In a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine, President Obama compared ISIS to the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). “The Middle East is like Gotham, a corrupt metropolis controlled by a cartel of thugs. Then the Joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire,” he said. The comparison demonstrated Obama’s ability to simplify a deeply-convoluted political reality.
But clearly, there is more to the Middle East than this over-simplified comparison. For instance, why couldn’t the Western powers foresee the implications of a Middle East governed by a cartel of thugs, the so-called kings and princes? Could anyone explain such abrupt love for democracy and human rights, that too for specific countries in the Middle East? The problem is that Western leaders are not willing to accept their poor understanding or their mistakes that have created an unprecedented catastrophe in the region. The mindless pursuit of national interest of some powerful nations is at the heart of man-made tragedies like the Syrian refugee crisis. Nicholas Henin’s Jihad Academy provides crucial insights into the mistakes of the Western nations, and urges them to look for early resolutions.
Written before the Syrian refugee crisis and Russia’s intervention, the book is obviously bereft of any reference to these headline-grabbing developments. However, it does hint at the depth of the crisis. Incidentally, Henin was held captive by the Islamic State for 10 months along with two dozen Western hostages, including the Americans James Foley, Steven Scotloff and Kyala Muller, and the Russian Sergei Gorbunov. Henin was the only one to be released alive.
What makes his account particularly unique is that his book is not about his own experience of suffering at the hands of Islamic State, which is often the case with books written by victims. Instead, Henin has chosen to reflect on the larger issues concerning the conflict, the circumstances that led to the existence of Islamic State, and why and how it has had such a long lease of life. He places the blame squarely on the West. That the author has chosen not to make his unfortunate experience a marketable subject and has, instead, used it to reflect on the growing pattern of security crises causing larger humanitarian tragedies is especially worthy of appreciation. In his words, “Once free, I soon felt shocked -- not by the cruelty of the ordeal I had undergone, but by the mistakes made by the entire international community, which had led the Middle East I love to such a momentous tragedy,”
The chapter entitled Birth of a Jihadist is an interesting one. Here, Henin argues that since the Islamic State is a creation of the Syrian regime, the Assad regime’s claim of fighting IS is bogus. His discussion of the Jihadi Highway, which several Jihadis used to pass through the Syrian-Iraqi region mainly to thwart American intervention in Iraq, is based on his meetings with Jihadists between 2002 and 2004 and, subsequently, during the Syrian revolution. He also discusses how the Syrian regime has supported Jihadi groups like Fatah Al Aslam in Lebanon. The Islamic state, according to Henin, is a bogeyman, on which Syrian warfare largely depends. The author is deeply skeptical about the Assad regime’s intention to fight the Islamic State and cites much research to demonstrate this point.
What are the Islamic State’s social and economic roots? Enough media reports point to the Islamic State’s grip on considerable resources that enable it to run its savage operations in various parts of Syria, Iraq and other regions. It also runs an effective trade network dealing in oil and arms in addition to the information network to figure out various Western strategies. Using a widely publicized report by Ruth Sherlock, Daily Telegraph’s Middle Eastern correspondent, that shared secrets about the complex web of oil trafficking between the Syrian regime and the Islamic State, the author argues that the fight against the Islamic State is not just half-hearted but is also propelled by legitimate business interests. He also recognizes that American air strikes have aggravated human suffering, and that western interventions have given legitimacy to the Islamic State, and its recruitment processes. The Syrian regime, however, has been able to seek support from particular friendly regions with the help of financial support from Russia and Iran. In subsequent chapters, Henin explains how the Western understanding of security and jihadi violence barely recognizes the suffering of local people. He also blames the West for radicalization.
As things stand, the world could perhaps see the end of three distinct states including Syria, Libya and Iraq in addition to the perennially wounded Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yemen too could be added to this growing list. The failure of the global system of crisis management seems to have created more opportunities for conflict and an arms race than even the Cold War. Western powers do not seem to have any understanding of the Syrian refugee crisis. The allegation, therefore, that the West is not serious about this crisis, despite its engagement in the ceasefire, is credible.
This is an invaluable source for scholars of international security or jihadi politics. Henin uses primary sources such as his own interviews and the arguments of various experts on the region to advance his narrative. The reader also realizes that the institutions of the post-Second World War have been completely co-opted by Western powers driven by narrow-minded national interests. As a result, their methods of dealing with conflict have become redundant and have opened the possibility for more conflict of this type in the coming years. All in all, this book is an important contribution to the study of terror and the Islamic state.
Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State
Rs 399, PP 141
Dr Rehman is the editor Communalism in Postcolonial India: Changing Contours (Routledge 2016). He teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi