Behind the Rise of ISIS

In early June 2014 the world was shocked by news of the fall of Mosul, the third largest city in Iraq, to jihadi militants loyal to something called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The conquest was rapid—soldiers of the Iraqi army dropped their weapons and fled rather than resist the ISIS advance. It was alarming—the jihadis captured tanks, artillery and other heavy weaponry supplied to the Iraqis by the United States. And it was unmistakably consequential—it sounded a clarion call that the conquerors not only aspired to build the “state” under whose banner they fought but also were executing a plan for doing so. Weeks later a previously little-known preacher named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself head of a caliphate, the Islamic State, and demanded the fealty of Muslims worldwide.

ISIS had not come out of nowhere. Dark tidings of its establishment of Taliban-like rule in Raqqa and other Syrian locales had swirled for months, and in the spring of 2014 its fighters had crossed into Iraq to capture Ramadi and other towns. But the fall of Mosul made ISIS a central preoccupation of the global media and prompted the US and allied governments to announce a new phase of the “war on terror.”

Since then, though its territory in Iraq and Syria has begun to shrink, ISIS has haunted the world stage, the perpetrator of choreographed outrages, the enslaver of women, the looter of antiquity and the purveyor of vicious sectarianism, all trumpeted with evident glee via videotape and social media. Bands of jihadis from Afghanistan to Libya to Yemen have sworn oaths to the would-be caliph, and thousands of recruits have streamed to ISIS-controlled lands from Europe and the Middle East. These legions number perhaps 35,000 in total, and they are not all combatants, but ISIS has weathered US and allied bombing to construct a state-like apparatus centered in Raqqa. It has taken credit for terror attacks across the Arab world, in Bangladesh and Turkey, on a Russian airliner over Sinai, and in cafés and a concert hall in Paris, France.

Despite its prominence in the headlines, the ISIS phenomenon is still somewhat opaque. It is difficult and exceedingly dangerous for journalists to report from inside its ambit. In its own steady propaganda, ISIS fancies itself the herald of apocalypse, contributing to conspiracy theories about its provenance and wild speculation about its capacities. Even its name is in doubt: Should it be called the Islamic State, as it wishes? The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, as per a literal English translation of its initial Arabic designation? Daesh, as per the Arabic acronym? We will call it ISIS, simply because this term is most widely used in English-language media.

What is ISIS, and where does it come from?

ISIS is frequently described as an offshoot of al-Qaeda, in order to locate the group at the extreme end of the jihadi spectrum, which in turn is at the fringes of Sunni Islamism, both in terms of its puritanical or salafi doctrine and its rigid enforcement of same. This description is both correct and somewhat beside the point. It is true that ISIS regards itself as promoting the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad and arrogates to itself the right to decide what that Islam is. ISIS denigrates the enormous body of Sunni jurisprudence that came after Muhammad’s time as deviation and reviles Shi‘i Islam as heresy. Like al-Qaeda and its ilk, ISIS justifies its violence against non-Muslims with the idea that they are infidels (kuffar) and its attacks on Muslims, including Sunnis, with the notion of takfir or excommunication. And it is certainly true that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam as understood by the vast majority of Muslims at present and in centuries past. Its claim to the caliphate is almost universally rejected; its pretensions to pure belief and practice are derided; its moral policing is feared and despised; its stage-managed murders in the name of religion are alien and abhorred. Most of the victims of ISIS violence are Muslims, and most of those engaging ISIS on the battlefield are Muslims, as well.

But political factors are more important in explaining why ISIS appeared when it did. The first appellation of the cells that became ISIS was al-Qaeda in Iraq. These men were enlisted not in some boundless global jihad but in the battle to rid Iraq of US occupation and the government dominated by Shi‘i Islamist parties that took over in Baghdad in 2005. From the outset, though the details remain murky, these jihadi fighters joined hands with the ex-Baathists who had been army and intelligence officers under Saddam Hussein and were the backbone of the insurgency after Saddam’s ouster.

Loose ties between Baathists and homegrown Iraqi salafis date back to the 1990s, when Saddam, reeling from military defeat and international economic sanctions after the ill-starred invasion of Kuwait, authorized a “faith campaign” to portray himself and his regime as protectors of (Sunni) Muslim piety. Two of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s uncles, according to William McCants, author of a solid book on ISIS, worked in the Iraqi security services during this period. In 1996 Baghdadi enrolled in a graduate program in Qur’anic recitation at the new Saddam University for Islamic Studies. There he fell in with others who chafed at the quietist bent of most salafis and instead advocated political action to remove unjust rulers.

The Baathist-jihadi relationship was consummated after the US invaded Iraq in 2003, particularly in Camp Bucca, Abu Ghraib and other jails of the occupiers. An illustrative, and perhaps integral, figure is a colonel named Samir al-Khlifawi, who served in intelligence agencies under Saddam and found himself abruptly unemployed and ostracized in 2003. Like other officers, he had expected his turn in command and was embittered to discover that he had no place in the post-Saddam order. As reported first in Der Spiegel on April 18, al-Khlifawi rose in the ranks of the insurgency, taking the nom de guerre Hajji Bakr, was captured, and spent the years 2006 to 2008 in Camp Bucca. There he gathered names of others of various ideological persuasions who wanted to continue the rebellion after getting out. Though not especially religious himself, according to the German magazine, “he did believe the faith of others could be exploited.” McCants writes that Hajji Bakr engineered Baghdadi’s appointment as emir of the Islamic State in Iraq in 2010, on the basis of his advanced Qur’an study and (perhaps) his family’s lineage tracing back to the Prophet. Some of the men who rallied to what would soon become ISIS were disgruntled Baathists, others jihadis and still others neither; some were likely tortured at Abu Ghraib or elsewhere. But in any case it is safe to say that there would be no ISIS had there been no US invasion of Iraq.

In late 2012, as the Syrian uprising degenerated further into civil war, Baghdadi, Hajji Bakr and their confederates saw an opportunity. With meticulous organization reminiscent of Baathist party structure, according to documents obtained by Der Spiegel, they infiltrated Syrian towns like Raqqa that had fallen to elements of the armed Syrian opposition. They absorbed Syrian jihadi veterans of the Iraqi insurgency, and proceeded to blackmail or assassinate rivals and intimidate everyone else. Soon the local councils that had emerged after the Syrian army’s departure were theirs. Other rebel groups tried to expel ISIS, and Hajji Bakr was killed, but through clever tactics it held on, and eventually it was able to return to Iraq in force. As US troops had withdrawn, ISIS concentrated its fire on its longer-term foe, the government in Baghdad and its affiliated Shi‘i Islamist militias, both of which enjoyed the backing of Tehran. ISIS picked up where al-Qaeda in Iraq had left off in both whipping up and taking advantage of the virulent sectarianism running amok in the region since 2003. Its victories in Iraq conjured its mystique as the strongest and best-organized force arrayed against the regime of Bashar al-Asad, the Iraqi government and the foreign sponsors of both, as well as all the other main parties to the conflicts in the Levant.

It is crucial to the staying power of ISIS, thus far, that it has no external patron—at least not among states (there are some private donations). Its main revenues flow from taxation, oil sales, illicit traffic in relics and numerous other items, and duties assessed on the roads leading in and out of its territory. The gray markets and smuggling routes that help to sustain ISIS are another legacy of the long decade of sanctions on Iraq and the years of the US occupation, particularly the fateful choice of US proconsul L. Paul Bremer to dissolve the Iraqi army, which pushed much of the officer corps into contraband rackets. The Iraqi insurgencies of the 2000s were also thus self-funded, and the collapse of the Syrian state next door has only fueled the war economy in the region.

The maelstrom in Syria is the second contemporary backdrop to the raising of the ISIS black flag. In 2011, Syria was gripped by a popular uprising akin to those that had just toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. The revolt engulfed most of the country—there were demonstrations in Damascus as well as in provincial towns—and at first was led by local coordinating committees with a resolutely pluralist program for the future. The regime, however, had learned a lesson from the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Husni Mubarak: Peaceful, pro-democracy protesters were to be met with bullets. Within a few months, the opposition began shooting back. Emboldened by the phrase “Asad must go” from the White House and small arms bought with subventions from the Gulf, the opposition determined to remove the regime by force. But the regime was cohesive, unlike those in Tunisia and Egypt, and it was adept at manipulating the country’s ethnic-religious minorities to fear the Sunni Arab majority. The militarization of the uprising, together with the regime’s bloody reprisals and the hardening communal divisions, set in motion the escalation to massacres and barrel bombs that has left whole cities in ruins and driven half of the population from their homes.

The Syrian war has been prolonged and intensified by outside meddling. To besiege the regime, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies bankrolled untold rebel battalions, most of which professed Sunni Islamist views. Turkey allowed several commanders to set up camp on its soil, and looked the other way as travelers slipped across its southern border to reinforce the various jihadi groups in the opposition. The US made abortive attempts to stand up “moderate” anti-Asad militias. The regime, for its part, brought in Hizballah units from Lebanon to fight alongside its army and paramilitaries. Iran sent advisers, Revolutionary Guards and money; Russia provided diplomatic cover and, starting in September, air power to deploy against the rebels. ISIS thrived in the chaos.

Today, sitting astride the Euphrates valley, ISIS brags that it is erasing the lines drawn in the sand by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. This secret accord between British and French diplomats carved up the Arab lands of the dying Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence for the two Western powers. It laid the groundwork for the division of Iraq and the Levant into British and French mandates after World War I. The boundaries of those mandates, which later became the borders of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, were much contested by local nationalists and in the Middle East “Sykes-Picot” is a code word for colonial skullduggery. Together with another British document, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Sykes-Picot dispensation paved the way for the settler-colonial project of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians. In a sense, ISIS is another force mobilizing resentment of the dubious record of Western imperialism, whose mantle is now borne by Washington.

But ISIS does not aim merely to kick the West out of the Middle East, as shown by its list of enemies and its choice of targets. The Syrian regime and Iran it vilifies as rawafid or refusers of true Islam because it identifies them with Shi‘ism; the Russians it hates as godless supporters of Asad; the Turks and Gulf Arabs it disdains as handmaidens of the West, like the rest of the opposition in Syria, particularly the Kurdish militias who have reversed their gains in the northeast. Outside Iraq and Syria, militants who describe themselves as ISIS fire upon both the Afghan army and the Taliban; kill tourists to undermine the Egyptian and Tunisian governments; and bomb neighborhoods and mosques to stoke inter-communal tension in Lebanon, Kuwait and Yemen. The attacks abroad, such as the explosion of the Russian airliner, may be retaliation for strikes against ISIS, but they are also provocations.

The mass shootings in Paris on November 13 introduced another term from ISIS propaganda—“extinction of the gray zone”—to a non-specialist audience. By the “gray zone,” the group means any attempt to assume a stance of neutrality between its self-declared caliphate and the realm of the “the Crusaders.” The argument goes that the latter space is so corrupt that Muslims must either abscond or lapse into apostasy—those Muslims who think otherwise are in “the hideout of hypocrites.” Much has been made of the fact that the Paris assailants committed their crimes in arrondissements where significant inter-cultural contact occurs; they shot whites, blacks, North Africans and South Americans; among their victims were a Moroccan-born Muslim architect who was sketching renovations to pilgrimage sites in Mecca and the cousin of a Muslim on the French national team who was playing at the stadium where bombs also went off. Did ISIS train its sights on these areas because it saw them as “gray zones”? Perhaps, but the attack certainly succeeded in producing the deeper polarization that ISIS wants.

One of the slain attackers was discovered bearing a Syrian passport, leading to frenzied worry that ISIS had spirited a terrorist into France among the tens of thousands of refugees who have landed on European shores. After the so-called migration crisis of the late summer, symbolized on front pages worldwide by the tiny body of Alan Kurdi, 3, washed up on a Turkish beach, right-wingers in Europe and the US seized upon the passport to argue that Syrian refugees are a menace to the public. Upon investigation, the document was found to belong to a dead Syrian soldier, probably killed by ISIS, his papers stolen for the purpose of misdirection. ISIS has no sympathy for Syrian refugees; it denounces them as cowards and kuffar (because they are leaving the abode of Islam). So it is particularly wrenching that after the Paris operation more of those refugees may stay in limbo. By a November 29 agreement, Turkey will receive almost $3.2 billion from the European Union in exchange for tightening its border controls to keep refugees in. The EU has sealed similar deals with Libya and Morocco. The point is to keep refugees—and not just Syrians—out of sight and out of mind, thus banishing the air of crisis.

As Adam Shatz noted in the London Review of Books, still a third result of the Paris assaults will be to put France’s large Muslim community in the vise. As of 2010, according to the Pew Research Center, French Muslims numbered 4.71 million, some 7.5 percent of the population. Roughly 3 million are foreign-born, mostly in North Africa, and many of the remainder were born in France to North African immigrants. Muslim citizens of the first, second and even third generation suffer disproportionately from joblessness and poverty. As many as 70 percent of the inmates in French prisons are Muslim. Both men and women endure racism and stigmatization; young men, in particular, contend with regular police harassment. These last ills are sure to inflame in the aftermath of the attacks. The government is sending signals of new discriminatory measures. French President François Hollande proposed amending the constitution to allow the state to strip French citizenship from dual nationals who act against the national interest, a category so vague that it could easily be open to abuse. Thousands of French Muslims are said to have gone to Iraq and Syria already. Further alienation of this population may very well attract more recruits.

So what is ISIS, and where is it going?

Again, information is scarce, but from the accounts of visitors and residents who have escaped, ISIS does indeed appear to be erecting a state-like edifice in the areas it controls in Iraq and Syria. States, we will posit, are entities that claim a monopoly on violence, provide basic services and promulgate an ideology. In their founding moments, states-in-the-making that seek absolute sovereignty may orchestrate spectacles of extraordinary violence not just to deter the violence of others but also to smother all forms of dissent. One way to conceive of the carefully arranged beheadings and other public executions carried out by ISIS is that they are such spectacular violence. Indefensible as they are, the acts of terrorism abroad might likewise be viewed as assertions that ISIS will defend its sovereignty against Russian or French airstrikes. As for services, ISIS pays salaries, picks up the garbage and performs other tasks of municipal government, partly, it seems, by coopting the local bureaucracies that were in place before the towns were taken over. And its well-oiled public relations machinery, which according to the Washington Post is run by media professionals, ensures that the ISIS ideology is disseminated.

There are some ironies in the fact that ISIS, with its avowed contempt for borders and its expansionist ambition, is pursuing what in many respects is a conventional state-building project. First, ISIS could only have emerged in its current form in places where the writ of the existing state had eroded. Indeed, in Iraq and Syria ISIS has spread into the vacuum left not by one unitary state but by two imploding states—the first of which is enervated by three decades of war, economic isolation, destruction of infrastructure, brain drain and partisan fiefdoms and the second of which is in the throes of catastrophic civil strife.

Much is made of the artificiality of the state in the Fertile Crescent, due in part to the colonial pedigree of the borders and in part to the ethnic and religious diversity of the countries those boundaries delineate. Western commentators say, and ISIS might agree, that the jihadis’ conquests are proof that the Iraq and Syria of the twentieth century were never destined to last or even that that today’s front lines are somehow more natural borders than those etched before. As we wrote after the US invasion of Iraq, when pie-eyed plans for “three-state solutions” were floating around Washington, to say that the Middle Eastern state is artificial is a canard. No state’s borders are natural—all were manmade at some point in the past and many were marked on parchment by war and displacement. If, in Iraq and Syria, plural communities were poured into the mold of states, those states have proven much more durable than expected. Today the fact that ISIS is ensconced in a territorial seat is backhanded testimony to the resiliency of “stateness” in the region.

The rise of ISIS has also jumbled the calculus of jihadi groups around the world. With its call for a transnational caliphate, ISIS poses a direct threat to al-Qaeda’s preeminence among the jihadis with such ambitions. It has forced various al-Qaeda franchises to choose sides. Other jihadi groups have experimented with governance, sometimes toeing a less draconian line with the locals in order to draw a contrast with ISIS, as has happened with the al-Qaeda branch in Mukalla, Yemen. A major challenge for transnational jihadi groups over the past quarter-century has been to strike the right balance between global and local agendas, with the former seen as “more radical.” ISIS upends this dynamic by showing that strong local roots can lead to more effectiveness but do not necessarily inhibit other demonstrations of “radicalism,” such as displays of brutality or visions of globe-spanning glory.

Lastly, for all the impassioned speeches equating ISIS with evil, its state-building project could not exist if its most powerful neighbors were not willing to tolerate it, at least for the time being. The Syrian army, Hizballah and Iranian troops have stalled ISIS offensives in several spots; other Islamist militias in the Syrian opposition have wrestled with ISIS over towns and villages. But in Syria the group’s most effective adversaries are the Kurds, who rebuffed the ISIS assault on Kobane and retook other areas along the Turkish border. Russian and Syrian bombing is directed mostly at other rebels whose bases are closer to Damascus and other districts that are sensitive to the regime. Turkey, despite declaring war on ISIS over the summer, has dispatched most of its warplanes to hit the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who have waged armed struggle on behalf of Turkey’s Kurds for decades and who Turkey worries have been empowered by the Syrian Kurdish achievements. US, French and allied airstrikes are thus far more punitive than strategic. Even for Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadis in Syria linked to al-Qaeda, ISIS is a problem, but the regime is the bigger problem. In Iraq, the Kurds, Shi‘i militias and some combination of Iraqi and Iranian soldiers, often with US air support, have made more progress in reducing the size of ISIS territory, retaking Tikrit and possibly soon Ramadi, but ISIS is elsewhere firmly entrenched. ISIS is benefiting from being everyone’s number two enemy but no one’s number one.

More to the point, the enormous regional conflagration into which ISIS was born continues to burn. The civil war in Syria is now a proxy war, further complicating the task of reaching a ceasefire, let alone a lasting peace. None of the succession of Iraqi governments after the demise of Saddam Hussein has seriously pursued national reconciliation—to the contrary, to one extent or another, all have sought centralized power as the spoils of victory. Both the Syrian and the Iraqi conflicts are rooted in the persistence of authoritarian rule, despite attempted revolution or regime change, and the breakdown of the old social contract by which the state supplied a modicum of social and physical security in exchange for the citizens’ surrender of most civil and political rights. That bargain has been bankrupt for decades now, but little has taken its place besides venality and neglect in the guise of neoliberal nostrums.

The scale of the predicament recalls the famous words of Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: Now is the time of monsters.” The ISIS phenomenon is ultimately one monster among many, a particularly lurid manifestation of the structural problems of the region—the frustration of participatory politics, the fixation upon state security at the expense of freedoms, the stubborn growth of inequality amidst great wealth, the lack of investment in education and other public goods, all in the shadow of outside interference and, now, imminent destruction.

All of which returns us to the question of how ISIS is being discussed in the West, particularly in the United States. It was predictable, but dispiriting that the Paris attacks elicited a bellicose reaction from American politicians across the board. The chest-thumping rhetoric drowns out any circumspection about how ISIS came to be in the first place and, more importantly, any evaluation of how disastrously counterproductive the various iterations of the “war on terror” have turned out to be. It reveals the limits of President Barack Obama’s supposed downsizing of the US footprint in the Middle East—what critics from Henry Kissinger to the House of Saud call a “retreat.” Only by comparison to the overweening adventurism of the first George W. Bush administration do Obama’s interventions look small-bore. The dramatic increase in the drone strikes suffices as an example. In the bigger picture, Obama could have used the post-Bush malaise to talk honestly to the American people about the contradictions of US grand strategy in the Middle East, the imperatives that, for instance, push Washington to safeguard a “special relationship” with the same Saudi Arabia that has long funded the dispersion of arid versions of Islam adapted by the Taliban, al-Qaeda and, now, ISIS. The rollout of the nuclear deal with Iran was another opportunity for such frankness. But Obama has never disputed the fundamentals of the US approach, either to grand strategy or terrorism, and so it is no surprise that the post-Paris conversation focuses on military force, surveillance and suspension of civil liberties, just like in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 hijackings. The curdled prejudices against Islam and Muslims are another sobering feature of the political landscape.

To his credit, Obama has spoken out against the wave of xenophobia that crashed over America in November. Spurred by the false clue of the Syrian passport, Republican presidential candidates called for a “pause” in the nation’s already stingy program for admitting Syrian refugees (Jeb Bush made an exception for Christians) and Republican governors blustered that no Syrian refugee would cross their state line. On November 18, to their deep shame, 47 Democrats joined 242 Republicans in the House of Representatives to pass a bill that would require the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence to vouch for each and every refugee. (Vetting of Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers already takes 18-24 months.) The bill may die in the Senate, and Obama has promised a veto, but the message is plain: The very people fleeing ISIS are to be blamed for ISIS’ crimes. Where it holds sway, ISIS is the ultimate anti-pluralist actor. Where it is only a specter, it gets invoked against pluralism, too.

Whatever it is, whether its domain is expanding or contracting, and whatever it intends with its atrocities, ISIS has thrown into sharp relief the multiple dilemmas that beset the Middle East, the West and the tangled relationship between the two. It has done all it can to guarantee that the powerful will try to vanquish it by resorting to the same arsenal that has blown up in the world’s face. In this time of monsters, as in the fall of 2001, the weapons of the weaker are knowledge of history, empathy and common sense. There is no option but to use them.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "On ISIS," Middle East Report 276 (Fall 2015).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This