And Then All Hell Broke Loose – Richard Engel
Brian Engel – And Then All Hell Broke Loose
Brian Engel is a Chief Foreign Correspondent for NBC News; this book was published in 2016. I am reviewing it because I randomly chose two primary texts for my 2017 summer composition class focused on the Middle East (criteria: had to be current, and well-reviewed). This was one of the texts, along with “America’s War for the Greater Middle East” by Andrew Bacevich, a historical study of America’s presence in the Middle East since the late 1970s (roughly, and as a side note that book is also reviewed by me). I wanted my students, and myself, to become more knowledgeable about the region, both in terms of its history, the history of US involvement there, and the current state of affairs, which is somewhat of a superfluous term given the constant changes in the region (at the time of this post the Kurds’ vote for independence in Iraq was something totally new). Engel’s book is less historical and more invested in the “here and now” of what it’s like to be on the ground in some of the Middle East’s most dangerous regions. The book is visceral and dramatic and gives a sense of daily life there for inhabitants, foreign journalists, and militants (and their victims). The book opens by detailing the history of the Middle East, and transitions into Engel’s rise from an aspiring journalist to one of NBC’s chief contacts in Iraq and the Middle East in the years following the US invasion of Iraq. Many other experiences are detailed, particularly his time in Egypt, his time in Lebanon witnessing the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, and assignments in Syria and Libya.
Engel starts with a history lesson, starting after World War One, when Europe’s impact on the Middle East set the stage for future conflict. He claims “The borders of the Middle East were drawn by Europeans after the First World War with no regard for the interests or backgrounds of the people who inhabited it” (1). After this, “The Middle East was reorganized, redefined, and the seeds were panted for a century of bloodshed” (3). This new reality played off of a lost period, known in the memory of Muslims as Islam’s golden age. Engel takes time to explain how in the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, the Islamic world was a nexus of the arts, sciences, agriculture, and military strength, an epicenter of civilization, and how “Muslims today know about this golden age and are nostalgic about it” (29). Moreover, because “There is no distinction between modern and ancient history in the Middle East” (29), Muslims consider intrusions into their territory attempts to distance them from a past they are desirous to reclaim. He writes, “From a Muslim perspective, modern wars launched by Christian powers into Islamic lands are still considered Crusades because they reflect the same basic East vs. West, Islam vs. Christianity, power struggle” (30).
Between the two world wars, the Middle East was presided over by European nations, a subject that is not the focal point of Engel’s book (or of Bacevich’s more longitudinal study). After brief passages discussing European nations’ stewardship of the new post-WWI territories (Engel is particularly critical of England’s management of Iraq at this time, and calls the region during this era “hopelessly divided” (35) due to sectarian fighting), Engel claims “The United States became the region’s new godfather” (5). We learn that after World War II, countries in Europe “had neither the money nor the political will to remain as the Middle East’s shepherd” (5). There existed at this time neither the “industrial superpower” demand for petroleum nor the full awareness of it, much less the means of extracting vast quantities of it. According to Bacevich, Jimmy Carter’s presidency was the crucial time when America’s involvement in the Middle East was defined. Part of this was America’s growing appetite for petroleum, part of it was a fear Russia would get to it first. Engel, like Bacevich, writes, “The United States saw the Middle East as a battleground in its global struggle against Soviet communism” (5). As we learn in Bacevich’s text, there was an incentive to keep Russia out of the Middle East as much as there was one for America to be in it.
The first country Engel lived in was Egypt, and he quickly paints a picture of life there. He writes about some of the rules there, like how insulting a big man, or al-Rais (‘the head” of a government) could get you arrested, and how “It was a crime for fishmongers in Egypt and Iraq to wrap their Nile perch and red mullet in newspapers that had the president’s photograph on them” (7). Where he first stayed, there was extreme poverty. In his room, “several of the windows had no glass” (12), and “narrow alleys were filled with children and trash, piles and piles of trash” (12). The problems echoed throughout the infrastructure. He writes about how “People drank for the Nile and dumped sewage into it too” and how “The education system was abysmal” (14). He also writes about neighborhood patrols. As an aside, one great book about the pervasiveness of foot patrols (in 1970s and 1980s Iran) is “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, who gives a vivid picture of how daily life is disrupted by agents of Islam – the Muslim Brotherhood in Satrapi’s case. In Engel’s case, he first encountered the Tabligh wa Dawa, “a Salafi group, not violent but strict in its adherence to the words of Mohammed” (36). Members constantly tried to get people to join Islam, and while Engel was in their presence they claimed they had a duty to try and convert him. Engel also writes about militants in Egypt; one particular incident he discusses is when a group attacked a bus full of tourists from Germany. Engel writes “The militants wanted to hurt the Egyptian government by scaring tourists away. By killing Christian tourists the attackers could also claim they had struck a blow against the infidels” (26). The scene’s horror is described in vivid detail: Engel saw nine German tourists who’d been killed and “Fat was dripping off of them because they had literally been roasted alive (26). The militants, who would shove leaflets identifying themselves into the mouths of their victims, were eventually cornered, and “machine-gunned themselves to death rather than be captured” (27).
Later, Engel travels to Iraq at perhaps the most dangerous time to be there. After America’s second invasion, the US military decreed in May, 2003 that Saddam’s Ba’ath Party would be dissolved, which “guaranteed the enmity of the country’s military men, most of them Sunnis, who had enjoyed prestige and job security under Saddam” (94). Many of the Sunnis became radicals and began imposing a “fiercely intolerant brand of Islam” (98). Sunni insurgents “blew themselves up whenever they could or responded by bombing soft targets like markets” (115). Moreover, “Al-Qaeda flocked to Iraq like moths to a flame” (131), and “the United States had helpfully wired Iraq so that everyone could use a cell phone-and, as an unintended consequence, get access to Zarqawi’s gruesome videos” (132), Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi being the man behind attacks that would define ISIS. Very quickly, Engel writes, “The triumphant US invasion had become a sectarian struggle that was far more savage and sinister” (128).
When discussing Iraq Engel also evaluates the absurdity of claiming Saddam Hussein was in league with Al-Qaeda. He writes Saddam imprisoned Sunni fanatics, and guards punished them “by drilling perfectly round holes in their shins with power drills” (8). Engel writes, “Saddam was no Islamist and saw Islam mostly as a propaganda tool. He drank whiskey. He smoked cigars…he did not tolerate dissents, much less a bunch of extremists who wanted to topple him and restore the caliphate” (129). But he led a Sunni party, and a Sunni army, and when they were displaced anti-Shia sentiment arose throughout the country, and there even was a level of tolerance for violence imposed by “Sunni fanatics,” to whom “anyone was fair game – soldier, policemen, women and children, journalists” (90). Engel writes that Sunni extremists “attacked American soldiers and Marines and Shiites everywhere – in mosques, markets, even at funerals” (102). According to Engel, by igniting a Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq, “Washington had opened up a Pandora’s box that went back more than thirteen hundred years” (91). Why was this? Because the displacement of so many high level Sunnis empowered the rival Shiites. When the US army invaded Iraq and dissolved Saddam’s military and Ba’ath party, Shiites believed Americans “had helped…return them to power” (93). The historical significance of this is not to be overstated. According to Engel, “Sunnis suffered a thirteen-century old injustice with power stripped from them by Washington and given to Iraqi Shiites and their coreligionists in Iran. This grievance is at the core of the ISIS ideology. Simply put, no Iraq war, no ISIS” (107). More on ISIS later.
Another issue regarding Iraq was idea of nation building. American leadership, according to Engel, vastly undersold the public on the likelihood of nation building in a region with vastly underdeveloped infrastructure. Adding to the impossibility were realities like “looters” who “stole copper wires switches, and other integral equipment” (95). Violence was out of control too – in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, Baghdad “was recording seven hundred murders a month, fourteen times the number in New York City” (95).
One important topic of the book is children. Engel discusses at length how children are recruited into terrorist organizations like ISIS. These recruits, according to a director for a program in Saudi Arabia for rehabbing terrorists, see terrible things happening around them, and “when they see those atrocities, they want to help, they want to do something” (141). A psychologist in the program said “They are not confident. They feel depression, they see emotional things, they cry” (142). Engel describes some of the conditions they grow up in, like a place in Damascus featuring “a strip packed with dozens of sleazy nightclubs, each featuring fifty to a hundred young girls, almost all of them Iraqi refugees forced into the sex trade to support their families” (139). Needless to say, “When a young Iraqi man watched his sister pimped out by his dad, the effect was grimly predictable. As likely as not, he would quickly be radicalized and eager to join the mujahideen” (140). Then there were other factors; in Turkey, he met a boy named Mohammed who was mutilated by members of ISIS, who cut off his right hand and left foot, because he refused to join them (201). Engel describes how Mohammed’s hand and foot were amputated in a “carnival-like atmosphere” (203) with hundreds looking on. Mohammed told Engel that groups like ISIS “target children the most,” even for suicide bombings (204). ISIS is described in brutal terms by Engel. He writes of how they overpowered Iraqi soldiers, who “cut and run, leaving behind uniforms, weapons, and thousands of Humvees” (192). These were former military officials, with knowledge of how to organize armies and monetize oil fields that they seized. He writes of incidents meant to shock and appall, in one case “executing seventeen hundred prisoners in a single incident” (193). Engel describes ISIS as “Obsessively concerned with its public image, knowing that it’s key to recruiting and to its jihadist preeminence” (199). This led to recruitment efforts and a web presence that allowed them to grow. In February 2015, the US government claimed there were 31,000 fighters in ISIS, and Engel thinks “the number of fighters was probably double that, and well over one hundred thousand if the ISIS support network is included” (205). So who makes this group up? According to Engel, “not only idealists but also a grab bag of off-kilter types: sociopaths aroused by bloodlust; loners and misfits who craved a sense of belonging; thrill seekers who wanted to test themselves in combat; Muslims in Europe and America who felt they were excluded from Western prosperity or demeaned by Western permissiveness; people who resented authority in any form; naifs seduced by slickly produced propaganda that gave violence a romantic patina” (206).
At the end of the book, Engel discusses the future. He claims groups like ISIS want to go global, which increases the threat to America. With regard to America, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said “US aggression had taken close to 10 million Muslim lives in recent decades” and thus, he claims, “if a bomb is launched at them that will kill ten million of them, and it will burn their land as they burned Muslim lands, this is therefore permissible” (208). Engel also writes about competition for stature. Specifically referencing Al-Qaeda, he says, “If Al-Qaeda is going to catch up with ISIS and regain its leadership of the international jihad, it needs to strike at the heart of the West” (208). As he states in the beginning, he believes strongmen will come to dominate. He believes these strongmen “will likely be worse than the old strongmen because they’ll be able to use new technologies to identify and hunt down their enemies by their digital fingerprints” (210). Overall, he thinks most fighting in the Middle East “will mainly be local and sectarian” (215).
Other important areas of this book include a type of Islam called Wahabbism, a form of Salafism that has an “intolerant and unforgiving ideology” (38). These Muslims believe “the highest aspiration would be to live as much like the Prophet as possible, rejecting the trappings of modernity” (40). This means “No mingling of the sexes. No art. No alcohol. No dancing” (41). This is significant because it is tacitly endorsed by Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s most powerful country. Engel writes that “In Saudi Arabia, an effectively limitless budget pushed Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, all across the Muslim world” and that “With its location and fantastic wealth, Saudi Arabia set the tone for modern Islam” (42). However, the powers that be do not always adhere to the tenets of this interpretation of Islam. Engel writes of how he saw “at the home of a Saudi prince, an elaborate affair, with lots of liquor, women without veils” (42). After experiencing several such incidents, he ends up concluding that “The more time I spent in Saudi Arabia, the stranger I found it and the more it seemed to be in no position to tell the majority of the world’s Muslims how to think and behave” (43).
Another important part of the book is Israel, specifically the IDF (Israel’s army), and anti-Semitism. Engel recognized in Egypt a culture of suspicion of Jews, in which “fundamentalists were convinced that it was Israel and the Jews who really understood this game, using American muscle to keep Islam at bay” (35). In most Middle Eastern countries, “Jews and Christians were tolerated, but were considered second-class citizens who were required to pay special taxes and were forbidden from holding high-level jobs and even from using certain materials reserved for Muslims” (44). A bigger topic in the book is aggression perpetrated by Israel, particularly with regard to their battles against Hezbollah. Hezbollah has been picking fights with Israel for years, and has impressive weaponry at their disposal. Engel writes of one incident that encapsulates the rise of Hezbollah; during one mission, when encroaching upon Hezbollah territory, “The IDF was unaware that southern Lebanon was catacombed with fortified bunkers and rocket launchers” (121). These areas are still unsafe. Engel writes “Driving around south Lebanon after the cease-fire, I saw unexploded cluster bombs and other ordinance almost everywhere I looked” (125). He also discusses Israel’s aggression in defending itself. One example is the Dahiya Doctrine, which “pertains to asymmetric warfare in an urban setting, in which the army targets civilian infrastructure to prevent the enemy from using it for military purposes” (126). Targeting civilian infrastructure is a way to demoralize the enemy and make the experience of war so miserable that the enemy ceases to retaliate. Engel is critical of this, and sees more conflict between these two groups in the coming years.