The Rise of Islamic State, written by senior Middle Eastern correspondent Patrick Cockburn, explores the origins of history’s most successful terrorist group and the unfolding of US and the West’s greatest foreign policy debacle. In military operations, by mid 2014 they had outreached Al Qaeda, taking territory that reached across borders and included the city of Mosul. The reports of their military power and brutality to their victims continue to shock and intimidate the West. Out of the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring and Syria, a weakened Al-Qaeda has allowed for new jihadi movements, especially Islamic State.
Some 150,000 people have returned to Raqqa, though they are not very visible on the streets. A few shops have reopened but there not many customers and business is slow. Beside an ancient ruin called “The Ladies’ Castle”, Basil Amar as-Sawas has a shop selling doors, some of which he makes himself, while others he buys from people whose houses have been badly damaged but they have been able to salvage some of the fittings.He says there is little money around and those who have any are reluctant to spend it while the situation remains so uncertain. Some people whose houses have survived “are selling them to businessmen because they need the money”. He has two small children below school age but for other people the absence of schools – mostly destroyed or badly damaged – is another disincentive for thinking of a return to Raqqa.
Reminders of the grim rule of Isis are everywhere. The tops of the pointed metal railing surrounding the al-Naeem Roundabout are bent outwards because that is where severed heads were put on display.
Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is a book about nesting ospreys, multiple universes, atheism, spiritualism, and the arrow of time. He takes the reader back and forth between ordinary occurrences-old shoes and entropy, sailing far out at sea and the infinite expanse of space. He looks toward the universe and captures aspects of it in a series of beautifully written essays, each offering a glimpse at the whole from a different perspective: here time, there symmetry, not least God. It is a meditation by a remarkable humanist-physicist, a book worth reading by anyone entranced by big ideas grounded in the physical world.
Award-winning former NPR correspondent, foreign policy expert, and associate at the Carnegie Endowment, Sarah Chayes has an urgent warning in her new book Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens National Security. Militant puritanical religion is presenting as a just alternative to depraved secular rule.
From one of the world’s most admired war correspondents, Christina Lamb, comes a searing indictment of the West’s involvement in wars against fundamentalist Islam, Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World. The pointless loss of American, British and Australian lives, has achieved nothing; despite the efforts to eliminate the Taliban from the country, their presence has continued to grow. Insurgent attacks have also increased, and the region still struggles against poverty, an unstable infrastructure and a huge number of land mines. Initially billed as the West’s success story by both Bush and Blair, Afghanistan remains a lawless, violent land. The promises made to its people in 2001 have not been fulfilled. Foreign correspondent for one of the world’s leading newspapers, The Sunday Times, educated at Oxford, a Fellow at Harvard University, a member of the National Geographic Society, former British Foreign Correspondent of the year and a multi award winner, Lamb has been reporting on the region of “pomegranates and war” since the age of 21, when she crossed the Hindu Kush into Afghanistan with mujaheddin fighting the Russians and fell unequivocally in love with this fierce country, a relationship which has dominated her adult life. Lamb has fought with the mujahadeen dressed as an Afghan boy, experienced a near-fatal ambush and head-on encounter with Taliban forces and successfully established links with American, British, Afghan government, Taliban and tribal fighters. Her unparalleled access to troops and civilians on the ground, as well as to top military officials has ensured that Farewell Kabul is the definitive book on the region, exposing the realities of Afghanistan unlike anyone before, compelling, moving and impossible to put down.
Visitors to Thailand are not warned by travel agents, airlines or their own governments that their passports are highly prized in Thailand, and stand a very good chance of being stolen. Depending on the nationality, a passport can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market, several months pay for many Thais. There are gangs stealing passports to order. European, American, Australian and Canadian passports are particularly prized. Foreign embassies, fearful the documents are ending up in the hands of Islamist militants and international criminal networks, have made repeated representations to the Thai government without affect. INTERPOL Chief, Secretary General Ronald Noble describes passport fraud as the “biggest threat facing the world”. But for decades the Thai authorities have done little to stop their country’s blatant trade in stolen, doctored and forged documents. By inaction and complicity, Thailand has become an epicentre for the trade, a key link in international terrorist networks and a danger to the travelling public worldwide. Forged passports from Thailand are regarded as the highest quality of any in the world. Clients from the Middle East are one of the major buyers of fake passports in Thailand. In The Age of Terror, the failure of the Thai authorities to abolish the trade has set alarm bells ringing around the world. Here in its entirety is Chapter Two, called Passports, from the recent book Thailand: Deadly Destination.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Joby Warrick reveals in Black Flags: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of The Islamic State how the stain of militant Islam now raising its banner across Iraq and Syria spread from a remote Jordanian prison with the unwitting aid of American military intervention. When he succeeded his father in 1999, King Abdullah of Jordan released a batch of political prisoners in the hopes of smoothing his transition to power. Little did he know that among those released was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a man who would go on to become a terrorist mastermind too dangerous even for al-Qaeda and give rise to an Islamist movement bent on dominating the Middle East. Zarqawi began by directing hotel bombings and assassinations in Jordan from a base in northern Iraq, but it was the American invasion of that country in 2003 that catapulted him to the head of a vast insurgency.
Timothy Mo, who as the son of wealthy Hong Kong Chinese attended Oxford, is a superbly gifted writer but a difficult man who has long fought with his publishers. Once a favourite of the English literary set, he fell out of favour. In later life he has produced a masterwork, Pure. Mo had always wondered why a dynamic art form such as fiction had failed to confront the single most pressing issue of the age, the minds and motivations of Muslim fundamentalists. With a tide of jihad sweeping the world, the question became ever more pressing. In Pure Timothy Mo uses the device of character. He pits an ice addicted yaba addled Bangkok lady boy, a freelance entertainment journalist called Snooky, “Snooky was lonely because she was smart”, into the world of mujaheddin training camps in southern Thailand. Co-opted as a spy, there she grows a beard, participates in forays into the world of jihad in Indonesia, and reports to her minder, caught between the hidden, complex worlds of intelligence operatives and Muslim jihadists. Thanks to fights with his publishers, this book has never received the attention it deserves. Simply put: Pure is a must read, a neglected masterpiece.
The author of the groundbreaking Atlantic cover story What ISIS Really Wants, a piece which combined excellent research skills with superb journalism and transformed the debate over Islamic State, has now written arguably the best ever account of the strategy, psychology, and theology driving the Islamic State. Graeme Wood is one of the world’s most intellectually gifted journalists. Tens of thousands of men and women have left comfortable, privileged lives to join the Islamic State and kill for it. To them, its violence is beautiful and holy, and the caliphate a fulfillment of prophecy and the only place on earth where they can live and die as Muslims. The Way of the Strangers is an intimate journey into the minds of the Islamic State’s true believers. From the streets of Cairo to the mosques of London to the cafes of Melbourne, Graeme Wood interviews supporters, recruiters, and sympathisers of the group to produce this beautifully written, must-read book.
Islamic State stunned the world when it overran an area the size of Great Britain on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border in a matter of weeks and proclaimed the birth of a new Caliphate. In his timely book Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, one of the Arab world’s most respected journalists Abdel Bari Atwan draws on his unrivaled knowledge of the global jihadi movement and Middle Eastern geopolitics. Based on extensive field research and exclusive interviews with IS insiders, the book outlines the group’s leadership structure, as well as its strategies, tactics, and diverse methods of recruitment. He also shows how the group’s rapid growth has been facilitated by its masterful command of social media platforms, the “dark web,” Hollywood blockbuster-style videos, and even jihadi computer games, producing a powerful paradox where the ambitions of the Middle Ages have reemerged in cyberspace. Islamic State has to be increasingly understood as a nation. Atwan draws a convincing picture of the Islamic State as a well-run organization that combines bureaucratic efficiency and military expertise with a sophisticated use of information technology.
Attention without feeling is only a report: “Life exists only because of a myriad of synchronicities that bring us to this particular place at this particular moment. In return for such a gift, the only sane response is to glitter in reply. Knowing the fractal geometry of an individual snowflake makes the winter landscape even more of a marvel. Knowing the mosses enriches our knowing of the world. Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed. Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Starting to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.” So writes one of the world’s leading botanists, Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her masterwork Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses — an extraordinary celebration of smallness and the grandeur of life, as humble yet surprisingly magical as its subject.
The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities is a rivetting firsthand account of a young British civilian woman, Emma Sky, who volunteered to go to Iraq immediately after the invasion in 2003, and within weeks found herself in the role of Governor of Kirkuk – the most dangerous place on Earth. As a Brit, a woman and a liberal, Emma Sky’s presence and position in Iraq following the invasion in 2003 is the stuff of fiction. Shortly after the coalition troops went in, Sky, an Arabist, volunteered to go to assist the Coalition Provisional Authority in the occupation. Alone, she made her way to Baghdad, was told they had enough people, so travelled north, to Kirkuk. Within days she became the most senior civilian there, Kirkuk’s lady governor.
By May of 2015 the security situation in Australia had deteriorated to an alarming extent. The authorities were scared witless another terror attack was imminent. For more than 12 months they had been putting out spot fires across the country, in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, along with other regional and state centres. The increasing radicalisation of the Muslim minority, fanned by the rise of the single most powerful religious movement in modern times, the Islamic State, posed a major threat to the safety of Australian citizens. And as any firefighter could tell you, there were only so many spot fires you could put out before the forest ignited. The dreadful security situation in Australia had been fanned by a lunatic decision by the government to once again join America, the Great Satan as the Islamic community regarded them, in invading Muslim lands aka Iraq. There was no reason to do so; no treaty obligation, no security situation which could justify the invasion of sovereign lands. The Muslim minority was incensed by the inhumane killing of mujaheddin by high-tech drones launched from Australian fighter jets. They were incensed by the Australian governments labeling of some of their members as un-Australian, when in many ways, their regular attendance at mosque, their faithfulness to their wives, the good care they took of their children, the fact they did not smoke, drink or take drugs and had strong ties with their communities, all marked them as far better citizens than many members of the decrepit society they saw around them. The mishandling of the situation by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who repeatedly ignored expert advice on how to deal with a religious minority with which he clearly had no affinity or understanding, had ramped the terror threat through the roof. The entire devolving security situation was set against a rapid collapse in Australian society, which had seen a once proud, optimistic, larrikin country become impoverished, dispirited, and broken, the streets of Sydney, its major city, more like walking through a Mad Max movie than a major city, the only difference being the black birds were replaced by squawking seagulls from the nearby beaches; just as eery, just as apocryphal in their mournful cries.
Algorithms can learn. Algorithms can acquire bias. In The Black Box Society: How Secret Algorithms Control Money and Information, eminent Law Professor Frank Pasquale exposes the invasive technology running our lives. In The Age of Terror these systems can be used to extend the control of dark agencies into every corner of our lives. Every day, corporations are connecting the dots about our personal behavior-silently scrutinizing clues left behind by our work habits and Internet use. The data compiled and portraits created are incredibly detailed and invasive. But who connects the dots about what firms are doing with this information? The Black Box Society argues that we all need to be able to do so-and to set limits on how big data affects our lives.
Only once did David Foster Wallace give a public talk on his views on life, during a commencement address given in 2005 at the elite liberal arts Kenyon College, the oldest private educational institution in Ohio, America, known for its rural setting and Gothic architecture. Demonstrating that wisdom can come from everywhere, is the sole possession of no individual, no single faith, no single creed, no single god, the schools motto is derived from the religious order of The Daughters of the King, associated with the Episcopal Church but now drawing members from across denominations: Mangnaminem Sustine Cruciter, meaning “With heart, mind and spirit uphold and bear the cross.” At the base of the cross are the letters “FHS”, meaning: “For His Sake”. To many Christ, in 2015, appeared to have departed the Earth scene as a tidal wave of Islamic fundamentalism swept the world. Three years later David Wallace was to commit suicide, becoming a cultural symbol for tortured genius. His address, published in the slim volume This Is Water, captures Wallace’s electric intellect as well as his grace in attention to others. After his death, it became a treasured piece of writing reprinted in The Wall Street Journal and the London Times, commented on endlessly in blogs, and emailed from friend to friend. Writing with his one-of-a-kind blend of causal humor, exacting intellect, and practical philosophy, David Foster Wallace probes the challenges of daily living and offers advice that renews its devotees with every reading. How does one keep from going through their comfortable, prosperous adult life unconsciously? How do we get ourselves out of the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion?
Terror in Australia: Workers’ Paradise Lost, by veteran journalist John Stapleton, is a sidewinding missile into the heart of Australian hypocrisy. It becomes available this week.The book is a beautifully written snapshot of a pivotal turning point in the history of the so-called Lucky Country. In 2015 there were well attended Reclaim
Australia demonstrations in every major capital city, all protesting what the demonstrators saw as the growing Islamisation of Australia, along with countering anti-racism demonstrations. There were frequent violent clashes, hundreds of police were forced to form lines separating the demonstrators in Sydney and Melbourne, there were a significant number of arrests and injuries, and dozens of people were treated for the effects of capsicum spray. The terror alert was at its highest level in history, the country was engaged in an unpopular and discredited war in Iraq and Syria, and relations between the government and an increasingly radicalised Muslim minority had broken down.
Signs and portents are everywhere, disturbance everywhere. With post-apocalyptic imagery now entrenched in popular culture, and all the major faiths prophesying that mankind has reached “The End of Days”, fantastical theories abound on the origins of the internet; that it was an advanced technology gifted across time and space in order to save an emerging race known as humans from an impending apocalypse by allowing the cleverest minds on the planet to aggregate. Whatever the pure truth, perhaps only the Gods will ever know. But there is no doubt the Rise of Islamic State has been paralleled by the Rise of the Network Society. The single most brilliant philosopher and anthropologist in the field has been Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells. His book The Rise of the Network Society was the first in a string of books documenting the economic and social dynamics of the information age.
The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism from AL’QAIDA to ISIS offers an unprecedented assessment of the CIA while at the forefront of our nation’s war against al-Qa’ida and during the most remarkable period in the history of the Agency. Called the “Bob Gates of his generation,” Michael Morell, former Deputy Director of the CIA, saw it all–the only person with President Bush on 9/11/01 and with President Obama on 5/1/11 when Usama Bin Laden was brought to justice. Like Ghost Wars, See No Evil, and At the Center of the Storm, The Great War of Our Time is a vivid, news making account of the CIA, a life of secrets, a war conducted under the cloaks of darkness and disinformation; a war the public does not understand.