By Mike Giglio
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The battle to defeat ISIS was an unremittingly brutal and dystopian struggle, a multi-sided war of gritty local commandos and militias. Mike Giglio takes readers to the heart of this shifting, uncertain conflict, capturing the essence of a modern war.
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I AM INDEBTED TO THE LOCAL JOURNALISTS WITH WHOM I’VE HAD THE honor of working and sharing bylines. They are among the best and bravest our profession has to offer and were a constant reminder of why I chose it. I especially want to thank Munzer al-Awad, the friend and colleague who worked with me for years covering ISIS in Turkey. Though he appears in these pages, they do not do justice to the passion, skill, and humanity that defined his work.
None of the sources in this book were offered or given anything in exchange for the interviews and access they provided, except the promise that I would try to relay their accounts accurately—and, when necessary for their safety, protect their identities. Those whose names have been changed in line with this obligation are mentioned in the endnotes. I remain in awe that so many people in such difficult situations were willing to talk with me, sometimes at great personal risk, and that they believed enough in the value of reporting to share their stories. Whether they spoke with me directly in their native languages, or in mine, or with the aid of translators such as Munzer, as was most often the case, most dialogue is rendered in English.
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Alawites: A religious group that broadly identifies with the Shia branch of Islam. Alawites makes up a minority of the population in Syria but hold much of the power. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI): The insurgent and terrorist group that fought U.S. troops during the Iraq War. The predecessor to ISIS. AQI was founded by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and eventually pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s global leadership. Many ISIS members and especially its leaders are AQI veterans.
The Coalition: The collection of local and international forces fighting ISIS. The Coalition is led by the U.S. but includes countries such as France, Britain, Germany, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands, along with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The Coalition also includes local partner forces that are essential to the battle in Iraq and Syria.
dishdasha: A traditional robe.
emir: A local ISIS leader; the word translates to “prince.”
EOD: Explosive Ordnance Disposal. The technicians who work to defuse bombs.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA): The moderate rebel alliance featuring many defected military officers and soldiers that received U.S. backing in the Syrian civil war.
hookah: A large water pipe used for smoking tobacco. Also known in the region as narghile or shisha.
IED: Improvised-explosive device, often a hidden explosive or roadside bomb.
Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Force (ICTF): The most elite battalion of the Iraqi special operations forces, which was created to work with U.S. commandos during the Iraq War and leads the war against ISIS in Iraq.
Iraqi special forces: See entry below. This term is used in this book to refer to ISOF.
The Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF): The overall division of Iraqi special forces, who are the most effective soldiers in the anti-ISIS fight. They are also commonly known as the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) and the Golden Division. To avoid over-using acronyms, I often refer to ISOF simply as the Iraqi special forces or the special forces. Though there were other Iraqi military units that called themselves special forces, any reference to Iraqi special forces in this book refers to ISOF.
Iraq War: The war that began with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Baghdad and formally ended in December 2011.
ISIS: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Istanbullu: An Istanbul native or resident.
Kurds: An ethnic group that traces its roots to ancient kings in Iran and makes up a suppressed minority in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. Many Kurds dream of carving out their own state.
MRAP: Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected. A heavy armored vehicle that can sometimes withstand the blasts of IEDs and other explosives.
mujahideen: A holy warrior. The term is often used to refer to foreign fighters.
mukhabarat: The secret police in many Arab countries.
The Muslim Brotherhood: The political and Islamist movement across the Middle East that is the most powerful opposition faction in Egypt during the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
The Nusra Front: The Syrian rebel group that eventually became the official branch of al-Qaeda in the country. Nusra and ISIS worked together until 2014, when they formally split as part of a larger rift between al-Qaeda and AQI.
peshmerga: The soldiers who control and defend the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. The name means “those who face death.”
PKK (The Kurdistan Workers Party): The parent group of the YPG that has been fighting a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and is labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department.
Rojava: The Kurdish-dominated land of eastern Syria.
Sahwa: The Awakening. The U.S. campaign during the George W. Bush administration’s troop surge that empowered local Sunni fighters to take on AQI during the Iraq War.
Salafis: Hardline Islamists who seek to make the world more like they believe it was during the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
shabiha: The pro-regime civilian death squads in Syria, known by the locals as “ghosts.”
shalwar kameez: Traditional outfit of baggy pants and shirt.
sheikh: An honorific in Arabic usually reserved for powerful men and religious leaders.
Shia: The second-largest branch of global Islam that follows the lineage of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who was killed in the battle of Karbala. Shia Muslims make up the dominant population in Iraq as well as Iran.
Sunni: Islam’s largest branch. Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Syria and are a large minority in Iraq.
VBIED: A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, or car bomb.
Yazidis: The religious minority based around the Sinjar mountains in northern Iraq.
YPG (The People’s Protection Units): The Kurdish militia and local PKK affiliate that dominates Rojava.
Source: People Demand Change
Source: People Demand Change
New York City. January 2011.
SIX YEARS EARLIER I WAS STARING AT MY COMPUTER IN THE DRAB Newsweek offices in downtown Manhattan. I clicked on a Gmail chat box, waiting for a man who called himself El Shaheed, Arabic for “the martyr,” to appear online.
I was twenty-six and struggling to find my place at the storied magazine, which was cutting staff and bleeding money. I had a temp job on the foreign desk and wore dress shoes that squeaked. The online meeting had been arranged by a former Egyptian activist living in Washington, DC, who claimed that El Shaheed was preparing to lead a revolution on the streets of Egypt, from the internet.
I’d never been to Egypt and knew only the basics about its politics: that it was a brutal police state, that octogenarian dictator Hosni Mubarak was a major American ally, with a military that received $1.3 billion a year in U.S. aid, and that he had ruled for three decades. But huge street protests had recently brought down the dictatorship in Tunisia, the small country wedged between Algeria and Libya on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Activists there had used Facebook and other social media platforms to subvert censorship and organize, and I’d written a story about them.
In the chat box, I saw that El Shaheed was typing.
elshaheeed: I’m here
need to leave in 30 minutes
so lets make the best use of the time
I asked who he was, but he’d only say he was the administrator of a Facebook page that was going viral in Egypt. He’d created the page the previous summer as a campaign against police brutality—the El Shaheed moniker paid tribute to a young computer engineer who’d been bludgeoned to death for no apparent reason by police. Since then, El Shaheed and some friends had been using the page to explore new kinds of dissent, like flash demonstrations that were recorded and posted online to commemorate the action. Egyptian singers living abroad had made music videos for the cause that racked up views on YouTube. In comments on the page’s posts, people vented about the daily oppression they faced, and each time people liked a post or a video, it was flagged for all their friends to see. It was a vivid example of the still-new power of social media.
Four days earlier, on January 14, the same day Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his country, El Shaheed’s Facebook page had posted a call for a countrywide protest, and this time the target was Mubarak. The protest was scheduled for January 25—and on its events page on Facebook, tens of thousands of people had clicked the box that said they’d be attending. The page had more than 375,000 followers and was growing quickly.
elshaheeed: thats how powerful a virus can be
me: a virus—why did you use that word?
elshaheeed: cause its infact a virus
no one can control it
once its out
it goes everywhere
The secret police had begun to question well-known activists, trying to find out the identity of El Shaheed. He was receiving emails with suspicious links, and Facebook accounts with profile photos of pretty women were sending him messages, saying they wanted to meet.
elshaheeed: I’m taking as much measures as I can to remain anonymous
But of course I’m scared
It was past midnight in Egypt. We’d been talking for over an hour. He let slip that he had a wife, who was getting angry that he was still online. He also mentioned that he put in long hours at a demanding day job.
El Shaheed said he was working with veteran activists to help the protest move from the internet to the real world. Many had previously suffered through beatings, imprisonment, torture, and the deaths of comrades. They were spreading word among their contacts, planning routes, and readying lawyers, trauma doctors, and medical supplies. I called some well-known Egyptian activists, who confirmed what El Shaheed had told me, and published the story online.
On January 25, protests erupted across Egypt on a scale far greater than even El Shaheed had expected. In Cairo alone, some 200,000 people turned out. Police fought the crowds with clubs and tear gas. Some protesters were shot dead; hundreds were arrested. But as night fell in Cairo, protesters occupied Tahrir Square, an expanse of concrete in the city center ringed by faded colonial apartment buildings and old hotels. News channels around the world broadcasted live-streams of Tahrir from the rooftops, showing a sea of men and women crammed shoulder to shoulder, chanting and singing, the crowd shimmering with the flashes of the cameras on their mobile phones.
In the days that followed, the regime instituted a state of emergency as the protests spread across the country. The Facebook page put out a call for an even bigger protest, naming it “A Day of Rage.”
“This time no one is organizing so far. A lot of organizers are arrested,” El Shaheed told me in our chat box. “We are hoping it will virally spread, and people will assume responsibilities.” He shared with me a Google doc that showed dozens of users working in real-time to edit the language of the manifestos that were appearing on the Facebook page and the chants protesters were shouting in the streets:
“Change, change, leave, leave.”
“Bread, freedom, social justice.”
“The people want to overthrow the regime.”
I was surprised to see how connected many Americans felt to the drama, following the protesters not just on the news but through their Facebook and Twitter feeds, interacting with them, sharing and liking, and adding to their momentum. All of it fit with a certain mind-set at the time, halfway through Barack Obama’s first term—the feeling that it was possible to sit at your laptop and like your way to a better world.
It was the beginning of what was optimistically being called the Arab Spring: first Tunisia, then Egypt, and then rumblings of like-minded protests planned in places such as Libya and Yemen. Dissenters were organizing even in Syria, where the Assad dynasty was one of the world’s most oppressive autocracies. A special euphoria was building around the movement in the United States, where many felt that the protests showed that a spirit of American freedom was emerging in a traditionally autocratic region. The shadow of the Iraq War had defined America and its relationship with the rest of the world for almost a decade, and Obama had risen to the presidency based in part on his promise to move on from the conflict. He’d given a major foreign policy address, in 2009, in the reception hall at Cairo University, just across the Nile River from Tahrir. The speech was called “A New Beginning,” and Obama used it to champion things like “the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed” and “the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
U.S. troops were still fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq, but Obama was planning to bring them home by the end of 2011. The Arab Spring seemed to offer a new way for America to influence the Middle East. The young Arabs were not just chanting for the same ideals Obama had outlined but organizing around them with the aid of Facebook and Twitter, Androids and iPhones. The euphoria of that moment, with Americans sitting at their phones and laptops and feeling connected with protesters across the Arab world, was central to the darkness that followed. I would meet rebels and activists in the ensuing years who never got over the sense of betrayal that came when, as they were still in the midst of their struggle, the rest of the world lost interest and severed the connection, leaving them on their own to be killed and jailed and co-opted and otherwise erased from history.
The Syrian activist who snapped one day, tied up a man, and prepared to behead him in the name not of jihad but of liberalism, as an act of defiance to say, I’m still here; and the oil smuggler and ISIS fixer who supported the caliphate even as he risked his life so many times to help me, whose anger at America and the West was all the more intense because he’d once been a revolutionary; and even those who carried out the darkest of ISIS’s missions—at times they all seemed to be looking back to this moment, for justification, so they could see themselves not as killers or terrorists but as soldiers of retribution.
There was something else. To be living a drab life and then, through your phone or computer, to feel engaged with an exciting new world, only to look away from your screen and find yourself still trapped at home, could be life altering. Much later, sifting through a cache of thousands of personnel files of ISIS’s foreign fighters, I would read their bios and realize that they had experienced a similar pull.
On the Day of Rage, protests across Egypt swelled to their greatest size yet. The regime seemed on the verge of collapse. Then El Shaheed went missing. His friends contacted me using his handle online, saying that they were running the page in his place. He’d been dragged into a car by men in plain clothes who were probably secret police. As the days passed, word of El Shaheed’s disappearance began to spread among the crowd in Tahrir Square. Eventually, his friends told me who El Shaheed was: Wael Ghonim, a thirty-two-year-old Egyptian, who was a short and bespectacled executive at Google. He lived with his wife in Dubai but had flown to Cairo for the protests. He was released due to political pressure, and before his friends rushed him to Tahrir, we spoke on the phone for the first time. I asked how it felt to be unmasked. “I hate it, but it was out of my hands,” he said, sounding weary. Then he added, almost in a whisper, “A lot of people died.” Mubarak stepped down four days later.
I turned to the cyberactivist movement in Syria, where the dictatorship was even more brutal than Egypt’s had been. “The regime will bring all its force and military, and this will frighten a large number of people,” said a veteran organizer named Razan Zaitouneh—one of many Syrians I spoke to who would soon be exiled, murdered, or disappeared—as she was planning one of the first small protests in the capital, Damascus. “But that wasn’t the only purpose of this call. It’s about breaking the fear and breaking the silence in Syria. And it’s the start.”
Damascus, Syria. March 2011.
LAWAND KIKI WAS BORN IN 1979, THE FOURTH AND FINAL CHILD OF a dissident couple in Damascus. His mother told him that, in her native Kurdish language, his name meant “he who is loved.” When Lawand was fifteen, he fled to America with his family and applied for asylum, settling in Fairview, New Jersey. Lawand finished high school there and learned to speak English with the same thick Jersey accent as his mostly Irish and Italian American neighbors. He did a spot-on De Niro impression and memorized lines from Analyze This. He was the kind of guy who made friends easily, chatting up the regulars at the deli and pizzeria. People around the neighborhood knew him as Leo—Leo from Henry Street.
When Leo was in his early twenties, his dad died, and he helped to support himself and his mom. He drove a limo and sold knockoff designer jeans from the trunk of his Lincoln, letting customers know that the jeans were fakes because he didn’t have the heart to rip them off. He preferred to feel like they were in on the scam together: These look just like real Diesels, and they’re only forty bucks. The family’s asylum application had dragged on and was denied after his father’s death; Leo eventually overstayed his visa. He was arrested by immigration agents in the winter of 2006 and held in detention. After three months, he was deported to Damascus. When he arrived at the airport, it was his first time in Syria in more than ten years.
The mukhabarat, Syria’s secret police, detained him from the plane. The officer who beat and questioned him in a dimly lit interrogation room at the airport was suspicious of Leo’s time in America and accused him of being in the CIA. Eventually, he released him into the city.
In those first months back in Damascus, as Leo wandered the vaguely familiar streets, he was jarred by the poverty and repression he saw. Like any Western tourist, he walked in awe around the Great Mosque and the sprawling bazaar that surrounded it. In another part of the capital, he could visit the Four Seasons Hotel and a high-end shopping mall that sold real versions of the fake designer clothes he’d once hawked from his Lincoln. But as he settled into a working-class suburb called Rukneddine, in a bedroom of the colonial-era home in which his paternal grandfather had been born, he realized that many Syrians couldn’t afford to own a car or sometimes even to buy meat. He also noticed that no one would talk politics out of fear of the secret police who’d given him such a violent welcome home. “The walls have ears,” people warned in hushed tones. Thousands of political prisoners filled the country’s many jails.
Leo wanted to return to New Jersey, and he called his mom on Skype every day, but his deportation order barred him from America for a decade. So he started ringing up relatives and old friends from grade school, trying to find a new community. Over time, he began to fall in love with the ancient city. He sometimes thought he could feel Damascus breathing. Already settled in the earliest recorded history—Damascus is mentioned in the oldest surviving records of the pharaohs and in the book of Genesis—the city had served for centuries as a crossroads, drawing in religious and ethnic groups from across Eurasia, North Africa, and the Middle East. It was home to deeply rooted communities of Sunni and Shia Muslims, Alawites, Christians, Circassians, Druze, and Kurds. The diversity was, on the one hand, part of what made Syria vulnerable to the kind of sectarian tensions that had led to civil wars in Iraq and Lebanon. On the other hand, it was part of the city’s unique charm, and if Leo squinted, standing amid the different peoples and accents in Rukneddine, he could catch glimpses of his adopted American home.
In time he found that he’d built a tight-knit circle of friends, like in New Jersey. He was part of a crew of twenty- and thirty-something Syrians who convened to play PlayStation and tarneeb, a Syrian version of Spades. Or they’d sip mate tea from small glasses stuffed with herbs as they passed hours in the city’s cafés, puffing tobacco from hookah pipes made of colored glass as the water lightly bubbled in their oblong bases, their voices blending with the sounds of the city.
In March 2011, the month after Mubarak stepped down in Egypt, protests began in Daraa, a former Roman garrison city forty miles south of Damascus. The protests were a response to police brutality, as in Egypt. Local cops had arrested and tortured children for spray-painting antiregime graffiti. They castrated one of them, a thirteen-year-old boy, before they returned his body to his family. The protests in Daraa began to grow when security forces fired on the crowds, then spread to the rest of the country. The protests were peaceful, led by the same kind of liberal, tech-savvy activists as in Egypt, but the response from the Syrian security forces was far deadlier. Hundreds of people had been detained and dozens more shot dead in the streets by the time Syria’s young president, Bashar al-Assad, prepared to address the crisis in a nationally televised speech.
Assad, a forty-five-year-old ophthalmologist, had been living in London when, eleven years earlier, he became the leader of Syria, following the deaths of his father and older brother. Some, like Leo, saw hope in the young and modern image he projected. Assad was defined for them not by the abuses of the mukhabarat but by his promises of reform, by his willingness to dine in public with U.S. Senator John Kerry, and by his glamorous wife, who’d just received a profile in Vogue. Leo bought into Assad’s talk of incremental change and believed he was working to fix the brutal and corrupt regime he’d inherited. It was just after 8 p.m. in Damascus, and Leo stared at the TV in his fading apartment in Rukneddine, waiting for Assad to appear on the screen. He thought the speech would be historic: Assad would prove himself the reformer he’d long claimed to be, apologize for the bloodshed, and push for peace. This is a crisis, and he’s gonna fix it, Leo thought. Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna be fine.
As Assad approached the podium, the regime-sanctioned parliament broke into thunderous applause. “I am sure you all know,” Assad said, “that Syria is facing a great conspiracy.”
Assad rambled on, leveling accusations that the protests were part of some international treachery and warning of “plots being hatched against our country.” He threatened the protesters and any Syrian who supported them. The applause continued on Leo’s TV. “Burying sedition is a national, moral, and religious duty; and all those who can contribute to burying it and do not are part of it,” Assad continued. “There is no compromise or middle way in this.”
The speech went on like this for more than an hour. Assad stopped often to accept standing ovations, smiling. He made jokes. He’s not saying anything that means anything, Leo thought, suddenly afraid. Instead he came out laughing.
In the summer
- A PBS NewsHour recommended book for 2019
- "An open wound of a book, as raw and bleeding as the conflict itself."—Rebekah Sanderlin, We Are The Mighty
"Beautifully written...one of the most important reflections on the war to date."
—Murtaza Hussain, the Intercept
- "Giglio has written an engaging and valuable account of the battle against the Islamic State and its regional and international effects. He captures, better than most any other author, the gritty, confusing and often cynical nature of this war fought by local actors on behalf of the United States. Readers who embark with Giglio on his harrowing adventures will gain much from his eye for the details that humanize his tale."—Nicholas Heras, the Washington Post
- "An important read on the rise of the Islamic State and the West's fight to defeat the militant group, reported from the ground through beautifully captured human portraits."—Lauren Katzenberg's year-end book recommendations for The New York Times At War
- "Giglio's writing thrums with the blood pulse of battle...What powers this book more than the chilling accounts of bullets zipping through the air and bombs roaring near and far, however, are the people Giglio encounters and the stories they share. They are the beating heart of this story, and they are truly unforgettable."—Peggy Kurkowski, Open Letters Review
- "The book is like a magnet...he takes the reader along with him, into the coffeehouses and smuggling dens, the restaurants and front lines, from Turkey to Iraq and other countries."—Seth Frantzman, the Jerusalem Post
- "[A] searing debut...[Giglio's] insights into the 'strange ecosystem' of journalists, hustlers, and fixers that operate on the edges of war zones will be of interest even to readers who've had their fill of battle stories. His warning, meanwhile, that many jihadists and their families escaped ISIS territory before coalition forces moved in takes on frightening new relevance as U.S. troops withdraw from the region. Giglio's probing, prescient narrative illuminates the global repercussions of a murky conflict."—Publishers Weekly
- "An excellent and invaluable summation of the complex conflict in the Middle East from 2011-2017, shedding light on the murky circumstances behind so many political soundbites that inadequately cover terrorism and plight of refugees."—Booklist
- "Wrenching...a forthright account by an invested journalist unafraid to ask key questions about the many ramifications of the conflict."—Kirkus Reviews
- "An epic war story: bravely reported, brilliantly written, shot through with humanity."—Tim Weiner, National Book Award-winning author of Legacy of Ashes
- "Giglio's Shatter the Nations is more than a brave on-the-ground chronicle of the battle against ISIS-it is a lyrical, thrilling work that stands amongst the best of war literature."—Molly Crabapple, author of Drawing Blood and illustrator of Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War
- "With a reporter's unflinching eye and in a fine writer's clear prose, Mike Giglio has written a hypnotically compelling account of the rise and fall of the blood-drenched ISIS 'caliphate' in the Middle East. Unforgettable."—Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer for the New Yorker
- "A compelling and deeply reported narrative that explains how ISIS will have a lasting effect not just on the region but on the wider world. This is a distinguished, firsthand account that covers all sides of the conflict with the terror group--which is rare."—Hassan Hassan, author of the New York Times-bestselling ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
- "Shatter the Nations is a reporter's account of today's Middle East wars that reads like a screenplay. Somehow Mike Giglio avoids clichés while bringing to life the suicide bombers, resistance heroes, militants, and civilians and making sense out of those murky and hideous wars."—Elizabeth Becker, author of When the War Was Over
- "Mike Giglio has done some great investigative reporting in the Middle East, but he's also the intrepid newsman ready to go to the worst place in the world. His account of the battle for Mosul, where ISIS threw everything it had at Iraqi special forces, including mortars, drone-fired grenades and suicide bomb vehicles, is hair-raising and unforgettable."—Roy Gutman, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter
- "[Giglio] beautifully unravels the rise and fall of the Islamic State...Their caliphate, and their quest to conquer, is beautifully outlined in Shatter the Nations...What makes Shatter the Nations unique is Giglio's expansive visual story line. He's a skilled reporter, but where he shines is in his storytelling. Giglio constructs a narrative following a group of unlikely characters who came together to fight for and against ISIS, and his access is enviable. He is tenacious and persistent as he moves through dangerous territory; his network would leave an intelligence officer envious (and probably did), and his information is chilling."—Janine di Giovanni, AirMail
- On Sale
- Oct 15, 2019
- Page Count
- 336 pages