In the media haze of information and mis-information that proliferates about the conflicts that continue to rage throughout Iraq and Syria, there is one word that has emerged over the past year as a terrifying symptom of the Middle Eastern malaise: “Da’esh”. The Arabic term for the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) that stretches across vast swathes of Syria and Iraq, it is a word that has struck fear into the heart of many, and precipitated a splurge of new reports, articles, books, analyses and lay speculation about the origins of the radical Islamist group and the likely ripple effects of its territorial and ideological takeover of the Middle East.
One of the first, and nominally more credible, books to emerge out of the ISIS media frenzy is that written by Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for the Independent and one of the few Western journalists (along with other household names in Middle East reporting such as Robert Fisk) who still maintains the capacity to provide in depth and on the ground reporting from the region. The Rise of Islamic State, published by Verso in January 2015, was eagerly anticipated by journalists and analysts alike as a window into the inner workings of this shadowy organisation and an opportunity to understand how it was able to be formed and develop from the ashes of the Iraq war and Syrian conflict.
And indeed, on a superficial level at least, this is exactly what the book delivers. Consisting of more of a collection of anecdotes and reportages than any actual analysis or argument, the book chronicles the various ins and outs of the Syrian revolution, and how a combination of political, social, economic and military factors laid the groundwork for the emergence of the group now known as Islamic State. The overall effect is of a hodgepodge of disparate facts and figures that tend to dwell too much on the minutiae of the current conflicts, rather than the deep historical, sociological and political roots from which they stem.
Despite Cockburn’s commendable attention to detail and well-researched picture of the facts on the ground, his myopic vision of history (in which the enduring legacies of the shadow states built under Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez Al-Assad in Syrian are all but excluded from his narrative) and his tendency towards sweeping generalisations (such as his usage of the terms “Sunni” and “Shia” as if such homogeneous and discrete groups of individuals existed labouring under a posited sectarian collective consciousness) serve to undermine much of his attempts at nuance. As a seasoned journalist who is often critical of the mainstream press – indeed, one of the chapters of the book itself is ironically titled “If It Bleeds It Leads”, an underhand jab at the attention-seeking of the corporate media – it is a shame to see Cockburn himself fall into re-hashing tired stereotypes and fear-mongering rather than his usual balanced and informed reporting.
A further limitation of the book, beyond its sensationalised account of the “terrifying state” that is “fast becoming an established geographic and political fact on the map”, is that many of its facts and predictions are simply out of date. Written at the end of 2014, when the advancement of ISIS forces across the region seemed unstoppable, and before the recapture of Kobani and Tikrit (and soon, potentially, of Mosul and Ramadi),the the pessimism and cynicism of many of Cockburn’s forecasts already seems dated. Although it would be a long stretch to say that ISIS has been defeated – as Cockburn says himself, groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda are “an idea more than an organisation”, and as such difficult to eradicate by military means alone – the bleak picture he paints in the book of a new Middle East order governed by extremism and anarchy may be some time in coming yet.
Where Cockburn comes into his own, however, is in his criticism of US policy towards the region, and especially the complicity of Western states in the continued recruitment and funding of extremist organisations and movements by state players such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
“The key decisions that allowed Al-Qaeda to survive, and later to expand, were made in the hours immediately after 9/11. Almost every significant element in the project to crash planes into the Twin Towers and other significant American buildings led back to Saudi Arabia… Yet President George W. Bush apparently never even considered holding the Saudis responsible for what happened.”
His detailed description of the intricacies of he political game played between the US and its regional allies, and the devastating consequences this has had on the people and governments of the Middle East as a whole, is particularly compelling. Cockburn does not mince words when he charts the repeated failures of Western countries to hold Saudi Arabia and Pakistan accountable for both countries funding and arming of radical groups because “these countries were important allies… Saudi Arabia is an enormous market for American arms, and the Saudis have cultivated, and on occasion purchased, influential members of the American political establishment.”
Although Cockburn’s charting of the murky political and economic waters running between the West and its regional allies is welcome, and certainly goes some way into explaining the continued rise of Al-Qaeda and similar organisations, it does not necessarily explain the rise of ISIS per se. Throughout much of the book, Cockburn seems to draw few distinguishing lines between ISIS and other Al-Qaeda affiliated organisations such as Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria; his analysis of the survival and expansion of Al-Qaeda after 9/11 seems almost to assume that ISIS can be explained through the same mechanisms. This is where he is wrong.
Unlike Al-Qaeda before it, ISIS is a new and peculiar phenomenon in global Islamism in that its specific military and civic aims are to establish a territorial state. Although Cockburn does acknowledge the statist aspirations of the organisation, and even comments that its territorial expansion is a marker of its success, he fails to grasp the true implications of the material and economic impact of such a state, and its associated strategic weaknesses.
In this sense, what has made ISIS strong also has the potential, if manipulated in the right way, to make it weak. This is what Cockburn misses when he says that “air strikes are problematically effective because ISIS operates as a guerrilla army without easily visible movements of personnel or equipment that can be targeted.” This may be true on the battlefield, but not in the areas in which ISIS maintains full control. In particular, the trade and supply networks utilised by the movement to secure resources such as food, oil, water, arms and medical supplies are extremely vulnerable to attack. As Cockburn himself notes, much of the success of ISIS on the ground in Iraq has been the result of the tacit consent of the local population, who see the movement as a more efficient, and therefore more acceptable, alternative to the corrupt Shia-led government. For this reason, ISIS is more akin to a rentier state (or a “rentier caliphate”, as Charles Tripp, professor of Politics at SOAS, University of London, would have it) than the all-encompassing ideologically-driven death-cult that Cockburn would have us believe.
The Rise of Islamic State provides a fascinating and detailed account of the various conflicts and developments leading up to and beyond the ISIS capturing of Mosul in June 2014. But these facts are often reeled off, newscast-style, with little depth or analysis provided. The overall impression is of a hastily written monologue cobbled together in order to catch the wave of public interest in all things “Da’esh”. More shame that such an eminent journalist as Patrick Cockburn felt inclined to join the ISIS tide.