“We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it.”
So said General Michael Nagata, a distinguished US special operations commander, who was assigned by President Obama in 2014 to train and assist Syrian rebels in battling the so-called Islamic State (IS). These words echo eerily through decades of Western military interventions abroad, and apply just as powerfully today. They also provide the perfect opener to a new volume of primary IS sources, compiled and analysed by a group of three experts in the field, The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement.
In fact, reading the volume at a particularly sensitive time for the movement – the holy month of Ramadan, which includes the anniversary of the so-called caliphate in 2014 – offers its own unsettling perspective. A string of IS attacks across the Middle East and Asia in the last three weeks – in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, and the Maldives – underlines how this amorphous project continues to be resilient, in spite of losing its physical territory and enduring sustained attacks by government forces across the region. Contrary to many statesmen’s proclamations, IS is by no means “defeated”.
General Nagata’s words perhaps speak to a key weakness in Western intelligence, both among its professional practitioners and among the growing industry of public and private sector analysts and scholars. There is simply not enough active and thorough engagement with primary sources. This, at least, is the professional opinion of two of this impressive new volume’s three co-editors: Craig Whiteside, a National Security Affairs lecturer at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and Haroro J. Ingram, a Senior Research Fellow at George Washington Unviersity’s Program on Extremism. Whiteside has emphasised how crucial it is to expose military officers, many of whom are his own students, to such materials for the first time, while Ingram, perhaps more alarmingly, has warned how his own pupils’ reluctance to engage in jihadist primary source materials comes from a fear of actually being radicalised.
Granted, there are many legal and ethical obstructions to engaging with original jihadist content. For obvious reasons, much of it is illegal to access or share. Besides that, it can be difficult to obtain and, of course, often contains deeply disturbing messaging and images. As a result, it is the easiest, most convenient, and least problematic approach to simply rely on the world’s colossal library of secondary analysis. But no matter how well researched and insightful, these can still lead readers into detached debates on meaning and strategy, all the while the primary sources evolve and diverge.
In attempting to right this epistemological wrong, Ingram, Whiteside and their colleague Charlie Winter – a Senior Research Fellow at KCL’s Centre for the Study of Radicalisation – have produced a highly useful compilation of key texts and speeches produced by IS in recent decades, stretching much earlier than the proclamation of the “caliphate”. For many readers, it will be the first step towards a more accessible, legally unambiguous, and expertly controlled library of primary sources.
The editors’ focus is on drawing causal logics between the group’s written and spoken narratives, and its physical actions. Each chronological chapter, from 1994 to 2019, places the movement’s output in a clear and detailed historical context, and the texts themselves are methodically interrogated by the three editors. Importantly, the group’s strategic and rocky theological claims, which of course horrify the vast majority of Muslims the world over, are critically explored using caveats and counter-arguments. The frequent factual errors are put right.
Nevertheless, the analysis is kept separate to the subject matters themselves, to create an atmosphere one would feel in the presence of a highly dangerous museum exhibit. The item is preserved as it was found, securely behind reinforced glass and at a safe distance, but shown beside a plaque that discredits the item’s very purpose. This approach preserves the historical importance of the texts, which ultimately serves the editors’ purpose of creating a mechanism of combating the movement itself.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Reader’s chapter on ‘Defining Success and Failure’, which analyses a speech by IS spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani in May 2016, shortly before his death. The speech is placed in the context of significant tangible losses by the central ‘caliphate’, in terms of territory, revenue, havens and personnel, and it constitutes an attempt to spin these blows as strategically irrelevant in the group’s cosmic aims. The wording of the speech is as caustic as can be expected in such a situation, and were IS a purely military enemy, it could easily be read as an acknowledgement of imminent defeat. But al-Adnani’s focus is on the broader “struggle”, and viewing the speech through the lens of encouragement, rather than despair, is key to understanding the adaptation of the movement under sustained military pressure. It is this nuance that makes world leaders’ proud announcements of the group’s “defeat” sadly short-sighted, and underpins the value of this kind of primary source analysis. The same applies to the Reader’s earlier chapters on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is so easily dismissed as a street thug, but who harboured much larger strategic plans that were overlooked at the time.
The ISIS Reader is a crucial book in the professional analyst’s collection. It is accessible to a degree, but for the more casual reader it would perhaps need accompaniment by broader histories. Nevertheless, it marks an encouraging early step in the wider publication of expertly and carefully handled collections of primary sources.
Encyclopedia Geopolitica was kindly provided with a review copy of “The ISIS Reader” by Hurst Publishing, a leading source of publications on international affairs.
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John Scott is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. John has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic and organised crime analysis for Intelligence Fusion, and now works in political risk for a leading intelligence firm in London.
Cover image: Members from the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service present Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with a flag from Bartilah, a town recaptured just outside of Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff official photograph.