- - Sunday, May 12, 2019


By Anthony Tucker-Jones

Pen and Sword, $22.95, 128 pages

The emergence in mid-2014 of the terrorist group Islamic State (IS), also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, in Iraq and Syria, as the violently genocidal successor to what had been al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), established one of the greatest threats to global security today.

With the IS establishing a self-proclaimed “caliphate” in the territories it controlled in Iraq and Syria, which, fortunately, have since then been largely rolled back by the U.S.-led military coalition, the terror group has regenerated by continuing to operate through its franchises and cells in other vulnerable countries around the world, including in cyberspace, where its propaganda in extremist websites serves to radicalize and recruit additional members.

In the latest example of the Islamic State’s genocidal brutality, on Easter Sunday of this year, its local cell in Sri Lanka conducted a simultaneous series of suicide bombings at churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, killing an estimated 258 people and wounding more than 500 others.

Anthony Tucker-Jones’ “Daesh: Islamic State’s Holy War” is an excellent and concise overview of its origins, multifaceted nature and terrorist activities. The author is well-informed on these issues given his background as a former British defense intelligence officer who has written more than 30 books on military subjects.

As Mr. Tucker-Jones explains, the IS was the successor to AQI under its former leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose violent brutality became so notorious that it led Ayman al-Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden’s deputy at the time, so write him a letter in July 2005 cautioning him to ‘moderate’ his group’s attacks, especially against fellow Muslims. With al-Zarqawi killed by a U.S. aerial strike at his Iraqi hideout in early July 2006, he was eventually succeeded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (a nom de guerre) in May 2010, who proceeded to reconstitute the remnants of AQI and other jihadi forces into the newly formed IS in 2014.

The Islamic State’s destructiveness is manifold, as the author writes that with “torture, sexual abuse and non-judicial killings” part of its armory of terror, “it successfully undermined the fabric of society in every country it touched. Its public relations offensive, while barbaric and immoral with beheadings and burnings, was crude, it succeeded in creating fear and revulsion. As a terror organization it was at the height of its game.”

Most of the book’s chapters discuss the terrorist activities by IS’ cells and lone actor adherents, especially in Western Europe, the United States and Canada, and Australia. What makes such individuals join a terrorist group that propagates “anarchy and mayhem, like the bureaucracy of murder”? The author explains that leaked IS files provide an understanding of their recruitment methods, with many members having “criminal records and little detailed understanding of the Muslim faith. Often it was simply a case of young people looking for direction. These rebels without a cause often make potential jihadists.”

A subject that is especially pertinent today is the author’s discussion of the measures required by governments to manage the threat posed by the radicalized extremists from the West who joined IS as “foreign fighters.”

To explain this phenomenon, he writes in the chapter “Holy War Tourists” that “War tourists have long been a feature of distant wars: those who go to fight are either seen as idealized freedom fighters or just plain mercenaries. Whatever the ideology that motivates them, for some there is also a perverse glamour to being in a war zone and being a fighter for a just cause. It is noticeable how foreign volunteers always adopt the fighting fashions of their hosts — often to comical if ultimately deadly affect.”

Now that the IS has been largely defeated in Syria, many of these former “foreign fighters” and their wives and children seek to return to their home countries, thereby presenting dilemmas that need to be addressed. The author’s recommendation is noteworthy, as he writes that a series of factors need to be considered: “While prosecution and prison may be the best course for some hardliners, for others who have simply been led astray or are simply idealized youths out to change the world, a better route might be reintegration with the support of social and mental health services.”

What led to Islamic State’s decline and the loss of its territorial ‘caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq? The author explains that “conquering territory and running an effective administration” are “two entirely different things” and that it could no longer prop itself up once its revenues from its illicit activities, such as looting antiquities and oil, dried up, which were accompanied by its military defeats and the subsequent dispersals of its fighters and their families to other areas.

He cautions, however, that “its ideology of hatred” and capability to conduct terrorist attacks elsewhere remain intact because, as he concludes, “As far as Daesh is concerned, it is waging an ancient holy war that will never be extinguished.”

Such insights make this concise book a valuable resource for understanding the magnitude of the threat posed by the Islamic State and what must be done to defeat it.

• Joshua Sinai is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.

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