Agents of Chaos

Review: Patrick Cockburn’s ‘The Rise of the Islamic State,’ and Erick Stakelbeck’s ‘ISIS Exposed’

Graffiti depicting the flag of the Islamic State / AP
April 4, 2015

In the last year, an entire literature has developed around the Islamic State.

There are books and articles chronicling the rise of the brutal jihadist group, looking inside its army of terror, exposing its methods, and examining what it really wants. Reports of beheadings, crucifixions, immolations, and sexual slavery have justifiably alarmed Americans who were assured by President Barack Obama that terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda were "on the path to defeat." Journalists and authors, always eager to inform, have provided us with no shortage of material.

What to take away from this Islamic State corpus?

From the left and the right, dueling narratives have emerged regarding the origins of the Islamic State (abbreviated here as IS, but also known as ISIS or ISIL) and how to defeat it. Conservatives tend to fault Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 and emboldening then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a sectarian Shiite Muslim who repressed his country’s Sunni Muslims and drove them into the hands of the Sunni jihadists of IS. The right also points to Obama’s failure to address the civil war in Syria, which became a haven for IS and allowed it to expand into Iraq.

Liberals acknowledge that the Syrian war has destabilized the region and erased the country’s eastern border with Iraq. However, they say modest U.S. support for some nationalist rebel groups in Syria has largely benefited IS and other jihadists. For the left, the original sin was the American invasion of Iraq and its general conduct of the war on terror. And 14 years on from 9/11, the left argues that the United States has still failed to confront the true wellsprings of radical Islam: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

However you look at its origins, the jihadist group has, with alarming velocity, expanded its regional presence despite a barrage of U.S. airstrikes and internal dissension between its local and foreign fighters. Yet both conservative and liberal analysts and writers too often overlook another, older agent of chaos in the Middle East. The most destabilizing actor in the region, and an important factor in the rise of IS, is the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Writing from the left in The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, Patrick Cockburn never misses an opportunity to remind his readers about the "failure" of the U.S. war on terror. According to Cockburn, a Middle East correspondent for the Independent and among the scions of a prominent family of left-wing journalists, the United States has picked the wrong enemies in the region while giving a free pass to sponsors of terror in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Cockburn notes that a majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis and that Pakistan’s military services allegedly helped harbor Osama Bin Laden, another Saudi, in Afghanistan and then their own country. Reports indicate that Pakistani intelligence services are still likely supporting the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan while some Saudi financiers continue to abet jihadist factions in Syria fighting President Bashar al-Assad. "The ideology of al-Qaeda-type movements in Iraq and Syria is not the same as Wahhabism," he writes, referring to a strict form of Sunni Islam still preached in Saudi mosques and schools. "But their beliefs are similar, just carried to a greater extreme."

The Saudis could do much more to curb the export of jihadist militants and their extremist ideology from the country. But the kingdom has made recent strides in cracking down on Saudi terrorists who fight abroad, for example, and has joined the U.S.-led coalition pummeling the Islamic State with airstrikes. And while the United States could certainly apply more pressure on Pakistani leaders, their nuclear arsenal presents an added difficulty (a potent example of why nuclear proliferation should be avoided at all costs in a volatile Middle East). Cockburn never explicitly outlines how the United States should punish the Saudis or Pakistanis.

In Syria, he asserts that Western aid for the opposition to Assad was a boon to the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. But the nationalist rebel groups fighting against Assad, IS, and the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra have repeatedly complained about a lack of weapons and intelligence support from the United States since the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Harakat al-Hazm, one of the most prominent Western-backed rebel militias, recently disbanded after it lost funding and suffered devastating attacks from al-Nusra. The Obama administration is now pinning its hopes on an effort by U.S. special forces to train and equip about 5,000 moderate Syrian fighters a year—if any are left.

Cockburn acknowledges that the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) "has been marginalized" by the Islamic State and other jihadist groups but omits four years of dithering by U.S. officials in actually bolstering the FSA. He concludes that the United States has "little alternative" but to provide assistance to Assad’s army to battle IS. Yet it was Assad who targeted the secular rebels for years, leaving his own regime as the only alternative to the Islamic State. Moreover, he oversaw the slaughter of his own people—something about which Cockburn merely clears his throat while simultaneously condemning Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for every one of their many infractions. U.S. inaction in the face of a security vacuum and humanitarian disaster in Syria—220,000 dead, about 10 million displaced—was the real boon to IS.

Cockburn cites the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the original moment that spurred the rise of IS. The U.S. decision to disband Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party disenfranchised Sunnis and led many tribes to back al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor to the Islamic State. It is not a coincidence that Hussein’s former army officers comprise a large part of IS’ military leadership. The Islamic State relied on those officers to help it expand from its base in Syria into Iraq, where they freed jihadists from prisons and helped IS seize the crucial city of Mosul last June.

But what Cockburn elides is Obama’s failure to leave a residual force of U.S. troops in Iraq. IS subsumed Iraq’s Western Anbar Province so quickly because the Sunni tribes, who had gone on to reject AQI and work with the American-backed government in Baghdad, were desperate for a bulwark against the sectarian policies of Maliki—a buffer that U.S. troops provided when they were in the country. In 2008 Maliki, a Shiite, actually targeted Shiite militias that were persecuting Sunnis when he had the assistance of U.S. forces and airstrikes. But after the U.S. military left in 2011, Maliki felt no inhibitions about oppressing Sunnis or moving further into the orbit of neighboring Iran.

Erick Stakelbeck, a conservative investigative reporter, spares no censure of Obama regarding the troop withdrawal in ISIS Exposed: Beheadings, Slavery, and the Hellish Reality of Radical Islam. He notes that Gen. Lloyd Austin, the former commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, initially recommended leaving 24,000 troops after 2011 before the White House protested. AQI launched a wave of attacks the month after the U.S. pullout, killing 434 Iraqis.

Stakelbeck displays a weakness for alarmism when he warns about the consequences of leaving IS unchecked, at one point writing that Americans risk ending up "as slaves under a brutal system that shows no mercy, gives no quarter, and regards the very concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ with scorn." But his fears are not entirely unfounded. Radicalized lone wolves or militants trained in the Middle East have already struck in Canada, Australia, and Paris, and U.S. intelligence officials say 3,400 Westerners have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join jihadist groups—including about 180 Americans. The sooner IS and other jihadist factions are destroyed, the fewer opportunities they will have to wreak havoc in the West.

Stakelbeck asserts that U.S. ground forces will need to return to Iraq in larger numbers to assist the beleaguered Iraqi army as well as train Syrian rebels to combat IS. Unfortunately, the White House continues to bar U.S. special operations forces already in the Middle East from accompanying their local allies on the front lines. "If that’s the way it works best, I can almost guarantee you that’s not the way the administration is going to let us proceed," a special operations officer recently told Foreign Policy.

In Iraq, the restraints on U.S. advisers have enabled Iranian-backed Shiite militias to fill the void. Stakelbeck is right to urge Obama to "make clear to the Iranian regime that it is not an ally or friend, in the fight against ISIS or anywhere else." But he does not go far enough.

The Islamic regime in Tehran now backs powerful proxies in nearly every country on the Arabian Peninsula: Assad in Syria, the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The result? Violence and sectarian conflict in each one of those countries has worsened. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces during the successful surge in Iraq, recently told the Washington Post that, "the more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State." While Cockburn directs his ire at the Saudis and Stakelbeck largely focuses in on the jihadist threat, neither fully appreciates Iran’s role as it moves toward regional hegemony.

Here at home, Obama has embraced Iran’s play for regional dominance. He has expressed hope that Iran could one day be "a very successful regional power" as he negotiates a nuclear deal that many experts say would barely slow, much less obstruct, Tehran from obtaining an atomic weapon—a prospect that could set off a nuclear arms race in the turbulent region. He has written missives to Ayatollah Khamenei noting their shared interests in fighting IS, the Wall Street Journal reported. And he shot down attempts to challenge Iran or its proxies so as not to disrupt the nuclear talks, former defense officials told the Washington Post.

Yet by deliberately attempting to anoint Iran as the leader of a new regional order in the Middle East, Obama has whitewashed decades of Iranian support for terrorism. Iran supplied Iraqi insurgents with the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that led to the majority of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Iran facilitated an al Qaeda network in its country that "serves as the core pipeline through which al Qaeda moves money, facilitators, and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia." The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security was even known to assist al Qaeda in Iraq with money and weapons when it suited them. Remember AQI? They were the predecessor organization to the Islamic State.

Whether from the left of the right, any analysis of the rise of the Islamic State that does not acknowledge the critical role played by Iran is incomplete—as incomplete as a discussion of the Afghanistan war that does not discuss the roles of Pakistan and India. IS would not exist without the regional maelstrom caused by Iran’s policies. Tehran dispatched Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to prop up Assad in 2012, perpetuating a war in Syria that served as a vital recruitment tool for IS. Obama reportedly assured Khamenei in one of his letters that the U.S. military would not target Assad in its fight against IS, further solidifying an Iranian-backed order in the Middle East that will only invite a more aggressive response from IS and other Sunni jihadists. Iraq is still grappling with the legacy of Iran’s former ally Maliki, whose sectarian rule allowed IS to gain a foothold in the country and left the Sunni tribes to choose between two oppressors.

The methods for eradicating the Islamic State and suppressing the regional ambitions of the mullahs in Tehran do not have to be mutually exclusive. By sending and maintaining a stabilization force in Iraq to boost our allies (and leaving the current one in Afghanistan), U.S. troops can help push back IS and deter Iran. Rather than picking our battles between Sunni and Shiite radicals, we need to fight both.