In January 2014 the self-described Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, shocked the world by capturing Fallujah, bringing its ragtag army of 10,000 men within 50 miles from Baghdad. Awe followed in June of that year as ISIS, swollen to some 30,000 fighters, raced virtually unimpeded into Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
Alexander the Great traversed this terrain, too, in 331 BC, defeating the Persians in a great battle near modern day Mosul. He had more than twice as many men under arms as ISIS, but the latter took the city in a cakewalk as the defending Iraqi army melted away, leaving much of their American-supplied weaponry behind.
The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, grandly proclaimed himself to be the caliph of a new Muslim caliphate that his forces had carved out of Syria and Iraq. The caliphate Baghdadi claimed was roughly the size of Great Britain, with a population of six million. His ultimate goal, however, was much more ambitious. Baghdadi envisioned a huge swath of territory, stretching across three continents, populated by most of the world’s Muslims.
There was only one minor glitch in Baghdadi's grass roots military and public relations triumph: He was seen sporting a wickedly expensive watch, undoubtedly fashioned by infidels.
In Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State veteran BBC correspondent Andrew Hosken ably chronicles and thoroughly documents the rise of ISIS and its leaders – as well as explaining how the group managed, in a few short months, to threaten everything Americans and others fought and paid dearly to establish in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. The author draws on his experience covering 9/11, the terrorist bombings in London in 2007, and various conflicts in the Middle East.
Hosken follows the murky history of this virulent terrorist organization all the way back to Afghanistan in 1999, where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was in charge of a terrorist training camp, rubbing elbows with Osama bin Laden.
In 2003 Zarqawi, a Jordanian and a Sunni Muslim like bin Laden, brought the Al-Qaeda brand to Iraq, where he and his followers committed mass mayhem and exacerbated the country’s already widening gulf between Sunni and Shia Moslems. Indeed, Zarqawi's ferocious drive to exterminate all Shias for their alleged perversion of Islam soon gave pause to bin Laden.
Zarqawi was killed in 2006. His successors broke with al-Qaeda and morphed through various names to become known as ISIS. What hasn’t changed is the group’s truly astounding devotion to massacring their enemies, prisoners, and innocents alike in the most fiendish ways imaginable. As extremist practitioners of jihad they have no peers, as yet anyway. They revel in multiple genocides and seem determined to carry them out to the final atrocity. It's hard to say who they will turn on next. As Hosken notes, they have already started fighting with other jihadi groups like Nusra.
Hosken does not flinch from describing the various manifestations of what seem to be pure evil. But what he (and perhaps no one) has explained adequately as yet, is the source of such relentless malevolence. Hosken quotes a scholar who sums it up this way: “ISIS is a very desperate insane response to a very deep crisis.” All right as far as it goes, but words seem to pale in the face of such fanaticism.
Early on the author unravels the mystery of how such people could be so successful seemingly out of the blue: “This caliphate had been helped into being by a toxic combination of factors. These included the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the bungled occupation of the country, along with the Syrian Civil War, rampant corruption, particularly in the [Iraqi] army, the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims both in Iraq and Syria ,and the failure of Iraq’s predominantly Shia-led government to behave fairly and sensibly toward the country’s desperate Sunni minority.”
This leaves but one mystery: What is the world to do in the places that spawn such people, who, like children, seem adept at tearing things down rather than building them up? This is where things get vague. Hosken agrees toward the end with Iraqi politicians who say their war is not theirs alone, and indeed American warplanes and those of the United Kingdom and other nations have been bombing ISIS right along.
He then goes on to make a very sensible statement: Unless the underlying problems in the region (including governance) are addressed, bombs and drones and even boots on the ground will not suffice. As long as conditions remain unchanged, the strange brew of injustice, sectarianism, authoritarianism, and economic misery will continue to produce monsters like the murderous combatants Zarqawi and Baghdadi.
The ISIS juggernaut has stalled and even been pushed back recently, and it is no longer seen as invincible. The days of easy victories are over. Its very nature isn’t geared to winning many friends or allies, either inside or outside of its empire.
But that's not to say that the world should breath a sigh of relief. Hosken ends his book with a chilling message from counterinsurgency expert Dr. David Kilcullen: “ISIS may eventually be destroyed but don’t imagine something worse cannot come along and take its place.”
After all, until quite recently most people thought al-Qaeda was the worst thing imaginable.