Alexander Reed Kelly, truthdig
One of the major stories of the summer, the takeover of huge portions of Syria and Iraq by a highly organized militant strain of political Islam, came as a surprise to many in the West.
But not to Patrick Cockburn. A journalist whose coverage of the Middle East goes back three-and-a-half decades, the Ireland-born Cockburn, whose family Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer described as responsible for some of the most important reporting of the last 50 years (he is the brother of fellow journalists Andrew Cockburn and the recently deceased Alexander Cockburn, and the son of Claud Cockburn), was lauded by colleague Seymour Hersh as “quite simply, the best Western journalist at work in Iraq today.” A look at the reporter’s new book about the region’s latest, most ferocious and conspicuously ambitious pretenders to power will give readers an idea why.
“The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising,” published by OR Books, began to take form earlier this year during Cockburn’s work on a series of lectures and articles. Describing his thesis in the book’s acknowledgements, the author explains that what “seemed a marginal opinion in 2013 and early 2014”—that the stability of post-intervention Iraq was endangered by jihadis overtaking moderates in the struggle in neighboring Syria—was borne out “spectacularly” by the militant group ISIS’ capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul in mid-June. With a quarter of that country and a third of Syria now under its control, ISIS declared sovereignty over a territory larger than Britain and home to a population (6 million) that exceeds some European countries.
“A state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and the black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers,” the 43-year-old leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, told the world upon announcing his caliphate in late June. “Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The Earth is Allah’s.”
Baghdadi’s vision of regional order has the ring of a grand social program, but the formulation is dangerously exclusive of anyone who would not convert to extreme Sunni Islam. People living in and around ISIS’ area of control are numerously and deeply divided by religion, ethnicity and wealth, and they now face tremendous pressure to cooperate with their new self-proclaimed leader. Chiefs of neighboring states, cities and communities that are not yet subject to ISIS rule are scrambling to preserve their own power while Western governments that spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a decade-long “war on terror” are only now awakening to the deliberate and much-advertised threats to their own populations—and potentially their physical offices—from a movement Cockburn describes as “a hundred times bigger and much better organized than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden.” Even that group, responsible for the infamous attacks of 9/11, has rejected ISIS as too extreme.