Ingram, Haroro, Whiteside, Craig & Winter, Charlie, The ISIS Reader, Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement, Oxford, New York, Auckland, Cape Town, Dar es Salaam, Hong Kong, Karachi, Kuala Lumpuer, Madrid, Melbourne, Mexico City, Nairobi, New Dehli, Shanghai, Taipei, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2020
The ISIS Reader, Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement attempts to use primary sources from the Islamic State to document the group’s main features. According to authors Haroro Ingram, Craig Whiteside and Charlie Winter those are a strategic vision of what it wants and how to achieve it, the ability to reflect and learn from its experiences, pragmatism rather than being dogmatic, and emphasizing propaganda as being as important as armed struggle. The book uses a mix of speeches, statements, video recordings, etc. starting from Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in 1994 all the way to the last speech by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2019 to present IS’s ideas in its own words followed by analysis. In doing so, The ISIS Reader argues that the Islamic State both maintained its major ideas and goals while being able to adapt to both its successes and failures.
The authors picked several important texts to highlight the fact that the Islamic State and its leaders always had a strategic view. The opening document, a speech by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in April 1994 when he was being sentenced to prison in Jordan is an example of how the group’s first leader laid out some of the main ideas that would last until the present day. Zarqawi called democracy and Arab governments corrupt and attacks upon Islam. He declared it was a religious duty to resist such unjust systems. Zarqawi’s goal was to overthrow the Arab regimes rather than attack Europe or America. A letter to Al Qaeda a decade later when he was in Iraq laid out his plan for that country. He wrote that he expected the U.S. to eventually leave so the real enemy was the Iraqi state and specifically the Shiites that ran it. To Zarqawi Shiites were the worst offenders in the world as he considered their sect an affront to Islam and called them collaborators with the crusaders, i.e. America. Zarqawi’s plan was to unleash unrelating and extreme violence upon the Shiites to provoke them into a sectarian civil war. He hoped that would force the country’s Sunnis to join him. Zarqawi therefore saw violence as a means to a political end of mobilizing Sunnis. The idea of winning over the population would become a mainstay of the organization. The Fallujah Memorandum for example that was released in 2010 after the group had been defeated at the hands of the Awakening, sahwa and American Surge laid down how the group had to win back the tribes so that it might have a base again. This strategy would prove highly effective as IS was able to start a civil war in Iraq, be beaten, and then rise again, seize territory in two countries and establish its caliphate. Now that the group is down again, it still holds onto this long view that it can make a comeback by holding onto its principles. By providing a range of documents over the length of the group’s existence and even beforehand, The ISIS Reader allows people to see how IS always had a vision and was deeply into planning. As one IS document said, those that plan ahead would win, and that’s exactly what the Islamic State tried to do.
At the same time, the Islamic State proved highly pragmatic, analytic and showed the ability to learn from its mistakes. After the Awakening and sahwa for instance, IS tried to break down why tribes had turned on it. That would then inform a new strategy to counter those two forces. The group would form its own tribal outreach program offering carrots and sticks to win back the sheikhs while relying upon the U.S. to leave which would eventually lead to the end of the Awakening/sahwa. That was an example of how IS was a learning organization. It took a licking from the Awakening and sahwa, analyzed what it did wrong and what the tribal mobilization did right, and then sought to adapt that tactic itself. It wasn’t going to stick to its doctrine if it wasn’t working. It adapted. IS also wasn’t scared to admit that it had faced losses. In several documents it admitted that it had been defeated, but that didn’t mean it was going to give up. That’s a glimpse into why and how the organization was able to revive itself from its nadir after the Surge and rise to its highest accomplishment in 2014. It also points out that even though the group is beaten down once again, it is probably going through a lessons learned process and plotting its return. One of the Islamic State’s catchphrases afterall is that it will remain. The book has a good selection of sources to show IS’s pragmatic side. That also counters much of the media coverage that portrayed the group as fanatics or a death cult. That relates back to the first point as well that IS always had a strategy, but was flexible about how to implement it.
The ISIS Reader is a very important book for those interested in the Islamic State. It provides a breadth of coverage of the group from before it was even formed up to its latest defeat. The selections are well made to show the continuity and change within its strategy and tactics. That highlights IS’s strengths which have allowed it to survive for so long. The primary sources are focused upon those issues so it doesn’t include everything involved with the group such as administration or its takes on Islamic jurisprudence. People can only understand a group by listening to what it says, and that’s what the documents included in the book do. It also dispels some of the myths and misrepresentations about it, and there are many of those. It’s also a warning that the Islamic State might be down right now, but it can’t be counted out and studying its strategy and doctrine is necessary to try to counter its rise again.
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