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The English and their History

Anthony McRoy

Inside ISIS: The brutal rise of a terrorist army

Benjamin Hall

Center Street, 278pp

Hall describes himself as a freelance journalist, and the character and tone of this book reflects this. As he states, his aim 'rather than to be analytical, is to take you inside ISIS...' There are strengths in such a position - a journalistic piece is often more engaging than an academic tome. On the other hand, an academic study allows for an objective analysis of a question, leaving it to the reader to come to his own judgments. Further, the danger with an opinion piece is that the work can leap to questionable conclusions, engage in exaggerated assertions, and ignore contrary evidence. This is certainly the danger with this book, since in his note he refers to 'think tanks, intelligence services, governmental papers' among his sources, and presumably among the first-mentioned lists includes a number of U.S. rightwing bodies - but no left-wing groups. This immediately raises questions of balance, if not bias - as would be true if someone from the left of the spectrum based his work on like-minded bodies, to the exclusion of groups from the right. Indeed, a persistent theme of the book is to criticise President Obama's reaction to the rise of ISIS, whilst lauding those like Senator McCain, for example, 'Obama's policy of strategic disengagement has led the Middle East to a tipping point...', but lauding McCain and Lyndsey Graham for saying that in order to defeat ISIS, one must defeat Assad, without considering whether this is a serious option or even a contradiction, given the realities on the ground. Certainly, his suggestion for fighting ISIS seems rather simplistic and frankly unworkable. Hall's proposal involves 'supplying vetted opposition groups on the fringes of Syria' - yet As Patrick Cockburn pointed out in his book The Rise of Islamic State in regard to such groups, ISIS members 'say they are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind, because they can always get the arms off them by threats of force or cash payments.' With the exception of Kurdish groups, there is nothing to suggest that the same would not continue to happen. Furthermore, the whole aim of 'opposition groups' is to 'oppose' Assad; Hall's plan would see them fight on two fronts against distinct foes who have usually beaten them. Would not Assad largely sit back whilst IS and the other groups slaughtered each other, and then close in for the kill? Other problems with this book include the comment from US General Dempsey: 'We gave Iraq a chance... they failed that opportunity'. Rather, was it not the illegal invasion of Iraq that allowed Al-Qaida, from which ISIS emerged, the 'opportunity' to gain a stake among the Sunnis? Hall notes that 'Maliki's Shia had control...' - of course, since they were the majority - it was the inevitable outcome of democracy. Whether they used that control wisely is another matter. He berates Obama for disengaging from Iraq - yet this was surely the democratic will of most war-weary Americans (to say nothing of Iraqis). Further, Hall does not properly consider what both Russia and Iran might do if America were to fully attack their ally Assad. He believes a US campaign would lead to Iran abandoning Assad, yet supplies no evidence for this, let alone considering Moscow's possible response. This is not to say that there are not some valuable points in this book. For example, his frequent comments on the corruption that characterises the Iraqi army and Syrian opposition groups, and even the Iraqi Kurds, whereas ISIS have been careful not to fall into this trap - which has helped to boost their appeal. His chapter on the indoctrination of children in the Caliphate reads like a page from 1984, with children denouncing their parents. Frankly, this is chilling. Chapter Two 'The Caliph' on Baghdadi himself is also very informative, telling us about his background and rise to power, although here - as elsewhere - Hall could have benefitted from some help from Islamics specialists. Hall states 'all Caliph's (sic) must descend' from Muhammad's Quraish tribe, which is not necessarily the case - it depends on which school of Shari'ah one follows. Again, whilst stating that Baghdadi bases his claim on having 'a population under his control' among other things, Hall objects that 'most of this population was subjugated' and indicates that Baghdadi sees this as irrelevant - but the Hadith contains a tradition where Muhammad states: 'I have been commanded to fight against people so long as they do not declare that there is no god but Allah ...' It can be seen how ISIS can utilise this tradition. Another example of where Hall could use the aid of an Islamics expert is when in his otherwise informative, though shocking eighth chapter, he claims that an ISIS document, listing the names of women with whom they will sleep, is 'at odds with the supposed piety of the fighters' - ignoring that ISIS have taken texts from the Qur'an and Hadith allowing sex with women their 'right hand possesses' to justify such. He also confuses the Shia practice of temporary marriage known as Mut'ah or Sighe with an analogous practice by ISIS. He is on stronger grounds when he quotes Dabiq, the IS publication which outlines its theological justification for enslaving Yezidis. It is not gratuitous when he shares the nightmare these Yezidi girls are now facing - gang-rape. One can only hope that when ISIS are finally vanquished, those involved in these outrages will face war crimes trials, and that their victims will be able to recover from their terrible ordeal