The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising
According to his acknowledgments page, Patrick Cockburn originally conceived The Jihadis Return as a kind of clarion call to the West, sounding the alarm about the growing power and influence of ISIS and other al-Qa’ida-style jihadi movements in Syria and Iraq. Given the current state of our media’s coverage of the Middle East, with near daily updates about the newest grisly execution video or the latest teenaged recruit to pack off to Syria to fight the bad fight, all underlined by an incessant B-roll of Kalashnikov-toting ISIS militiamen waving the ominous black flag, it can be difficult to recall that a year ago, few in the West had even heard of ISIS, and the War on Terror was thought by many to be all but won.
Much has changed, and very rapidly, starting with ISIS’s shocking capture of Mosul in June 2014, an event that concentrated the West’s attention on the resurgence of jihadi movements in Iraq and Syria and also shifted the purpose of The Jihadis Return from being a warning about a largely overlooked threat to a brief history and contextualization of that threat. Few are as well-suited to such a task as Cockburn, a long-time Middle East correspondent currently writing for The Independent, whose reporting has long been marked by an absence of hyperbole and a skepticism toward Western intervention. Cockburn is also a very fine writer, an old-school foreign correspondent with a confident, pellucid prose style that combines firsthand reporting with felicitous anecdotes and erudite historical references.
The Jihadis Return is a brisk, yet thoroughgoing, overview of the resurgence of jihadi movements in the region. Though published in August of last year , and thus not including the many developments since that time, Cockburn’s book is by no means out of date. It is rather an extremely important and highly readable examination of the root causes of Sunni jihadism’s recent renascence, combined with a brief history of the Syrian conflict and a masterful chapter focusing on the media’s role in obscuring the true nature of the unrest.
Though only 150 pages long, The Jihadis Return avoids simplifying the dynamics at play in Iraq and Syria. Instead, Cockburn condenses these complex, multifaceted developments into a coherent narrative. In Cockburn’s telling, the recent spate of Sunni jihadi groups originated with al-Qa’ida, whose notoriety helped to popularize a hardline brand of Sunni extremism. The Sunni uprisings in Syria against the repressive Shia-led regime of Bashar al-Assad, which largely began as a liberal movement, opened a door for the Sunni extremists—many of whom received financial backing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar—to overtake the revolution from the moderate Free Syrian Army. These Sunni jihadi groups, particularly ISIS, simultaneously flowed across the border into Iraq where they exploited the discontent of the Sunni population in the North, which had long been marginalized by the corrupt Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki. Cockburn describes ISIS as the “shock troops of a general Sunni revolt” in Iraq.
The West’s role in the region has, in Cockburn’s analysis, only exacerbated these conflicts. After September 11th, the United States targeted Afghanistan and Iraq while turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two US allies who truly did have a role in sponsoring terrorist groups. (In fact, the Saudi royal family’s staunch Wahhabism was a direct influence on the particular brand of extremist Islam practiced by al-Qa’ida.) The invasion of Iraq and the subsequent purging of Sunnis from government led to a Shia-led regime that is, in Cockburn’s words, “as sectarian, corrupt, and dysfunctional as Saddam’s ever was,” creating widespread outrage within Iraq’s Sunni community. It also helped to create an extremely corrupt regime in which men mostly bought their way into the Iraqi army in order to earn a salary, leading to a force composed of, as one of Cockburn’s sources put it, “investors not soldiers.” This made for an extremely weak force with little commitment to the government, which helps explain how an ISIS battalion of about 5,000 defeated Iraqi security forces a million strong in Mosul.
American support for the Syrian rebels created similar blowback in that country. By underestimating the strength of Assad and overestimating the power and influence of the Free Syrian Army, the US helped set the stage for a protracted battle between the rebels and the Assad government that has no end in sight. What’s worse, the Free Syrian Army has now been overtaken by various jihadi groups, including ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and others, all of which are at the same time warring with one another. Many of these groups received direct support from Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the US.
Obviously, things have changed since Cockburn’s writing of this book last year. ISIS has suffered a number of setbacks, including the stemming of its advances in Iraq, its failure to take Kobane, its loss of Tikrit. In one passage, Cockburn expresses skepticism about the efficacy of American airstrikes against ISIS. However, in recent pieces, Cockburn has credited US airpower with helping to limit ISIS’s advances in Iraq.
But even if all of Cockburn’s prospective pronouncements are necessarily a bit behind the present moment, The Jihadis Return would still be worth reading as an exceptional piece of recent history, and nowhere are Cockburn’s considerable talents of analysis and compression on better display than in “If It Bleeds It Leads,” a chapter on the media’s role in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The most discursive chapter in the book, it may also be the most lasting, serving as both a condemnation of the propaganda function of media in wartime and a demystification of the work of on-the-ground war reporters. In the listed conflicts, “the outside world has been left with misconceptions, even about the identities of the victors and the defeated.” This is not because war is inherently bewildering—“In reality,” Cockburn observes, “war isn’t much foggier than peace, sometimes less so”—but rather because reporters often offer up the drama of battle without sufficiently exploring the political context and because reports are too often based on secondary and self-interested sources. “There is no alternative to first-hand reporting,” Cockburn writes. The Jihadis Return proves him right.
Watson is a professional bureaucrat and amateur critic. He grew up in a basement in St. Louis, Missouri, though he currently resides in a basement in Silver Spring, Maryland.