Andrew Hosken’s recent book, Empire of Fear, Inside the Islamic State provides a galvanising account of the rise and current state of ISIS. He starts with a rather basic question: ‘who are these guys?’. A fundamental confusion that he expresses through an unlikely analogy (that of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). It seems an important place to start. Over the past few years we’ve witnessed dramatic shifts in their leadership, their allies (notably, their tempestuous relationship with Al Qaeda) and their territorial strongholds. Exacerbating this, their regular rebranding makes even reference to the organisation strangely confusing. A metaphor that is returned to throughout the book is that of cancer, which goes some way in explaining their ability to spread unpredictably, shifting into ever new, dangerous shapes. Andrew’s work makes great strides in offering clarity on this topic which is prone to being sensationalised and misconstrued. Particularly, he focuses on the political conditions that allowed this group to exist in the first place, portraying a perfect storm of factors of which the West played a definite part. By understanding these antecedents, he suggests, we can start to understand the group’s hydra-like ability to rise from the brink of defeat and strike time and time again.
I first met Andrew while working on a lecture series in East London. In the weeks preceding the production, we spoke sporadically on the phone as he prepared his talk. Always, he seemed to be calling from a different location between bouts of reportage; my concerns that he format his slides correctly feeling increasingly trivial as he explained the nature of his work.
Anyone who has listened to his reports on Radio Four will understand that Andrew is enormously likeable. Though his breadth of knowledge is formidable, he remains friendly and rather modest; I made the mistake of referring to him as an ‘expert’ in our copy, a pompous label that immediately chaffed. The stories he covers are disturbing and anyone who reads his book will find certain passages incredibly difficult to metabolise. Yet, this is strangely offset by his passion for the job, something which comes across in his writing and in person. There is something reassuringly gung-ho about how he tackles these issues, an optimism about the process of journalism, the sheer power of gaining and sharing understanding. At moments, he even manages to preserve a degree of good humour, observing the eccentricities of this terrifying group with a bemused irony; during our first conversation, he informed me of a common practise amongst ISIS soldiers to steel across the border and make covert Mcdonald’s runs.
His lecture was one of the most successful of the series, albeit one of its darkest. The audience, though visibly taken aback, rushed him at the interval with further questions, purchasing every last copy of his book and asking for elaborations on certain points. The passionate response seemed a fitting vindication of the journalist’s task, a brief talk managing to incite a deeper, and hopefully enduring, engagement with the issue. Since then, there have been yet more acts of ‘managed barbarity’ by the terrorist group and even larger scale attacks on the West. I caught up with him to ask him more about the situation and to hear more about the trials of reporting itself.
Your book starts with the assertion that the group is fundamentally ambiguous and misunderstood. What accounts for this gap in our knowledge?
People think of ISIS primarily as violent Islamist extremists, which is only partly true. In the book I go into great detail about how ISIS is effectively an amalgam of Islamist fundamentalists and former Ba’ath party former army officers, policemen and security services staff who were essentially disenfranchised and thrown out of work following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US and and Iraq’s new governing elite of predominantly Shia politicians returned from exile following the invasion after decades of persecution at the hands of the predominantly Sunni Ba’ath Party and considered former Ba’ath party members as the creatures of Saddam Hussein. Like the Islamists, the Ba’ath Party was essentially a totalitarian organization. It tolerated no opposition. Many of Ba’athists had no-where to go following the anti Ba’ath purges in the months and years after the invasion. The Ba’athists are a ruthless bunch that knew how to control a civilian population through terror. They are experts at arms, explosives and torture. Many of the Ba’athists and Islamists met in US internment camps during the mid 2000’s. The US also helped fuel the rise of the Islamists by abolishing the army, throwing many officers out of work. Many of them were also Ba’athists and signed up with Islamist groups and other parts of the insurgency.
The gap in our knowledge comes mainly from the fact that everyone lost sight of ISIS and its previous incarnations such as “Al Qaeda in Iraq” and the “Islamic State of Iraq”. Most people thought by 2010 that the combined forces of US troops and Sunni tribesmen from the “Awakening Movement” then, had effectively destroyed “Islamic State of Iraq”, the precursor to ISIS and what the group called itself.
Are there any ways in which they are particularly misunderstood?
I think most people do not understand them at all, who they are, where they have come from or what they want. I don’t think people understand that ISIS has dreams of world domination, as unlikely and as implausible as that seems and sounds. Given a free hand, the group would not only conquer the so-called ‘Islamic world’ it thinks it has a God-given duty to occupy, but eventually the whole world. It is also essentially a genocidal organization. ISIS believes it has a right and duty to kill off all people, sects and races that don’t happen to follow its extreme version of Islam. People think its dreams of conquest concern Muslims and the so-called Islamic world. This is only the first stage of their dreams of conquest. They believe they must bring the whole world under their version of Islam.
As ISIS becomes an increasingly global concern, do you think our knowledge of them has improved accordingly? Does it remain dangerously inadequate?
People seem increasingly concerned at the terror threat posed to them and their cities and countries by ISIS rather than wanting to find out more about it. The daily media has only so much time to explain what the group’s all about and understandably concentrates on the group’s crimes, military activities in Syria and Iraq and the terror it perpetrates. I think the attacks in Tunisia and elsewhere have made westerners wary of holidaying in the Middle East and North Africa. ISIS carried out the attacks in Paris with the intention of destroying westerners’ feeling of immunity. Again ISIS wants people in the West to feel as vulnerable from its jihadists as they do from the drones and fighter pilots sent by the West over Syria and Iraq.
Do you think taking aim at Western interests was a strategic mistake, opening up a war on too many fronts? It seemed before they were focusing predominantly on sectarian divides and consolidating a power base.
There is now a coalition of more than 60 nations ranged against ISIS. Even Switzerland is involved! I think you’re absolutely right. ISIS is essentially an Iraqi-led organization and has shown that it has a fundamental misunderstanding of the West, particularly the UK and the US. There is no doubt that its shocking crimes, not least the beheading of western hostages, has helped foment opposition among civilian populations in the West that were and are largely antipathetic to the war in Iraq. It has now made itself Enemy Number One in the world and few nations will tolerate its continuing existence.
Its threats to destroy the US and wreak havoc around the world have only provoked the coalition. The ISIS bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt has also helped bring about Russia’s intercession in Syria. ISIS is among the opposition groups to have been targeted by the Russians.
It may have been harder for Russia and the West to convince their own populations of the need to fight ISIS if the group had not so directly threatened those populations and indeed, as in the case of Paris, actually realized those threats.
Have you noticed any ways in which the ISIS threat has been cynically used by Westerners? For instance, sensationalized by media or used by politicians; it seems to be playing a very significant role in the American election cycle.
I’m not sure about the cynical use about ISIS by Westerners. This is probably not for me to say. But there has been, perhaps understandably, a real obsession about ISIS in parts of the media, and I think in part that is due to the schlock-horror aspect of ISIS, the beheadings and other elaborately choreographed murders. I’m not sure about the wisdom of Fox News, for example, posting the footage of the ISIS burning to death of the young Jordanian pilot, Lieutenant Muath al Kasasbeh. I met Lt. al Kasasbeh’s father in Jordan late last year and I thought it was awful that he could, if he so wished, see this awful crime against his son simply by logging onto that particular website. It may be unfair on Fox because the footage is probably available online elsewhere.
Also often ISIS has been able to exploit this media obsession for its own purposes. It knows that its beheadings and murders will always get huge media coverage and that has helped it to recruit people to its cause. People talk about the adept use of social media by group while overlooking the amplification to its deeds given by the established print and broadcast media. Often there is no way the official media has been able to avoid this as, for example, the brutal murder of Alan Henning.
Reading the later chapters where you explore life within the Islamic State, it becomes difficult to reconcile the group with any ideological beliefs. What, do you believe, motivates the organization? It seems almost like a will-to-power and little more?
There is a combination of factors. As I have said, the group also caters for ex Ba’athists who lost power and have now seemingly regained it through ISIS and its conquest of territories in Syria and Iraq. I believe power and control are the dominant factors. It is entirely consumed by its obsession of conquering territory and holding it and defending it. All territory goes to building its caliphate.
The group’s leaders believe they should rule the globe according to their extremist view of Islam. ISIS considers anyone not conforming to its rigid and extreme version guilty of apostasy, of “takfir”. ISIS believes it has the right and duty to murder anyone considered to be “takfir.” They believe their brand of “takfiri” Islam is the correct version and this is what Allah wants to control the world, not just the so-called Islamic world.
Also bound up with the motives is the split between Shia and Sunni Muslims. ISIS started its war again the Shia Muslim majority in Iraq shortly following the 2003 invasion. Under Saddam and the Ba’athists, the Sunnis, albeit the minority of Muslims in Iraq, were dominant in the country, as they had been in the region for centuries under the Ottomans. After the invasion, the Shia Muslims, making up 60 per cent of Iraq’s population, became the most dominant. They started to “de-“Ba’athify” the country’s political, military, security and cultural institutions fuelling further resentment among Sunnis.
ISIS and its previous incarnations have ruthlessly exploited this split. Rampant corruption in Iraq has reduced the state’s validation in the eyes of millions of ordinary Iraqi’s as well helping to fill the coffers of ISIS through black market oil sales etc. Corruption also caused enormous harm to Iraq’s army and security institution. It also seriously damaged the country’s ability to defend itself against ISIS. There are also the often-poisonous regional disputes that have played their part in Iraq. For example, predominantly Shia Iran and predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia have often been accused of playing out their long running feud in Iraq. Iran has enjoyed astonishing influence over Iraq Shia militia and senior politicians. Saudi Arabia has often been accused of being lax in its controls to prevent private donations from individual Saudis going to Sunni extremists like ISIS. We also have the regional feud between Turkey and Russia over Syria. All of these disputes and rivalries have aided ISIS and complicated and exacerbated the situation. Often the splits are down sectarian lines, Shia and Sunni, but there are also political differences. ISIS has successfully exploited all these divisions and arguments.
Moving on to your role as a reporter, what have been some of the biggest emotional challenges while covering this topic?
In Iraq, particularly Baghdad, you have to accept the security situation is bad and that there is the ever present threat of car bombings by ISIS, and even kidnap by Shia militias. Even as I was thinking about this question, the news came through that an ISIS suicide bomber had killed at least 38 people in a market in the Sadr city district of east Baghdad, which I have visited.
When you are in Iraq, all these pressures can take their toll. The ISIS story also involves a lot of terror, bloodshed and misery. It is important to report these issues in as professional a manner as possible without becoming detached to the real human tragedies involved. I have spoken to many refugees in places like Jordan who have fled ISIS terror and it is important to listen to these stories and transmit them to the outside world and not allow yourself to become too distressed. People want and need solid and responsible reporting of these issues, not some reporter emoting at them through the TV or radio.
You explore the systemic barbarity of the group, given the sheer volume of these acts, do you notice yourself growing desensitized to the news you cover?
No, on a personal level I am as horrified and appalled as anyone by the terror and murders. I think becoming desensitized is as bad as becoming too emotional. For example, I have spoke to people in Baghdad about the terror they face on a daily basis and obviously share it when I am there. It is impossible to become ambivalent about ISIS terror when it could take your life without warning if you happened to be on the wrong place at the wrong time. At the same time, people do not expect or want emotion from authors and journalists. I describe and recount terrible things in the book and I think the facts speak for themselves.
Do you think a degree of desensitization could be useful to the job? Recently, it seems a lot of journalists are re-evaluating the idea of ‘proper distance’ to their subjects. Does emotional connection offer any service to this sort of reporting?
As a journalist, you do have to retain a certain amount of distance but that doesn’t make you desensitized. You have to keep your personal views to yourself otherwise you wouldn’t be much good as a reporter. Columnists are paid to express their emotions and views. But reporters are paid to report on what they see and hear, or are told. For example, a political reporter wouldn’t last long if he or she publically expressed their views on policies and politicians.
For example, I am often moved by stories I hear from refugees whether they are in camps in Turkey and Jordan or in the so-called “Jungle” in Calais. You can tell these stories or allow the people themselves to tell the stories without expressing your own personal emotion. People are interested in how the refugees feel, not how I feel. There are places for that, for example in essays or to a certain degree on programmes such as From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio Four. But I don’t think general news reporting is the place for it.
When we met, I was really moved by what I interpreted as optimism. Are you optimistic still about the situation?
I do believe that ISIS will eventually be defeated, if that’s what you mean by optimism. Many people also ISIS has done enormous damage to its brand of intolerant “takfiri” Islam. It has also shown itself, yet again, to be a cruel master whenever it has managed to gain control of territory. But I am possibly less confident that all parties and countries concerned will be able to sort out the political, social and cultural conditions that helped to create it. There are also social factors and issues about democracy and governance in the region that play their part. There is also the ideology that has proved itself very difficult to eradicate. Also there is no guarantee – even if ISIS is destroyed – that something else, possibly something even worse, will not come along to take its place.
Interview by Sean Gilbert