Brian Fishman on Books and Writing

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow with the International Security Program at New America, a think tank. He resides in Menlo Park, California.

This interview has been edited lightly.

"The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory" will be published in November. Would you tell us a little bit about it?

For most observers, the Islamic State's declaration of the "Caliphate" in Syria in 2014 came out of nowhere. The group seemed to emerge suddenly with a fearsome ideological and political vision to conquer territory and people, not just commit acts of terrorism. For some jihadis, however, the Islamic State's declaration realized a decade-old vision. In 2005, al-Qaeda's security chief, Sayf al-Adl, developed a seven-stage master plan that called for the establishment of the Caliphate, in Syria, between 2013 and 2016. In that most important prediction, his master plan was stunningly prescient.

The Master Plan explains the Islamic State's development through the lens of al-Adl's plan, but I do not argue that the plan has served as a perfect blueprint. Al-Adl's strategy was developed for al-Qaeda just as it was incorporating the Islamic State's godfather, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, into al-Qaeda. Zarqawi's organization eventually fulfilled al-Adl's vision of an Islamic State in Syria, but it also abandoned the alliance with al-Qaeda that formed the basis of al-Adl's strategic vision. Effectively, al-Adl predicted "what" would happen, but not "who" would do it. And, ultimately, that is crucial because the Zarqawiists are far more radical--and therefore far less politically stable--than their cousins in al-Qaeda.

The first "Islamic State" declared by the Zarqawiists who re-established the "Caliphate" was the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)--and it was declared in 2006. After the "Caliphate" was declared in 2014, observers marveled at the group's administrative functions, bureaucratic structure, and effort to seem like a real "country." This was all quite sophisticated, but none of it was new. In 2006 and 2007, the Islamic State of Iraq established procedures for leadership succession, developed a cabinet (including a Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries), instituted bureaucratic pay scales, and administered banal regulations, such as speed limits and garbage pickup. It was the framework for a state, but it achieved very little attention.

Instead of asking how the Islamic State emerged "suddenly" in 2014; we should be asking why we did not see it coming--and The Master Plan addresses that question as well.

Why did you decide to write this book?

In 2008, I taught a course at West Point about the development of the ISI. I graded the cadets' final papers on a research trip to Iraq, some of them by headlamp on the flight line waiting for transport around the country. It sounds corny, but I felt a real obligation to those students.

In late 2014, two of my former cadets from that class--now Army officers--reached out to ask if I had updated the syllabus for the 2008 class. They thought it would be relevant as they considered what to do about the newly-declared "Islamic State." I had wanted to turn that syllabus into a book for years, but hearing from my old cadets was the kick in the butt I needed to devote myself to writing. Writing the book was my New Year's resolution in 2015.

What are a couple key takeaways that you hope will resonate with policymakers?

First and foremost, I want policymakers to understand that the Islamic State can be damaged deeply via military pressure, but will be extremely difficult to destroy. In 2007 and 2008, the U.S. "Surge" in Iraq decimated the ISI--to the point that we considered it militarily defeated. But even after that "defeat," the ISI still had 800 to 1,000 people--four times as many as al-Qaeda had on 9/11--and continued to be one of the most deadly terrorist groups in the world--though its violence was confined to Iraq. But, when the anti-Assad protest movement began in Syria in early 2011, the ISI was ready to capitalize--and it did. We thought the group was "defeated," but it was not--and that is a mistake we should not make again. That point may seem obvious today, but we need to remain focused on this group in two years when it does not control territory with impunity, but does control neighborhoods like a mafia. We overlooked this group once before when it operated like that--and that result was the Islamic State. We cannot make that mistake again.

Second, we must not fall into the Islamic State's trap by discriminating against Muslims living in the West. This really is what the Islamic State wants. The Islamic State hopes that discrimination will drive some western Muslims to join its movement. Of course, that strategy is going to fail the vast majority of the time. Compared to other jihadi groups, the Islamic State has had tremendous success drawing foreign fighters as recruits, but orders of magnitude more Muslims have fled the Islamic State or are fighting against it. The irony is that the Islamic State is happy to divide the Muslim community into a small cadre of people that agree with it--and everyone else. They want to identify their allies and kill or subjugate everyone else--the Muslims that reject them fall into that latter category.

How long did it take to write? Do you have a writing routine?

I started writing the book at night with a day job, but eventually began writing full time. All in all, the writing took about 15 months. Most of that was done at coffee shops, where I find I am most productive. I think the most important lesson was to write every day, even if the daily product was terrible. Treat it like a job. Better to keep writing and edit than get stuck in a cycle looking for the perfect word or phrase. Of course, I had a big head start; I've been deeply enmeshed in source material for a decade. I was even able to recycle some language from old working papers and non-published writing.

The best days were discovering something new about an issue or event that I thought I understood completely.

Do you have any literary influences?

My editor urged me to read Scott Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia for tips on how to construct a complex narrative around distinct characters. That was definitely useful, but the techniques were limited because so few of the characters in my book survive from beginning to end.

I often referred back to the really well-written books on al-Qaeda's history and development--Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower and Steve Coll's Ghost Wars. The Looming Tower in particular is brilliant in its readability and the depth of research.

What do you read for fun?

In my house, Pete the Cat is a favorite.

What's the best book that you've read this year?

I really enjoyed Rosa Brooks' How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. The book explores the role of the military in our society as we move halfway through the second decade of a war that shows no sign of ending soon. The public writ large rarely wrestles with fundamental civil-military questions, but they are central for democracy to function. Rosa's book is both insightful on those questions, but she's funny as well. This book forces you to think hard, but it is so much fun to read you almost do not realize it.