Dmitry Shlapentokh reviews Andrew Hosken’s Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (Oneworld, London, UK, 2015; 304 pages).
This book deals with a topical subject — the rise of ISIS — and it is almost certain that books like these would proliferate. It has become topical and quite a picturesque subject and the author Andrew Hosken has followed the prescribed script religiously. There are continuous images of ISIS’ creative brutality and surreal way to terrify their enemies and those who do not do their bidding.
Hosken provides many examples. In one particularly gruesome episode, ISIS kidnapped a young boy and demanded a huge ransom from his parents. When the parents were unable to provide the requisite amount, ISIS demonstrated their displeasure in a way that has become their signature mark. The boy was killed, dismembered, fried and placed on a big dish along with rice and duly presented to the parents as a peculiar treat (p. 99). The macabré culinary act went hand-in-hand with the campaigns of terror in areas not under ISIS control.
The author paints a picture of the mood of residents in present-day Baghdad — the city populated mostly by Shi‘is — that is not under ISIS control. Yet the terrorist group makes its presence felt; its men engage in endless waves of terror attacks by blowing up cars, and of course passers-by, on a regular basis. All of this creates an environment of constant fear and tension. Hosken also shares with us details of the terrorists’ sexual exploits. Their obsession in this field could be matched by their drive for murder (p. 226). Their behavioral trait would quite likely please Sigmund Freud, the psychologist who saw man in a certain Hobbesian context as a vicious animal driven either by eros or thanatos, the instinct of death.
Members of ISIS seem to be obsessed with sex. They have many girls/women taken from those whom they regard as enemies. This huge supply of girls/women created a dilemma for the terrorists. They could not rape them all and thus asked the doctors to provide them Viagra to increase their sexual potency (p. 225).
While the description of ISIS’ brutality, perversion, etc. takes most of the space in the book, it would be wrong to state that it is just this. There is some useful, albeit well-known, information in regard to ISIS’ finances. The author states that they are considerable and makes it possible for the group to engage in terror acts on a large scale. The terrorist attacks in Baghdad, for instance, require a considerable amount of cash. Hosken offers some analysis and conclusions but these are not new or groundbreaking.
He writes that the US’ greatest mistake in Iraq was the disbanding of Saddam Hussein’s army. It resulted in making thousands of men, skilled in military tactics, redundant. Without pension or financial means, they joined the terrorist outfit providing critical support that proved crucial to the terrorists’ campaign. While the narrative presents facts that are known, embellished with some details mostly related to ISIS activities, the attempt to find an underlying cause is lacking.
One ready example is the author’s attempt to deal with such notable phenomena as the movement of thousands of people, both male and female, to ISIS-controlled territory. These people often risk danger and hardships. Interestingly, the movement of thousands of people — both men and women and many of them Europeans — almost coincides with the flight of hundreds or thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq. The author would have definitely found the reason why thousands flee from the areas but he is clearly perplexed to explain why there are people who actually want to go to ISIS-controlled areas of their own free will.
Most Western writers stumble on this phenomenon and fail to offer a coherent explanation. The author of the book under review is also perplexed. To make the job easier he just notes briefly one of the British Muslims, a family man and the father of several children. The man has a strong desire to go to ISIS territory together with his family and he paints ISIS-controlled territory as utopia, the state of almost perfect harmony (p. 249). The author notes that the man was not able to go because the British government took away his passport.
Hosken notes that the British Foreign Office took this step not because of fear of possible wrongdoing by the concerned individual but most likely, as the author notes, because of a particular charity he was associated with. The authorities tried to save the man from himself and, of course, his family. He was, as the author implies, plainly insane. Consequently the author mentions him in passing, as a minor episode in the whole story and plainly ignores the very fact that he was just one among thousands who wanted to join ISIS.
The reason for skipping this detail is clear: the analysis of the phenomenon would undermine the logic of the entire narrative based on the very simple foundation that ISIS is the product of the “wrong” interpretation of Islam, a peculiar collective madness that has taken hold over al-Baghdadi and his fellow travelers. Their rule over the millions is based on relentless terror, rape, and other abominations. This could be a perfectly appropriate explanation. One remembers that terrorist totalitarian regimes can survive for a long time and engage in a peculiar type of genocide when both the perpetrators of violence and their victims belong to the same ethnic group.
The example of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia immediately springs to mind. It is true that Pol Pot and his close associates were ethnic Chinese but they had lived in Cambodia for generations. In any case, it was the native Khmer Rouge that did most of the killings. Almost a quarter of the population was slaughtered or starved to death. The brutality was appalling. Still, despite or perhaps because of the brutality, the regime survived for several years and would most likely have survived much longer were it not for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that drove Pol Pot together with his supporters into the jungle where he died.
The Pol Pot regime was indeed terrible; most of those that could, did escape to Cambodia. To be sure, there were never thousands or even hundreds of foreigners that ever showed any inclination to go to Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Yet we see the opposite phenomenon in the case of ISIS. There are not only hundreds of thousands that want to escape but on the opposite side, there are thousands that want to join it. There is no analysis of this phenomenon in the book; it is not even mentioned.
Indeed mention or the elaboration of this phenomenon would imply that ISIS has some appeal, something the modern capitalist West could not provide. The author of the book does not want to engage in such analysis because that would reveal ISIS’ appeal, however warped, and at the same time reveal the problems of the West, which have led thousands of Westerners, many born and raised there, to move to ISIS-controlled areas. Paradoxically, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is not what it tells but what it omits: it demonstrates the continuous blindness of many Western analysts that have tried to understand the ISIS phenomenon and to visualize its implications for the future.
Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor at Indiana University in South Bend, Indiana, US.