Interview: Michael Weiss – co-author with Hassan Hassan of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror; Senior Editor at The Daily Beast and Editor of The Interpreter
Shirin Lotfi: How did you come to write this book?
Michael Weiss: I’ve been covering the Syria conflict since its inception. I started with a report on the Sunni opposition in June 2011 and got sucked in. I stayed with it as the crisis went from a peaceful protest movement to an armed insurgency to a mostly Jihadi-driven conflagration. My interest in ISIS derived from my reporting in Aleppo in summer 2012. I spent the night in a town called Al-Bab with a bunch of activists, Free Syrian Army (FSA) guys; Al-Bab had just been liberated from the regime…
The following morning we drove to Aleppo city, to an area called the Bab al-Hadid district which had just been taken by the FSA from the regime. I interviewed people on the ground, the hosts who kept me in the safe house in Al-Bab, and we became friendly and stayed in touch.
Well, not six months later, Al-Bab was seized by ISIS, almost completely quietly, without much violence. The family at whose house I stayed overnight had been driven out of the town, their home occupied by the jihadists. So there is a personal stake in this book for me.
And of course there is a much greater one so for Hassan, my co-author, who is from eastern Syria, from Abu-Kamal, in fact – a border town through which jihadists have been pouring back and forth for the better part of a decade.
Because Hassan comes from a tribal area, he has great contacts within the Jazira [Syria’s north-eastern region] and through him we managed to get all these interviews with the relatives of ISIS fighters and ISIS fighters themselves – a lot of them whom have been killed since we wrote our book.
Who are ISIS and how did they manage this blitzkrieg operation to conquer one third of Syria and now one third of Iraq?
One of the things we try to do with the book is debunk this idea that ISIS came out of the blue. We’ve been fighting them for over a decade. First, there’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), then there’s the Mujahedin Shura Council, then there’s ISI (Islamic State of Iraq), and now it’s ISIS or the Islamic State – its latest incarnation.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the founder. Like all totalitarian movements, they have undergone various transformations in not only their outlook, their tactics and strategies, but in the personnel – the kinds of people who run the show.
Most of the guys running ISIS were former Saddamists. They were Ba’ath Party members, they worked in the Iraqi military under Saddam, or they were Mukhabarat officers. And that is important to any understanding. It explains why they are much better than al-Qaeda at lording over a local population, and at conducting themselves at the level of conventional warfare as well as unconventional warfare… Also, it explains why their informational warfare – propaganda, agitprop, as we used to say – is very sophisticated, I would argue, informed by the fact that we are talking about the Iraqi Ba’ath, trained by the Soviets.
All this must be fully appreciated before we attempt any strategy to degrade, destroy or even contain ISIS. This is not just a terrorist organisation. It is also a mafia. It is a totalitarian political project thriving in a geopolitical environment in which Sunni Muslims see themselves as dispossessed and disenfranchised, murdered, ethnically cleansed and the victims of chemical attacks. ISIS presents itself as their only defender, the only custodian of their future.
ISIS has a bloody hatred of Shi’ite Muslims. What is the relationship between Iran and ISIS?
It was recently unearthed in his archives that Osama bin Laden was looking to set up an active al-Qaeda franchise in Iran. The Iranian regime has played a very tactical game with al-Qaeda, going back decades. If you read the “9/11 Commission” report, essentially, the game is that Iran uses al-Qaeda as leverage against the West. The Iranian attitude is if they don’t get what [they] want from the United States, they use al-Qaeda; they can activate these guys, host them on Iranian soil, and train them.
To give you a recent example, the so-called Khorasan group of al-Qaeda was dispatched from Waziristan or from al-Qaeda’s base area of operations in AfPak into Syria to embed with Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda franchise in Idlib. The late leader of the Khorasan group, Muhsin al-Fadhli was in Iran up until 2013 and the Iranians say they had him under house arrest. How did he get from Iran to Idlib if they had him under house arrest?
Even prior to this, in 2011, the US Treasury Department designated Iran-based al-Qaeda facilitators who, Treasury said, were sending jihadists into Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusra with the full knowledge of Iranian authorities. Well, in 2011, al-Nusra was a part of the organisation we now call ISIS.
Iran’s pretence of being this mighty force for Sunni jihadist counterterrorism is pure propaganda, although it certainly seems as if half of the US political establishment has swallowed it whole.
Clearly bombing and having a war with ISIS militarily will not result in the destruction of ISIS, nor will it end ISIS’s deeply rooted ideologies. What are some factors that could prevent ISIS from flourishing or expanding – how could we defeat ISIS?
Syria is where the war should begin. It’s a much more amenable set of conditions for trying to push ISIS back. If they lose Raqqa and if they lose terrain in Deir ez-Zor, they’re not finished but that is a hammer blow to them.
Syria is a Sunni majority country. Most of the Sunnis don’t want to work with ISIS, they don’t want to be lorded over by ISIS; they’ve cut pragmatic deals with ISIS because of the lack of any alternative. They certainly don’t want to be ruled by Assad and the FSA has proven to be corrupt and illegitimate in the eyes of many of them.
The first thing you have to do is provide an incentive to the population. You have to prove to Sunnis that America cares about their plight. And by prove to them, I don’t mean Samantha Power tweeting out gravely concerned warnings about the use of barrel bombs and chlorine gas. The US has, if not air supremacy, then certainly air superiority in northern Syria. Why not put that to even better use by stopping the Syrian air force from dropping barrel bombs and chlorine gas on the heads of mostly Sunnis? If they did that, then suddenly the local population in Syria says “oh you know what, America does care after all, so maybe we do have a partner here with the CIA or with the Pentagon.”
And why do you think the US is not doing this?
The excuse given is that if we engage Assad in Syria then Iran will turn the Shi’ite militias in Iraq against US soldiers – some partner, huh!
If we threaten their ally and their proxy, they’re going to kill us. These are the great, rational minded, non-reckless jihadists we should be working with.
The Obama Administration does not want to be at war with state institutions or state actors – it only wants to fight a strictly counterterrorism war. A strictly counterterrorism war against ISIS is a recipe for failure, not success. You have to look at this through a political and anthropological prism; it’s not just about terrorism. The collapse, the dysfunction and the desuetude of both states, Iraq and Syria over the course of 13 years, has led to ISIS’s proliferation. You have an Abadi Government in Baghdad that is milquetoast. He’s a decent guy, he’s not sectarian, he wants to do more, he wants to arm the Sunni tribes and create a Sunni national guard,but he can’t. His hands are tied, he answers to a higher authority – the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps]. And in Syria, from a moral and humanitarian perspective, partnering with Assad puts a bulls-eye on the United States in the eyes of all Sunnis.
Also, Assad can’t fight ISIS – every time his soldiers do, they end up with their heads on pikes. So the people who are succeeding against ISIS on the ground are the FSA and the YPG Kurdish militia.
The one good thing that came out of this debacle of the Iraq War is that we learnt a great deal about how the country works, a great deal of knowledge about how the society functions. Village by village, hamlet by hamlet, city by city. During the book I interviewed US military intelligence officers who can tell you the history of the country and how it operates and functions at a very granular level. We are not listening to them. They are not relevant; they are not empowered in this current policy making.
Shirin Lotfi is an editorial assistant at Fathom. © Fathom, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.
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