The Jihadis Return: Patrick Cockburn’s Indispensable Book on ISIS

Both Iraq and Syria have been destroyed. Their economies, infrastructure, social institutions and cultural artifacts, obliterated. In  Patrick Cockburn’s latest book, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising,1 he posits that Iraq and Syria will remain in crisis for the foreseeable future, and likely for decades to come. This latest work from the Independent journalist provides a sobering analysis of current affairs in Iraq and Syria. However, Cockburn’s latest book avoids suggestions or policy alternatives. Largely, this is an analysis of the rise of ISIS, its military successes and the broader political, religious and ideological framework in which it was created, and currently exists.


According to Cockburn, “Iraq has disintegrated” and, unfortunately, in today’s Iraqi society, “Little is exchanged between its three great communities—Shia, Sunni, and Kurds—except gunfire” (9). He goes on, “The main victor in the new war in Iraq is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) which wants to kill Shia rather than negotiate with them” (9). For the author, June 10, 2014, delivers the most “crucial date in the renewed conflict,” when ISIS overran and seized the second largest city in Iraq, its northern capital, Mosul (9). Similarly, ISIS had already recaptured Fallujah in January 2014.

In fact, ISIS “may have had as few as 1,300 fighters in its assault on Mosul,” writes Cockburn (10). A startling statistic given that the Unites States has trained upwards of 350,000 Iraqi Army soldiers and 650,000 Iraqi Police officers, while also providing the Iraqi government with military aircrafts, armored vehicles and logistical support for over a decade. Furthermore, Cockburn notes that, “the flight [from Mosul] was led by commanding officers, some of whom changed into civilian clothes and abandoned their men” (10). While people living in Baghdad might be accustomed to years of occupation, “they could feel the ground shifting under their feet” as they watched Mosul fall in the hands of ISIS (10).

As Mosul fell, the Iraqi government reacted predictably, “Broadcasting upbeat accounts of the latest victories,” although such accounts “were seldom backed up with pictures,” proving Maliki’s Shia dominated government to be utterly corrupt, or outright delusional (Cockburn 11). Further illustrating Iraq’s political corruption, Cockburn writes, “Under Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, patronage based on party, family, or community determines who gets a job” (55). That is, the Maliki government, supported by both the Bush and Obama administrations, has proven totally incapable of even remotely demonstrating their ability to operate a functioning state apparatus.

Sunni Iraqis have long understood the Maliki government to be nefarious and double-dealing. Cockburn registers that, “The Shia-dominated government might have gotten away with its confrontational approach before 2011,” but after “the Arab Spring uprising in Syria took the form of a revolt by the Sunni majority backed by Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf and Turkey, the sectarian balance of power in the region began to shift” (56). This shift has opened the door for various jihadi groups to successfully operate within Iraq.

For years commentators writing on the Middle East have suggested that it was a matter of time before the Sunni population within Iraq militantly revolted against Maliki’s despotic regime and its sectarian policies. It is important to remember that Sunni Arabs make up about a fifth of Iraq’s 33 million inhabitants. As a result, Cockburn reflects that the Sunni population has been routinely protesting the Maliki regime for years, demanding economic and political reforms (49). Unfortunately those protests and political demands were ignored, partly resulting in today’s escalated conflict.

Corruption within the Iraqi military has been as detestable as the misconduct within its political system. Cockburn demonstrates that the Iraqi Army has basically functioned as an “extortion racket” for its higher-ranking officials, and even some low-level soldiers. For instance, the author points out that, “A general could become a divisional commander at the cost of $2 million” (51). Further, Cockburn goes on to quote political scientist and activist Ghassan al-Attiya, ” ‘You can’t get a job in the army unless you pay; you can’t even get out of prison unless you pay. Maybe a judge sets you free but you must pay for the paperwork, otherwise you stay there. Even if you are free you may be captured by some officer who paid $10,000 to $50,000 for his job and needs the money back’ “(53).

In the meantime, Cockburn writes, “It is evident that ISIS has been able to exploit the growing sense of alienation and persecution among the Sunni in Iraq” (55). The reaction of Shia militias in Iraq hasn’t helped the situation, the author reflects:

Many of the armed men who started appearing in the streets of Baghdad and other Shia cities [after ISIS captured Mosul] were Shia militiamen, some from Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a splinter group from the movement of Shia populist and nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. This organization is partly controlled by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and, it is generally assumed, by the Iranians. It was a measure of the collapse of the state security forces and the national army that the government was relying on a sectarian militia to defend the capital. Ironically, one of Maliki’s few achievements as prime minister had been facing down the Shia militias in 2008, but now he was encouraging them to return to the streets. Soon dead bodies were being dumped at night. They were stripped of their ID cards but were assumed to be Sunni victims of the militia death squads. Iraq seemed to be slipping over the edge into an abyss in which sectarian massacres and counter-massacres might rival those during the sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia in 2006-07 (12).

Clearly, the combination of sectarian civil-war (much of which has been a result of US sanctions imposed on Iraq during the 1990s, the illegal US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, and the US military surge in 2006-07), government misconduct, banditry within the military, and various external geopolitical phenomena, particularly the Syrian civil-war and Arab Spring Sunni uprisings throughout the region in 2011, has provided ISIS with the perfect context to operate in Iraq: a shattered society.

ISIS’ military successes have been swift and quite surprising to many Western governments, because, as Cockburn reminds us, “Western media had largely stopped reporting on the country” (17). He continues, “This lack of coverage had been convenient for the US and other Western governments because it enabled them to play down the extent to which the ‘war on terror’ had failed so catastrophically in the years since 9/11 (18). In the short term, such conveniences were a useful ideological-political tool for the US and its allies. Nevertheless, the long-term geopolitical ramifications resulting from such hubris has proven disastrous.


Much like Iraq, Syria is mired in sectarian violence and gruesome atrocities. According to Cockburn, “Syria has descended into a nightmarish sectarian civil war as the government bombs its own cities… and the armed opposition… slaughter Alawites and Christians simply because of their religion” (67). Essentially, the author suggests that, “Syrians have to choose between a violent dictatorship, in which power is monopolized by the presidency… or an opposition that shoots children in the face… and sends pictures of decapitated soldiers to the parents of their victims” (67).  As a result, he compares the current crisis in Syria to the civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990): depopulated cities, checkpoints, ambushes, unexploded ordnance and dead bodies littering the Syrian landscape. In Cockburn’s view, sadly, there seems to be no end in sight for those living in Syria.

Even more, he notes that, “The Syrian revolution stems from the country’s deep political, religious, and economic divisions before 2011 and the way in which these have since been exploited and exacerbated by foreign intervention” (69). Specifically, as other commentators have mentioned, much of the eastern Syrian countryside has been experiencing long-term and extreme drought, resulting in 80% crop failure and a 90% loss of livestock. “In the four years of drought before 2011, the United Nations noted that up to three million Syrian farmers had been pushed into ‘extreme poverty’ and fled the countryside to squat in shanty towns” (Cockburn 70). Often neglected, the context of climate change has had a profound impact on the overall geopolitical landscape in the Middle East. Extreme drought in Syria is but one example.

Interestingly, Cockburn points out that while ISIS and various other anti-Assad jihadi groups in Syria battle it out, ideologically, they remain very close, including Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Islam. However, as the author mentions, “Pilloried in the West for their sectarian ferocity, these jihadists were often welcomed by local people for restoring law and order after the looting and banditry of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army” (71). To what degree has the FSA been supported by outside forces? Cockburn references an interview conducted with a former FSA commander, Saddam al-Jamal, who indicates that, “Meetings of the FSA military council were invariably attended by representatives of the Saudi, UAE, Jordanian, and Qatari intelligence services, as well as intelligence officers from the US, Britain, and France” (72).

The civil-war between competing jihadi factions was initially escalated by ISIS as they directed and sent “the suicide bomber who killed Abdullah Muhammad al-Muhaysani, the official al-Qa’ida representative in Syria and also the leader of Ahrar al-Sham” (73). Jihadists are finding that outside support in the form of money, weapons and fighters has played a significant role in their internal splintering. On the other hand, the author also insists that the support given to such jihadi groups by the West, and its various allies in the Gulf Arab states, in the hope that they’ll be able to simultaneously fight al-Qa’ida and Assad, has utterly failed.

Unlike Professor Vijay Prashad, Cockburn believes that NATO’s 2011 air campaign in Libya played a pivotal role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi (75). Without help from NATO, the author suggests that Gaddafi may have stayed in power for several more years, if not indefinitely. As a result, the West misperceived the political context in Syria, assuming Assad would fall as easily as Gaddafi (74). This assumption was a predictable miscalculation. With the help of pro-Assad militias and Hezbollah, the Syrian government has been able to maintain control of the vast majority of provinces within the now failed state, although, as Cockburn writes, “The farther north one travels, the less progress is being made by government forces” (77).

He goes on to summarize the many internal and external struggles fueling the Syrian conflict:

The Syrian crisis comprises five different conflicts that cross-infect and exacerbate each other. The war commenced with a genuine popular revolt against a brutal and corrupt dictatorship, but it soon became intertwined with the struggle of the Sunni against the Alawites, and that fed into the Shia-Sunni conflict in the region as a whole, with a stand-off between the US, Saudi Arabia, and the Sunni states on the one side and Iran, Iraq, and the Lebanese Shia on the other. In addition to this, there is a revived cold war between Moscow and the West, exacerbated by the conflict in Libya and more recently made even worse by the crisis in the Ukraine (81).

The author does not believe Russia, Iran and Hezbollah “are willing to see their Syrian ally defeated” (79). In the current geopolitical context, the only hope Cockburn sees for the people of Syria is a series of ceasefires, as happened in the Old City of Homs, Nubl and Zahraa (80). Otherwise, he predicts a “Middle East version of the Thirty Years’ War in Germany four hundred years ago” (81). Unfortunately, many Syrians’ fate is now intertwined with the geopolitical interests of outside forces.


The ideology espoused by ISIS and other jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria finds its foundation in a literalist Saudi version of Islam: Wahhabism. As Cockburn notes, “The origins of Saudi Arabia’s anti-Shia stance can be traced back to the alliance between the Wahhabis and the House of Saud dating from the 18th century” (86). The author continues to provide a historical context for readers by pinpointing the Iranian revolution of 1979 as a date that significantly changed the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East. In response to the revolution, he writes, “During the 1980s, an alliance was born between Saudi Arabia, Pakistan (or more properly the Pakistani army), and the US which has proved extraordinarily durable” (86).  Durable, indeed, but increasingly dangerous, illogical and deadly for all sides involved.

The author reports that, “The armed opposition in Syria and Iraq has become dominated by Salafi jihadists, fundamentalist Islamic fighters committed to holy war” (84). According to Cockburn, “Saudi Arabia… had taken over from Qatar as the main funder of the Syrian rebels in the summer of 2013,” resulting in thousands of Saudi fighters arriving in Syria ready to fight and die in the name of Wahhabi-Islam, and billions of dollars in the pockets of Sunni jihadi groups (85). Additionally, Saudi preachers have called for armed intervention against the Syrian government, further inflaming sectarian tensions in the region (85).

Cockburn mentions that many former US diplomats and officials have spoken in a critical manner when discussing the US’ relationship with both Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. On one occasion, he cites a cable released by Wikileaks in which Hillary Clinton wrote: ” ‘Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, Let [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups’ ” (88). None of this was, or is, secret information. In fact, Cockburn reminds us, “Pre-9/11, only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had given official recognition to the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan” (88). As the old saying goes: with friends like these, who needs enemies?

The author is quick to point out the fact that only four out of the 57 Muslim countries in the world have a Shia majority, disputing Saudi Arabia’s claim that the 1979 Iranian revolution ignited a period of “Shia expansionism.” In contrast, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and others, regard the now Shia-controlled Iraqi government as the latest example of “Shia expansionism” in the region. Certainly, as Cockburn reports, “The takeover of Iraq by a Shia government—the first in the Arab world since Saladin overthrew the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt in 1171—caused serious alarm in Riyadh and other Sunni capitals.” (89).

But there are splits within the Saudi political world, as with any state-entity. While many in the Saudi-elite privately, and at times publicly, supported ISIS and other Sunni jihadists, Cockburn writes that, “It was clear that the Saudis too were concerned that jihadis whom they had previously allowed to leave to join the war in Syria might return home and turn their weapons against the rulers of the kingdom” (91). Some officials, such as Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, were quickly replaced with more moderate members of the Saudi political elite (92).

Other external problems for Saudi Arabia include differences with Qatar over its backing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, US politicians becoming more critical of Saudi actions/inaction, and ongoing economic inequality for the most impoverished and disenfranchised within Saudi society (93). Most nations view Saudi Arabia’s renewed stance against radical Wahhabi-Islam in a positive light. Yet many are reluctant to overly-praise the Saudis, as it remains to be seen whether or not their ideological and political “u-turn” will result in a decrease in weapons and financial support for Sunni jihadists.

Cockburn observes that, “The ‘Wahhabisation’ of mainstream Sunni Islam is one of the most dangerous developments of our era” (95). If the US hopes to combat such a movement effectively, its partners in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, must reject radically warped religious ideologies and abstain from funding jihadi groups in the region. Some nations, most importantly Saudi Arabia, have already begun the process of formally rejecting such jihadi groups. But as Cockburn reminds us, it might be too late for the Gulf Arab states.


All modern wars are viewed through modern media entities; some wars depend on traditional mediums more than others. Often, reporters provide worthwhile information for readers and listeners. In contrast, Cockburn suggests that the reporting on wars in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria has been exceptionally wrong. For example, Cockburn writes:

In 2001, reports of the Afghan war gave the impression that the Taliban had been beaten decisively, even though there had been very little fighting. In 2003, there was a belief in the West that Saddam Hussein’s forces had been crushed when in fact the Iraqi army, including the units of the elite Special Republican Guard, had simply disbanded and gone home. In Libya in 2011, the rebel militiamen, so often shown on television firing truck-mounted heavy machine guns in the general direction of the enemy, had only a limited role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, who was mostly brought down by NATO air strikes. In Syria in 2011 and 2012, foreign leaders and journalists repeatedly and vainly predicted the imminent defeat of Bashar al-Assad (100).

Because of the modern-media’s inherently short-sited reporting tactics, most media outlets bounce from one conflict to the next, never truly understanding the nuances involved in each war. Part of the problem is that the media focuses too much on combat operations, as opposed to the complex political realities taking place in each conflict zone (102). One of the consequences of such bad reporting has been, not only a misinterpretation of events, but also, and even more importantly, the effect such misinterpretation has had on events taking place on the battle field.

Cockburn provides several examples of how false reporting can further fuel the theatre of war: “In Libya, one of the most influential stories described the mass rape of women in rebel areas by government troops acting on orders from above” (107). Consequently, this particular story contributed to the overall perception of Gaddafi as a maniac despot, commanding his soldiers to rape and pillage rebel villages. As it turned out, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and a UN commission reported “that there was no evidence for the story, which appears to have been nothing more than a highly successful propaganda ploy” (108).

Likewise, the author points to the practice of embedding journalists with Western military forces and the problems inherent with such an arrangement. Surely, most understand that it’s quite problematic for journalists to depend on military forces for security, shelter, information and food, while simultaneously providing “objective” information of what’s happening in the war-zone (114).

Next, Cockburn takes aim at social media and YouTube, the media entities that were lauded for the role they played in the “Arab Spring,” function in Syria and Iraq, according to the author, in the opposite manner, providing jihadi groups with a platform to spread hate, fear and ideology (118). For the author, ISIS is winning the propaganda war. In fact, they have been extremely effective at recruiting fighters, political support and financial backing via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (119). These trends are likely to continue, as Western media outlets continue to make the same mistakes, and operate in the same fashion as they have for decades, with increasingly horrendous results.


Patrick Cockburn has been reporting from Iraq and other parts of the Middle East for several decades. He is, as most understand, one of the most well-respected Western journalists in the region. In the latter part of 2013, Cockburn routinely wrote about the Syrian insurgency/rebellion being taken over by jihadi groups. Most ignored his analysis. But after the fall of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, in June 2014, and deteriorating events in Syria, “It was evident that Western governments had entirely misread the situation in Iraq and Syria” (Cockburn 125).

The US response to 9/11 has been a total failure. Instead of confronting the two countries most responsible for funding, arming and supporting jihadists, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the US invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, largely contributing to today’s region-wide misery. Additional factors include: sectarianism, Wahhabi ideology, the Gulf Arab states’ support for jihadists, regional conflicts such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, outside forces such as Russia and Europe, propagandistic media outlets, corruption, economic liberalization and the context of climate change, to name a few.

In Cockburn’s view, Iraq is splitting apart along sectarian lines: Kurds, Shia and Sunni. While Syria’s fate largely rests in the hands of outside forces: US, Britain, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, etc. For both nations, and the region at-large, the author unfortunately predicts decades of conflict, atrocities and civil-war.

While Cockburn’s book is quite small, (144 pages) the information provided within this compact masterpiece is priceless. As a result, the aim was to thoroughly examine his latest work, and hopefully provide as much information as possible for those either unwilling, or unable to read the book in its entirety. In the end, this became a book report, as opposed to a book review.

1 Patrick Cockburn, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising (New York: OR Books, 2014).

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Vincent Emanuele October 21, 2014 6:21 am 

    Thanks for the feedback and article.

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