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What Everyone Needs to Know About the Islamic State

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Daniel Byman’s Al Qaeda, The Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know, is one of those rare books that qualifies as an essential book. I say essential, and not only to those with a special interest in jihadist movements, or even for those who follow world affairs with a more than passing interest, but for everyone who follows politics, which given the role of terrorism in our lives since 9/11 ought rightly to be every adult American.

In other words, take Byman’s use of “Everyone” literally. Jihad is so much a part of our vocabulary today that it is inexcusable for anyone to remain uninformed on the subject. Worse, there is so much misinformation flying around that it is nearly impossible to avoid it, even while attempting to remain diligent, and far too few people make that attempt. Many of the rest are actively seeking disinformation on places like Fox News, where talking points are substituted for hard fact.

This book is eminently accessible. You don’t need a doctorate to read it. Any jargon and acronyms used are explained. It can be easily read – and understood – by any “intelligent reader” as the author puts it. Byman uses a Q&A format, where he poses a question and then answers it. He uses all sources available, speculates, analyzes, and gives the best answer he can, admitting uncertainty where it exists.

This unusual format means the book can be read front cover to back cover, or used as a reference, looking only for that information which interests you. Many of the questions he poses are likely questions you have asked yourself since 9/11. Others are questions you perhaps should have asked, and would have, had only the mainstream media given you reliable information to go on in the first place.

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Byman is an expert on the subject, which is one of the reasons his book is so important. This is a man who is not a journalist, but someone who has followed these jihadist movements professionally for the CIA, for Rand, for Brookings Institute, and for the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. If anyone is qualified to untangle to immense skein of false trails for the facts at its center, it is Daniel Byman.

Another reason this book is important is found in a question he asks at the outset: Where does Al Qaeda begin and end? Americans are so woefully ill-informed about the situation in the Middle East that a book like Byman’s can only be a corrective to more than a decade of conflicting accounts of what, exactly, has transpired in the Middle East. And not just since 2001, when America entered the picture, but going back to 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the formation of the mujaheddin.

There is necessarily some overlap and repetition, as some questions cover the same ground, for example, “How did Al Qaeda become a suicide bombing factory?” “Why do other Jihadists criticize Al Qaeda?” and “How does Al Qaeda justify killing civilians?” Nevertheless, they are all important questions and the format enables readers to seek answers to only those questions about which they are curious.

The reader will discover what form of Islam Al Qaeda embraces (Salafism), and what differences exist between Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Contrary to Fox News, there are plentiful and significant differences, not only between Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, but between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups, like Hamas, which Byman says has repressed Al Qaeda-like groups in the Gaza Strip) and Hizballah (unlikely allies as they follow different forms of Islam).

Though the Islamic State is producing combat soldiers rather than terrorists along Al Qaeda lines, you will learn how your run-of-the-mill terrorists are trained (often very poorly), how they are radicalized into terrorism, and whether or not we should be worried about them – or simply laugh at their frequent ineptitude.

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In a word, what Byman does here is de-mythologize Al Qaeda, stripping away by layers the mystique they have built up around themselves since 9/11, exposing them as porn addicts, hypocrites, ignorant of their own holy scriptures and armed with cherry-picked and misinterpreted verses instead. The reader will learn of opposition to Al Qaeda within Islam itself, and how their embrace of careless destruction has turned many of their own people against them.

It is significant in this regard that Byman dismisses the myth that moderate Muslims have not spoken out against Al Qaeda; he says they have “done so openly and repeatedly,” and not only in reaction to the 9/11 attacks. He points out that Muslim approval of Al Qaeda often drops in the wake of successful attacks. Of course, these facts are unlikely to discourage anti-Muslim ideologues in our own country, who, like Islamic radicals, do best when they ignore unwelcome facts.

For those most interested in the Islamic State, this terrorist organization is covered in depth in Chapter 8, though it receives mentions throughout the book where appropriate. Twenty-three pages are dedicated to discussions about what to call the group, who Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is, its origins, it’s opposition to Al Qaeda, it’s goals and its strength. Byman also looks at the Khorasan Group, which some readers may be familiar with, and asks whether the Islamic State is a threat to the American homeland, as some Republican politicians have contended.

The book concludes with a discussion of counterterrorism, that is, the national security instruments (e.g. military action, intelligence-gathering) used to fight these various terrorist organizations. This includes also the role of diplomacy (yes, diplomacy). We learn that other countries acquiesce to our activities, or even request them, then publicly condemn us to save face (even warning us they will do so).

Byman looks at legal systems both in the United States and abroad (and the possible consequences from the aggrieved terrorist cells), and military tribunals, including Gitmo, and rendition and resultant human rights abuses and their consequences. Byman discusses the use of drones (superior to air strikes, he says but still damaging to America’s claim to the moral high ground). Finally, he asks, how do we win the war of ideas? How do we counter radicalization? (A difficult task, he tells us).

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Suggestions for further reading are found at the end of this tour de force. Some the reader might be familiar with, such as Peter Bergen (through his role at CNN). Others are more esoteric for the general reader. All such recommendations must be taken seriously, though if the reader takes his interest no further, he will still come away with a vastly improved understanding of global jihadism and therefore the situation in the Middle East as it exists today.

Al Qaeda, The Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know, is published by Oxford University Press (2015). It can be found at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers and is also available in e-book format (e.g. Kindle, Nook), which is perfectly usable here as the book’s 304 pages contain no maps or diagrams.

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