Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate - new book by Abdel Bari Atwan

review by Susannah Tarbush 

Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate
by Abdel Bari Atwan
Saqi Books, London. 256 pages. Hbk and eBook
ISBN: 978-0-86356-195-5
eISBN: 978-0-86356-101-6

Nearly a year on from Iraqi jihadist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ‘s declaration of a caliphate, with himself as caliph, Islamic State (IS) has shown itself to be remarkably resilient despite setbacks from time to time. It controls almost half of half of Syria and at least a third of Iraq: an area the size of Britain. Despite the air strikes and other measures against it by the US-led alliance, IS continues to make gains. It recently captured Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria.

The 2 June conference in Paris attended by ministers or their representative from 24 countries in the anti-IS coalition reflected the deep concern over efforts to defeat IS. The conference also brought into focus the lack of a coherent and effective strategy against IS, despite the surely over-optimistic claims by certain US and other participants. 

IS is linking up with other jihadist movements around the world, and has established a strong foothold in Libya, just over the Mediterranean from Europe. It is attracting hundreds of young Muslims from Western and other countries, and there are regular instances in the UK of young British nationals being arrested or charged in relation to terror offences related to Syria or Iraq.

IS’s conquests, and its behaviour in areas it controls, are accompanied by a catalogue of atrocities.  Its massacres, tortures, beheadings and destruction are carefully recorded and widely disseminated on videos whose grotesque choreography and production skills are routinely described in the media as “slick”.

unlikely that IS would have existed without digital technology

The Palestinian journalist and author Abdel Bari Atwan alludes to IS's adept use of all forms of social media and other digital platforms in the title of his book Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, published recently in London by Saqi Books. Atwan writes: “Without digital technology it is highly unlikely that Islamic State would ever have come into existence, let along been able to survive and expand.”

It is just 10 years since the video-sharing site YouTube was created, transforming the world of social media. IS and its forerunner organisations have shown themselves adept at using the whole panoply of digital and social media. Atwan says it is paradoxical that a group which aims to take the world back to the days of the “Righteous Caliphs” – the first generations of Muslims –should be so dependent on the most sophisticated and modern technology. "But in war people use every weapon at their disposal", and the  leaders and foot soldiers of IS are 21st century men who have been brought up with computers, mobile phones and social networking platforms as part of their natural environment.

A pioneer in the use of digital technology to record jihadi operations and spread videos with a jihadist message was the Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, who became Al-Qa’ida’s emir in Iraq. Zarqawi also led the way in the kind of gruesome violence now characteristic of IS. In May 2004 he personally beheaded 26-year-old American businessman Nick Berg, who was dressed in the type of orange jumpsuit similar to those of men in US custody. The video of Berg's murder caused shockwaves far beyond Iraq. Zarqawi was killed by the Americans in 2006, but his legacy remains. In a chilling sign of what is to befall them, a number of  IS's captives or hostages have been dressed in orange jumpsuits for their videoed murders.

The American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was prominent in Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula until his death in a US drone attack of 2011, further developed the digital side of jihadism. He encouraged the use of social media such as blogs, Facebook and YouTube to disseminate jihadist material and indoctrinate new recruits.

Abdel Bari Atwan

Over the past two decades Abdel Bari Atwan has been a prominent writer and commentator on the global jihadi movement. In 1996 he spent 72 hours with Al-Qaeda founder and leader Osama Bin Laden in his Tora Bora cave complex. Saqi Books published three of his previous books: The Secret History of Al-Qa’ida (2006); After bin Laden: Al-Qa’ida, The Next Generation (2012), and the memoir A Country of Words: A Palestinian Journey from the Refugee Camp to the Front Page (2012).

Atwan was editor -in-chief of the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi for 25 years and now edits the Rai al-Youm website, which claims to be the Arab world’s first Huffington Post-style outlet. He contributes to various newspapers including the Guardian and in Scotland the Herald. He often appears on TV and radio, and is a frequent guest on the BBC TV show Dateline London, whose presenter Gavin Esler contributed the comment on the front cover of Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate: “A brave and important book ... a must-read.”

articles on IS attract "ten times the readership of other articles"

In his exhaustively-researched book Atwan draws on a variety of sources, contacts and correspondents, some of them close to IS. He also draws on contributions to Rai al-Youm, observing that articles on IS attract ten times the readership of other articles, and hundreds of comments, “most of them expressing positive views of Islamic State.”
Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate has been receiving a considerable amount of attention. In May Atwan discussed his book at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts and at the Bradford Literature Festival. On 17 June he is due to appear in London at a Chatham House panel discussion on “ISIS: Marketing Terror” together with David Butter, Chatham House Associate Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, and Sarah Khan, Director of Inspire. The event will be chaired by BBC investigative reporter Peter Taylor OBE.

The  rise, structure and operations of IS presents a complex and often confusing picture. Atwan’s clearly-written and thorough account is a highly informative guide. On the practical level, it is  somewhat marrred for those reading the print rather than the digital edition by the fact that the many footnotes are geared to the digital edition, consisting solely of internet addresses, some of them three of four lines long. But at least the book has a comprehensive index - unlike one of the other recently-published key books on ISIS and IS.

Atwan puts IS in its historical and regional context, covering in detail its origins in Iraq, and Syria, and among the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, with both of which there are connections and rivalries.He notes that when al-Baghdadi declared himself Caliph and Emir al-Muminin (Commander of the Faithful) on 1 July 2014, following the capture of Mosul, many commentators overlooked the important fact that the position had already been occupied by Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, since 1996. “This ‘battle of the caliphs’ is at the heart of current jihadist politics,” he writes.

The development of IS's rivalry with Jabhat al Nusra is examined. Jabhat al-Nusra was formed by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani after Baghdadi dispatched him to Syria for this purpose in summer 2011. After the divide appeared between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the latter pledging its allegiance to al-Qaeda.

Al-Jolani has been in the news in the past few days after he gave an interview with the Al-Jazeera TV channel in which he was highly critical of IS, describing it as "illegitimate". There was much scepticism over his apparent attempt to portray Jahbat al-Nusra as relatively moderate, and some Arab commentators condemned Al-Jazeera for conducting the interview with a terror leader.

the crucial role of Saddam's former military personnel in IS Atwan repeatedly highlights the importance of former members of Saddam’s military to IS’s structure and operations. The previously secular Saddam had himself realised that Islam could be a rallying cry against the West and at the height of UN sanctions he launched a 'Faith Campaign' supervised by his deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Saddam ordered his army commanders to become practising Muslims, and he tolerated the presence of a small jihadist enclave, Ansar al-Islam, near the border with Iran. Atwan says: "Unbeknown to Saddam, al-Qa'ida had sent some of its own operatives into this enclave. They were instructed to make valuable connections with the newly Islamised army commanders from Saddam's brigades."

After the 2003  invasion, these regular Iraqi army personnel became crucial in the insurgency against the occupiers and to the various Islamist organisations, and eventually to IS.  Today, officers from Saddam's military and security cadres serve IS as experts in key fields such as manufacturing IEDs, security issues and intelligence. "These professional soldiers have advised on the development of a military hierarchy and command that enables Islamic State to function as a highly disciplined army, rather than as a terror group," writes Atwan.

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri went into hiding and evaded capture after the 2003 invasion, playing an important role in the insurgency and then in ISIS's capture of Mosul and northern Iraq. He is reported to have been killed in April this year.

Atwan pieces together a portrait of the secretive Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi, or “Caliph Ibrahim”, with the help of an unnamed contact who was held with him in the US detention centre Camp Bucca for around two years from 2004. For al-Baghdadi as for many others held there, Camp Bucca became a centre of Islamist radicalisation and links forged between its inmates would be important in the uprisings and violence in the years that followed.

Atwan explores in considerable detail the consolidation, expansion, organisastion and administration of IS and describes daily life within IS,  “the richest terror group in history". Its wealth is derived from oil fields and refineries under its control, looting and trading antiquities. Ransoms from kidnappings. were reported to have brought it $20 million in 2014 alone.

In a particularly depressing passage of his book Atwan tells of how IS  considers human trafficking and slavery to be legitimate practice. Atwan notes that the  "Western press has been full of lurid tales of female captives being sold as 'sex slaves'"- but he adds that these stories cannot be dismisssed as sensationalist propaganda.

'the management of savagery' 

The title of the chapter “The Management of Savagery” is taken from that of a 2004 internet document by al-Qa’ida ideologue Abu Bakr Naji. Naji’s document draws heavily on the work of the 14th century Islamic scholar Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyyah, “who is considered the first Salafi-jihadist and is revered by today’s hardliners.”

Atwan claims that while IS’s record of atrocities, carefully packaged and distributed by its media department, may seem like an undisciplined orgy of sadism “it is far from being that”. It is “systematically applied policy.” IS comes across as a ghastly hybrid of Saddam's mass sadism and the worst type of of Islamist violence. Atwan examines in detail Naji’s document, which is often referred to by IS’s online speakers and writers.

Atwan references Donald G Dutton's book The Psychology of Genocide, Massacres and Extreme Violence: Why Normal People Come to Commit Atrocities.  Atwan claims that “Americans scarcely blinked when stories of the most barbaric CIA torture practices in Guantamano Bay were revealed” and that civiilised societies "blithely accept atrocity when it is under the banner of a shared cause". Such claims overlook the complexity of contemporary societies, and widely ranging attitudes on human rights.

Atwan includes a chapter on “Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and Islamic State.” He refers to an 8 August 2014 article by David Gardner in the Financial Times attacking Saudi Arabia, and  blaming the advent of IS on the house of Saud, its wholesale export of Wahhabism and jihadist fighters and its funding of extremist groups.

Gardner argued that Saudi Arabia had lost its claim to lead the Sunni world and described the modern jihadist as “a Wahhabi on steroids.” Atwan regards this as a simplified picture, but says: “The Saudi regime, rightly, feels that the declaration of the caliphate, and the overt criticism levelled at the House of Saud by the extremists, constitute a very real threat to its existence. That the challenge is mounted within the unique framework of the House of Saud’s own construct – Wahhabism – makes it all the more potent.” 

In the conclusion to his book Atwan warns that IS is not going away, at least in the short term, and that it has put down roots that will not easily be torn up. "The jihadists have been honing their strategy and battle techniques for more than three decades; unsurprisingly, this latest extremist entity is more powerful, more effective, more ruthless and more worrying than anything that has gone before."

He says there is a chance for a way forward, which is to talk to and negotiate with IS. He draws parallels with the British government's negotiations with the IRA after a century of bloodshed and terrorism and the US sitting down with the Vietnamese in Paris in 1973 after nearly 20 years of slaughter. But he offers no suggestions whatsoever as to what could possibly be negotiated with IS.

Atwan ends by writing that while it is rare for him to agree with an American hawk, he fears that former CIA director Leon Panetta was correct when he told the newspaper USA Today in October 2014: "I think we're looking at a kind of 30-year-war, one that will have to extend beyond Islamic State to include emerging threats in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere."

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