Bennis, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror

by Chris Toensing
published in MER277

Phyllis Bennis, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2015).

The amalgamation of Iraqi ex-Baathists, Iraqi and Syrian jihadis, disgruntled locals and outside recruits known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, continues to cast a long shadow over the Middle East and the world. The grip of the would-be caliphate upon its “home” territory in Iraq and Syria is slipping, but groups raising the ISIS banner are winning battles in Afghanistan and Libya. Meanwhile, the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015 has kept the specter of ISIS-inspired attacks hovering over political debate in the West.

Much of the media coverage of ISIS has been sensationalistic, not surprisingly, since the organization clearly stages its public executions and other displays of brutality as spectacles for mass consumption. But a few book-length investigations have emerged that shed light on ISIS rather than generate (or reflect) heat. Of these, the most concise and accessible is Phyllis Bennis’ primer.

Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington’s only truly progressive multi-issue think tank, and a veteran journalist and activist focused on the Middle East. (She is also a former editor of Middle East Report.) This primer is one of a series she has published with Olive Branch Press—all in reader-friendly question-and-answer format. It is polemical, in the best sense of the word, intended to challenge readers to think outside conventional categories of analysis and not to accept the bipartisan consensus that the only response to phenomena like ISIS is some combination of military force overseas and intense surveillance at home.

Rather than start with ISIS’ startling military victories in 2014, as many thumbnail histories do, Bennis begins with a section on the various iterations of the war on terror. This move allows her to situate the rise of ISIS not just in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq but also in the longer history of US-led interventions in the greater Middle East in the name of fighting “terrorism.” This term, she points out, has no universally agreed-upon definition, and is now “used almost exclusively to describe political violence committed by extremist Muslims.” That context is crucial to understanding why the war on terror has been so widely perceived as a war on Islam and hence why ISIS has been able to attract adherents from abroad.

The next few sections offer more detailed accounts of the immediate origins of ISIS in the Iraq war and the civil wars in Libya and Syria. Bennis then turns to topical questions such as the relation between autocracy and political Islam, the causes of sectarianism and the role of oil.   

The final, very useful chapter outlines alternatives to the ISIS-era war on terror, based on de-escalation of the conflicts that enabled ISIS’ ascent and diplomacy to find durable political solutions in the combat zones, as well as massively increased humanitarian aid. Bennis reproduces a compelling summary of recommendations to this effect by a group of Syrian women who met in 2013 and 2014. It is striking that though this item originally appeared in Time magazine in October 2014, it has received little attention to date. The guns drown out the region’s more humane and sensible voices.

The primer’s short format leads to some elision of history, and the emphasis on European colonial and US interference lets local authoritarian rulers (though not the Saudis) off the hook to some degree. But the information and analysis presented by Phyllis Bennis are what the average American reader most needs to see.

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