Ghastly images of beheadings and reports of brutal killings, rape and plunder added to the image of the ISIS as the ‘most feared’ non-state terror group.
The ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) aka Daesh, the Arabic name for a ruthless jihadist group that came into blood-soaked prominence in West Asia a few years ago, was deemed to be the world’s most feared terror group, as highlighted in the title of the volume under review. At the height of its ascendancy in late 2015, the ISIS controlled a vast swathe of territory between Syria and Iraq and acted like a de facto nation state with an estimated 10 million captive citizens, an armed militia, export of oil to generate revenue and imposition of taxes.
Ghastly images of beheadings and reports of brutal killings, rape and plunder added to the image of the ISIS as the ‘most feared’ non-state terror group. It displaced the al-Qaeda associated with 9/11 and Osama bin Laden as the new threat to regional peace and security. A concerted global effort with many embedded contradictions, by way of the major and regional powers often working at cross-purposes, finally resulted in the ISIS being militarily ‘defeated’ in December 2018.
This was declared triumphantly by US President Donald Trump at the time, but the multiple terror bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday April 21, 2019, brought the ISIS back onto the south Asian radar. Two days after this dastardly attack that killed more than 250 innocents, the ISIS claimed responsibility. And, as Taneja avers in the introduction to his book, “Sri Lanka today has become ISIS’s biggest success story (and) whether directly or by association, it hardly matters.”
The value of this slim book lies in the cautionary note that the author adds. “Why Sri Lanka mattered to the Islamic State itself is perhaps the more important aspect to study. From its magnetic rise out of the Syrian civil war to its geographic demise in the dusty desert bowl of central Syria, the story of the ISIS is not over yet.”
In 18 pithy chapters—one a mere two pages—Taneja brings forth his reporter’s skills to present a racy narrative that is ambitious in scope. Locating India’s interest and involvement in West Asia and the Syrian crisis, the book traces the rise of the ISIS with the little known Abu Musa al-Zarqawi at the helm; his death in June 2006 by a US drone strike and the transition to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now resurrected as the ISIS leader post the ‘success’ of the Sri Lanka attack.
Taneja has made an important contribution, for there are few detailed accounts of the ISIS and its relevance for India, and the dogged perseverance of the reporter animates every page. The sweep is wide and a thumbnail account of major events related to the ISIS are included—for instance, the Colin Powell reference to Zarqawi in February 2003 at the special session of the UN Security Council; to the San Remo conference of 1920 that led to the Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East in its current political geography. This wide canvas leads to a certain imbalance in the narrative and, in some areas, the author is only able to either allude to or skim over important detail or analysis.
Where the book warrants a high rating is in the section specific to India and the ISIS. Relevant context is provided apropos India and West Asia, including the often ignored fact that the Indian workforce in that region sent home $69 billion in 2017—which, as Taneja notes, “is more than the country’s annual defence budget”. The fact that the ISIS shot 39 Indian workers in cold blood is recounted in a gripping manner and the chapter is titled Schrodinger’s Thirty-nine—for the Indian government was unable to confirm in public whether these hapless workers were alive or dead. This is what Taneja wryly refers to as “keeping the missing people dead and alive at the same time”—the Schrödinger phenomenon.
The most distinctive strand of the book is the section dealing with the propaganda arm of the ISIS and the manner in which India was targeted for potential recruits. This account is rich in detail and Taneja makes a pertinent point when he notes: “Despite generalizations suggesting that it would in fact be Kashmir that would be most susceptible to ISIS’s global outreach, this hypothesis has come out as not true. It is in fact, the southern Indian state of Kerala that has clocked up the most number of cases in the country.”
The author provides a rare first-hand account of how he managed to ‘enter’ an online pro-ISIS group as a ‘lurker’ and how “getting kicked out of these groups was a common occurrence and existing in these online spaces was an art form in itself”. The merits of Telegram as a platform over Twitter and the many cadre rivalries that he could observe and report burnish the book.
One major factual error merits mention. Contrary to what the author avers (page 54), PM Vajpayee was not in favour of sending Indian troops to the Middle East at US behest; and the ‘pressure’ he faced from his colleagues like LK Advani was that they wanted India to accept the US recommendation that Delhi have its own boots on the ground in Iraq. Furthermore, it is Brazil and not Britain that is part of BRICS (page 2). A bibliography would have helped. These are omissions that do no credit to the publisher.