Recording ISIS’s Iraqi crimes - book review

From beheading women to tossing homosexuals off roofs to Iranian expansion, the scope of ISIS's crimes is difficult to grasp, but conflict reporter Hollie S. McKay's new book acts as a record.

 IRAQI SHI’ITE paramilitaries  launch a rocket towards Islamic  State operatives, north of  Fallujah, 2015. (photo credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)
IRAQI SHI’ITE paramilitaries launch a rocket towards Islamic State operatives, north of Fallujah, 2015.
(photo credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)

The conflict reporter Hollie S. McKay has filed a spectacular number of highly detailed reports from the ground in Afghanistan, where American armed forces completed their withdrawal in late August. 

Her September 16 dispatch for the New York Post titled “The transformation of Kabul, one month after the Taliban takeover” captures the dire plight of Afghans in the capital and the ominous security climate for women.

Discussing the Taliban terrorists running the city, she comments, “Most won’t make eye contact or acknowledge me – as a woman – but occasionally, you will find one who looks me dead in the face.”

McKay, a fearless war correspondent, has crisscrossed conflict areas for Fox News, where I started to read her stories. I have been a dedicated reader of McKay for years because her work spills over with humanity and seeks to illuminate the struggles of ordinary people in battle zones.

The Australian-born McKay commenced work as a Fox News Digital reporter in 2007, delving deep into the war zones of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Her new book, Only Cry for the Living: Memos From Inside the ISIS Battlefield, reflects the great breadth of the veteran journalist’s vision, which articulates a limitless curiosity about the Islamic heartland in the Mideast. 

For Israelis, Jews in the Diaspora and many others, McKay’s dispatch about her first Shabbat dinner in Kurdistan offers fascinating insights into Kurdish-Israeli and Kurdish-Jewish relations. In her chapter titled “Jews Come out of Hiding” from October 2016, she writes, “‘Jews would be surprised to find that they are freer and safer here than in certain European capitals,’ insisted Sherzad Omer Mamsani, a Jewish government representative.”

She notes, “There were still no synagogues or public places for Jewish prayer and gathering. Some KRG officials said that they were trying to open temples in the region, but others claimed that such efforts were hindered by sour relations with Baghdad, along with concerns over Iranian-funded militias and the ongoing jihadist threat.” 

McKay’s book deals with the rise and fall of the Islamic State. Her chapter on “Freed Fallujah” from July 2016 is a brutal reminder of the ideology that animated the Islamic State movement: “Differing accounts were a testament to the mistrust and fear that pervaded the city. Under ISIS control, Friday morning prayers were followed by mass executions in the public square. Sometimes people were locked in cages with ravenous wild animals; sometimes they were blown up. Sometimes they were set on fire and other times they were driven over by armored vehicles.”

She writes, “As in other parts of ISIS’s sprawling caliphate, women suspected of adultery were beheaded and men believed to be homosexual were thrown from atop buildings. In the weeks before the final battle [to liberate Fallujah], I learned the story of 10 young boys who were killed for fleeing ISIS training camps. There was no sense, nor fairness, in any of this nonsense.”

 ONLY CRY FOR THE LIVING MEMOS FROM INSIDE THE ISIS  BATTLEFIELD By Hollie S. McKay (credit: Courtesy) ONLY CRY FOR THE LIVING MEMOS FROM INSIDE THE ISIS BATTLEFIELD By Hollie S. McKay (credit: Courtesy)

The role of Islamic Republic-allied militias, under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces, comes to the fore in McKay’s reporting: “Grievances rose to accuse the Iran-backed mishmash of PMF groups of committing vast human rights abuse against the predominantly Sunni population.”

McKay’s book covers the period 2014-2018, with an epilogue about the Islamic State’s loss of territorial control in 2019.

She says in her introduction, “Throughout the years of ISIS occupation, I made countless trips in and out of Iraq to investigate the onslaught as a writer. As time went on and the fight to free the embattled nation intensified, I spent more and more time in the region, determined to play whatever small role I could to deliver a rough draft of history through the lens of the ordinary people surviving it. As the years went forth and the battle intensified, I wrote more and more memos as exemplified in this collection.” 

The book is packed full of moving and dazzling anecdotes about the lives of Middle Easterners in the midst of blood-soaked war.

In her dispatch “Iran Aims to Be King of the Hill” from May 2018, she writes, “Although that danger had been trampled, a new weed threatened to extend into their precious parcel. Just as the Christians worried about the extended arm of Tehran, the Yazidis also expressed fear about Iran establishing a critical strategic foothold that could leave much of the region – reaching as far as Israel – in the crosshairs of an attack.” 

The 4,800-foot Sinjar Mountain in northwestern Iraq, which featured “a small, chalk-white temple dedicated to Sharfuddin, a holy Yazidi figure – belied its potential strategic importance,” wrote McKay.

“This point is the closest point to Israel in which Iran can do harm. And the view is clear, the plain is wide, there are no mountains in the way,” Abdulrazaq Ali, an Erbil-based analyst, told McKay, adding, “It is also possible for Hezbollah to enter from Syria and get to this position.”

 McKay notes, “The importance of the spot didn’t go unnoticed by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He was said to have used the mountain as the launch site for the 39 Scud missiles he fired into Israel during the Gulf War of 1991. Nestled beside the Yazidi temple, there was a structure featuring a slab of six-foot-wide concrete steps that appeared to lead 30 feet up into nowhere. It was from there, some locals believed, that Saddam launched his Scuds.” 

The war correspondent’s dispatch on the Islamic Republic’s use of Sinjar as part of the Shi’ite corridor is telling regarding Tehran’s imperialist project.

“Further down the mountain, however, the roads and towns were controlled by a variety of militias influenced or entirely controlled by Iran. With that influence, military analysts fear, came the power for Iran to create trouble for its enemies far beyond what Hussein attempted,” she writes.

McKay goes on to quote my Foundation for Defense of Democracies colleague and Iran missile specialist Behnam Ben Taleblu, who says, “Iran’s present arsenal is more diverse and more capable than Saddam’s arsenal. Iran’s missiles can function as both a tool of deterrence and coercion.” 

McKay’s book is required reading for anyone wishing to understand the emergence of the Islamic State, and its wretched effects on the minds and bodies of Middle Easterners during the period 2014-2018.

Only Cry for the Living is a superlative achievement of journalism and literary style. 

The writer is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

ONLY CRY FOR THE LIVINGMEMOS FROM INSIDE THE ISIS BATTLEFIELDBy Hollie S. McKayJocko Publishing and Di Angelo Publications440 pages; $26.50