On Nov. 16, 2014, the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State released a graphic video depicting a masked jihadist standing over the severed head of U.S. citizen Peter Kassig. The filmed execution of Kassig, who had been captured the previous year in Syria, was just the latest in a growing collection of horrific videos uploaded and disseminated around the Internet by the group.
His Islamic State captors cared little that Kassig had dedicated the final years of his life to humanitarian work in Lebanon and Syria, or that he had converted to Islam during his time in captivity. What mattered most to his killers was that Kassig had served as a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq, and thus his death not only represented a blow to the "infidel" army of the West, but a step toward the fulfillment of a prophecy.
"Here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive," recited Kassig's anglophone executioner.
Beheadings, burnings, and systematic executions have become commonplace since this jihadist organization seized control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in the summer of 2014. The rapidity of its advance and the savagery of its practices have left many outside observers aghast and grasping at any available explanation for why such barbarity exists in the 21st Century. But to stop the Islamic State, it is important first to understand and explain the method to its unconscionable madness.
Middle East analysts Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan endeavor to do just that in their new book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. The authors provide a comprehensive account of how the Islamic State came to be, who is to blame for its emergence, and why world leaders should be worried about its expansion.
The New Stewards of Sunnistan
At once bureaucratic and brutal, the organization Weiss and Hassan detail represents an evolution in global jihadism. Less a terrorist formation in the mold of al Qaeda, the Islamic State emerged as the end result of years of bad policy and Salafist infighting. Though its incubation dates back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - as well as the Sunni insurgency that plagued U.S. forces following the 2003 invasion of Iraq - its departure from al Qaeda's message and methods is what truly distinguishes the Islamic State's reign of terror from the rest.
"For ISIS, theocratic legitimacy follows the seizure and administration of terrain. First you ‘liberate' the people, then you found a government," write Weiss and Hassan. This difference of approach, according to the authors, marks a departure from the modus operandi of groups such as al Qaeda that prefer to impose their brand of Sharia prior to the defeat of apostate regimes and invaders. This isn't just a misunderstanding over Quranic interpretation - it is a fundamental disagreement over the right and wrong way to build the caliphate.
The Islamic State is a problem with many midwives, and according to Weiss and Hassan it represents the logical next step in the development of a deep state designed to settle old historical scores and defend the Sunni heartland against all enemies.
Mixed among the Islamic State's rank-and-file jihadists is the detritus of Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship. These ex-cronies and military commanders give the organization a rather secular and terrestrial complexion that runs athwart the Islamic State's apocalyptic rhetoric. The Bush administration failed to anticipate the full ramifications of its efforts to purge Saddam's loyalists from post-war Iraq - a process often referred to as "de-Baathification." The Obama administration followed with an error of its own, hastily withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq without developing a serious strategy to counter Iranian meddling in the capital and Syrian subversion in the countryside.
"What Saddam, al Assad, [deceased al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi, and bin Laden all understood," explain Weiss and Hassan, "was that the gravest threat posed to a democratic government in Baghdad was not necessarily jihadism or even disenfranchised Baathism; it was Sunni revanchism."