Plenty has been written in the past three years about the Islamic State, and “The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State” is Lawrence Wright’s offering on the subject. Having particularly enjoyed his previous “The Looming Tower” which tracks al-Qaeda’s history and ideological roots up to 9/11, I expected The Terror Years to be somewhat of a sequel. However, rather than exploring how Al Qaeda’s ideology and philosophy led to the Islamic State’s rise, The Terror Years is a collection of Wright’s various articles published during and about the War on Terror.
Edited to be a longer read (chapter-length), Wright’s chapters discuss the influence of Egyptian Jihadis over al-Qaeda, expansion of the US’ intelligence and surveillance capabilities, rise of Salafi-Jihadis in the Gaza Strip, the arts as a form of free expression in pre-Arab Spring Syria and Islamic State’s taking of hostages. While each chapter was probably too long to be a stand-alone article, they are also somewhat bitty and didn’t come together the way one book would and should. Although interesting, The Terror Years falls into the shadow of The Looming Tower. Best read as collated articles rather than a standalone book.
I also read Barack Mendelsohn’s 2016 work on the al-Qaeda Franchise, and the organisation’s recent development. Examining how and why al-Qaeda has expanded, it offers sensible and readable analysis. In light of the rise of the Islamic State, understanding its forerunner and competitor in terrorism is particularly important, and Mendelsohn’s effort is a strong one.
Using local franchises as case-studies, Mendelsohn examines where al-Qaeda has thrived, and where it has not (i.e. Palestine) the reasons for this. Although he argues that the group has never been in such a weak position and unlikely to return to its previous position in light of Islamic State’s rise to prominence, it is still an important regional player worth watching.
Despite being short and having a well-designed cover, this book is very much academic, and probably not well suited for a general readership. It was however, a good read, and a useful guide to al-Qaeda’s recent history.