ISIS: America’s alliance with Iran is hampering the fight against terror

ISIS draws on legitimate Sunni fears of Iran, argue Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan in a new book

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan

Regan Arts, £9.13

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, is brilliantly easy to read. Concise yet thorough the book charts the history of a group, “[a]t once sensationalized and underestimated,” that is simultaneously a terrorist organisation, mafia, conventional army, sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus, propaganda machine and the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime which controls an area the size of Britain in the heart of the Middle East.

The book begins with an underemphasised point: neither the Islamic State (ISIS) nor its governing method – extreme violence coupled with distributing stolen oil revenue and extortion – is new. The United States battled ISIS, then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), as the US tried to stabilise and democratise Iraq in the last decade. Moreover, ISIS is built out of the ruins of the Saddam regime.

In the late 1980s, Saddam launched the Faith Campaign and “Islamised his regime”. The campaign pushed a hardline Salafism combined with a cult of the leader, and involved setting up of elaborate networks of patronage, informants, militias and weapons to control the religious institutions and prevent a renewed Shi’a uprising as followed Saddam’s eviction from Kuwait in 1991. In tandem, Saddam’s deputy, Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, to this day an important insurgent, set up smuggling networks into neighbouring States. These networks would come under ISIS’ control as the Ba’athist-Salafist remnants of the regime fused with foreign al-Qaeda forces in the post-Saddam insurgency.

ISIS was initially led by a Jordanian drug-taker and street-thug turned religious militant named Ahmad al-Khalaylah. Khalaylah had arrived in Afghanistan in time to see the Red Army leave, and then been imprisoned when he tried to take jihad home. In prison, Khalaylah gained status over his mentor, al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and migrated to Taliban Afghanistan in 1999, where he was given start-up funds for a terrorism camp by Osama bin Laden. The world would come to know Khalaylah as Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, and his group would become AQI in 2004. Zarqawi’s supporters would brand him the “Shaykh of the Slaughterers” because of his fondness for decapitating prisoners on film.

While AQI primarily stayed in Iraq, Zarqawi often targeted the homeland he fled: the first attack of the Iraqi insurgency was against the Jordanian Embassy in August 2003; and there was a massive attack against hotels in Amman in November 2005

In post-Saddam Iraq, many Sunni Arabs joined the insurgency to thwart Shi’a power, and others joined because they were made jobless by the disbanding of the army. If the insurgents were not radicalised beforehand they were after time in American prisons, which were “little more than social-networking furloughs for jihadists”.

“If you were looking to build an army, prison is the perfect place to do it,” one expert says. “We gave them health care, dental, fed them, and, most importantly, we kept them from getting killed in combat.” AQI also actively infiltrated the US prisons to help make them jihadist production facilities.

ISIS has now Iraqised, with senior levels made up of these Salafised ex-Saddamists. (The only non-Iraqis in senior posts are Chechens.) ISIS’ draws from both the elite intelligence agencies of the fallen regime, giving it a superior counter-intelligence capability to protect its leadership and infiltrate other groups and countries, and the mid-level of Saddam’s army – the professionals (the top level being political appointees.)

In documenting the formative history of ISIS, the authors will surprise many lay observers who think ISIS is supported by Sunni Gulf States, by leading the trail to “the agendas of regimes in Iran and Syria”. Gulf contributions never made up more than five percent of ISIS’ budget; Tehran and Damascus were the real difference-makers.

The theocracy in Iran sheltered Zarqawi when he fled Afghanistan after NATO overthrew the Taliban in 2001, allowing him to set up a network stretching across Iraq into Syria and Lebanon; as well as a five-hundred square-mile base in Iraqi Kurdistan with three-hundred Salafi jihadists, well before the American-led invasion of Iraq. Iran is said by some accounts to have trained Zarqawi at an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) camp in Mehran. What Iran certainly did was help ISIS during the American regency in Iraq, both directly with finance and arms and indirectly by playing into ISIS’ plans for a sectarian mayhem as a means to drive the Americans out.

“The proliferation of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria cannot be understood without examining Damascus’s long-running collaboration with its forerunner organization,” the authors note. Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria – now presenting itself as the sworn foe of Islamic militancy – assisted Zarqawi in assassinating a US diplomat in 2002 and facilitated virtually all AQI foreign fighters before 2011 who waged holy war against constitutional government in Iraq. Assad wanted to protect himself by keeping the Americans tied down in Iraq, diverting the attention of Syria’s Islamists, and using terrorism as a bargaining chip against the West to acquire a larger regional role. “[Assad] creates the problems he then oh-so-magnanimously offers to solve,” Tony Badran tells the authors.

When the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011, “Assad wasted little time guaranteeing that extremists dominated the insurgency”. Assad freed violent Salafist prisoners. Despite claims that these releases were part of a general amnesty for “political prisoners”, in fact this amnesty was “applied selectively” – and did not apply to secular activists. “Prisons in Syria are bywords for Islamisation”, and defectors have noted: “The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in … their creation of armed brigades.”

The Syrian regime then set about shaping conditions in which radicals prospered, with “abuse unleashed on Sunnis [that] was designed to radicalise them”. With the Houla atrocity in May 2012, when Assad set Alawi villagers with knives and pistols on a Sunni hamlet and slaughtered more than one-hundred people, a template was furnished for repeat atrocities that shattered the national movement and started a war coloured with sectarianism.

This was one among many things Assad did to “bring violent Islamism home to Syria” in order to lure in foreign Sunni jihadists against whom Assad could pose as the last line of defence.

Once ISIS had taken root, Assad avoided attacking it because “letting black-clad terrorists run around…crucifying and beheading people made for great propaganda”. When the rebels went to war with ISIS, Assad “intervened objectively on the side of ISIS”. And when the US intervened with airstrikes in Syria to target ISIS, the regime took the chance to attack the moderates – all in the cause of trying to make-good on Assad’s claim that his only opponents were takfiris.

While Assad, with Iran’s help, was busy paving the way for Sunni extremists in Syria, Iran was busy doing the same in Iraq. Ever since Saddam’s fall, Iran had been busy forming a ‘Deep State’ on the model of the Hizballah in Lebanon. The disengagement of the Obama administration, first diplomatically and then militarily, in Iraq, meant that the Awakening (Sahwa) forces, the Sunni Arabs militias who turned on AQI, were dismantled by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, leaving a security vacuum, as Maliki consolidated an Iran-backed sectarian autocracy, which further provoked the Sunnis and opened space for ISIS. In a pattern eerily reminiscent of Syria, while “AQI was hunting Sunnis who had repudiated it; anyone affiliated with the Awakening was targeted for arrest by the state”. The regime and ISIS were working together to squeeze out the Sunni moderates.

The reasons for people being drawn to ISIS are complex. The authors note: “What draws people to ISIS could easily bring them to any number of cults or totalitarian movements.” But ideas do matter, especially for foreign fighters where religion is the main inspiration, though there are some thrill-seekers. For locals, considerations of power are often important. Making up a “weighty percentage of its lower cadres and support base” are those who see ISIS as the only viable political project for the Sunnis. With Iran’s expanding influence, many Sunnis now identify as madhloumiya (an embattled community), a thoroughly Shi’a concept, and ISIS is seen as the only redeemer.

In no small irony, Kurds have found ISIS’ Islamism more accommodating than Ba’athism/pan-Arabism, as have Turkomen. Saddam’s chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, and its rebuilding by religious charities, has made it a centre of Kurdish Islamism. Again, Saddam paved the way for ISIS.

Even when recruits join ISIS for material reasons, ISIS works hard to make them true believers. The group is defined by ideological takfiris, and has elaborate and highly effective means of identity restructuring: of breaking people down and then rebuilding them in its own image. It also has a notoriously sophisticated means of propaganda and disinformation which have been greatly helped by the (KGB-trained) ex-Saddamists in its ranks, which mean that recruits are often converted before they join.

One way ISIS shatters people’s belief in mainstream Islam is by raking-up obscure pieces of Islamic theology that most imams don’t know about to show that mainstream Sunnism has “deviated from true religion”. The failure of mainstream clerics to engage these texts means ISIS can present them in a literalist way, and buttress its claim that it is a representation of pure Islam while its foes are effectively heretics.

The lack of Western action to build up the nationalist Syrian rebels meant they devolved into “[f]actionalism, profit-making, and incompetence”, while Gulf donors led a “bidding war” for rebels who would make a show of having been radicalised. In this environment of chaos and radicalism being legitimised, ISIS thrived, ostentatiously suppressing banditry and applying its harsh version of law to its own fighters to outstrip other insurgents in credibility.

ISIS draws on widespread terms of reference, the Sunnis’ existential fears of mass-murder by Iranian-backed governments, and its ability to provide services, all of which make it alarmingly popular in the areas it controls. “The combination of brute force and effective governance means that the local population has little motivation and a huge deterrent to rise up against ISIS, particularly in the absence of a viable and acceptable alternative,” the authors note. This is especially true of the tribal areas.

The book’s section on the tribes is probably its most unique contribution. In the Jazira, eastern Syria, where ISIS now has its stronghold, more than ninety percent of the population is tribes. Tribes are thirty percent of the population but cover sixty percent of the land. The “tribes are bound to the countryside, where insurgents have found it far easier to navigate and bivouac”, and even the fight between ISIS and al-Qaeda (Jabhat an-Nusra) in Syria has been affected by tribal dynamics: with sides being chosen by tribes who have long been at war – usually in disputes over resources.

ISIS has managed to pit tribes against one-another, and even pitted generations within tribes against one another. ISIS made secret contacts with younger tribesmen, who were credible and popular because they were less tainted by collusion with the regime, and promised them revenue and authority. These secret loyalists allowed ISIS to conquer eastern Syria. In other tribal zones, ISIS simply bought its way in. ISIS arbitrates tribal disputes and has, as elsewhere, garnered a reputation for fairness.

ISIS has also “made tribal outreach an integral part of its governing strategy”, the better to avoid a repeat of the Sahwa. The tribes see ISIS as the best option for now, keeping their area from being warzones. “But they don’t endorse ISIS ideologically or join it en masse because they calculate that its reign won’t last forever.”

The Obama administration has made large claims of success for its air campaign against ISIS. Where ISIS had accrued up to two-million dollars-per-day from oil sales, sixteen of twenty ISIS oil refineries have been destroyed, they say, and ISIS has lost ninety percent of its oil revenue. Statistically this is correct. It’s also misleading. The impact of this has fallen mostly on civilians, hampering ISIS’ ability to provide things like gas cylinders.

And all ISIS’ other revenue streams – zakat (poor tax), jizya (non-Muslim tax), fines, foreign donations, sale of stolen artefacts, and above all ghanima (war booty), weapons and property – are virtually untouched. ISIS has actually gained territory in Syria since the airstrikes began, despite some losses of territory in Iraq. In Syria, ISIS has a revenue-producing proto-State. And even ISIS’ losses so far have been tactical and on enemy territory.

Concurrently, Iran is consolidating control over Iraq and Syria, primarily through Shi’a militias – which are as fanatical, anti-Western, and cruel as ISIS. Shi’ite jihadists have been flooded into Syria by Iran on the pretext of protecting the shrines, but “this custodianship of sacred architecture became a…Shia Islamist holy war”. Iran reorganised Syria’s battered army into a sectarian militia, the commanders of which say it is designed to “kill the Sunnis and rape their women”.

These forces now have the US as their de facto air force. As one Syrian activist put it, if “the [U.S.-led Coalition] raids had targeted the regime and a large number people had been killed by mistake, we would have said they were a sacrifice for our salvation”. But no Sunni wants to die to pave the way for Iranian domination, which was the problem in the first place.

ISIS deliberately raises sectarian tensions, just like the Assad regime, attacking its enemy sects to “prompt their counter-reaction (and overreaction), in order to drive Sunnis into ISIS’s protective arms”. ISIS then couches its fight in “sectarian-existential grammar”.

With Iran’s domination of state institutions in Syria and Iraq, and the conduct of those governments and Iran’s militias, this world-historical framing of a fight for Sunni Islam in its heartlands has some traction. The US’s “perceived alliance of convenience” with Assad and Iran is preventing even a chance of a Sunni rebellion against ISIS, which, whatever else it does, damages the central governments in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi once said, “When the people of Syria asked for help and everyone abandoned them, we could not but come to their help”.

The impression that only ISIS can save the Sunnis because the US is in a strategic alignment with Iran makes defeating ISIS impossible because it pushes the moderate Sunnis into ISIS’ camp. This war has already spilled onto Europe’s streets. Continuing this policy will not make it any better. As the authors conclude, present trends suggest ISIS is going to be with us for a very long time.

Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst. Follow him on Twitter

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35 Responses to “ISIS: America’s alliance with Iran is hampering the fight against terror”

  1. Leon Wolfeson

    WHAT alliance? sigh.

    Assad has been completely frozen out of any negotiations, and Iran’s getting a cold shoulder.

  2. Johnny Wong

    I didn’t know LFF reviewed fiction books.

  3. Matthew Blott

    Oh you are funny. Please tell us what you’ve found in your research?

  4. swat

    In fact an unholy alliance between the West and Iran could actually smash Saudi Arabia and stop all this ISIS nonsense. I’ve got to the point where I’d like welcome an Atheists Crusade against all Religions I should imagine that by 3015 Religion will be abolished altogether and the World will be One.

  5. ForeignRedTory

    a] That the so-called moderate Sunnis still think in terms of crucifying prisoners – witness the noise from the sunni Grand Poobah of al-Azhar last week – which is to say that a Sunni ‘moderate’ still is an extremist.

    b] That compared to, say, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Sunni insistence on extremism beyond this so-called ‘moderation’ is quite remarkable.

    c] That the sooner we in Europe stop accepting the Sunni version of Islam as legit, and in any sectarian context between Sunni Muslims and OTHER Muslims, we ought to support these OTHER Muslims.

    d] it follows then that the phrase ‘ legitimate Sunni fears’ is an oxymoron since there is no such thing as legitimate in Sunni.

  6. Patrick James

    Anyone wonder why the Admin refers to ISIS as ISIL…could it be that the Levant moniker takes Syria out of the mix and what regional power benefits there? Don’t see much WH anti-Hezbollah, IGRC, Houthi, or any criticism of the various Iraqi US armed Shia militias that are Iran trained and led either. This book far from not making any sense makes some very painful sense…Just maybe not to Valerie Jarrett

  7. Guest

    Thanks for outlining your views. Where can I review your credentials as a scholar?

  8. Guest

    Of course you’d welcome violence, and One Think.

  9. Paul J

    This is total BS, full of deliberate omissions and untruths. It’s based on a lot of open source, publically available information and their own spin. That’s it. The authors are one notorious neo-con and a Saudi mouthpiece, and this reviewer is a juvenile warmongering halfwit.

    Assad (who is indeed a nasty dictator) has ben fighting ISIS since they first appeared in Syria, unlike the rebels, who spent years allied to them.
    The sad fact is, the west and it’s fake allies have spent a vast amount of money, effort and “soft power” in encouraging jihad in the ME since 2011, and a greatly strengthened hardcore jihadi movement is the resuilt. AL qeada in Iraq were almost totally dead before we kicked the whole thing off again, trying to overthrow Assad in order to weaken Iran.

  10. ForeignRedTory

    Same place where I can review your identity.

  11. Martin Cohen

    Iran training Shia hater Al-Qaida by IRGC?? These guys must be smoking the expensive stuff!

  12. Dee Wiggle

    Iran crosses sectarian lines frequently to facilitate Islamic terrorist groups. For example, it’s well know that they arm and fund Hamas.

  13. NotGuido

    Beautifully said.

  14. NotGuido


  15. NotGuido

    But not against its own shia allies. This nonsense is the ramblings of Weiss the Jewish extremist, Hassan the sunni extremist and Orton… Well Orton’s just a war mongering joke.

  16. Guest

    Oh right, your creepy spy place where you find data on your enemies. Alternatively, your basement.

  17. Guest

    Ah yes, it’s all the Jews fault in your world.

  18. Guest

    That relationship was rather thawed when Hamas spoke out for the Arab Spring and against Assad, and has only very recently been mended.

  19. Guest

    Assad has barely done anything about IS, who are of far more value to him as an enemy of the West than the portion of Syria they occupy.

    YOU support Assad’s Jihaddist friends, as you frantically make excuses for a dictator and his chlorine bombs. Your support for them makes you just as much a threat to the West as any IS member, afaik.

    But you’ll blame everyone else for fanatics.

  20. Paul J

    Oh godness me Leon Wolf-something, your posts on the Syria war make less and less sense as time goes on. You should actually try to read some information about the conflict that isn’t wrtitten by atlanticist war mongers, neo-cons or Saudi apologists.

  21. ForeignRedTory

    I have a basement? Woohoo! Moving up on the property-ladder.

  22. Guest

    Well that answers that then. So, NSA or CIA?

  23. Guest

    Ah yes, Lord Blagger, you say facts make less and less sense, as you demand I read pro-chlorine bomb and pro-genocide screeds.

    You’re the one here supporting Assad’s war on his people.

  24. ForeignRedTory

    You tell me. I mean, this is YOYR conspiracy theory, not mine.

  25. ForeignRedTory

    Uhuh. Like Maduro? Left wing exctremism is no better than right wing extremism.

  26. Guest

    You made answered honestly before and are now dodging, got it.

  27. Guest

    So you think you’re no better than Maduro. Noted.

  28. ForeignRedTory

    Ah. In your world, Labour is right wing extremism. Right wing extremism starts with the Green Party, comrade?

  29. johndowdle

    This book – the subject of the review above – is lies, damned lies and specious apologisms.
    The reason we call it ISIS and not IS or ISIL is because of the links with the Israel Secret Intelligence Service.
    They, the Americans, Jordanians and Turks are the regimes who have mistakenly tried to topple Assad.
    They created the al-Nusra Front, ISIS, so-called Syrian “Free” Forces and the whole ragbag of “moderates”.
    The truth is that the US, Israel, Jordan and Turkey have lost control over their own creation.
    Now, the war on terror has turned into a war by terror.
    They are all being out-played at their own game by the ISIS jihadists.
    Until the US stops supporting the Eretz Yisrael Yinon Plan this situation will continue – and get worse.
    But then, as fellow end-of-days neo-cons, what else is to be expected from such stupid people?

  30. Dope

    I don’t understand why Iran would train a Sunni extremist with their Revolutionary Guard, is there any evidence to back up this claim? The taliban and Iran were and still are sworn enemies, it makes no sense that they would back them. With regards to the claims that Iran helped stoke sectarian tensions in Iraq, it is reasonable to think that Iran, with it’s historical and cultural ties to Iraq would be involved at least indirectly with the violence that occured in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but why would you claim that they were helping Al-Qaeda? They are sworn enemies, surely they would be arming the shia militia? This book is turning reality on its head, it depicts a world where Syria and Iran are somehow responsible for the unprecedented disaster of the U.S. led destruction of Iraq. There is no mention of Libya, and the role the newly empowered militias who were supported by the west had in the violent uprising against Assad. Thankfully most people can see this book for what it is.

  31. DRbilderburg

    and it’s being defeated in Iraq and Syria not by us by the Iranians

  32. Lamia

    The ‘alliance’ with Iran is not just misguided, and it’s not just morally wrong, it’s not even a working alliance. Iranian militia received air support in their costly – because incompetent – taking of Tikrit. They then engaged in atrocities against Sunni civilians and, for good measure, complained about and spoke of their detestation of the US aid, without which they would have lot even more incompetent forces.

    In a parallel instance of a lousy alliance, the US has now chosen the Turks, who not only don’t fight ISIS, they actively aid them, and ditched the Kurds, who are the only force who have achieved significant military victories against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Obama has now made it harder to defeat ISIS, which will suit Erdogan down to the ground, but is arguably not a very good contribution to a supposed strategy to defeat said ISIS.

    Of course sometimes deals with unsavoury regimes have to be done, but it is only remotely justifiable if you are getting something worthwhile out of it at the end.

  33. Edoardo Roncelli

    Typical Catholic. After Dominican Republic (involved with the smuggling of Ustasha after WWII) the greatest diplomatic body in VATICAN is the Iranian one. Now Iran is playing as “moderate” force, infiltrating Sunni terroristic groups, to stirr em to the greatest magnitude of horror and, with Vatican, to capitalize the reaction of the world public opinion.

  34. Edoardo Roncelli

    ” Iran has a large diplomatic corps at the Vatican with
    only the Dominican Republic having more diplomats accredited to the Holy


    [This page was last modified on 20 December 2014, at 07:46.]”


  35. Does Iran Support The Islamic State? | The Syrian Intifada

    […] “cannot truly understand ISIS today,” Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan write in their superb book on the takfiri group, without examining “the agendas of [the] regimes in Iran and […]

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