Winter in the Middle East - book looks at issues in the region

The book explores the war against ISIS, the end of the Arab Spring and those who shaped the region.

A BURNED vehicle is seen during clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIS in Mosul in 2014.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A BURNED vehicle is seen during clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIS in Mosul in 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the summer of 2014, a shadowy extremist group with roots in al-Qaeda suddenly emerged from Syria and Iraq to take over a third of both countries. In an alarming blitzkrieg, it appeared to be heading for the gates of Baghdad.
It was at that time that the well-known Shi’ite religious leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa and call to arms. Mike Giglio, a journalist, found himself in Karbala, the holy Shi’ite city. He overheard what must have been a common conversation in those dark days.
“Have you found yourself a gun yet?” a journalist asked a local.
“One has at least to protect herself, because when they get here, you know what they’re going to do.”
ISIS had already slaughtered Shi’ites at Camp Speicher, and it would go on to commit the most dreadful atrocities and genocide of minorities across northern Iraq.
Giglio covered the Arab Spring and the turmoil that affected the Middle East in its aftermath. In Shatter the Nations, he seeks to provide readers with a taste of the changes and the people in Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and the Middle East. It is an insightful and fast-paced account that looks at how ISIS networks stretched deep into Turkey and also how the battle unfolded to defeat the “caliphate” in Mosul.
Giglio’s strength is in describing the people he met along the journey from 2011 to 2018. For instance, one man named Khalil was involved in an operation to traffic ISIS members among refugees on the way to Italy and Greece.
Interviews like these were fraught with danger for the author. He recalls how every 15 minutes he would type an encrypted message to a team of security advisers his media company had hired. After murders of other Westerners by ISIS, being a journalist was dangerous.
The image that one gets from Shatter the Nations is how easily ISIS preyed on the societies it moved among. Although its base was the “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, it had tentacles stretching around the world. It recruited tens of thousands abroad. It also borrowed from previous experiences of terrorism and jihad that young men had engaged in during the late 1990s and early 2000s. That included men from Tunisia who had fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya, for instance.
At one point, Giglio is in Iraq with a Kurdish Peshmerga team that is removing unexploded ordnance.
“The EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] team had dispatched around 45 IEDs that day in controlled detonations, showering dirt onto the asphalt. Across a field from the road was a collapsed house, where the previous day an IED had killed four of their colleagues.”
The author recalls how, after the experience of uncertainty one has walking where mines could explode, he found himself in Istanbul a bit more wary of stepping off the sidewalk into the grass. It’s in the grass where the IEDs might be hiding.
This is the complexity of being at war. When one is at war, the normalcy of the abnormal haunts forever after. Death and concern hang over the experience, and a normal city can easily conjure up the memories or fears of being back, back in Iraq or back among smugglers and fighters.
AS THE wars in the Middle East appeared to ebb in the last year with the defeat of ISIS and the quiet that came over some front lines in Syria, new books about the conflict have emerged. Each has provided its insights.
What is especially accessible about Giglio’s account is that he takes the reader along with him, into the coffeehouses and smuggling dens, the restaurants and front lines, from Turkey to Iraq and other countries.
He has a feel for the different people he met, without forcing them into clichés. He lets them talk, and he is immensely fair in his treatment of those he worked with, the fixers and photographers that made it possible.
The book is like a magnet, with Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, operating as a black hole in the background. It begins in Mosul and mostly ends there.
The battle against ISIS in Mosul took nine months. It was important because it was there that ISIS declared its “caliphate.” When it was over, part of the city would be in ruins and thousands killed.
Giglio captures the fighting and the slow-moving advance of armored vehicles:
“They shuttered and snorted as the drivers switched on ignitions. Some of the soldiers pulled on their skull-faced ski masks.”
Giglio is best in describing what he saw.
What Shatter the Nations lacks is more of an overview of the conflict and some feeling for what it all meant. These interconnected wars displaced millions and left a mark on Iraq, Syria and other countries that likely cannot be healed. When the war is over, other conflicts begin. A bit more on what it all meant would help readers place the conflict’s importance.