In the following weeks, I will be writing about the role the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) plays in modern conflicts and global politics. Some refer to the group as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the group simply as the Islamic State (IS), except in certain instances where it is important to differentiate between ISIS and its predecessor and alternate names.
Throughout this column, I will analyze attacks committed by IS and those inspired by its ideology. However, the organization affects international politics as well. The specter of terrorism is manipulated in several different ways by leaders around the world to achieve different ends. For example, some leaders label dissenters as terrorists, and repress any efforts to protest their government.
For this week’s piece, I will be giving a sort of crash course on IS. The information presented in this article can largely be found in the book “ISIS: A History” by Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations and contemporary Middle East Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I could not recommend this book enough for anyone who has a desire to learn more about the rise of IS.
To begin looking into IS’ history, as well as its ideology (the two are inextricably linked,) you have to rewind to the 2003: the beginning of the Iraq War. The Bush administration offered two justifications for the invasion — the presence of weapons of mass destruction and links between the regime of Saddam Hussein and extremist Islamism through connection to Al-Qaeda.
However, both of these conditions were later found to be false, according to The 9/11 Commission Report. The social disorder following the conflict of the Iraq War provided fertile ground for a jihadist insurgency — the group we know as Al-Qaeda — to flourish, something which had never occurred in Iraq.
In the background of the Iraq War and the vitalization of Al-Qaeda, a man known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was planting the seeds for what we know as IS. Zarqawi slowly rose up through the ranks of the jihadist movement, eventually establishing his own group known as al-Tahwid wa al-Jihad, which was used as a sort of scout for the central authority of Al Qaeda (AQC) under the leadership of Osama bin Laden.
This group originally numbered less than 30 fighters but quickly increased to 5,000 fighters, a testament to the attraction these insurgency groups have in a broken political system. For a quick look at what I mean by “broken political system,” you can read an earlier piece of mine on the fight to liberate Mosul.
For his service to AQC, Zarqawi was pronounced the leader of the Iraqi wing of Al-Qaeda, referred to as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI.) AQC and AQI had clear, identifiable ideological differences. While both arms of Al-Qaeda were determined to end the U.S. invasion of Iraq and install an Islamic state in the region, they had very different theories on how best to achieve this.
The AQC and bin Laden believed Al-Qaeda’s number one priority should be to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq, focusing on what many call the “far enemy.” Meanwhile, Zarqawi and AQI believed that they should focus their efforts on the “near enemy,” which included Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims who did not adhere to their extremist ideology. AQI was adept at exploiting the growing sectarianism that existed in the country after the U.S.-led invasion.
Zarqawi held a genocidal view: Anyone who did not adhere to their version of Islamist extremism was not fit to live in the caliphate, and this condition was especially applied to other Muslims. By alienating both international opinion, as well as opinion within the global Muslim community between Sunnis and Shiites, Zarqai hoped to force Sunnis into an impossible choice between death or service to IS.
In June 2006, Zarqawi was killed by American forces. As a result of his extreme ideology, even for Islamist standards, AQI and AQC found little sympathy among the Iraqi population. After Zarqawi’s death, a council of Islamist groups declared the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) from the remnants of AQI, separating the group from the authority of AQC.
An anemic rebuilding process was occurring.
Several years passed, and ISI came under the leadership of an individual known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is the current leader of IS. It is important to acknowledge the group was on the brink of collapsing when al-Baghadadi assumed power of the organization. However, following the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, several factors contributed to its reemergence. First, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to move past the sectarianism and corruption that plagued the Hussein regime.
Secondly, the civil war that began in neighboring Syria provided ISI the opportunity to repair relations with the Sunni community in both Iraq and Syria. With Syria plunged into civil war, the border between the two nations dissolved, creating the territory held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS.
Today, IS is in dire straits. As a result of counterterrorism efforts, IS has lost a significant amount of territory in both Iraq and Syria. It is important to remember that IS is a product of the social and political chaos that has plagued the Arab Middle East for decades. In addition, IS has proved to be incredibly resilient, facing almost guaranteed dissolvement prior to 2011.
To recap, IS is the result of an evolution within Al-Qaeda that was indirectly facilitated by the consequences of the Iraq War and the poor governance of the Maliki government. IS is extreme, even among Islamist groups. Its focus on the near enemy, as opposed to the far enemy of the Western world, is a unique aspect of the group’s ideology.