On June 10, 2014, I was lying on my bed in a nondescript hotel in Baghdad listening to the BBC when a breaking news report said a group known as the Islamic State had taken Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, defeating the army.
It wasn’t really a shock: since December there had been fighting between ISIS and Iraqi security forces, and over the course of that winter, ISIS fighters had gained control of most of Anbar Province, Iraq’s largest governorate (which includes the important city of Fallujah). What was so startling was how quickly Mosul fell, and how quickly ISIS managed to subjugate a city where many Christians and other minorities had lived alongside Muslims for centuries.
The population was immediately put under ISIS’s extreme, strict code of Islam. Women were forced to wear niqabs and other coverings, and many were rounded up as sex slaves and sent to Raqqa, the group’s capital. Christians were forced to convert or pay a tax, and their farmland and businesses were expropriated. The letter N, for Nazarene, was scrawled above their doors. Mosul became a closed city ruled by terror—ISIS’s main tenet.
State of Terror
Mike Giglio, now a national-security reporter for The Atlantic, beautifully unravels the rise and fall of the Islamic State in his book, Shatter the Nations. As a young reporter specializing in investigations, Giglio cut his teeth working in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey, first for Newsweek and later for BuzzFeed. He moved his base of operations to Istanbul in 2012 to focus entirely on ISIS, often at great risk to his own personal safety. In 2014 two of our colleagues, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, had been kidnapped and later murdered by ISIS. Despite this, Giglio pursued the group, seeking out characters to document ISIS’s bizarre and gruesome way of life.
Since the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq, in March of 2003, the country had become a bleeding, desperate place. In the run-up to the occupation, when Saddam Hussein was in his final days in power, I drove across the entire country to speak to as many Iraqis as I could. No one wanted war, or foreign invasion—even if it meant hanging on to Saddam’s coattails for another few decades until the next dictator came along.
Most interesting to me was the patchwork of ancient denominations that made up the Nineveh Valley, on the outskirts of Mosul—Biblical people who feared their heritage and way of life, which they’d managed to preserve since the time of the prophets, was quickly coming to an end: Chaldean Christians, Assyrians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Kurds, Circassians. “Without the ethnic mix, Iraq will cease to exist,” a senior Iraqi diplomat told me at the time. This was part of the ISIS mandate: to wipe out minorities, to rule, and to herd everyone under their great wing of terror.
Startling was how quickly ISIS managed to subjugate a city where minorities had lived alongside Muslims for centuries.
It was not long after the occupation that the first rumbles of insurgencies began. Again, this was predictable. No group likes to be subjugated, least of all the Iraqis (or the Afghans), who had managed to live under the iron rule of Saddam for so long. The first cracks began early on when the hapless U.S.-backed Coalition Provisional Authority (C.P.A.), which gave itself judicial, legislative, and executive authority over the Iraqi government, backed the country’s Shia politicians in a jab to Saddam’s Baathists, who were largely Sunni. This was one of several enormous mistakes made by the C.P.A., which would reverberate in the region for decades to come. It’s no secret that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, jihadist extraordinaire, capitalized on the U.S. invasion to draft the ISIS playbook.
ISIS flourished after the invasion and eventual military withdrawal and political disengagement under President Obama in 2011. Many of the ISIS leaders met in U.S. prisons, known colloquially as “Jihadi University,” where they were able to meet other committed jihadists and share ideas and visions. One of these men was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—killed in a raid in Syria last October—who drew on Zarqawi’s methods and later became the leader of ISIS.
Newly empowered, ISIS took cruelty, fear, and terror to the extreme. They were not just bloodthirsty psychopaths but a religious group who believed ultimately in the “end of days”—so they didn’t have anything to lose. Nothing is as dangerous as fighting extremists, because they do not fear death. In addition, ISIS had a recruitment network that was astoundingly efficient in drawing in would-be fighters, wives, and foot soldiers from around the world. Their caliphate, and their quest to conquer, is beautifully outlined in Shatter the Nations.
Much has been written about ISIS, but what makes Shatter the Nations unique is Giglio’s expansive visual story line. He’s a skilled reporter, but where he shines is in his storytelling. Giglio constructs a narrative following a group of unlikely characters who came together to fight for and against ISIS, and his access is enviable. He is tenacious and persistent as he moves through dangerous territory; his network would leave an intelligence officer envious (and probably did), and his information is chilling.
“At the table, Khalil laid out the basics of the operation he was running,” Giglio writes of an ISIS commander and assassin he meets clandestinely. Given this was after the murders of Foley and Sotloff, and the aid worker Peter Kassig, this kind of meeting seems fairly suicidal. Yet Giglio manages both to extract extraordinary information from Khalil about how he was sending terrorists to Europe—“From a Turkish port city … he worked with traffickers to send ISIS members among the refugees who were … bound for Italy and Greece”—and to make it out alive.
Nothing is as dangerous as fighting extremists, because they do not fear death.
Another startling moment comes from Giglio’s conversation with a well-known Syrian activist, whom Giglio calls Malik, after the murder of Sotloff, Foley, and Kassig. Malik wants revenge for their deaths, and divulges his plan—in an “attempt to be relevant again”—to go to Syria, buy an ISIS prisoner, and behead him publicly on video. The activist had already selected a foreign jihadist to kidnap and kill, one “who embodied the worst of ISIS blind extremism.” Malik casually tells Giglio that activism is no longer working, nor are principles, so violence is the only option. “We’re sort of lost,” he finally admits. “As an activist, I have no idea what the fuck to do.”
Shatter the Nations spans a five-year period, and on Giglio’s many voyages through the region, he garnishes several other memorable characters: American fighters, Kurdish commanders, imams, defectors, spies, and simple men who, unwittingly, were inspired by patriotism to fight for their country. “The way we feel is that we are preventing the crisis from reaching our families. From reaching our neighbors. From reaching our city. From reaching our province,” Major Salam, who commands a unit in Mosul, tells Giglio. “And that is what makes Iraq in the end.” Given the recent events in the region, which will certainly shift power bases and embolden ISIS, this book is more relevant than ever.
Today, Giglio lives in Washington, D.C., and is a new father. After witnessing untold horrors in the field and living with extremes, he is now turning his reporting skills to terrorism and national security. One hopes Giglio will use his gift for investigation, his eye for detail, his patience at rooting out a story, and his spirited storytelling to work on highlighting extremism within his own country—which, with political polarization, is growing each day.
Janine di Giovanni is a senior fellow at Yale University and the author of The Morning They Came for Us