The Rise and Rise of ISIS

"Blood Year - Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror"
David Kilcullen, Hurst (London, 2016)

David Kilcullen is a former Australian soldier turned advisor to the US government turned think tank director. He is the author of several fascinating books that have tracked the evolving nature of modern warfare and focused in particular on counter-insurgencies. This latest book is more personal and less theoretical than his previous writing with more direct reference to his work around government and the research firm that he founded that combines 'pattern analysis of immense amounts of remote-observation data with the ability to field indigenous research teams'. Unlike his other books, which have been ground breaking in his combination of theory and practice, 'Blood Year' reads more like an extended opinion piece that was perhaps commissioned to take advantage of the huge global interest in ISIS. That said it is a very readable account that covers many years' worth of blood in a chronological fashion with extremely credible analysis.

You have to reach the end of the book for Kilcullen to reveal his cornerstone argument that the events described leading to today represent a 'massive, tragic mess' and 'nothing less than the collapse of Western counter-terrorism strategy as we've known it since 2001'. Such a powerful blast at the status quo is followed by a glimpse into the depressing future of a 'multi generational struggle against an implacable enemy'

How we got to this point is told via a brief wider history of the region and more detail gradually increasing from the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the modern day with particular focus on the 'blood year' of 2014. Iraq is described as having a strong state but weak society that was divided and battered by civil conflict following the US invasion. The author's proximity to events reveals some good anecdotal insight including the then Prime Minister Maliki describing the US support to the 'Sons of Iraq' as "you've taken a crocodile as a pet' . Unlike Kilcullen's 'Accidental Guerilla' and 'Out of the Mountains' work, 'Blood Year' sees an author more comfortable making bold assertions such as his description of Maliki as a 'Shi'a-supremacist'.

Out of the Iraq civil war came 'Al Qaeda in Iraq' which would evolve and mutate into ISIS following the start of the Syrian conflict. In Syria Kilcullen stresses the role of Assad's allies in keeping him in power from the start referencing 'the availability of a well-placed repressive apparatus from Iran was a key addition to Assad's capability' (p.69). Hidden in the book is the headline worthy nugget that his contacts suggest that "Assad was furious at his generals' use of gas (in mid-2013) without his personal authorisation" (p.158). As a military man it's no surprise that Kilcullen is excellent when it comes to a tactical look at ISIS's campaign for territory. He focuses in Iraq on how Maliki's creation of a parallel military command structure was good for protecting him against a coup but terrible when it came to winning the war itself - a 'disaster waiting to happen' (p.88) that did happen when ISIS seized large parts of the country. The fall of Mosul is well told as Kilcullen contrasts the ridged, static, checkpoint orientated Iraqi forces with ISIS that were both manoeuvrable and understood the wider peri-urban issues around how cities function.

Kilcullen argues that Al Qaeda were unable to exploit the Arab Spring as they were still recovering from the death of Bin Laden and were largely inward looking. He then charts how the ISIS model 'perfected leaderless resistance, remote radicalisation and guerrilla-style terrorism'. He argues that despite the concerns in the West ISIS sees 'the Shi'a as the main enemy' and that they rely on "symbolic figures (who) issue general guidelines for action - individuals or independent groups act upon without further coordination or communication" . Such a dangerous, inspirational effect has been witnessed in a number of attacks globally since with the Tunisia killings in Sousse a prime example. One attacker with four clips of ammunition for a single gun was able to kill 38 people and change the course of an entire country.

'Blood Year' reserves its harshest criticism for the Obama administration. Where Kilcullen saw Russian tactics in the Middle East as having a 'strategic unity of thought and action' the Obama White House 'has been a lesson in the risks of passivity and under-reaction'. Where 'President Bush was reckless, President Obama seemed feckless' and had a 'deer-in-the-headlights response to the rise of ISIS and the Syrian conflict'. Kilcullen perhaps goes too far when he suggests that Obama made the choice of managed decline, but is certainly right in arguing that he conflated leaving the Iraq war with ending it.

Where the book does not work so well is in its somewhat sycophantic references to famous US journalists and a lack of ownership as to Kicullen's views around 'disaggregation'. Previously the author was amongst others who critiqued the lumping together of enemies into a single threat arguing that disaggregating them allowed for effective best fit campaigns to be built against each. Today he writes that 'disaggregation, which had seemed like such a smart move at the time, might be backfiring massively'. You feel there is a further piece of work to come on this but the reader is left rather hanging as to what Kilcullen thinks in this regard.