectively thrown out ISI in what was one of the great stories of the war and of United States-Iraqi cooperation. The United States hopes to use this same model against ISIS in western Iraq, and these same Sunni tribes are being encouraged to help overthrow ISIS.
At their peak, the Sons of Iraq numbered fifty-four thousand Sunni fighters, who had come together to successfully defeat ISI, but when in 2008 the United States ceded responsibility for their salaries to the central government in Baghdad, it fell apart. The Maliki central government—terrified of an armed Sunni movement in the west—rejected the possibility of them becoming a permanent military force. The Maliki government stopped paying their salaries and began detaining people, torturing them, and holding them in secret prisons. Some disappeared forever.
- On Sale
- Mar 10, 2015
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Center Street