Nicolas Henin’s Jehad Academy: Rise of Islamic State is a superb piece of 100 per cent honest journalism. Even after going through the nightmare of 10 months of captivity at the hands of the Islamic State (IS), this French journalist has been able to produce a book free from any personal grudge or anger – which is in itself an outstanding feat.
Less than 150 words in length (including the index), it is probably one of the best introductions to the tragedy of today’s West Asia, one that is not only still unfolding but becoming more gruesome with every passing day.
The book offers a lot of surprises, which I will not divulge now as the reader would then be deprived of the narrative’s texture and flavour.
Reading it, one gets to realise that the current situation in Syria, Iraq or West Asia as a whole is not a black and white story. It is an intricate and extremely complex tale of a wide variety of people and individuals – Westerners and other foreigners included – and the product of their aspirations, motives and conflicting objectives.
And, unlike what many foreigners like us often believe, it is not a story only of villains. It has its heroes too. It has stories of the helpless and perennially suffering common man, it has stories of courage and sacrifice and it brings to life the West Asian people’s collective struggle against devious and scheming leaders and their henchmen – local and foreign. For those accustomed to thinking that the Assad family, which has been ruling Syria since Hafez al-Assad grabbed power through a coup in 1970, represents the ideals of Arab nationalism, secularism and anti-colonialism that formed the basis of the creation of the Ba’ath (rebirth) party at the end of World War II, Henin produces some rude shocks. The father son-duo Hafez al-Assad – who ruled over his people ruthlessly, remorselessly and, very often, murderously from 1970 to 2000 – and Bashar al-Assad – who has been carrying on in the same style since 2000 – have proved and continue to prove a curse for Syria.
Actually, it did not start out too badly after the Ba’ath party came to power through a coup in 1963. Initially, the Syrian government invested a lot in public works like dams and factories and social works like schools and hospitals. Even after Hafez al-Assad grabbed power through another coup in 1970, things weren’t initially that bad. Then significant oil discoveries were made in the early 1980s, a development which should have ushered much more prosperity for the country.
Instead, it proved to be a curse and there was a sharp drop in state-led economic and development projects during the 1990s. The situation turned from bad to worse after Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in the year 2000. Hafez at least tried to keep a modicum of public and social development components in his economic policies. However, Bashar radically transformed Syria’s economy into an elite system, which became completely dominated by an oligarchy comprising of Bashar’s family members and a handful of cronies. What came next was crony capitalism in its worst and ugliest form. The masses were made totally irrelevant to the economic system and any sort of protest was with quelled with brute force.
During all these years – right up to the US invasion of Iraq, dislodging of Saddam Hussein from power and his capture and hanging – the global spotlight was away from Syria and almost completely on its neighbour. But it was the developments in Iraq that simultaneously led to the germination and evolution of Islamic fundamentalism and jihadi doctrine in Syria.
Typical of his Machiavellian personality and style of ruling over his people, Saddam had invited Jihadi ‘soldiers’ from all over the world to fight the American ‘infidels’ and opened Iraq’s doors to them. Once the Americans ousted Saddam Hussein and his regime led by his party in Iraq (also called the Ba’ath party), many of them found their way to neighbouring Syria.
Besides, Bashar al-Assad, who had himself become a master of playing religious and ethnic groups as well as tribes against each other to ensure that a strong nationalist resistance to his autocracy would not emerge, also welcomed a degree of jihadi-induced violence and anarchy in his country to create a siege mentality among his countrymen – “I, Bashar al-Assad, am your only insurance against more misery.”
Henin goes into considerable detail about the groups and personalities that have created anarchy and hundreds of bitter local conflicts in both Syria and Iraq. He drives home the point that the two countries are actually going through a common ordeal. Regarding the actual functioning and operational strategies of the Islamic State, which now actually occupies and controls large tracts of Syrian territory, Henin describes in detail two of their core tenets – giving effective administration to the people of their occupied territories and sending a chilling messages and graphic symbols of terror to the world.
Armed to the teeth and equipped with a well-oiled funding machinery, the Islamic State has long-term plans. It wants to create sympathy and support among the section of Syria’s (and Iraq’s) population that it considers its core constituency. So it is actually trying to give some decent administration and governance in its occupied territories.
But side by side, its ideology is totally dominated by terrorism. That is why the world sees these, now regular, beheadings and other macabre murders – which the Islamic State meticulously photographs and shows off, almost laughing all the way.
Finally, Henin observes that the US-led Western nations have played a decisive role in creating the current mess. Two decisions, in particular, made by the occupation administration led by US Proconsul Paul Bremer after the swiftly executed invasion of Iraq, proved devastating for the unfortunate Iraqi people – Executive Order Number One, which dissolved the Ba’ath party and barred all its members from public office, and Executive Order Number Two, which disbanded the Iraqi army.
The first decision led to the creation of a new class close to the new set of rulers, who were basically an assortment from the Iraqi diaspora and won power over their country’s people and destiny basically as collaborators of foreigners. This led to the total displacement of large sections of individuals from the government’s administrative machinery, many of whom who had not really been sympathetic to Saddam Hussein or the Ba’ath party but were simply victims of their nation’s unfortunate circumstances. The US strategy basically created a loosely knit elite with not an iota of commitment to the people.
And, by disbanding the Iraqi national army, the American occupation forces ensured that army staff and soldiers were sent home in dishonour and thorn into unemployment precisely at the moment their country faced a major security crisis. The mayhem, looting, random killings, pillage and destruction of heritage historical monuments and artefacts that followed could certainly have been avoided if the US occupation forces had not behaved so irresponsibly.And the human tragedy that is today’s Iraq and Syria might not have been so enormous and bloody.