The Return of the Jihadis

by Elliot Murphy

Review of 'The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising' by Patrick Cockburn.

First published: 06 October, 2014 | Category: Terror/War

The Jihadis Return: Isis and the New Sunni Uprising, Patrick Cockburn.  OR Books, 2014. 

With the killing of aid workers David Haines, Alan Henning, and others, the brutal jihadist group ISIS – which has proven to be more violent than even Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Pakistan-based al-Qa’ida group – has risen to international notoriety.  In The Jihadis Return, Baghdad stationed journalist Patrick Cockburn attempts to make sense of their rise focusing on developments in the Middle East which, he predicts, will ‘soon affect the rest of the world’.  Cockburn’s style is, as usual, calm and the evidence he collects – supplemented by numerous interchanges with intelligence officials, journalists and locals – persuasive. 

The reason ISIS has only recently been making headlines in the West, according to Cockburn, is that ‘Western governments and their security forces narrowly define the jihadist threat as those forces directly controlled by al-Qa’ida central or “core” al-Qa’ida’.  This tactic permits these governments to promote a far more optimistic picture of their long-term successes in the ‘war on terror’ than reality would allow.  Despite the Western media’s claim that the murder of Osama bin Laden in 2011 dealt critical damage to private terrorist organisations, Cockburn points out that the greatest successes of al-Qa’ida-type groups have been in the past three years: ISIS’s capturing of Fallujah, the Mosul Dam and Raqqa in eastern Syria. 

Any al-Qa’ida connections are played up in the West when needs be (as with the armed opposition to the US-UK Iraq invasions), but played down when convenient (as with Libya’s anti-Gaddafi, NATO-backed rebels).  A crucial point in the book, though, is that al-Qa’ida is ‘an idea rather than an organization’, its adherents being self-recruited, not centrally controlled, contrary to the imagination of the press.  It is only the West which has labelled jihadis as, for instance, ‘head of operations’ or ‘second lieutenant’.  No jihadi group would use such terminology, and Whitehall and Washington use it purely to intensify the imagined threat.  Cockburn avoids any such simplifications.  One of the book’s major strengths at a time when many commentators fail to distinguish ISIS from other forms of jihadism in the region, is its focus on the intra-jihadi conflicts ISIS is engaged in in Syria with groups like Jabhat al-Nusia and Ahrar al-Sham.

According to Cockburn, jihadists have capitalised on the West’s failures in Iraq and Libya.  Iraq’s infrastructure and economy have been destroyed and virtually the only thing exchanged between Shia, Sunni and Kurds in the country now, Cockburn notes, is ‘gunfire’.  The collapse of the Iraqi state is so devastating that Baghdad has recently been compelled to rely on sectarian militias like Asaib Ahl al-Haq – a splinter group most believe is controlled by Iran – to protect the capital from ISIS.  Cockburn cites Iraqis who point to the UN sanctions in the 1990s – which ‘destroyed Iraqi society’ – as a core reason for Iraq’s continued levels of corruption, which operates at virtually all levels of public life.

Cockburn identifies the key date for ISIS’s rise as 10 June 2014; when it captured Mosul, Iraq’s northern capital.  The fact that the Iraqi army has 350,000 soldiers and ISIS only 1,300 leads Cockburn to describe this as amongst the top ‘military debacles in history’.  ISIS has also achieved many symbolic victories which have likely boosted its appeal and established its ‘anti-American’ credentials, such as the capturing of Fallujah (the city brutally seized by US-UK forces during the Iraq War) and the assault on Abu Ghraib prison in 2013 (the site of the infamous abuse scandal).  In the latter case, Cockburn writes, the jihadists ‘fired 100 mortar bombs into the jails and used suicide bombers to clear the way as inmates rioted and started fires to confuse the guards’.

Taking the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, Cockburn notes that ‘the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war’.  Whilst Western largesse to the Syrian opposition failed to oust Assad, it has succeeding in destabilising that country, and Iraq.  Cockburn’s most optimistic prediction for both Syria and Iraq is that they will be faced with years of civil war, whilst any potential break up of these countries will likely be similar to the 1947 partition of India, with bloodshed being the primary determiner of state boundaries.

The book briefly sketches how ISIS has effected what some – mainly on the right – are calling Cold War II.  The tension between Moscow and the West has grown considerably since Libya 2011, and more recently Ukraine 2014; whilst across the Middle East there is a stand-off between the US, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states on one side, and Iran, Iraq and the Lebanese Shia on the other.  This is in turn sustained by the Sunni-Alawite struggle in Syria, which grew out of the initially popular revolt in 2011.  ISIS, then, currently has a special place as one of the focal points around which the region’s larger conflicts – Sunni-Alawite, feeding into Shia-Sunni, feeding into Moscow-West – are oriented.  Despite Obama’s pledge to ‘eradicate’ the ‘cancer’ of ISIS, in June the president asked Congress for $500m to equip members of the Syrian opposition to fight the jihadists, ignoring the intimidating and controlling presence ISIS has amongst the Syrian opposition, which means that many weapons and supplies ultimately fall into their hands.  This is one of the reasons Cockburn concludes that ‘there is no dividing wall between [ISIS] and America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies’.

The later chapters of the book stress that ‘until the United States and its allies in the West recognize that [Saudi Arabia and Pakistan] are key in promoting Islamic extremism, little real progress will be made in the battle to isolate the jihadists’.  Wahhabism, the official ideology of the Saudi state, is infiltrating mainstream Sunni Islam, boosted by Saudi Arabia’s funding of mosques and preachers, with ‘dire consequences for all’.  ‘[T]wenty-eight pages of the 9/11 Commission Report about the relationship between the attackers and Saudi Arabia,’ Cockburn notes ‘were cut and never published, despite a promise by President Obama to do so, on the grounds of national security’.  Of course the US does realise how key Saudi Arabia and other states are to spreading jihadism, but prioritises oil revenues and strategic partnerships over human life, as has long been the case.

Cockburn spends the final chapter of The Jihadis Return arguing that, instead of pledging allegiance to Riyadh and its funding of extremists, the West should promote nationalism, since ‘intervention in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 turned out to be very similar to imperial takeovers in the 19th century’, with the ‘absurd talk of “nation-building” to be carried out or assisted by foreign powers, which clearly had their own interests in mind’.  For all its flaws, without nationalism, Cockburn argues, ‘states lack an ideology that enables them to compete as a focus of loyalty with religious sects or ethnic groups’.  But since 2003, Iraqi nationalism, for example, has been fraught with sectarianism, and Cockburn’s advocacy of nationalism as a unifying force seems in many ways short-sighted: Shiites welcomed the Bahraini uprisings in Pearl Square and denounced the Syrian opposition, whilst the Sunni position was the polar opposite.  The prominent secular block Iraqiya List crucially does not have the backing of the US, with the Whitehouse not wanting to anger the Shiite majority.

The term ‘war reporter’, Cockburn writes, ‘gives the misleading impression that war can be adequately described by focusing on military combat’.  A guerrilla skirmish ‘requires interpretation’, not simple recording and reporting as in the mainstream tradition of the BBC News at Ten.  Indeed, it is astonishing how rare it is for journalists to investigate the facts and figures and not merely regurgitate state pronouncements.  The radical left, meanwhile, focuses too much on deconstructing the rhetoric of Obama and Cameron’s speeches (witness Russell Brand on his YouTube show ‘The Trews’ joking about Cameron’s hair and referencing The Empire Strikes Back), while leaving aside the more important business of documenting their actual response. 

Far too many commentators seem to treat the world as some kind of text to analyse, highlight and add notes to in the margins, and not something to directly influence or participate in.  The Jihadis Return is an admirable example of what is sorely needed in the debates surrounding contemporary jihadism; an account concerned as much with what needs to be done as what needs to be said.

Elliot Murphy is a postgraduate Neurolinguistics student at the Faculty of Brain Sciences, UCL. He holds a first-class English degree from the University of Nottingham, and is the author of Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature, published by Zero Books in November.

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