MESOP INSIDER – Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate

Review of “Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate”

by Abdel Bari Atwan – Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015. 256 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi – Middle East Quarterly Fall 2016

At best, Atwan’s book amounts to a rehash of common facts and knowledge associated with the Islamic State. Worse, it contains a large number of errors, ultimately rendering the account worthless.

For example, the author, former editor-in-chief of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, claims that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) “has already pledged allegiance to [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi.” In fact, AQAP remains loyal to al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri and explicitly rejects ISIS’s caliphate claim. Atwan claims that Libya’s Ansar ash-Sharia declared allegiance to Baghdadi and announced an Islamic emirate in Derna in October 2014. No: Ansar ash-Sharia remains loyal to al-Qaeda while the group in Derna, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, is called the Islamic Shura Youth Council.

The author claims to draw on special contacts and sources that give him unique insights into the Islamic State. But one such source, allegedly close to the ISIS leadership, having spent time in prison with Baghdadi, speaks of the latter’s release in 2006 while prison records document Baghdadi’s release in 2004.

A number of books on the Islamic State, themselves flawed, offer useful information and perspectives. Berger and Stern’s ISIS: The State of Terror[1] is weak on ISIS’s growth on the ground in Syria but has good detail on the exploitation of social media. Such redeeming features cannot be found in The Digital Caliphate, a work that is also littered with political prejudices such as the author’s speculation, rooted in his anti-Israel sentiments, that the final trigger that galvanized the U.S. decision to invade Iraq was “Saddam’s use of oil as a potent political weapon against Israel.” Anyone interested in the Islamic State—general reader or specialist—should avoid this book.

[1] New York: Ecco, 2015.