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'ISIS: Inside The Army of Terror'; An Excerpt from Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan

By    |   Monday, 23 Feb 2015 11:32 PM

Excerpted from the book ISIS: Inside The Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan

Days before the video showing James Foley’s beheading was aired around the world, Iraq’s authoritarian prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, resigned under US and Iranian pressure, ostensibly ad- dressing the political impasse for which the rise of ISIS has been blamed. His successor was a fellow member of the Dawa Party, the sixty-two-year-old Haider al-Abadi, who had spent years of exile in London. Many Iraqi Sunnis we talked to at the time praised al-Abadi as an improvement on al-Maliki, but none thought he could or would make a substantive difference in the way Iraq was governed. This, they all said, owed to the endemic sectarian dimensions of the nation’s politics and Tehran’s overweening influence on Baghdad.

It didn’t bode well for the new premier’s tenure that in one of his first press conferences he advocated a strategic partnership between the United States and Iran in combating ISIS—a partnership that many Sunnis believed started in 2003. “The American approach us to leave Iraq to the Iraqis,” Sami al-Askari, a former Iraqi MP and senior advisor to al-Maliki, told Reuters. “The Iranians don’t say leave Iraq to the Iraqis. They say leave Iraq to us.”

One of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism now presents itself as the last line of defense against terrorism. Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani has overseen the creation of a multipronged shadow army consisting of the very same Special Groups not only responsible for killing American soldiers and countless Sunni civilians in Iraq, but now equally committed to propping up the murderous regime in Damascus. According to Phillip Smyth, there are now more than fifty “highly ideological, anti-American, and rabidly sectarian” Shia militias operating and recruiting in Iraq. The conditions have been recreated, in other words, for exactly the same sectarian holy war envisioned by al-Zarqawi in 2004—only this time, it will be played out in two countries at the same time. As a former Iraqi official put it, “I’m not very hopeful. This is almost like a last chance for Iraq to remain as a unified state.”

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Despite al-Abadi’s calls for national unity, the sectarian bloodletting continues. According to Human Rights Watch, ISF and Shia militias have executed 255 prisoners in six villages and towns since June 9, 2014, a day before the fall of Mosul. Eight of the victims were boys younger than eighteen. On August 22, 2014, the Musab Bin Omair mosque in Diyala—where ISIS has anticipated its fiercest battles—was raided by ISF personnel and Asaib Ahl al-Haq militants dressed in plainclothes. They massacred dozens.

Al-Abadi’s Interior Minister, Mohammed al-Ghabban, is also a senior official in the Badr Organization, which means that a notorious death squad has once again been given purview over Iraq’s police force. The Badr has lately been accused of “kidnapping and summarily executing peopl[and] expelling Sunnis from their homes, then looting and burning them, in some cases razing entire villages,” according to Human Rights Watch’s Iraq researcher Erin Evers. “The [United States] is basically paving the way for these guys to take over the country even more than they already have.”

Nearly every major Iraqi offensive against ISIS has borne Suleimani’s fingerprints. In late October, when ISIS was driven from Jurf al-Sakher, a town about thirty miles southwest of Baghdad along the Euphrates River Valley, agents of the Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah were embedded with some seven thousand Iraqi Security Forces soldiers and militiamen, providing training and distributing arms. The entire operation was planned by Sulei-

Indirectly supported by US warplanes, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, a US-designated terrorist entity, played a lead combat role in ending ISIS’s months-long siege of Amerli, a Shia Turkomen town of about fifteen thousand, in November 2014. Suleimani was photographed smiling in Amerli shortly after it was retaken.

US Abrams tanks have been photographed in the possession of Kata’ib Hezbollah, making ISIS not the only terrorist organization to have requisitioned American materiel intended for the ISF.

What has the last seven months of US-led air strikes in Syria and Iraq accomplished? The Pentagon announced that sixteen out of the twenty oil refineries ISIS had been using to fund its activities were rendered inoperable. According to Dr. Hisham al-Hashimi, by the end of 2014, ISIS had lost 90 percent of its oil-driven revenue, nine out of eleven weapons warehouses in Iraq, and three out of ten warehouses in Syria. Adding to this seemingly impressive list of damage was the elimination of thirty ISIS leaders in air strikes. These included a dozen high-ranking officials such as Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, al-Baghdadi’s deputy, Ridwan Taleb al-Hamdouni, the “governor” of Mosul, and the military commanders of Ramadi, Salah ad-Din, Fallujah and Ninewah. Al-Abadi has claimed that al-Baghdadi himself was injured in a sortie on al-Qaim. Washington says that ISIS has lost around seven hundred square kilometers of terrain.

While it is certainly true that the momentum of ISIS’s blitzkrieg in Iraq has been stalled considerably—it no longer threat- ens to take Erbil, much less Baghdad—its defeats so far have been tactical. “Purely from a military perspective, the single factor that stands out the most to me is that ISIS has always had the strategic initiative,” said Chris Harmer. “There are times when they’ve been more active in one place than another. But they’ve never been on the strategic defensive. Tactically, they’ve been on the defensive: they took Mosul Dam, then lost it. They took Bayji Oil Refinery, then lost it. But is ISIS ‘losing’? No.”

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ISIS has suffered mainly within enemy lines rather than in its geostrategic heartlands across Syria and Iraq. Sinjar and Bayji, for example, are crucial to the Kurds. Baqubah and Dhuluiya provide entryways into Baghdad and thus matter greatly to the ISF and Shia militias, which have ethnically cleansed them, according to Ayad Allawi, now the vice president for reconciliation. Despite some 1,700 air strikes, ISIS has still managed to advance in places where it has either a natural constituency or can dominate a Sunni population too fearful or indifferent to rise up against it. Two months into Operation Inherent Resolve, the jihadists sacked Hit, the town where Adam Such glimpsed an early and localized Sahwa in 2005. Other villages and hamlets in Anbar have fallen since.

As Derek Harvey demonstrated a decade ago, just because jihadists have been expelled from ethnically mixed terrain, such as Baghdad, doesn’t mean they’ve been defeated or are less capable of conducting operations. ISIS continues to rule more or less uncontested in al-Bab, Minbij, Jarablous, Raqqa, southern Hasaka, Tal Afar, Qa’im, and outside the city center of Ramadi. Rebellion from within in these areas is extremely unlikely in the short term. In Haditha and Amiriya Fallujah, Sunni tribes are divided over what do about ISIS—and the consequence is tribal infighting, which only forecloses on the possibility of another Awakening.

According to al-Hashimi, ISIS has compensated for its 10 per- cent territorial losses in Iraq by gaining 4 percent in Syria, though you wouldn’t know it to listen to US officials. “The strategy with respect to Syria has not changed,” Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told reported in November 2014. “While the immediate focus remains to drive [ISIS] out of Iraq, we and coalition partners will continue to strike at [ISIS] in Syria to deny them safe haven and to disrupt their ability to project power.”

Except that ISIS has more than a “safe haven” in Syria, and it continues to project even more power since Operation Inherent Resolve began. Today it controls roughly a third of the geography of the country. Even in the most fiercely contested battle for Ko- bane, it continues to hang on to parts of the Syrian-Turkish border town, which even the White House sees as more “symbolic” than strategically essential—and this is three months into the most intense US aerial sorties waged in all of Syria.

Those who have understood the long-term challenges posed by ISIS have not been rewarded. In October 2014 Defense Secre- tary Chuck Hagel sent a two-page memo to the National Security Council outlining his concerns about America’s strategy in Syria. He was fired as defense secretary at the end of the following month, in part because he cautioned that the continued failure to confront the al-Assad regime—which members of the Obama administra- tion have rightly called a “magnet” for terrorism—would only re- dound to al-Baghdadi’s benefit. It has also redounded to al-Assad’s. “What’s amazing is how we keep making the same mistakes over and over again, in Iraq but also in the broader Middle East,” Ali Khedery told us. “I’ve seen senior American officials waste time tweeting about the number of air strikes. Who cares about these tactical developments? Sunnis are being radicalized at record pro- portions. A counterterrorism approach isn’t going to work with ISIS. We saw that in Iraq, and we’ll see it in Syria.”

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The law of unintended consequences reigns supreme. Just as US warplanes began striking ISIS locations in Syria, mainstream rebels who have received American weapons took to criticizing the operation for its one-sidedness. “The sole beneficiary of this foreign interference in Syria is the Assad regime, especially in the absence of any real strategy to topple him,” Harakat Hazm (the Movement of Steadfastness) posted to its Twitter account in late September 2014. “Last Friday, for the first time I can recall, opponents of the government of President Bashar al-Assad burned an American flag,” wrote Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria who resigned in protest over the Obama administration’s Syria policy, in the New York Times. That was in early October 2014.

Of course, the US isn’t only targeting ISIS in Syria—it’s also targeting Jabhat al-Nusra. In one strike, in the town of Kafr Daryan, Idlib, an ad hoc refuge for internally displaced Syrians was report- edly hit in an attempt to bomb installations belonging to al-Nusra, specifically a subunit of it known as the Khorasan Group, which the White House says was plotting attacks on Western targets. This has only aggravated Syrian grievances against America; as one rebel media activist put it, if “the raids had targeted the regime and a large number people had been killed by mistake, we would have said they were a sacrifice for our salvation.” It has also strengthened al-Nusra, which has been joined by ISIS in waged localized, opportunistic campaigns against US-backed rebel groups, now branded as little more than mujahidin-hunting hirelings of the Pentagon. The White House’s stated plan of training five hundred rebels a year for the sole purpose of fighting ISIS isn’t set to start until the spring of 2015, but already it has had profound negative consequences on the battlefield.

True, the contingency that al-Nusra will ever formally reconcile with ISIS is remote. However, it doesn’t have to in order for a jihadist civil war—or even a jihadist cold war—to affect the West- ern designs in the region, and at home. ISIS has pledged rhetorical solidarity with al-Nusra against a common “crusader” enemy in Syria. It has also offered its warm congratulations to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s recent handiwork in the West.


On January 7, 2015, Said and Cherif Kouachi, two French btothers, slaughtered a dozen journalists and cartoonists at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Two days later, one of the brothers’ accomplices, Ahmed Coulibaly, seized the Hyper Cacher kosher market in the same city, killing four customers before the French police shot him.

The Kouachi brothers were part of a French cell responsible for sending men to join AQI in the early days of the insurgency. Like al-Zarqawi, both had been radicalized first in a mosque, and then in a prison. They read al-Maqdisi. Chérif was arrested before he could join the Sheikh of the Slaughterers.

Coulibaly has claimed inspiration and pledged allegiance to al-Zarqawi’s successor, al-Baghdadi.

Many are now asking if the streets of Europe, and eventually the United States, are to serve as the blood-soaked arenas for a game of one-upmanship between a jihadist parent company and its former subsidiary. It’s a good question.

More than eleven years after the United States invaded Iraq, a deadly insurgency adept at multiple forms of warfare has proved resilient, adaptable, and resolved to carry on fighting. A legacy of both Saddam and al-Zarqawi, ISIS has excelled at couching its struggle in world-historical terms. It has promised both death and a return to the ancient glories of Islam. Thousands have lined up to join it, and even more have already fallen victim to it.

The army of terror will be with us indefinitely.

Excerpted from ISIS: Inside The Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Weiss & Hassan Hassan. Published by Regan Arts. Used with permission.

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Days before the video showing James Foley’s beheading was aired around the world, Iraq’s authoritarian prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, resigned under US and Iranian pressure, ostensibly ad- dressing the political impasse for which the rise of ISIS has been blamed.
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