Book review: The Rise of Islamic State

A JOURNALIST is ideally qualified to study how the media has played into the hands of Islamic State

French Isis convert Abu Osama al-Faranci. Picture: Contributed
French Isis convert Abu Osama al-Faranci. Picture: Contributed

The Rise of Islamic State: Isis And The New Sunni Revolution

Patrick Cockburn

Verso, £9.99

THE rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) is one of most astounding stories of our time. In 2014, in a series of extraordinary military victories, the organisation took over large swathes of Iraq and Syria, from the border with Iran to the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

It was an advance which threatened to redraw or abolish the political boundaries of the region. And all this was accomplished in a period of 100 days and, seemingly, without anyone in the West predicting it.

In this chillingly terse book the award winning journalist Patrick Cockburn describes how Isis rose from the fractured geopolitics of Iraq and Syria to become “an established geographical and political fact on the map”.


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Isis’s progress has been won through daring military victories against the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga. It has spearheaded its military assaults with suicide bombings and enforced internal order in the territories it has occupied with public beheadings and mass killings. As Cockburn points out: “The world had seen nothing like their use of public violence to terrorise their opponents since the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia 40 years earlier.”

But the Khmer Rouge did not have access to YouTube. The use made by Isis of social media has been one of the most remarkable aspects of their rise: propaganda videos, appeals to jihad, macabre jokes and boasts on Twitter, the hijacking of other websites to spread their message. The nimble, reactive use of social media makes Isis a post-modern force, combining loyalty to a rigid form of Islam with a 21st century Twitter account. They also give the lie to the idea – held as self-evident during the so called “Arab Spring” – that internet access inevitably serves the interests of liberal democracy.

Much of the social media sensibility has been supplied by Western recruits to Isis. From the beginning, the state has set itself up as an international beacon for those who would heed its message. In 2014, the leader of Isis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced it was “a state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the eastener and westerner are all brothers… Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The Earth is Allah’s.”

Heeding this message, young Western men travel on easyJet flights to Turkey and over the border to Syria. The war in Syria and Iraq has become the Spanish Civil War of our times, calling on ideologically committed young men who find themselves energised to be playing their part in a clash of civilisations.

Behind all this, as Cockburn shows, lie the ancient enmities between Sunni and Shia Islam, and the failure of the so-called War on Terror, which smashed the Baathist state in Iraq and accelerated that country towards its eventual Balkanisation without putting viable civic structures in place to secure it. Also implicated is the failure of Western politics towards Syria. But while the Americans, as well as the Saudis and the Turks, come in for criticism here, Cockburn is also unsparing about the failures of his own profession when it comes to covering the conflict. The broadcast media (print journalists are amongst the very few heroes in this book) are castigated for preferring images to facts, and relying too heavily on English-speaking, westernised spokespeople from the various factionalised interests in the Iraq and Syria conflicts.

As the situation on the ground in Northern Iraq and Syria has become more unstable, it has become unsafe for journalists to travel around the region, and reporting has become even more reliant on “commentators” whose information is either out of date, or ideologically filtered.


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All this would be fascinating enough, but the reason Isis has become of such pressing concern to western policy-makers is the threat that it will export its brand of violent jihad abroad.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have claimed responsibility for this month’s Paris attacks, and it is widely assumed that one of their motivations was to reassert their supremacy over Isis as the leaders in international jihad. The prospect of jihadist rivalry being played out on the streets of western capitals in a world of open borders and budget flights means that we may all need to get up to speed on Isis.

What does the future hold for Islamic State? The speed of its expansion may hold the key to its eventual collapse as it is forced to defend a sprawling territory against multiple enemies, all the while having to deal with aerial attacks from the United States and its allies. Fear, its most powerful weapon, may yet prove its undoing since fear can make enemies band together into a common front. But little in its story so far indicates that Isis will implode or suffer imperial overreach, any time soon.

The West will have to deal with Cockburn’s “fact on the map”. The question is how?