The authors are well-known Middle East experts and widely published. Michael Weiss is an American journalist and Editor in Chief of the Interpreter, with a focus on developments in Syria, Turkey, Russia and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hassan Hassan is a Syrian Middle East specialist who follows Islamist, Salafist and jihadist movements while focusing on Syria, Iraq and the Gulf countries. He is also a research associate at the Delma Institute and a columnist for The National.
The book is organized in chronological order. The first four chapters deal with ISIS as a branch of Al-Qaeda in Iraq while it was under the leadership of its prominent founding father Al-Zarqawi. The book concentrates on Al-Zarqawi's personality and his way of forming under Al-Qaeda's influence the new jihadist group that would eventually become a strong insurgent force during the American invasion of Iraq. These chapters contain an analysis of the Management of Savagery—a treatise written by Abu Bakr Naji—which elucidates AQI's strategy. The main point of this strategy was to fight openly the United States in the Middle East. In this way, they would use the "power of vexation and exhaustion", weakening the enemy and creating new committed martyrs. Their success would also reinforce jihadism against the economic and cultural institutions of the Middle East states that collaborated with the western enemy, thus provoking their fall. The chaos of the ensuing power vacuum would smooth the path for the establishment of a new jihadist state in the area.
The next two chapters describe the way the US army along with Al-Maliki's new government in Iraq responded to the AQI challenge by cooperating with the Sunni tribal groups in the fight against the AQI, a formation commonly known as "the Awakening". Iraqi people's aversion to terrorism coincided with Al-Zarkawi's death and led to the limitation of AQI's power.
The birth of the Islamic State, as we know it, is described in the following chapters that focus on its new charismatic leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and the civil war in Syria. The authors are pointing to Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria as the one which provided ISIS with new fighters by setting free the Salafist-Jihadist prisoners in Syria and facilitating them in their purpose to move to Iraq. Assad used salafism and sectarianism as a weapon of destabilization in the area in order to blackmail cooperation with the West. That being the case, when the Syrian civil war exploded, the jihadists found a new, easy base for their actions.
The book is very much focused on key people of ISIS, like Al-Zarqawi and Al-Baghdadi, thus giving maybe a slightly distorted image of ISIS as a person-centered organization while overlooking its social, mass function in micro-levels. This perspective progressively changes as we move to the last third of the book. The tenth chapter contains several ISIS fighters' interviews, profiled as "the novice", "the politickers", "the foreign fighters" etc. This chapter provides the reader with a short classification of ISIS supporters.
The authors, in turn, discuss the current ISIS structure and activity. ISIS is described as an efficient propaganda machine that uses the World Wide Web to recruit new jihadist members even from abroad. Its magazine, DABIQ, and the violent YouTube videos are the main promotion platforms it uses to build its public image. The authors, also, examine sufficiently the current ISIS relations with other jihadist groups, such as Al-Nusra or Al-Qaeda that eventually came to disagree with and fight against ISIS, when the latter expanded into Syria. Again, the authors explain its prevalence in the region through the tribal factor that reinforces jihadists' connections.
The book is complete and all-encompassing, as the authors are eager to give a detailed analysis of the ISIS phenomenon. Iran's intervention in Iraq's politics is a key factor to understand the dynamics in the Middle East and especially ISIS's theological and dogmatic hatred against the Shia-dominated Iran. As for the "far enemy", the United States is also under the authors' spotlight. The lack of foresight of the G. W. Bush and B. Obama administrations as well as their incapability to understand salafi jihadism allowed ISIS to expand and strengthen, especially in the prisons that the US army created. ISIS has also strong Baathist support, as some former members of the Saddam regime serve as senior executives for the group, thus forming new relations between salafism and baathism. Lastly, Weiss and Hassan are very detailed when it comes to the importance of the powerful tribal factor in the Middle East. The fact that tribes are easily changing sides, depending on the rewards provided, has defined them as a very vague yet determinative player in the form of local authorities.
The interviews make the book vivid and easy-reading, using the oral history method rather than simply narrating events and presenting official documents. Moreover, Weiss and Hassan underline the characteristic traits of the jihadist group, as are for example the feelings of hate towards the Shia which drives most of its action in the Middle East and the religious cleansing of Iraq. This hate climaxes as the Shia government that succeeded the Saddam Baathists in Iraq appears to collaborate with the USA. Furthermore, ISIS differs from other terrorist groups, because it proclaims the restoration of the caliphate under a powerful caliph, who is believed to be the successor of Prophet Muhammad, and also because it holds eschatological prophecies about a doomsday and a great fight between the West and Islam in Dabiq.
Overall, ISIS: inside the Army of Terror is a very interesting and educative book. Weiss and Hassan follow ISIS without prejudice and hesitation, showing real interest. The book is already a best seller and worldwide praised as a serious and comprehensive attempt to understand ISIS. The only disadvantage of the book is that it requires a certain amount of knowledge about Middle East history and geopolitics from the reader, making it less approachable to the wide audience but especially suitable and attractive for Middle East or radical Islam specialists.