Category Archives: Book Review

Qassem Sulaymani: Life and Ambition

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 2 March 2021

A year ago, U.S. President Donald Trump gave the order to kill Qassem Soleimani, the de facto deputy leader of Iran. Arash Azizi’s The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the U.S., and Iran’s Global Ambitions is an effort to explain who Soleimani was, how he rose to controlling the lives of millions of people well outside the borders of Iran, and how in the end he was brought down. Continue reading

The Jihad Factor in Bosnia

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 20 January 2021

Last week, as one of his last acts in office, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech about Iran’s collaboration with Al-Qaeda. It was unfortunate that Pompeo did this at this time and in this way, with such blatant political intent, because the factual content of Pompeo’s speech was unassailable: the Islamic Republic’s long relationship with Al-Qaeda does stretch back about three decades, the killing of Al-Qaeda’s deputy Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (Abu Muhammad al-Masri) in Tehran in August 2020 is demonstrative of a shift in the strategic positioning of the organisation away from Pakistan to Iran, and even the part of Pompeo’s speech that got the most pushback—about Tehran’s contact with the 9/11 killers—is not controversial and is not new.

Unmentioned in Pompeo’s speech was one of the crucibles that forged this relationship, and forged Al-Qaeda into something more than a regional menace, namely the Bosnian war of 1992-5. Continue reading

Authoritarian Durability in China

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 13 January 2021

Kellee Tsai’s Capitalism without Democracy: The Private Sector in Contemporary China (2007) is essentially an economic history of China since the Communist takeover. It is rich in sociological and every other kind of data, all very accessibly presented. A broader takeaway from the book, however, is that a transition to democracy, especially liberal democracy, is unlikely in China on a timescale that is relevant to most of us. Continue reading

Women and Terrorism: The Case of the May 19th Communist Organization

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 10 January 2021

The world has been captivated this week by the scenes of an insurrectionary mob overrunning the United States Capitol at the behest of President Donald Trump. It is unlikely that many people remember or even know that nearly forty years ago, this building—the meeting place of the U.S. Congress, the place where laws are made—was bombed by a Communist terrorist group, a group remarkable for its all-female membership. A new book, Tonight We Bombed the Capitol: The Explosive Story of M19, America’s First Female Terrorist Group, by William Rosenau, a senior policy historian at CNA and a fellow in the International Security program at New America, examines this forgotten episode. Continue reading

Tunisia and Jihadism

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 26 May 2020

Early in his new book, Your Sons Are At Your Service: Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad, The Washington Institute’s Aaron Zelin quotes a pair of sociologists who note that ‘where theories are plentiful … ideas are vacuous’. The book is in many ways the antithesis of this approach. It is not without theoretical content; where social movement theory arises as a means of understanding jihadism, say, the author gives an overview of the literature to contextualise it for the reader. But the general approach is historical, empirical, and detail-rich, so that by the time Zelin summarises his findings in the various sections there can be no doubt about the evidentiary basis. Continue reading

The Memoir of a British Spy in Al-Qaeda

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 8 July 2019

The main issue with that Nine Lives has to overcome is the one that has attended Aimen Dean (a pseudonym) since he went public in March 2015 with an interview he gave to the BBC, claiming he had been a British spy within Al-Qaeda between 1998 and 2006. That issue is overcoming the doubts about his story. Nine Lives goes a long way to solving this by bringing in Paul Cruickshank, the editor-in-chief of CTC Sentinel, one of the premier academic resources in the terrorism field, and Tim Lister, a terrorism-focused journalist with CNN, as co-authors. As well as helping structure the book from Dean’s memories, the two co-authors note they had been able to “corroborate key details” that convinced them: “In the years immediately leading up to and following 9/11, Aimen Dean was by far the most important spy the West had inside al-Qaeda”. Continue reading

When Terrorism … Isn’t

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 15 April 2019

In February 1979, police in south-eastern Australia arrested six people. The suspects were members of the Croatian nationalist scene that agitated against Communist Jugoslavija and they had planned to commit a series of attacks against symbols of Marshal Tito’s regime that could have killed hundreds of Australians. Except they hadn’t, as Hamish McDonald, a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, shows in Framed (2012). Despite the “Croatian Six” being convicted for terrorism and spending a decade in prison, the reality of what had happened was nearly the exact opposite—and at least some powerful people in the Australian government knew or suspected as much from the get-go. Continue reading

The Shah, the Cold War, and the Islamists

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 20 March 2019

Abbas Milani’s The Shah gives a portrait of Iran’s last monarch, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, and the impact that his downfall forty years ago continues to have in the Middle East, notably the emboldening of the Islamist movement. Continue reading

The Fall of the Shah and the Rise of Islamism

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 17 January 2019

Forty years ago yesterday, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah (King) of Iran, left his country for the last time as a year-long revolution crested. A month later, the remnants of the Imperial Government collapsed and Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was swept to power after his long exile, establishing the first Islamist regime. Andrew Scott Cooper’s 2016 book, The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran, charts how this happened. Continue reading

Who Killed Kennedy?

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 18 September 2018

To even pose the question is, for most of us, to be already well-advanced down the road of madness that leads to saying the U.S. federal government murdered President John F. Kennedy. Dr. David Kaiser’s The Road to Dallas (2008) rejects such vast conspiracy theories, as it does the notion of Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone killer. Kaiser instead argues for a more limited conspiracy, led by the mob bosses of mid-20th century America, and originating in the grey-zone where that world met the Cuban exile community and the Central Intelligence Agency’s efforts to bring down Fidel Castro. Continue reading