A state of terror: Islamic State longs to be left alone to establish its blood-stained utopia

A review of Patrick Cockburn’s The Rise of the Islamic State suggests that the rise of IS was plain for all to see, but we chose not to look

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution Patrick Cockburn

Verso, pp.164, £9.99, ISBN: 9781784780401

The Sykes-Picot agreement will be 100 years old next year, but there will be no congratulatory telegrams winging their way to the Middle East from London, or from Paris on high alert. The Islamic State, the world’s most powerful jihadist group, has filmed its men bulldozing border posts between Syria and Iraq, dealing perhaps the final blow to those Anglo-French cartological ambitions of a century ago.

The ‘Caliphate’ is inhabited by some six million people and is now larger than the United Kingdom. In the words of Patrick Cockburn, ‘a new and terrifying state has been born that will not easily disappear’. Yet far from appearing out of the blue in 2014, IS was fostered for years by those who profess to oppose it, as this book argues convincingly.

Cockburn takes aim above all at Saudi Arabia for promoting Islamic fundamentalism; and at Turkey, so desperate to topple President Assad of Syria that it turned a blind eye to Gulf-backed foreign fighters crossing the Turkish border.

He is right, in retrospect, that the West offered Assad impossible terms for peace, namely the president’s resignation; and that our failure, along with Russia’s, to prevent Syria’s disintegration played an even bigger role in the growth of IS than Iraq’s near collapse last year.

Iraq’s army crumbled last summer and Sunni resentment at Shia domination certainly gave IS fertile territory there. But it was Syria’s civil war which was the first conflict to go ‘viral’ online, sucking in perhaps 15,000 IS fighters, some of them now exporting their virulent jihad back to Europe.

The author argues that coalition air strikes will result in civilian casualties, boosting a fighting force which may be over 30,000 strong already. IS will probably use civilians as human shields and even if it loses territory, it could compensate by trying to take its jihad global, asserting a leadership claim over the ‘Umma’, or worldwide body of Muslim faith.

Cockburn points out that the idea of Nato air strikes in favour of ‘moderate’ rebels fighting Colonel Gaddafi in Libya was as self-deceiving as the notion of arming ‘moderates’ in Syria is now. The UK, wisely, is staying clear of Syrian rebel army building, given that support for ‘Free Syrian Army’ fighters from Gulf monarchies has comprehensively failed.

Even Iraqi Kurdistan’s fabled Peshmerga, who are now armed by Britain and others, are airily dismissed by one observer in this book as ‘pêche melba’, because young Kurdish city boys have gone so pudding soft. Yet with no surefire ally on the ground, what Cockburn would do to combat IS is not a question he really answers. So often we reporters are better at demolishing glass houses than we are at building them.

This history is so recent that perhaps inevitably it occasionally reads as rushed, though Cockburn, writing for the Independent for many years, has rightly been garlanded for spotting the emergence of IS much earlier than anyone else. He is at his best here when the sheer breadth of his experience lends huge authority to his argument. Which is that the entire ‘war on terror’ has failed since 11 September 2001 because Saudi Arabia (and Pakistan further east) were allies America didn’t want to offend. ‘Until the fall of Mosul,’ Cockburn writes, ‘nobody paid much attention.’

A more clinical history of IS and its capture of Iraq’s second city last summer is available from an ex-MI6 officer, Richard Barrett, on the website of his Soufan Group security consultancy in New York. Barrett’s essay goes further in predicting terror attacks inspired or organised by a group ‘incandescent with rage that the West will not just leave it alone to establish the utopia that it believes within its reach’.

In the positives column, there’s new political leadership in Baghdad, where the army, already in receipt of America’s billions, is once again being reformed. Prince Bandar, the Saudi intelligence chief who supplied jihadist brigades in Syria, has been sacked, though Cockburn quotes the Americans complaining that Kuwait has become the new epicentre for Syrian terrorist funding instead.

In his attempt to be balanced, Barrett reckons the Islamic State ‘may wither and die as quickly as it has emerged’. Cockburn, however, is more convincingly partisan: the disintegration of Syria and Iraq may prove irreversible.

Our best hope is that IS’s failure to govern vast swaths of both countries will eventually earn it the enmity of Sunni tribes, forcing it to morph into something less potent and toxic. Though any notion of nationhood will only reassert itself if those nominally in charge can offer their people something better.

From Afghanistan onwards, western military intervention has failed to create stability, though President Obama’s present caution speaks of his awareness of history’s terrible burden. Islamic State atrocities, including the beheading of hostages, make any talk of a negotiated peace ridiculous. And if IS is not contained, the Middle East may be at only the beginning of its bloodletting in a Sunni-Shia Thirty Years’ War.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, Tel: 08430 600033. Jonathan Rugman is foreign affairs correspondent for Channel 4 News.

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Show comments
  • will91

    Obama looks set to end his presidency having stood by whilst Al-Shaabab, Boko Haram, Libyan rebels, the Taliban and Islamic state each carve out their own stretch of land. An area stretching from West Africa to the Hindu Kush. That’s some foreign policy achievement.

    • Lsd

      And why should it always be up to the USA?. The Arabs and other Middle East nations sat on their hands and all of Europe was asleep to this as usual. My one guess now is that the house of Saud is wetting it’s pants over the crisis, and deservedly so. They of all countries should have been at the forefront to stop these thugs from the start.

      • will91

        I’m not lambasting the US, I’m criticising a president and the wisdom behind Obama’s decision to pull the US military out of Iraq within 5 minutes of gaining the presidency. Because I think one of the reasons Isis grew with such startling speed was their realisation that the Iraqi state was alone and impotent.

        Everyone knows Europe IS impotent. That’s why people look to America.

        • Lsd

          In that respect I’m in agreement with you but bear in mind that the disastrous Iraq problem was created by Bush and ably assisted by the idiot Blair and I don’t think the US was is any mood to prolong these wars once Obama was elected so the guy inherited an awful legacy from the GOP. I note that in the last week or two Canada has had direct, if somewhat covert, hand to hand combat with isis. I guess we must start to wonder if this is the beginning of BOTG?

      • beenzrgud

        It’s the Saudis who have been spending $billions spreading this toxic ideology all over the world. If they end up getting slaughtered by these monsters then that’s what I’d call a fitting end.

        • Lsd

          Fully agree, and right now I think the house of Saud is soiling itself over what could happen to them, the odious cretins. If they had no money or oil, they’d have no (western) friends.

    • james cormack

      It is time the Arab world and the Islamic world outwith the ME took control ftheir own responsibilities and stopped blaming the West for everything.

  • Chris Hobson

    Immanentize the escathon it never works.

  • Richard Rattey

    ISIL is a cancer that has to be removed through political and military cooperation between the USA, Europe and the Arab nations. However, there is a seeming lack of political will to do anything other than air strikes which are having little or no effect. ISIL will not just settle for parts of Syria and Iraq; they intend to dominate the Middle East and ultimately the world, spreading their warped and perverted interpretation of Islam and brainwashing young Moslems into rallying to their cause.

  • james cormack

    The Sunni-Shia conflict has largely been ignored by both the West and those who hate the American/Israeli agenda because it doesn’t suit their narrative. Yet is potentially far more destructive than the Palestinian – Israel troubles because, quite simply, far more people are killed in Syria/Iraq.Yemen etc etc

    • FedUpIndian

      Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a sh’ite or a kurd.

      • James Jones

        I more or less agree with your sentiment however I get the impression that the Kurds are a fine culture and I think we should support them with our full capacity.

        • FedUpIndian

          It’s all relative. The Kurds are not Arabs so they are discriminated against by Arab Muslims but they were deeply involved in the Armenian genocide.

          “Henry Morgenthau, who served as US ambassador in Constantinople at the height of the bloodshed, described the Kurds’ complicity in his chilling 1918 memoir Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story thusly:

          “The Kurds would sweep down from their mountain homes. Rushing up to the young girls, they would lift their veils and carry the pretty ones off to the hills. They would steal such children as pleased their fancy and mercilessly rob all the rest of the throng. … While they were committing these depredations, the Kurds would freely massacre, and the
          screams of women and old men would add to the general horror.”

          That said, the Kurds are finally acknowledging their guilt, which is more than we can for the Turks. We cannot hold modern-day Kurds guilty for what their ancestors did but there are no good guys in that part of the world, only strong guys and victims.

          • Perseus Slade

            It seems that the Kurds were there at the time of Alexander that Great, long before the Arabs arrived from Arabia and the Turks from north of China. Some became Christians and were called Armenians, some became Muslims and were called Kurds and some became became adepts of Mithras and were called Yazidis. But in the colonial map-drawing, they never got their own country.

      • james cormack

        And frankly, I understand your sentiments. I would ask you though, next time you see a bunch of Phoneystinian protesters in your High Street ask them what they think of the jihadis and the Arab fascist dictators (in other words IS. Al Nusra, Boko Haram, Al Shabab. Assad etc etc), and why they aren’t protesting against them.

        • FedUpIndian

          Agreed, And the moral cretinism of our lefties in the West and in India gives these protestors the cover they need to ignore these issues. We need to expose this hypocrisy.

  • Kasperlos

    Would the European forefathers have bothered deciding the boundries for peoples inhabiting the Arabian Peninsula and the surrounding area for millenia without its oil, gas and strategic waterways? Who knows. But whatever the true story of the rise of this most wicked and sinister group, the West will have to start focusing on its own territory rather than squander its attention, military, energies and resources to try to bring that region and entire Globe under its umbrella. It’s finding out that when it rains it’s rather a tight squeeze. Globalisation will only go on so long as the financial and resource party rages on. When it winds down the borders and business of the Arab region will be an afterthought – one can hope – and the West can try to find it’s raison d’etre, viz. the Western Tradition and civilisation. In essence, the politicians would hopefully give a darn about their own people.

    • James Jones

      “Globalisation will only go on so long as the financial and resource party rages on. When it winds down”

      I do not believe that industrialisation will ever wind down. The ingenuity of man is, as far as can be ascertained right now, boundless. That ingenuity will result in ever increasing productivity. There are of course risks, thermonuclear war, some other existential technological war. Terrible pollution and destruction.

      There is no reason though that these risks can not be overcome beneficially, by the very ingenuity that created them.

  • Rowland Nelken

    Religious wars in Europe faded away with religion. When I was with the army in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the sabbath streets were as silent as they had been in my 1950s English childhood. Everybody, it seemed, went to church. How many Northern Ireland kids still grow up ready equipped with a Pape or Prod label? Whatever conflicts may arise there in the future a further dying skirmish of the Reformation wars is highly unlikely. We can only hope that the malevolent and destructive power of the Koran and its advocates will fade away with succeeding generations. In the paraphrased words of Youssef Choueiri , in his book ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’ , so long as book is regarded as the ultimate guide to life, fundamentalism is bound to occur. And the repetitious old koran constantly bangs on about purifying the world, in time for an imminent Day of Judgement, by getting us all, using violence if necessary, to submit to Islamic rule.

  • Rowland Nelken

    And as for the effects of imperialism, like the Sykes Picot carve up; they may indeed have had effects not altogether benign. Too many people, however, merely point out European and US (i.e. infidel) imperialism, as a fundamental spur to Islamic violence. Surely the earlier empires of the Arabs, Mughals and Ottomans provided a much deeper and long lasting spur to today’s Islamic warriors. They implanted and spread these crazy apocalyptic notions in the first place.

    • FedUpIndian

      The problem with Arabs and Muslims in general is that they had too little Western imperialism, not too much. Much of the ME was Ottoman till 1919 and by 1950, most of those countries were independent. So we are talking about roughly 30 years of civilization, which is not enough. In contrast, India was under British rule for 200 years and it is doing fine. Pakistan is the one exception to the rule that more European colonialism = better outcomes but that may be because they identify more closely with Arabs than with India even though most of them are the descendants of Hindus and Buddhists forced to convert to Islam.

      • Rowland Nelken

        A most welcome comment!. Beyond being ‘fed up’, may I ask what other aspect of India is your heritage?

        • FedUpIndian

          I was born in India, I grew up there and now divide my time between the US and India (I work in hi-tech, like all Indians are supposed to :-)).

  • James Jones

    The thing that most concerns me has been and remains our continuing importation of so many people who follow the dangerous medieval cult of islam and then our absolute determination to allow so many of the practitioners to foster their intolerance once arrived.

    It seems a horrendous risk and it appears to me to be completely unnecessary.

    It was obvious 26 years ago in 1989, after the Salman Rushdie affair, that strong action was needed and yet we have still not begun. I doubt very much if we have another 26 years left in which to start.

  • Marvin

    Let’s give them Utopia! DEATH!

  • paulthorgan

    Perhaps IS are behaving like the Bolsheviks did in the Russian civil war, where atrocities abounded while they secured power. Once in government they were marginally less violent as you cannot easily replace skilled workers you have killed over minor ideological offences.

    Also IS are making the running during the ‘off’ season for the military. Campaigns in the Northern hemisphere usually start in the spring or summer.

    IS have yet to some up against determined ground forces. Once they do, it may rapidly become a different story.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Burning to death that Jordanian pilot was the last straw. The gloves are off and it’s open season on radical Islam. Painfully obvious that the next world war is going to be between advanced capitalist countries and Islam. False flag operations to psyche up the mug punter public against Islam have been rendered superfluous, radical Islamic nutters shoot themselves on a daily basis.

  • beenzrgud

    The biggest mistake we ever made was handing over control of the worlds most valuable resource to a bunch of barbaric nomads. We were fools to think they would use it for the betterment and advancement of their people. All they’ve done is bred like rats in a grainstore and become more dangerous to the wider world.

  • JohnCrichton89

    “There’ll be no end to the blood bath is Isis isn’t contained now”

    You spelt Islam wrong…….