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Rolling the Dice with an Islamic State Too Crazy to Last

March 22, 2020 Leave a comment

The mechanics of 2010s Middle Eastern warfare are a bloody mix of science fiction and amateur hour. Mike Giglio’s taut accounts of them can be so raw it nearly put me off reading more than a few pages of his new book. But his experiences ended up challenging any complacency I might have had about some of the dysfunctional chaos into which the region has descended.

Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate” (Public Affairs, November 2019) turned out to be an excellent, addictive account of Giglio’s seven years of fascination for the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh), its recruits, its origins and its enemies. The book wears its history efficiently and lightly, and is refreshingly free of geopolitics. Even better, this fast-paced drama is propelled forward by real Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians and others. The American journalist author himself certainly goes the extra mile. When taking a vital trooper’s seat in a lead vehicle, he even has to pass up belts of ammunition to the turret gunner.

By two-thirds of the way through, even when I put the book down and was walking down a harmless street in Brussels, Giglio had cast such a spell that I found myself feeling as if I too was in a Humvee. I was hearing bullets thud into armoured plates, willing on a machine-gunner in duels with snipers and peering through cracked, mud-stained windows for the inevitable next car bomb lumbering out from behind a shattered building.

Liking our way to a better world

The narrative starts in Egypt during the “Arab Spring”, where a naïve youth movement against police violence is crushed with utter brutality. The movement was inspired by Western values, but Giglio highlights how the U.S. government had no understanding of that context: there was “a certain mind-set at the time, halfway through President Barack Obama’s first term – the feeling that it was possible to sit at your laptop and like your way to a better world”. Giglio shows how a similarly pro-Western, pro-reform Syrian opposition movement gradually turns ruthless in order to survive. “The euphoria of [the original] moment … was central to the darkness that followed,” Giglio says. “The sense of betrayal that came when … the rest of the world lost interest.”

The only Arab uprising that led to at least a medium-term transition was in Tunisia, where the protests started. This was a small sidebar to the devastation visited upon several major countries of the Arab world. Egypt soon went back under its military’s authoritarian yoke. Order collapsed into civil wars in Yemen and Libya. All that was left was Syria, “the Arab Spring’s last great struggle”. Yet CIA support gave “ten bullets at a time, just keeping rebel groups alive but not allowing them to win”. The last stab in the back was Obama’s decision in 2013 not to honour his pledge to view Syria’s use of chemical weapons as a red line.

Soon, Giglio says, the Arab Spring was dead and the region entered a “foggy transition” to something far more dangerous. The Damascus regime bombed civilian areas and executed suspected rebel sympathisers with impunity. No longer were there revolutionaries in Syria who wanted to uphold the U.S.-led world order. “Moderate” fighters were superseded by ardently Islamist ones with draconian social rules, young men who insisted on being addressed by the honorific “sheikh”.

The U.S. role in Iraq made a destructive contribution. Its reckless Iraq war in 2003 had spawned the first al-Qaeda rebellion, and when the U.S. crushed that, the insurgency’s surviving members morphed into a new and even tougher organisation, ISIS. Exploiting the sectarian divides ripped open by the U.S. actions, ISIS pushed U.S.-backed Iraqi forces back to the gates of Baghdad and Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Killing and torturing with a ruthlessness that matched that of Assad’s secret police state, it crossed the wide-open desert border to become pre-eminent in Syria.

Metal war machines

Giglio joins the “war-fuelled underworld” of the Syrian war in the early 2010s, haunting places like Antakya and Gaziantep along the Turkish border. Here he became a player in a cast of journalists, aid workers, Gulf financiers, fixers, smugglers, merchants, refugees, jihadists and spies, all of whom conspire in hotel reception halls and café terraces round “little hourglass-shaped glasses of clay-brown Turkish tea.” He’s especially good at illustrating the curious overlaps between ISIS and the West. He notes that ISIS’s international fighters were “mirror images of our modern world, men and women at ease in it and part of it”. The same goes for the conflict itself: “it was a war of GPS-guided missiles and advanced IEDs, and it was also a war of long-haired jihadis fighting men in skull masks as the two sides charged in their metal war machines”.

Author Mike Giglio aboard a Humvee west of Mosul in 2017. Photo by Warzer Jaff.

Giglio plausibly dates ISIS’s plunge into dead-end millennial conflict to 2 August 2014, when, having captured Mosul, it decided to attack the Iraqi Kurds directly and to confront the United States. This decision swept aside those who wanted ISIS to run its own territory, a Syrian journalist tells him, a “statist” faction dominated by veterans of the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Even so, remnants of that faction’s thinking stayed to the last, creating “Islamic State” car number plates, taxes and bureaucratic offices.

The fanatical faction, seeing extremism as an end in itself, then embarked on a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis, another action that made ISIS a global target for eradication. (The Global Alliance against Daesh now counts 82 member states). In one of many fascinating ground zero episodes in the book, Giglio listens in for an hour as a regular Syrian rebel commander negotiates by cellphone with one of the Iraqi leaders of ISIS. The ISIS leader teases, threatens, cajoles, invokes the primacy of his vision of Islam and ends by telling the Syrian: “either you cleanse us or we cleanse you”. The attack on the Iraqi Kurds probably sealed ISIS’s short term outlook, since that’s what triggered the first U.S. air strikes in Iraq. ISIS then began beheading its foreign hostages in Syria. That was the final straw. As Giglio points out, “Americans could stomach all kinds of atrocities overseas except the killing of one of their own”.

Giglio doesn’t try to pin down ISIS to any one ideology, although he notes how its members were attracted to glory for their community, and aware that the land they fought over was steeped in the history of Islam. He notes how al-Qaeda focused on sophisticated high-profile operations, while ISIS spread terror with attacks on everyday life. ISIS was able to recruit thousands of fighters from the lands of its own enemies with its offer of making them feel bigger than they could at home, but “they dreamed of the glamour of violence, having no real sense of it”. He tracks down a defector from ISIS, who cannot shake off the nightmare of his actions, remembering trainers who taught “us that God is waiting for you, and you must go to him … we wanted to die”.

A fresh insight Giglio offers is that for many radicalised Syrians, their pre-war identities shattered by the conflict, there was an “origin story centred on an act of violence that marked the divide between the person they had been before the war and who they had come to be”. Some ISIS sympathisers he meets seem proud of fighting the West and the Russia-backed Assad regime at once. Others remind him of lapsed Catholics. One drinks alcohol, has a girlfriend in another town, smokes constantly, never seems to pray but still self-identifies as an Islamist. “The genius of the ISIS survival strategy”, Giglio says, was “allowing people to come and go … a shadow network that was always there but also gone the second you turned on the light”.

An American deity

The same shadowy nature applies to the Americans whose role in the war Giglio skilfully weaves into the narrative. “America’s presence around the front was something like a deity’s, everywhere and nowhere at once”. When he comes across U.S. soldiers, they are a fit cohort of specialists, quite unlike the heterogeneous mix of Iraqi soldiers who are some of his most memorable characters: thin and fat, fit and unfit, young and old, gaunt and relaxed. They are fighting for their family, each other or the rare opportunity of gainful employment, “sin eaters carrying the burden of their allies – of the United States, which had started a catastrophic war and then pulled its troops from the country not because the war was won but because Americans were tired of it”. In Syria, everyone was shocked by the Damascus regime’s merciless levelling of opposition urban areas; this book keeps reminding the reader of the shocking destruction the air power of the U.S.-led alliance wrought on ISIS’s main city in Syria of Raqqa, Mosul in Iraq and other ISIS-held areas. It shows how wrong the U.S. was to claim that its air attacks almost never killed civilians.

Giglio’s writing has lyrical moments too, as when he describes the edgy state of Iraq at the height of the ISIS threat in 2014-2015. “With Ayad we got into our hired driver’s sedan and rolled through the wired aggression of downtown Baghdad after dark. Military police in blue-and-black fatigues stood with their machine guns in the shadows of the streetlights. Checkpoints were illuminated against the night’s haze. Concrete blast walls wrapped around homes, topped with glass shards and razor wire. Teams of security guards perched on many rooftops. Entire blocks had been cordoned off by gates of reinforced metal, where a knock would be met by the creak of a sliding hatch and a pair of wary eyes. The prison-yard claustrophobia had written itself into the city’s DNA. Every layer of fortification and barricade testified to an old escalation of violence. A local could point to each as a marker in the story of Baghdad’s tragic recent history, like reading the rings inside a fallen tree”.

In the end, as Giglio puts it, ISIS’s “so-called caliphate was too crazy to last, and ISIS seemed to like it that way.” U.S.-led power crushes ISIS’s state on earth. Giglio’s three-act narrative – beginnings, a zenith of terror, and collapse after it lost Mosul – ends. But the intensity of his testimony up to this point leaves the reader feeling as though the story can’t be over. Indeed, Giglio hints that the dynamics that propelled ISIS to the headlines could still gather its shattered pieces back together again. ISIS cells and sympathisers are actively promoting the brand in Africa, Afghanistan and even Asia. Europe is also squarely in the cross hairs. Giglio shows vividly how ISIS deliberately smuggled hundreds, if not thousands, of adherents into Europe alongside refugees. As one ISIS supporter tells him, “Syria will be visited on them.”

Waking Up to the Brussels Bombs

March 23, 2016 2 comments

The bombs in my new hometown of Brussels didn’t go off close to me. But they did kind of wake me up.

In Brussels airport’s modest departure hall, the explosions were at places I’ve passed through a hundred times over the years. Many of my acquaintances have done so too. The boyfriend of the online editor who works at the desk beside me was on his way to check in, and a colleague was parking her car nearby.

Shortly afterward, a mile away from us, another bomb exploded on a crowded metro train between Schumann and Maalbeek stations, killing 20 people, ripping the carriage into twisted metal and filling the underground with screams and choking smoke. My 12-year-old daughter had taken a nearby metro to school just an hour earlier.

 

Soldiers

Soldiers have become an everyday sight on the boulevards of Brussels since the November 2015 Paris attacks were traced back to the suburb of Molenbeek.

Brussels is not a big town. My former home of Istanbul has as many people as the whole of Belgium, and it probably takes more time to drive across. As my neighbour said as I met her walking her dog that morning, when something bad happens you always know somebody connected to it. I’m new here, so luckily for me, I knew nobody who was hurt. But my daughter’s schoolfriends did.

After 33 years living in the Middle East, I’d have thought I was immune to shock. I’ve seen plenty of bombs. My reporting job took me to warfronts, and once trapped me for ten weeks in a Sudanese town under rebel siege. The 2003 car bomb at Istanbul’s British Consulate-General sent its gatehouse up in smoke before my eyes. In 1983 I even witnessed one of the Middle East’s first suicide car bombs, when, as I describe in my book Dining with al-Qaeda, “a shockwave of explosive force whomped through the office … a column of evil, yellowish smoke and debris was spiraling up into the sky … ” (I’ve reproduced the page below).

But somehow these Brussels bombings shook me up, even though I didn’t go near them.

Perhaps it’s because just three days before, an apparently Islamist suicide bomber attacked the Istanbul street where until recently I had lived for 15 years, the latest of several such attacks in Turkey. We could pass the spot several times a day. At the moment of the blast, our caretaker’s son was taking an exam opposite. He sent pictures of what he saw, gruesome, guts-spilling-over-the-pavement images of the four crumpled dead and the stunned gaze of the injured .

Perhaps it was because I thought that by moving to Europe, I was coming somewhere safe. Perhaps I underestimated the angry sentiments of the pro-Islamic State element in the Brussels inner city districts; a journalist friend told me of residents stoning and harassing him as police arrested the organiser of the Paris attacks in the Moroccan district, telling him: “What are you doing? Belgians shouldn’t come here”.

Perhaps it was because I’ve started to identify with one charming Belgium, and have now learned that there is another, less predictable country inside it.

Perhaps my anxiety was also because of the throw-away comments I’ve been hearing in meetings with Western political leaders, or listening to those who mix with them. They are a steady drumbeat of defeatism: “the situation is catastrophic”, “things are out of control”, “my generation was spoiled, and has failed”, or “the crises are piling on top of each other like we’ve never seen before”. After a meeting with the German chancellor during the euro crisis, one German party leader confided that the worst part of it was a sense that nobody knew what to do.

In Brussels on Tuesday 22 March, though, my unease was definitely because I knew I was watching conflict spread. Pale-faced people around me were going through the painful initiation into what what the denizens of war zones have to get used to: calling family and friends as news of real attacks mix with false rumours; discovering the narrow escapes of partners and colleagues; sharing shaken feelings as old certainties crumble; and staying anxious until you learn that everyone connected to you is safe.

Normally, too, my work has long been to pronounce on what’s best for far-away countries. Even Istanbul often felt like a spaceship hovering alongside the rest of Turkey. But on the day of the Brussels bombs, it was reporters from Africa, China, Lebanon and, yes, Turkey, who called up to seek comment on the twin attacks that had paralysed Brussels for much of the day. Perhaps I was still in partial denial about the meaning of the 9 September 2001 attacks on the U.S., and the ones in London, Paris, and Madrid. Now I live here, I get it. The angry Middle East’s conflicts really have gone global.

It’s not only the new reach of the so-called Islamic State that make Belgium feel inter-connected. The country is a famously close neighbour to France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. On top of that, my new house in Brussels feels as though it is in the midst of a neo-Ottoman empire, within short walking distance of a Bulgarian cafe, a Macedonian Turkish bar, a Moroccan furniture shop, a Greek corner store, and streets of Turkish butchers, tile merchants and grocers. Beyond them is a veritable casbah of Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian and other shops spilling their cheap clothing, bedding and wedding finery onto the street.

The languages spoken around me on Brussels trams make the city feel like every nation within a radius of one thousand miles is represented. Forty nationalities were represented among the bombing casualties. Indeed, the refugee influx of the past year is no great conceptual shock. The city is not just the geographic heart of Europe, but in terms of its population, it has Russia, the Middle East and north Africa coursing through its veins.

For me, in short, Europe and the Middle East overlap in Brussels, and indeed in many other European cities. I like Brussels all the more for that diversity and energy, and feel I should understand both sides. As an adopted Middle Easterner, I know the role the West, actively or negligently, has played over the past century in stoking up the mayhem that is now biting it back. And as a convinced European, I wish more could be done to integrate communities that could contribute much in the long term, and in any event, cannot be wished away.

I hope my new European neighbours can learn to feel that way too, and to tell the truth, many of the ones I know do. But for now, violent conflicts, bombings and wailing sirens in the streets are an increasing part of both sides of the Europe-Middle East equation.

The page in Dining with al-Qaeda describing the first bombing I witnessed, with my then colleague David Zenian, as a news agency reporter in Lebanon in April 1983:

DWAQ 4