Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Andrew Hosken, Baghdad, Book review., Books, Daesh, Democracy, Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State, Enlightenment, Fall of Mosul, History, Ideology, Iraq, Iraq War, ISIS, Islamic State, Jihadism, Mosul, Nationalism, Opinion, Paul Bremer, Politics, Sunni-Shia Conflict, Syrian Refugees, Totalitarianism
Over a billion pounds of UK international aid is now going to alleviate the suffering of Syrian refugees, and the government is as proud of this as a cat of her whiskers. But David Cameron implies that our “moral responsibility” to help Syrian refugees has been voluntarily assumed, or that it is incumbent upon any decent clubbable nation, rather than being a responsibility which the UK has no feasible hope of wriggling out of. Andrew Hosken’s new book Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State suggests that the UK’s feelings towards Syria should be not so much those of responsibility as of guilt. The masses which are pouring across Europe are, in effect, our guilty little secret.
Empire of Fear details how consecutive UK foreign policy missteps have contributed to the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS). It is already hideously evident that the UK has destabilised Syria, by continually promising to intervene in its civil war and hence prolonging a doomed insurgency beyond its natural life. After U-turning with a screech, we are now totally dependent upon the vicious, vengeful regime which we had originally opposed, to contain the insurgents who we had originally supported. Yet Hosken’s analysis points to a profounder culpability of Western governments in the earlier arena of Iraq. He demonstrates that if Iraq had been governed with even a minimum of competence during the first months of the 2003 US-led occupation, then it might have never begun its journey towards violent sectarianism and de facto partition.
Paul Bremer and Donald Rumsfeld, respectively the head of the occupying forces in Iraq and the US Secretary of Defense, are now living peacefully in retirement. Thousands of Iraqis who were devastatingly injured or lost their loved ones in car bombs, on the other hand, are so far yet to publish their memoirs. Of course, President George W. Bush was nominally responsible for the Coalition Provisional Authority, but Bremer was there on the ground and taking all of its extraordinary decisions. He banned senior members of the previously ruling Ba’ath Party from holding office in his new Iraq. This was comparable to an incoming UK government announcing that nobody with a degree from a leading university can work in the public sector. In the ensuing havoc, 40,000 teachers were driven out of their jobs. Next, Bremer fired Saddam Hussein’s entire army, including 1,100 generals and 385,000 military personnel. In Bremer’s limited mind, it was presumably thought that this sea of furious armed men would go home to tend their gardens.
The figure on the cover of this book, a ninja assassin with a RPG launcher, had been undoubtedly trained under Saddam. But let us linger over presentational issues for a minute. When you first handle Empire of Fear, it looks like hackwork. With its thriller title and a bad-guy militant on the cover, it resembles a novel by Andy McNab. It seems determined to be eye-catching in a busy airport. Once you have settled down with this book, though, you find that it possesses the easy intelligibility of a well-thumbed history textbook. The story of IS advances in clear logical steps, without clunky pauses for melodrama or righteous indignation, and there is always a kind of cleanness to the analysis.
Hosken is a BBC reporter and his book was published in July. A wave of new books has been released this year about IS by Patrick Cockburn (February), Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan (February), Jessica Stern and JM Berger (March), Abdel Bari Atwan (May) and Jean-Pierre Filiu (July). There are perhaps so many books in IS at the moment due to the paucity of penetrating journalism about the organisation, most notably during its prairie-fire takeover of Northern Iraq in June 2014. It is, of course, impossible to be embedded within IS, or even for journalists to be able to observe the movement from a safe distance. Such is the inadequacy of the mass media’s coverage, however, that these practical difficulties still come across, in the end, as rather like fortunate excuses.
Hosken recounts how news “from and about Iraq had long slipstreamed past the stories many felt should be important and instead had become a sort of spam narrative that could be safely dumped into a folder marked “things that no longer need concern us.”” The jihadists’ vast new state had only seemed to pounce out of hitherto innocuous expanses of desert because none of the necessary narrative groundwork had been done. The context of collapsing Iraqi state institutions, the plundering and sectarian sundering, had never been properly communicated to bewildered Westerners.
The examples which Hosken gives of “stories many felt should be important” include news from Ukraine and Libya, but I am inclined to be more damning. With advertising revenue being steadily transferred from newspapers to the online media, which is more democratic and tends to be orientated more around its customers’ preferences, the media’s disconnectedness from Iraq may have simply confirmed the priorities of an increasingly self-centred, consumerist society. If you’re currently interested in Scottish independence, well you’re going to read a lot about Scottish independence. The Sunni insurgency is rarely a talking point in UK supermarkets or at UK bus stops. And whilst the groaning old media may be closing its expensive and sometimes dangerous foreign bureaux, it is at least faithfully reflecting the boredom of its consumers with complicated international stories. The Media Standards Trust reported in 2010 that international stories in the UK media had fallen by 39% over the last thirty years.
Still, the mass media’s disengagement from Iraq also corresponded with, and was no doubt influenced by, a desire by Western governments to disengage. The media’s failure to anticipate the fall of Mosul in 2014 continued the same underestimation of sectarianism which had characterised their coverage before and after the 2003 invasion. Of course, it is always better to smooth over the subject of sectarianism, as if it was merely unhelpful local detail, or the familiar theme tune of excitable natives. In the same way that it does not do to point out that IS is basically Saddam’s political afterlife, with his old cronies and henchmen swarming across Sunni Iraq and seizing it back from the US-led occupiers. To acknowledge this would be to skirt perilously close to the notion that we and our allies might have been militarily defeated.
Perhaps a general atmosphere of positive thinking and self-delusion had led to the initial invisibility of the Sunni insurgency within US planning, an intelligence failure which completely dwarfs the earlier misreporting about Iraqi WMDs in its repercussions. I do not envy those whose job it is to justify the CIA’s reported $14.7bn budget following the fall of Mosul last year. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Martin Dempsey consequently admitted that the Pentagon had possessed no contingency plans for Mosul’s capture. Mosul is, it should be noted, the third largest city in a nation which the US will have eventually spent about $6 trillion invading and reconstructing (once the benefits to war veterans are factored in).
These Western intelligence failures have been of such a magnitude that they essentially discredit any case which we might have for going to war again. How can we intervene in Northern Iraq when we have so abundantly advertised our lack of the most basic knowledge about its society and culture? And this in a country which the US and its allies are meant to have rebuilt from top to bottom!
Nonetheless, Empire of Fear makes it clear that IS needs to be eradicated, not just militarily but as a concept. This is certainly a book which will give you nightmares. IS is like a horror movie extravaganza and nobody who is watching can change the channel. But what arises ultimately from this book, possibly as your prime emotional response, is exasperation at the sheer, maddening effrontery of IS.
It is all effrontery! Hosken illustrates this when juxtaposing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s fondness for football as a student with his organisation’s machine-gunning of thirteen teenagers in Mosul in January 2015 for watching an Asian Cup match on television. There is the effrontery of IS throwing homosexuals off buildings for supposed moral transgressions when half of IS appears to be little more than a paedophile ring (though the relevant IS pamphlet recommends that its readers “enjoy” pre-pubescent sex slaves “without intercourse”). There is the effrontery of the Jewish population of Baghdad being now down to single figures, when the Prophet’s own Constitution of Medina (622) had decided that Jews constitute “a community among the believers” and guaranteed them “religious freedom.” There is the effrontery of the pretense that IS is a medieval “caliphate” when it is recognisably just the same old soggy nineteenth-century nationalism, in this instance Sunni nationalism. There is the effrontery of al-Baghdadi declaring himself the “caliph” of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims and, in doing so, harking back to a Golden Age when Baghdad had been a world capital of science and medicine. You might have noticed that IS do not have much to say about mapping the human genome or stem cell research. There is the effrontery of kidnapping people with Down’s syndrome and using them as suicide bombers. There is the effrontery of IS spending a staggering $61.5 million on plastic explosives in 2013 (Hosken devotes a whole fascinating chapter to this) when this money could have gone some way to benefiting the lives of all those poor sods who would later live under their wretched “caliphate.”
Why don’t people rise up? How can they put up with day after day of the most fatuous, gratuitous insults to their intelligence?
It is the effrontery of totalitarianism. Empire of Fear shows that a gallery of uneducated thugs had led IS through its different stages of development, without any real political or even jihadist idealism. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a former pimp, concocted the most efficient formula for winning power: a heady mixture of sectarianism and psychopathic terror. This book comically casts Bin Laden and al-Qaeda as dithering moderates who are dismayed by Zarqawi’s extremism. Yet everything about IS, all of its effrontery, is just an exhibition of unconstrained power, a power which remains wilfully impervious to reason. If IS was preceded by any kind of Prophet, it is George Orwell’s character O’Brien: “Power is not a means, it is an end… The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
Hosken’s analysis appears to warn that all of this effrontery must be ended in Baghdad rather than in Mosul. It must not involve merely a US-led pastoral bombing frolic against scuttling jihadists, but a fight by Iraqis themselves for a modern, secular state. Tychy was never a supporter of the 2003 invasion, though it is today apparent that this intervention was always more about fighting tyranny (or engineering a less tyrannical client state) than about pushing for a democratic renaissance in Iraq. At times in this book the US even appears to be reversing democracy, such as when the Iraqi-American spad Ali Khedery recounts how, “From President Bush on downwards, it was decided that Jaafari could not return as prime minister after the election.” This supervision was not obviously compatible with the democracy which was meant to be thriving under its aegis.
When Northern Iraq fell to IS, its overwhelmingly Sunni regions had been neglected for years anyway. The nation’s spoils were distributed in Baghdad and the Sunni heartlands were to all intents and purposes locked out of the new Shia-dominated Iraq. There seems to have been no great sense of cultural trauma at losing Mosul, more an annoying dent to a Shia nation’s prestige. Moreover, the ruling elite in Baghdad occasionally appears to be only a variation upon the spivs and adventurers who are fronting IS. In the Iraqi army, senior positions were flogged off to officers who then profited from pocketing the wages of their purchased troops, real or fictional. Hosken reckons that a percentage of the troops who melted away from Mosul had never existed to begin with.
I have been always mildly uncomfortable with the fuss which has been made over IS. Comparable groups such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab are viewed in the Western media as being naturally endemic to backward African nations. They have not captured the Western imagination in the same way as IS. But Empire of Fear puts something of a conceptual lid upon IS and its Sunni nationalism. They emerge as geographically contained, unable to realistically capture Baghdad and unlikely to expand anywhere else. Empire of Fear reassures us that IS can only survive by leeching off a malfunctioning modern state and reacting to its corruption and injustice. IS cannot invent new technology or cure terrible diseases or enrich people or provide anybody other than severed-head fondling perverts with a better future. Defeating IS will require a renewed faith in human progress, along with the recognition that everything else is just idolatry.