Paul Iddon, journalist based in Iraqi Kurdistan
In the summer of 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) group dominated international headlines following its swift and bloody takeover of Mosul and large swathes of northern Iraq. Its genocide of the Yazidi minority in Sinjar and its eagerness to showcase its horrific crimes against humanity could not go unanswered.
In his debut book, After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East, Seth J. Frantzman, a reporter, Middle East affairs analyst, and opinion editor for The Jerusalem Post, describes how the war against this group quickly became the “defining moment” and “Great War” of his time.
“We’d heard stories of heroic Kurdish fighters who had stopped ISIS as it advanced on their territory,” he wrote. “They reminded me of something like the British, standing alone against Nazi Germany. I felt a duty to go to Iraq and be with the people who were standing against this incredible evil, this new Nazism, if that’s what it was.” Frantzman also recalls how he wanted to see Mosul liberated first-hand by riding on a tank “like the US GIs who destroyed Hitler’s Europe, like the Red Army with the flag atop the Reichstag.”
Frantzman reported primarily from northern Iraq, although he also reported from Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, the U.A.E., and even Senegal. His book chronicles the murderous rise of ISIS in 2014 up until May 2019, shortly after ISIS lost the last redoubt of its self-styled caliphate in eastern Syria.
One of the Frantzman’s strengths is his ability to combine his first-hand reportage of the ISIS war with informed analysis. He is also quite skilful at describing the things he observed first-hand. For example, he summed up the territories between the Iraqi city of Mosul and the nearby Kurdish capital Erbil as “a land of multiple competing flags and identities.” Travelling between those two cities, he observed physical “remnants” of past Iraqs, ranging from “forts from Saddam’s time, monasteries and mosques from the Ottoman period.” He also noted that in the ISIS war “the area around Mosul had become home to sandbagged berms, trench lines like in the First World War, and buildings destroyed by twenty-first-century drones and air strikes.”
Also, unlike many other journalistic books, Frantzman took the time to write his book from scratch rather than just cobbling together previously published essays and reports and adding a new introduction to them. Even someone who has covered the ISIS war or followed it closely over the last six years will find many observations and opinions in this book interesting and well worth reading.
One distinctive feature of Frantzman’s writing is his unapologetic views and opinions about the subjects that he reports on and writes about, which are often quite compelling. For example, he doesn’t hide his disgust at the international community for its inability to prevent the genocide of Yazidis.
“Unlike the Holocaust, during which information about the extermination camps was not public, and the Allied powers had scant information about the genocide taking place, the Yazidi genocide took place in real time and was often posted on social media in videos and accounts,” Frantzman wrote.
The author is also good at reinforcing his opinions with his first-hand reportage. After broadly summing up human rights as nothing more than a “lie”, by pointing out that in his lifetime “we sat through” crimes against humanity in the Balkans, Darfur, and Rwanda, he recounts how ISIS openly showcased its unmentionable crimes and even bragged about buying and selling enslaved Yazidi women and girls on social media. He then gives a vivid description of what he saw at the site of a mass grave in Sinjar to demonstrate how crimes against humanity are still allowed transpire despite declarations of “never again” and grandiose talk about human rights.
“Human hair pokes through grass that has grown on the bodies,” he wrote. “Skull fragments. Bullet casings. A teenager’s soccer jersey that says ‘Emirates’ on it. The clothes people wore when they were murdered are there. The blindfolds they wore could be seen. The Iraqi ID badges have been recovered.”
Despite this, he added, “No international investigators are here. No NGOs are working here to protect the human remains. The world was silent again. These lives could have been saved. To see the bones sitting there causes anger and rage.”
He also recalls how “local Yazidis thought they could bring awareness to their plight and the genocide” by talking to him and that he “felt guilty that although the world knew the harrowing details, so little was done afterwards to help people or document the crimes or find missing people.”
In a similar vein, Frantzman is also critical of how the US-led coalition against ISIS generally had no adequate post-war preparations for helping victims and survivors of ISIS. The aftermath of the capture of the town of Baghouz, the last swath of the ISIS’ territorial caliphate, by US-backed Kurdish-led forces in March 2019 “symbolized much of what had gone right and wrong in the war.”
While the essential military defeat of the marauding ISIS terror state was finally achieved, “everything around the war, the whole nature of what total war entails, did not go well.” Despite over 70 countries being officially part of the coalition, Frantzman laments the fact that there were “no services for the survivors and victims” and there was no “clear process to deal with investigating ISIS perpetrators.”
Elsewhere in the book, he more broadly describes how wars “don’t end the way we’re told they do.” Instead of a clear-cut and decisive victory, the enemy “melts back into the towns and villages it came from.” To add insult to injury, “Nobody wins. Victims don’t get justice. Perpetrators get sympathy. Mass graves return to nature, the secrets they hold forgotten. There is no catharsis.”
At the same time, Frantzman pointed to some glimmers of hope: “Who would have imagined in 2014 that the women kidnapped by ISIS would be liberated by women with AK-47s? Surely the women being liberated were shocked,” he observed, referring to the fighters from the female unit of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) who freed traumatized Yazidi survivors from ISIS captivity.
Frantzman expresses his disdain for excuses he’s heard made for ISIS and its actions over the years. After pointing out that thousands of Western citizens went to the Middle East to commit atrocities under the black flag, he bitterly observed that “despite the obvious middle-class origins of this far-right religious hatred that appeared Nazi-like, people made excuses for it.” While ISIS were attacking ethnic and religious minorities and the poor, “its members were still just ‘insurgent militants’ with ‘grievances’ who ‘felt humiliated.’ They sold slaves, but they were victims. They had villas they stole from locals, but they were ‘poor’. It was Orwellian, and I saw it firsthand.”
The book makes some thought-provoking points about extremism and radicalization that are worth noting. Frantzman argues that groups like ISIS that threaten to bring back “slavery and genocide” should be taken very seriously. “A corollary to that is to take seriously growing radicalization at home and not to expect that foreign movements preaching extremism can be ignored in an era of globalized social media,” he wrote.
Frantzman also observes an important distinction between foreign jihadists today and those in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, jihadists were usually Arabs who had become radicalized in their own countries and went abroad to wage jihad. In the case of the ISIS war, Frantzman wrote, “the process was the opposite: it was extremists from all over the world coming to the Middle East.” This, he added, is an illustration of the changing forms of radicalization and extremism.
He even goes so far as to make the case that while extremism is an increasing problem in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa it might actually be “declining in the Middle East”, something which “in the long term will reduce global extremism.” While the source of various Islamist extremism “was seen as rooted in the region”, he anticipates that if the Middle East “turns a page on exporting extremism via locals becoming foreign fighters, then the other sources of extremism may wither on the vine.”
Frantzman believes that ISIS’ power was “sui generis” and expressed doubts that a similar group will emerge. “This was the apogee of Islamist extremism and jihadist groups,” he writes.
His book ends with some personal reflections about his time as a correspondent covering the ISIS war and how he readjusted to civilian life afterwards. He pointed out that the Stanley Kubrick war movie Full Metal Jacket aptly captures the experience of real war compared to many other war movies, which seem “rubbery, plastic, fake” and far too “clean”.
The book’s publication preceded the US troop pullback in northeast Syria and the subsequent Turkish invasion in October. Nevertheless, it was still published at an appropriate time and remains an important read for anyone seeking context for current events in the Middle East.
Overall, I consider Frantzman’s book a very decent, readable, and worthwhile first draft of the history of the ISIS war.