Rosalind Robson reviews Insurgent Iraq, Al Zarqawi and the new generation
The politics of Loretta Napoleoni in this book are a bit hard to pin down. A (perhaps syndicated) article by her in a recent issue of Socialist Worker tended to suggest that she was sympathetic to al Zarqawi, or at least understood him to be a product of repression and brutality (in Jordan).
The implied line was that we have to understand the sinner more and condemn him less. Her approach to research (also evident in her book Terror Inc.) is to document and detail the facts about Islamist jihadist groups without much political analysis.
Napoleoni delves into the detail of al Zarqawi’s life before he popped up in Iraq, looks at how the US created a myth to over-emphasise his importance in the Iraqi “resistance” (al Zarqawi is not in fact an al Qaeda operative), and gives an outline of that “resistance”.
Because Napoleoni lacks a strong political point of view, what emerges is a peculiar narrative, a mixture of useful information and observation and contradictory statements.
For example this is how Napoleoni describes how al Zarqawi sees his role in Iraq: “The idea was to drive a wedge between the two insurgencies to prevent any cooperation and alliance between Shi’ites and Sunnis that might lead the jihadists on the fringes of a strong nationalist, secular movement.”
Her description of the role that al Zarqawi played is accurate, but Napoleoni is making a strange extrapolation. She has just finished telling us that the Sunni resistance is in large part made up of ex-military officers who were “Islamicised” under Saddam during the 1990s — that is, people not merely nationalist and secular in outlook. And earlier on she had described the Islamist roots of Moqtada al Sadr. How can it be that a “strong nationalist secular movement” was feared by al Zarqawi?
Of course it is true that the people of Iraq are more modern and secular than most of the available leaderships, but Napoleoni doesn’t make the case that the “resistance” leaders are anywhere secular.
One of the central ideas in Napoleoni’s book is that a new generation of jihadists has been created in Iraq. As the al Qaeda network disintegrates other groups and factions spring up.
These people do not look to the specific perceived injustices against Muslims in their own countries (Jordan, Egypt, Syria, wherever). Nor do they focus, as they once, did on the treacherous role played by the governments in their own countries. Now the jihadists have prioritised attacking the “distant” enemy, the west. She calls the new generation “anti-imperialist”.
For Napoleoni “anti-imperialist” is an apolitical term, a concept without a history, a superficial label to describe the orientation of a bunch of terrorists. Her description of the changes in the jihadist camp may be apt, but she does not tease out what it means.
Useful, but not as amazing as some of its reviewers have made out.