For New York, I Interviewed Hassan Hassan, a Syrian journalist and researcher who is out with a new book, “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” co-authored by Michael Weiss. Hassan interviewed dozens of ISIS fighters, clerics, propagandists. We explore their motivations, the history of Iraqi and Syrian conflict, and American foreign policy.
One of the goals of the book is to put ISIS in historical context, to explain its roots. Can you talk about the American decision, after the invasion of Iraq, to prevent Baath Party members from participating in public life?
The origins of ISIS go even further. Saddam Hussein tried to Islamize Baathism. And the result of that was the radicalization of an already violent group. That was a dangerous mix. Many of these people turned against Saddam Hussein even during his reign.
When the war happened in 2003, a lot of these people, former Baathists, but also people who were disbanded, naturally joined the insurgency. All of a sudden they felt that they no longer held power, which is always a powerful sentiment. So a lot of these officers who joined the insurgency, they weren’t fighting for Saddam Hussein, they were fighting for their own class and sect.
After the insurgency, ISIS, or the previous incarnation of ISIS, began to have a more central role. This was because of the power vacuum left by the Americans and the Iraqi government. But also because they learned from the mistake they made before, which was basically to alienate the local population without trying to establish a presence and loyalty with the Sunni population in Iraq. The top leadership of ISIS is dominated by individuals who had some sort of background with the previous Iraqi regime, so Baathists brought all this experience to bear with ISIS. So they have a very strong, nascent security apparatus that’s conscious of the potential weaknesses of the group.