Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State, by Andrew Hosken - Book review: Bloodshed, barbarism, and bungling by the West

A valiant guide through the baffling issues

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The Independent Culture

What does Islamic State (Isis) want? Why does it kill so many people? Where is its money coming from? What is life like for the millions already under its control? BBC Radio 4 reporter Andrew Hosken has set out to answer questions that have confounded so many of us and opens with a startling map of the new world order as conceived by Isis. Spain, Greece, the rest of the Balkans, India and the top half of Africa are painted black because under Isis plans, they will all form part of a greater ultra-strict caliphate within the next five years. Isis is, after all, already stretching its tentacles into Libya and Tunisia – both only a short boat ride away from Europe’s back door.

So confident and intricately planned is the Isis strategy that it makes al-Qaeda now seem almost moderate. The Isis game plan (supremely well-financed by the region’s vast oil supplies and industrial-scale criminal extortion) is horrifyingly immediate and linear. “Every atrocity, torture, assassination and theft” is, as Hosken explains, “simply a means to one overpowering obsession – to destroy nation states, seize territory and build a caliphate from the ashes.” There is even a professionally-produced 268-page manual on how to achieve a vast Islamic state through extreme violence and organised brutality entitled The Management of Savagery.

So we now know where it wants to go, but where has Isis come from? Its roots go back to 1999 and a training camp for extremist Sunni jihadis in Afghanistan, called Tawhid wa’l Jihad. But what gave this then smallish bunch their breakthrough was the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The ensuing bungled occupation created a security vacuum and allowed the Western-backed Shia-led government to terrorise the deposed Sunni minority, thus exacerbating the toxic sectarian divide between the two branches of Islam.

Indeed, Hosken’s account of Western foreign policy since the invasion suggests that it could not have created more favourable conditions for the rise of Isis if it had deliberately set out to do so. Hundreds of thousands of deeply embittered, highly trained, mostly Sunni military officers (including 11,000 generals) were suddenly in search of a livelihood and revenge. Many, long immersed in Saddam Hussein’s creed of rule through terror and violence, naturally found what they wanted in Isis.

But why does anyone else want to join Isis, particularly from the West? A thirst for 7th-century barbarism is seductively presented as a return to a sense of purity and belonging (free of conflicting Western influences) by a state-of-the-art media relations campaign. Glossy propaganda magazines and carefully targeted social media messages enforce such rousing exhortations from Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (a figure whose murderous instincts easily outshine bin Laden’s) as this: “Rush O Muslims to your state! Yes it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s.”

Another pronouncement earlier this year from Baghdadi, who presents himself as divinely-appointed caliph and descendant from the prophet, dealt with the need for butchery: “Islam never was for a day the religion of peace …[but] of war. Your Prophet …was ordered with war till Allah is worshipped alone.”

And is everyday life pure and golden under Islamic State as Baghdadi has also suggested? Even the intrepid Hosken has not been able to experience it at first hand because of the evident dangers, but he has accumulated an impressive array of accounts from those who have. Eighty lashes for watching a football match – a “product of the decadent West” – seems mild alongside the constant public executions of those who fail to live up to Baghdadi’s extremely narrow version of Islam – and that includes so many fellow Muslims. Men and children have been crucified or beheaded, women and children as young as nine sold into slavery or stoned to death, gay men thrown off high buildings, smoking in public punished by amputation. A generation is being brought up to consider the immolation of a Jordanian pilot as satisfying entertainment. And yet such revolting savagery may just give us hope. Hosken outlines the seeds of rebellion, even perhaps from within Isis itself as well as other regional groupings, at such gratuitous and continuous bloodshed.

Hosken is a valiant guide through the baffling complexities of the Middle East cauldron. True, his departures from a strict chronological order – no doubt designed to maximise dramatic effect – occasionally make an already complex story more so. But Hosken is writing about a constantly evolving threat and his obvious integrity and command of the subject go a very long way in explaining the inexplicable. Perhaps to understand Isis is eventually to defeat it. If so, Hosken deserves much credit for an enlightening if frightening read.

Sonia Purnell is the author of ‘First Lady : The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill’