“Did it ever occur to you, sir, what an opportunity a battlefield affords liars?”—CSA Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, 1824-1863; h/t to Patrick Cockburn
Aside from video games and Dante Alighieri, Hell does not possess either the means or the desires—mechanical or empathetic—necessary for any semblance of structured order. Simply put, Hell obfuscates, and—as Bret Easton Ellis virgins will tell you, eyes wide and faces pallid—Hell is confusion and ambiguity.
Our newest, freshest Hell roils more than most.
It consists of conflicts less waged against organizations than ideas, which, one will take care to notice, may not be defeated by conventional means unless one has the will to glass any region possessing said ideas until it stands empty of anything capable of holding them. Organizations espouse and advance the ideas, of course, a fucking alphabet soup of them, including: sundry and all al-Qa’ida iterations and franchises; Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN); and, most recently famous of all, ISIS/ISIL/IS (which shall from now on be referred to as the Islamic State; that seems, at least in VICE News’ embedded documentary, the preferred term of the nascent caliphate).
A conflict of frequent and dramatic imagery, waged internationally in 140-character threats and in the choked channels of YouTube, the Islamic State stakes redoubts on every shore with access to the Internet. Martial snuff films blaze across civilization’s compound eyes, all orange jumpsuits—the West’s Mark of Cain—and black hoods and blades and blood and that most savage of human acts, the decapitation, the removal of every aspect which provides us with humanity, face and eyes and mouths and mind.
Cadavers requisitioned for gross anatomy classes sometimes have their heads removed, enduring perhaps a faculty member with a fire axe before meeting the first budding young doctor, the better to keep the buds from undue dewing. An elegantly brutal solution to the problem of reducing fellow human beings to objects, n’est-ce pas?
In the use of beheading as their signature, fighters of the New Sunni Uprising have found a weapon that makes abundantly clear their extreme views: a willingness to reduce Shia, Alawite, Jew, Christian, and others to low beasts, worthy only of slaughter and dispatched thusly.
The mind reels at the turmoil, the possibilities. None seem particularly outlandish in the wake of the dramatic arc traced thus far, from 9/11 to the wars against the Taliban and Saddam, the Arab Spring, and the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg founding of the next great caliphate, now a span from North Central Iraq—discounting the Kurd’s northwestern quadrant—through Syria to the Mediterranean Sea.
Foreign fighters from across the globe, including Canada and the United Kingdom, burn their passports and swear allegiance to the shaded figure of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, rallying beneath the black flag of the caliphate. Shots go off in Australia and Ottawa; nebulous threats from Iraq and the Islamic State warn of attacks in Paris and New York City. Anxieties take wing, as they always do, pushed forward by some great cresting invisible wave that seems to mean the end of the World and which is, of course, not there, unless you live there, in which case … how long can you tread water? Those too young to remember the last major cry to the god of war Mars, post 9/11, feel, for the first time, that black little ball of ice that sits inside the stomach and melts atop the brain, fears rising up from the sulci, do they really believe they can take on the world? do they know—possess—something which would breed such confidence? can it be knowledge, not radicalism, which causes Chanticleer to crow? … a French hostage decapitated in Algeria, all of the makings for a dramatic—and exciting, and at this, they feel guilty, playing like little boys at war—appearance for the French Foreign Legion, its virulent nationalist right wing suckling at bitter teats since the dissolution of the Fourth Republic, another entire geopolitical tinderbox, the revenge of the 20th Century … and Putin! Putin and Russian and Ukraine and Bashar al-Assad, a new Cold War!
Let’s add to the apprehension.
When the West’s Alexandrian response to the Gordian knot finally came, a bladed (!) joint effort with Arab allies—the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and Bahrain, according to the DOD—with the edge guided, in part, Agence France-Presse reports, by a female Emirati fighter pilot no less … the strike comes not only against the Islamic State but a new, heretofore unheard-of foe, the Khorasan Group!
The current state of vast swaths of the Levant resembles, from the outside, a ball of asps, strange entanglements—Iran on the side of the Iraqi government, and both in bed with the U.S., say—baring fangs and discouraging untangling. And it is here where author Patrick Cockburn comes into play, drawing and pinning the various venomous heads and revealing, with terrible clarity, that what seems a ball of snakes is … in reality … a hydra.
Although in possession of many heads—which, coincidentally, famously sprout, two anew, from the stump of its neck when guillotined, a bizarre, extremely sadistic sexual life analogous to the jihadis’ own, reproduction via decapitation—the hydra comes as just one beast; so, too, can the Islamic State and other related jihadi militias be considered a reflection of Sunni Muslim extremism.
Cockburn surveys the Middle East with a tried loupe, serving as a correspondent there for more than 30 years, first with The Financial Times and presently with The Independent. His slim and beautiful The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising benefits immensely from that practiced eye. In a fleet retelling of the most tumultuous geopolitical theater this millennium, Cockburn vivisects Middle Eastern political, religious, and military movements—an incestuous relationship, in many cases—since 9/11 to arrive at the present tangled day.
In prose elucidating and elegant prose, Cockburn ascribes the rise of the Sunni jihadis to the theological and economic hegemony of Saudi Arabia and the support, financial or otherwise, of such ostensible American allies as Qatar and Pakistan.
The Saudi influence, Cockburn writes, “is often misunderstood and underrated.” Although a prominent power internationally due its vast wealth, it is Saudi Arabia’s espousing of Wahhabism which has helped to breed extremism amongst the ranks of Islam. Cockburn—easily understood—on the Saudis:
Another factor is its [Saudi Arabia’s] propagating ofWahhabism, the fundamentalist 18th-century version of Islam that imposes sharia law, relegates women to second class citizens, and regards Shias and Sufi Muslims as heretics and apostates to be persecuted along with Christians and Jews. This religious intolerance and political authoritarianism, which in its readiness to use violence has many similarities with European fascism in the 1930s, is getting worse rather than better.
While not exactly the same, the varying beliefs governing al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State, JAN, and other Sunni jihadist groups pull extensively from Wahhabism; this intellectual export could be—and perhaps should be—considered more dangerous than the black liquid capital.
Cockburn makes explicitly clear that al-Qa’ida exists more as an ideology than an organization; while it maintained some semblance of martial order under the Taliban in Afghanistan, we can better understand it as a rallying set of extremist beliefs lending its name to various jihadi and terror groups, including the Islamic State, which began as al-Qa’ida in Iraq.
While imminently, terribly, visible beneath their black flag and beheadings, the Islamic State, despite posturing as a caliphate, still fights a primarily irregular war, conflating guerrilla tactics with conventional might, moving, as IS puts it, “like a serpent between the rocks.”
Said serpent put the entire world on notice with the seizure, in rapid order, of vast swaths of Syria and, Mosul, on Baghdad’s doorstep, Iraq’s second city. After dissolving the border between Syria and Iraq—one could not really ask for a better analog to all this, this fucking mess, than literally dismantling the very borders, no matter how arbitrarily first drawn—the Islamic State announced its newly birthed caliphate.
Islamic State’s rise in Iraq and Syria, Cockburn explains, stems from different sets of reasons, although both involve, in some way, Western missteps.
First, Iraq, the slightly less byzantine of the two:
The capture of Mosul sent a wake-up call to the West: the Iraqi army, long thought to be thoroughly corrupt and inept, proved itself precisely so, its enlisted men giving up and going home, its Sunni commanders showing up in civvies in Ebril … or joining the Islamic State. Now, having reduced Iraq’s Shia government to cowering along the banks of the Euphrates, they battle the Kurds, including the peshmerga, and combined Western/Arab forces.
Fueled by Wahhabist-like hatred for Shia Muslims, Islamic State fighters leveraged support among the Sunni minority in Iraq—Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, and Lebanon are the only Muslim nations where Shia form a plurality—and from arms acquired by raids in Syria.
Syria exists in a state even more convoluted than Iraq. As it stands, the Syrian Civil War has become a cosmopolitan melee, involving combatants, in capacities official and non-, from an assortment of Western, African, and Muslim countries, all battling against the Baathist regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the joint Western/Arab forces, and each other. The predominantly secular Free Syrian Army, critically denied foreign aid, found its place as the head of the resistance usurped by better-trained, better-funded, better-supplied jihadists, including JAN, al-Qa’ida’s avatar.
Got all that?
Now, in addition to battling al-Assad and the Americans—also in opposition to al-Assad (Christ, this gets complicated—Cockburn is a crystalline genius)—Islamic State fighters also clash with JAN and the FSA. Basically, call the entire thing a clusterfuck, with the Islamic State coagulating just enough more than the next faction, then seizing land accordingly.
How did this all happen?
Aside from the poisonous influences of oil money, Pakistani safe harbor, and Saudi hegemony, Western indifferences and misunderstandings share culpability. The destabilizing after 9/11 of two nations—Iraq and Afghanistan—that had little or nothing to do with 9/11 had an obvious impact on what now exists as the caliphate.
More subtly, world leaders completely overestimated the Arab Spring, the naïve faith in secular peace and humanistic democracy that did not allow, in the roseate mind, for the idea of counterrevolutions. Many a college student, clutching a free on-campus copy of The New York Times, rejoiced unto the deliverance of freedom for the people of Egypt. Pitifully, they reveled deaf, dumb, and blind to the coming military junta, Muslim Brotherhood, and civic unrest. The smoldering tanks of Gaddafi sat like twisted metal flowers, the blooms of a new age; so exciting was the thought of another dictator gone, few considered the dangers a freshly born, intensely weak Libya would face.
A great blindness took hold after 9/11, and the scales have only now begun to fall off, as the serpent nears Damascus.
The Jihadis Return does not simply streamline—insomuch as such a thing would be possible—the rise of the Islamic State and Sunni jihadists. Cockburn also outlines the effects of traditional and social media in the conflict, perhaps more crucial now than in any war past.
The great blindness stemmed, paradoxically, from at once a lack of sight and overwhelming visual stimulation, the fault of traditional/official media and civilian/propagandist media, respectively. While Cockburn summarily disabuses the notion that war reporters are/were quailing in their hotels—but who could doubt that now, with those videos—he readily admits to the media’s failings.
Rather than attributing them to the “fog of war,” Cockburn makes the case for conflict’s innumerable moving pieces, dangers, and unverifiable, yet vital, sources for much of the misinformation surrounding ongoing hostilities. Cockburn reveals some duplicitous misrepresentations, as well—like, say, selecting camera angles so as to adjust the battlefield according to one’s political, or financial, reasoning.
But Cockburn sees social media, as a journalist’s and propagandist’s tool alike, as the future of war and information. He touches on the radical staging of social media propaganda, from Arab Spring revolutionaries and Sunni jihadists to journalists and governments, as prime contributors to Western myopia.
“It was not governments alone that got it wrong,” Cockburn writes. “So too did the reformers and revolutionaries who regarded the uprisings of the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 as a death blow to the old authoritarian regimes across the region.”
Left lazed and contented after gorging on the rousing imagery of Tahrir Square, the easily extirpated democracies and secular movements got swept away before our very eyes, the Baathists and demagogues and jihadis resurgent and merciless in their re-ascendancy.
Heracles slays the Lernean hydra, a maelstrom of gnashing maws, only after he understands it. He applies—at Iolaus’s suggestion—a firebrand to each about-to-sprout-twins neck stump. He methodically hacks away until the great serpent had one, then no, heads left.
While not a torch (or corrosive blood), The Jihadis Return gives us Cockburn playing Iolaus to the West’s self-styled superhero. Ignorance has played a crucial role in the rise of the Islamic State, and the fire of knowledge seems the only solution for a war against ideas.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/music/art critic currently based in Chicago. His work can be seen in VICE, Sports on Earth, The Classical, The Myrtle Beach Sun News and Newcity, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.