Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction by Charles R. Lister

This book is short enough at 85 Kindle pages to be considered a pamphlet or monograph and yet it clearly outlines the genesis and development of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It focuses more intensely on ISIS strengths and weaknesses rather than ideology. Rather than detail accounts of successes in the field or Western attempts to combat ISIS, it assumes a conversant and sympathetic Western audience. He has a more in-depth treatment due to be published in the U.K. in November this year (Hurst) and the U.S. in 2016 (Oxford Univ Press), called THE SYRIAN JIHAD: AL-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency. Lister is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, Senior Consultant at The Shaikh Group, and formerly head of MENA at IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre in London.

While many radical insurgents originated in Saudi Arabia, Lister makes clear that is began originally as opposition to the Saudi monarchy, therefore correcting what might be a misapprehension among observers: since many radicals issued from Saudi, one might conclude that the country fostered them, when in fact, they caused them.* The fact remains that the Saudi government did little to curb radical ideologies originating on their soil, and did, in fact, make much of its opposition to the Shia sect’s power and control, as well as sponsoring or condoning the adoption of the variant of Wahhabism that is the ISIS creed.

Lister outlines the way ISIS has made itself financially strong: oil revenues from siphoned or takeover wells, levies on the transportation of goods within affected countries, taxes in areas it controls, outright theft, kidnap-for-ransom, extortion and protection rackets, and the sale of antiquities, among other things. It has a strict bureaucratic hierarchy which gives it some reach into the organizations it claims. It has gathered to itself disaffected and trained military men from throughout the Islamic world, has released from prison captured radicals and utilized their talents, and uses social media, including English-language outlets, effectively.

ISIS is not currently waging a war against the West. This makes it essentially different from Al Qaeda. ISIS is intent upon establishing a trans-national caliphate of their particular brand of Islam, which has, in effect, caused such sectarian strife in affected countries that ISIS may be able to capitalize in the vacuum of governance. This broad-yet-narrow outlook may be an exploitable weakness: their violence against Muslims who do not adhere to their stated tenets promotes violence against their movement, and governments accustomed to operating within state boundaries will oppose any incursion on their soils. The civilians on the ground may well oppose a trans-national caliphate based on Wahhabism but have fewer options available to them.

Lister’s work already seems a little out of date, for just yesterday we heard that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in talks with Russia and Turkey, stated a willingness to consider Assad remaining in power, while Lister defends the position taken by the U.S. last year: that Assad must go. But you will see in this analysis suggestions for Western strategy or policy in combating the ISIS scourge, with an emphasis on Western support of local actors rather than intervention. The trouble with writing about trouble spots is that things change so quickly and sometimes decisively. However, the bulk of this short book is detailed enough on actors and attitudes to be useful.

More reading on ISIS:
Black Flags by Joby Warrick
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn
Too Weak, Too Strong: Russia in Syria (essay in London Review of Books) by Patrick Cockburn
Understanding ISIS and The New Global War on Terror by Phyllis Bennis
ISIS: State of Terror by Jessica Stern & J.M. Berger
* Later (12/15) I have learned that Saudi has its own interpretation of the Koran and this interpretation is very restrictive of the rights of many classes of believers at the expense of others. So Saudi official interpretations of the Koran may, in fact, give sustenance to the interpretations of the Koran by radical groups.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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