Isis: the State of Terror - The rise of the fanatics that now control Isil
The world woke up to Isil last summer, but the movement can be traced back 10 years. David Blair examines two new histories of the origin of Isil
Published 12/04/2015 | 02:30
The first rib-shaking explosion shattered the windows of central Baghdad at precisely 1.10pm. Then came a second thunderous blast, closely followed by a third. Over the next 20 minutes, squads of suicide bombers and gunmen converged on the Iraqi justice ministry. Some launched diversionary attacks designed to draw off and kill the guards; others immolated themselves beside the building's perimeter defences, aiming to clear the way for a fast-approaching car bomb.
This mobile instrument of destruction raced through gaping checkpoints to detonate right beside the ministry. There was an element of diabolical genius to this assault on a heavily-defended target on March 14, 2013. Like all Iraqi government buildings, the justice ministry lay behind ring upon ring of concrete blast-walls and checkpoints.
Yet the attackers were more than equal to the challenge. Schooled by almost a decade of combat against US forces, the terrorists of Baghdad had probably become the best in the world.
A few days later, a group then known as the Islamic State of Iraq - or ISI - claimed responsibility for wrecking the justice ministry. Later, ISI added the letter "S" for Syria - or "L" for Levant - and became Isis or Isil, the terrorist movement which captured thousands of square miles of Iraq and Syria during a lightning offensive last summer.
As someone who reported on this early Isil operation, I was not surprised by the professionalism they showed as their Blitzkrieg unfolded along the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. Nine months after this atavistic movement proclaimed the birth of an Islamic "caliphate", the first books about Isil are now appearing.
Jessica Stern and JM Berger have produced a clear and succinct account of the rise of the fanatics in Isis: the State of Terror. You might be forgiven for believing that Isil arose from nowhere in the sands of Iraq and Syria. "The world awakened to the threat of Isil in the summer of 2014, but that is not where the story begins," write the authors.
Stern and Berger believe that Isil "emerged from the mind" of a street thug from the Jordanian city of Zarqa, who called himself Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
After a career as a petty criminal, he arrived in Afghanistan in 1989 - at the right moment to fight his fellow Muslims in the Afghan civil war which followed the Soviet departure.
Zarqawi then returned to his native Jordan only to be jailed for trying - and failing - to carry out a string of terrorist attacks. After leaving prison, he returned to Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden gave him command of an al-Qaeda training camp. Then came September 11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Like other al-Qaeda commanders, Zarqawi fled westwards into Iran.
By 2002, an Anglo-American invasion of Iraq seemed inevitable. Sensing an opportunity, Iran allowed Zarqawi to travel across its territory and enter northern Iraq in late 2002. Just as the Kaiser's Germany transported Lenin from Switzerland to Russia in 1917 - delivering him "like a plague bacillus", in Churchill's phrase - so Iran conveyed the virus represented by Zarqawi to Iraq.
The Shia rulers of Iran are natural opponents of al-Qaeda's Sunni zealots, but the evidence suggests that the two have sometimes been tactical - if mistrustful - allies against a common Western enemy. So it was that al-Qaeda's plague had arrived in Saddam Hussein's domain, courtesy of Iran, even before the invasion. By the time that American and British tanks rolled across the Iraqi frontier in 2003, Zarqawi was already in position to organise an insurgency. Later that year, he proclaimed the birth of "al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers".
When in 2004 his men captured Nicholas Berg, an American contractor, Zarqawi personally beheaded the hostage on camera and pioneered the depraved online videos that would later become an Isis hallmark.
From 2005 onwards, he set out to kill as many Iraqi Shias as possible - a bitter irony given that Zarqawi owed his very presence in Iraq to the indulgence of Shia Iran. He sent suicide bombers to kill hundreds of Shia pilgrims converging on the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala; later, he bombed the golden dome of the sacred Askari shrine in the town of Samarra. This wanton slaughter of the Shia earned Zarqawi a furious rebuke from Ayman al-Zawahiri, then bin Laden's deputy and now the leader of al-Qaeda.
Zarqawi ignored this warning and broke away from al-Qaeda. He continued a frenzied slaughter of the Shias until his death in a US airstrike in 2006.
The key to Isil is to grasp how the movement arose from this split within al-Qaeda. Bin Laden and his followers strained every sinew to strike the "far enemy", namely America and the West; Zarqawi, by contrast, was obsessed with killing the "near enemy" represented by the Shia. Bin Laden used wanton violence in a way that he hoped the wider Muslim "Umma", or nation, would be willing to support. Zarqawi saw bloodshed as an end in itself and believed that a promise of limitless killing would win sufficient recruits. Bin Laden ran al-Qaeda as a secret society comprised of autonomous cells; Zarqawi was willing to accept almost any Sunni into his command, provided they had no qualms about atrocities.
Today's Isil represents the apogee of Zarqawi's model of terrorism. Its central goal is the extermination or enslavement of anyone who happens not to be a Sunni Muslim - and of any Sunnis who are seen to have deviated from the true faith.
The new twist is that Isil now rules an "Islamic State" which could serve as a prototype for the world that Zarqawi wanted to create - or a "demented Utopia", in Stern and Berger's phrase. Within its domain, Isil flaunts its willingness to commit genocide, revels in re-imposing slavery, and openly sets out to reverse just about every facet of human progress achieved since the Prophet's era in the seventh century.
The wonder is that Zarqawi has been vindicated: it turns out that his vision of millennial slaughter can attract some Muslim support, particularly among diaspora communities in the West.
In Isis: Inside the Army of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan demonstrate how Syria's civil war gave Isis its crucial opportunity. Until 2012, Zarqawi's successors were running a marginal movement confined to a small area of central Iraq. When Bashar al-Assad faced a rebellion, he immediately denounced his enemies as radical Islamists and presented himself as the only bulwark against their advance. Then he set out to make his claim come true.
Weiss and Hassan name three Isil commanders who were carefully released from Assad's prisons in order to ensure that the dictator's enemies were indeed dangerous Islamists. They detail how Assad allowed Isil to penetrate Syria almost unopposed, whereupon the non-Islamist rebels were ground to dust between the two millstones represented by the dictator and the terrorists.
Weiss and Hassan go so far as to call Isil "Assad's proxy".
A witches' brew of pitiless civil war and a flailing tyrant have given birth to Isil. If you want to understand how this calamity has come about, these concise and informative books provide an essential grounding.
©The Daily Telegraph