Alex Rowell

Inside ISIS

An interview with NOW columnist Michael Weiss and Syrian analyst Hassan Hassan, who have just co-written a book on ISIS

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by NOW columnist Michael Weiss and Delma Institute analyst Hassan Hassan. (Image courtesy of Regan Arts)

A US-led military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria has now been underway for six months, and yet to all outward appearances the jihadist militants look as confident, capable and extravagantly brutal as ever. In the last fortnight alone, they have released a video of a Jordanian pilot captive being burned alive, and beheaded a Japanese journalist.


On the ground, too, while more than 2,000 coalition airstrikes have brought the group some setbacks — notably helping to prevent it conquering the symbolic town of Kobane on the Syrian-Turkish border — its self-declared ‘caliphate’ nonetheless continues to rule swathes of eastern Syria and western Iraq amounting to territory the size of Great Britain.


How did this happen? Who are these tens of thousands of holy warriors, who throw alleged homosexuals off buildings and keep children as sex slaves? And what will it take for the international community to defeat them? These are among the questions NOW columnist Michael Weiss and Delma Institute analyst Hassan Hassan set out to answer in their new book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. NOW spoke to the authors to hear some of their key findings.


NOW: You begin the book with a profile of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader who you call the “founding father” of ISIS, and you trace the roots of his ideology and militancy through historical predecessors like Sayyid Qutb, Abdallah Azzam, and Osama Bin Laden. What is it about Zarqawi that makes him so significant?


Michael Weiss: Zarqawi was an ultraist who thought that the best way to conduct holy warfare was to create all-out sectarian war between the Sunnis and the Shiites. His logic was simple: The United States had invaded Iraq and knocked out a decades-old Sunni-minority regime, thereby empowering Iran and the “rafida” majority in Iraq. If Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the predecessor of ISIS, attacked the Shia mercilessly — beheaded them, blew up their mosques and holy shrines — then this would prompt an overreaction on their part, leading to retaliatory bloodletting against the Sunnis. The Sunnis who survived would thus see AQI as their only savior and protector, and they would of course be joined by legions of foreign fighters who would pour into Iraq to combat the Shia.


The problem with this war strategy, as Bin Laden and Zawahiri saw it, is that it would alienate too many Muslims and likely prompt a too-robust response by Iran — a nation that Al-Qaeda not only didn’t want to pick a fight with just yet, but which it had been enjoying a tactical alliance with for years. Indeed, Al-Adnani, the current ISIS spokesman, said quite recently that Al-Qaeda owes a great deal to Iran, by way of justifying to Zawahiri ISIS’s forbearance in taking its jihad directly to that country. Bin Laden hated Zarqawi for other reasons, too. When they first met in Kandahar in 1999, Zarqawi went on and on about the Shiites, offending the Al-Qaeda chieftan whose mother was a Syrian Alawite.  Nevertheless, because of his connections in the Levant, Zarqawi was tolerated at arms-length by the organization, which financed his training camp in Herat, and which then accepted him fully into the fold in 2004 when he [pledged allegiance] to Osama. We argue in the book, however, that a “divorce” between AQI/ISIS and global Al-Qaeda was always inevitable given these underlying ideological and strategic differences.


Zarqawi was no man’s definition of an intellectual, but he had a lupine cunning customary to most effective totalitarian leaders. Stalin’s old axiom, “There is a man, there is a problem. No man, no problem” comes to mind here. For Zarqawi, it was, “There is a Shiite, there is a problem….” Demography, he reckoned, was on his side since Sunnis outnumber Shiites globally by orders of magnitude. Early on in the insurgency, he paid particular attention to the Badr Corps, led by Hadi al-Amiri (who was a paid up IRGC operative before the US got to Iraq), and in his battlefield edicts he expended far more ink on anathematizing the Shiites than he did on the Americans, the Kurds, the Christians or anyone else. Zarqawi figured the US would eventually leave Iraq anyway; bleeding the superpower was a proximate goal leading to the ultimate one of restoring Sunni power to Baghdad under the banner of the caliphate. His project was fundamentally revanchist in orientation — a fact missed by those who prefer to view AQI and now ISIS purely through the prism of counterterrorism. 


In fact, he placed a great deal of prominence on the Al-Zangi mosque in Mosul, which is where Saladin preached before going off to join the Second Crusades, and which fell to the dominion of its namesake, Nur al-Din Mahmud Zangi, in the 12th century. Through warfare and through opportunistic marriage, Nur al-Din combined Mosul and Aleppo into one Sunni fiefdom. Not coincidentally, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s “debut” as Caliph Ibrahim was in a Ramadan sermon delivered at that mosque in 2014. Zarqawi had said: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.” Dabiq is historical Aleppo. This is why ISIS has named its propaganda rag after it, and why this messianic forecast serves as the frontispiece on every issue. ISIS thus bills itself as the fulfiller of its Jordanian founding father’s dark vision as against that old has-been, Bin Laden, who never ruled an expanse of territory the size of Great Britain.


NOW: One of the more interesting angles you look at early on in the book is the overlap between ISIS’s organizational structure today and the former Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. Could you talk a bit about that?


Weiss: When it looked inevitable that the US would storm into Iraq in 2003, Bin Laden issued a rather curious proclamation advocating that the mujahidin link up with the “socialist infidels” of the country. By the latter, of course, he meant the Baathists who were about to be knocked from the throne. This was savvy because, as Derek Harvey and other US military intelligence officers later discovered, the earliest insurgency wasn’t led by AQI or Zarqawi at all; it was led by Saddamists who were using smuggling and arms networks that had been in place for years.


The Saddamists were only too happy to partner with the jihadists against a common enemy and, indeed, some of the former weren’t terribly “secular” at all. Saddam had inaugurated an Islamic Faith Campaign in the 90s designed to amplify the religiosity of his regime after its stunning defeat in the First Gulf War (this is when “There is no God but Allah” was added to the Baathist Iraqi flag, for instance) but also, and more importantly, to try and blunt or control domestic Islamism so that it would not pose an internal threat to his rule. So it meant to create a Frankenstein hybrid ideology of Baathism and Salafism. The problem was, many Baathists that run through this program eschewed their Baathism and became full-on Salafists. Some of that lot wound up in the insurgency, of course, and then later in Iraqi politics — such as the former parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani.


But even true-blue (or true-red) Baathists had no qualms with an alliance of convenience with the takfiris. Izzat al-Douri, the former VP of Iraq, had a trademark specialty in smuggling cars into the country, for instance — so those cars were easily converted into vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices that could be driven by jihadists into, say, the UN building in Baghdad, which was Zarqawi’s first major operation in Iraq. When ISIS took Mosul in June, Al-Douri’s Naqshbandi Army arguably led the way in creating the favorable conditions in the city which preceded the five-day blitzkrieg.


AQI/ISIS has undergone many changes at the top in its 11-year history. Before his death in 2006, Zarqawi had sought to “Iraqize” what had become a foreign-led franchise, the better to attract Iraqis. The culmination of this new public relations pivot was that many more ex- or recovering Saddamists infiltrated the upper echelons of the organization. Today, it’s hard not to find a former lieutenant colonel or captain in the mukhabarat [intelligence] or Iraqi military residing in ISIS’s shura, military or intelligence councils. Al-Maliki — not the former PM, the former chemical weapons specialist — was just killed by US warplanes, for instance. This accounts for why ISIS operated a level of sophistication a cut above a ragtag peasant insurgency on the battlefield. These are the ghosts of Saddam. It also explains why they’re quite good at propaganda and disinformation. Guess who taught them? The fucking Soviets and the KGB! 


NOW: You also go into depth about the role played by the Syrian regime in the formation of ISIS, which might sound counter-intuitive to readers more accustomed to hearing about, say, Turkish and Gulf Arab states’ culpability. Isn’t Assad supposed to be ISIS’s mortal enemy?


Weiss: Assad’s role in suborning and facilitating Al-Qaeda in Iraq is so well-documented that it beggars belief that anyone in Western policy circles could count him a viable or credible counterterrorist.


The travel agency for the so-called “rat-lines” of jihadists the regime dispatched into Iraq for nearly a decade was actually located across the street from the US Embassy in Damascus. Assad’s intelligence service collaborated with Zarqawi to coordinate the assassination of Laurence Foley, the USAID worker who was killed in Jordan in 2005. Assad hosted Abu Ghadiyeh, a rat-line organizer who was killed by US Special Forces in 2008 in Al-Bukamal, the border town in Syria through which the jihadists poured into Iraq. If you wanted to join the war against the Americans, you flew to Damascus International Airport, linked up with AQI operatives in the capital, and were then ferried to any number of safe houses in the Jazira.


Assef Shawkat, Assad’s dearly departed brother-in-law, was overseeing this effort. This is why a 2008 US Federal Civil Court named both Assad and Shawkat as personally complicit in the beheading of two American contractors in Iraq and issued a half-billion-dollar judgment against the entire nation of Syria for that crime. We interviewed Mohammed Habash, the Syrian MP who ran the de-radicalization program (really more of a pantomime) at Sednaya prison, who told us in no uncertain terms that Abu Qa`qa`, the jihadi cleric who encouraged Muslims to go off and fight the Americans in Iraq, was a mukhabarat-run asset. Martin Chulov in the Guardian has shown recently how the Syrian security services, the Iraqi Baathists and AQI were all working together as recently as 2009 to attack Iraqi state institutions in Baghdad.


The regime has used Al-Qaeda for years to try and strike a deal with the West: “We can blow you up with these guys, or we can work with you to get rid of them — take your pick.” Ali Mamlouk more or less said this to State Department officials in 2009 when the newly-installed Obama administration was looking to cut all manner of deals with nasty regimes in the region. 


Frankly, at this stage, anyone claiming that Assad hasn’t enjoyed a long and destructive relationship with the forbears of ISIS has no business commenting on the subject.


NOW: Similarly, you even find evidence of Iranian cooperation with ISIS’s predecessor, AQI, at some points. What was the extent and significance of that, and how can it be reconciled with Iran’s apparent role today as ISIS’s opponent in Iraq and elsewhere?


Weiss: Zarqawi spent a lot of time in Iran after fleeing Afghanistan, courtesy of the Afghan warlord Gulbudin Hekmayar and no doubt the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). We know he was arrested and released at one point because the Jordanians later confirmed this with the Iranians, but there was also evidence that [IRGC Quds Force commander] Qassem Soleimani and his proxies in Iraq, such as the Mahdi Army, were sharing weapons and explosives with AQI on the premise that any destruction unleashed against American and coalition forces was a good thing. Every single US military officer or military intelligence analyst we interviewed for the book said this collusion was established beyond any dubiety, which is one reason why the failure to assassinate Soleimani, or at least bomb Iran's explosively formed penetrator manufacturing facilities in Mehran, still rankles many senior-level veterans of the war. Asharq al-Awsat went so far as to report in 2004 that Soleimani boasted he had trained Zarqawi and about 20 members of Ansar al-Islam at an IRGC camp in Mehran, and helped the Jordanian conduct suicide bombings.


Even if you don't believe that is true, there is no denying what Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the official ISIS spokesman and a former colleague of Zarqawi, said to Ayman al-Zawahiri as recently as May 2014, which is worth quoting in full:


"The ISIS has kept abiding by the advices and directives of the sheikhs and figures of jihad. This is why the ISIS has not attacked the Rawafid [rejectionists, a term used to describe Shia Muslims] in Iran since its establishment. It has left the Rawafid safe in Iran, held back the outrage of its soldiers, despite its ability, then, to turn Iran into bloodbaths. It has kept its anger all these years and endured accusations of collaboration with its worst enemy, Iran, for refraining from targeting it, leaving the Rawafid there to live in safety, acting upon the orders of al Qaeda to safeguard its interests and supply lines in Iran.


“Yes, it [the ISIS] has held back the outrage of its soldiers and its own anger for years to maintain the unity of the mujahideen in opinion and action.


“Let history record that Iran owes al Qaeda invaluably."


Why would Iran owe Al-Qaeda invaluably unless there was a long history of cooperation and blind eye-turning to AQI's activities? There is also the simple fact that US Treasury has repeatedly sanctioned Iranian figures for their role in facilitating Al-Qaeda operatives. The Treasury sanctioned Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov, whom it named as a head Al-Qaeda facilitator and accused of "overseeing al-Qaeda efforts to transfer experienced operatives and leaders from Pakistan to Syria, organizing and maintaining routes by which new recruits can travel to Syria via Turkey, and assisting in the movement of al-Qaeda external operatives to the West." This designation came down in February 2014, which means that Sadikov must have been helping the organization earlier, when it was still technically a part of ISIS.


Of course, if you're an expert on the Middle East, all of the above is simply impossible because the Islamic Republic would never work with Sunni jihadists, right?


NOW: ISIS was recently driven out of Kobane after months of battle, but analysts still seem divided as to whether the group overall is gaining or losing on the ground. How do you see ISIS’s future prospects? Will the current Coalition campaign, as it is, defeat them? If not, what else needs to be done to ensure a decisive, lasting defeat?


Hassan Hassan: ISIS has suffered a number of significant tactical defeats since the airstrikes began in Iraq and Syria in the summer. But these losses are tactical, not strategic. It is not the first time that ISIS, or its previous incarnations, has suffered similar defeats, or far worse, but it bounced back because the root causes of its rise have never been resolved.


There are reasons to be even more pessimistic this time around. In 2006 and 2007, when Sunni Iraqis rose up against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it was a bottom-up effort that was supported by a heavy American military presence but also by a visibly less sectarian government. Today, the situation is drastically different. There is no American military presence on the ground, and certainly far less appetite to take the fight to ISIS's heartlands. More importantly, ISIS has learned from its past mistakes and has increasingly guarded itself against bottom-up rebellions by embedding deep into Iraqi, and Syrian, society. People in ISIS-held areas might not be deeply divided over the group's ruthlessness and barbarity but they're certainly deeply divided over the wisdom of fighting it. ISIS has given little motivation for people to rise up against it, by following a new model of governance that empowers locals in terms of running their daily affairs as long as they are fully loyal to it. It has also ensured that people are deterred from taking up arms against it through excessive violence, even when it is not seemingly needed.


Around six months after the air campaign started, the group has not faced any real threat in its heartlands; in areas such as Mosul, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, and so on. On the contrary, it has made some advances in those areas, even though it has lost ground in areas outside its sphere of influence, such as in Sinjar and Diyala.


Unless those living under ISIS view their governments as legitimate, the air campaign will remain futile. Even if the international coalition manages to find individuals in those areas willing to join the fight against ISIS, these individuals will be viewed by their communities as mercenaries, not liberators. ISIS will remain the uncontested power in these areas as long as the conflict in Syria and the political stagnation in Iraq are not resolved. And even if they are resolved, the fight will take some time because ISIS is not waiting for such a scenario to take place. It is working on entrenching its presence in these areas and eliminating any potential rivals on the ground, while its enemies are distracted elsewhere.


NOW: Finally, one core question that’s perennially debated about jihadist groups, and has been revived following ISIS’s rise, concerns the so-called ‘root cause’ of the phenomenon. Are they simply ultra-pious religious fundamentalists doing the Lord’s bidding? Are they downtrodden victims of historic injustices, motivated by poverty and despair? Are they, as London Mayor Boris Johnson claimed recently, sexually-repressed losers on a power trip? What have you concluded after examining them up close?


Hassan: ISIS is a product of many ingredients. People are drawn to ISIS for a variety of factors. The political context in Syria and Iraq is one of those factors. The Assad regime's extreme violence for nearly four years has led even secular individuals to join jihadist groups, including ISIS. Such people often join groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra or other Islamist groups, but the violence, injustices and chaos have set the scene and created the perfect conditions for ISIS to grow and flourish.


The same goes for Iraq. In research for the book, we have found nearly half a dozen distinct factors that lead people to ISIS. Some people drift toward ISIS because of its political project, rather than its ideology. Others join it because it is effective militarily or in terms of governance. Ideology is one of the key drivers. Young zealots and longstanding radicals are crucial for ISIS, even if they are only two categories among several, because they formulate the group's identity and ensure its resilience. Young and ultra-radical members dominate the group's rank and file and its top leadership. The motives of many of the group's members would take them to any cult or criminal organization, but it is important to not exaggerate the role they play within the organization. ISIS still has to justify its acts through Islamic fundamentalism and all members have to comply with it, and the components that steer the group and shape its acts are those who profoundly believe in its project and ethos. 


ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, was released as a Kindle eBook in January 2015. The paperback version will be released on 17 February. It can be purchased here.

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by NOW columnist Michael Weiss and Delma Institute analyst Hassan Hassan. (Image courtesy of Regan Arts)

Assad’s role in suborning and facilitating Al-Qaeda in Iraq is so well-documented that it beggars belief that anyone in Western policy circles could count him a viable or credible counterterrorist.”