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The ISIS Story

The banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Photo:

The banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Photo:

Known today at the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has gone through many reorganizations and name changes in the course of the past dozen years, but it has kept essentially the same goals. Although sometimes referred to as a branch of al Qaida, it is better described as a rival organization that formed a temporary alliance with al Qaida as a result of the U.S. war in Iraq. It is a revolutionary Islamist movement that uses both terroristic and insurgent methods in its quest to overthrow what it considers unworthy Arab governments and re-establish the caliphate — the Muslim political-religious empire founded by Muhammad in the seventh century. Organizationally, it is what political scientist Paul Staniland has called a “vanguard” group, meaning that it has a tight central leadership but is only weakly embedded in the community. (On the other hand, the Pakistani Taliban, for example, is a coalition of groups that have deep roots in their respective communities but barely come together at the top.) This organizational structure can prove a weakness in certain circumstances.

The founder of the original version of ISIS was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi had been a rival to Osama bin Laden since the days of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Both sought the overthrow of unworthy “apostate” rulers of Muslim lands, but they differed on strategy. Zarqawi focused the on “near enemy,” the local regimes themselves, while bin Laden came to focus on the “far enemy,” the United States, whose support he believed made the local regimes possible.

Zarqawi, it seems, decided that a war between Sunni and Shia Muslims (the Shia being dismissed as not “real” Muslims) would help recruit Sunnis to the cause. So he proceeded in 2001 from Afghanistan to Iraq, where those two sects came together, to initiate a campaign against the Shia. There he established a secret organization called Tawhid and Jihad (Unity and Struggle). Curiously, the Bush administration used his presence there as evidence that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were allies. As Secretary of State Powell told the U.N. Security Council in February 2003, “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Usama bin Ladin and his Al-Qaida lieutenants.” Longtime CIA analyst Paul Pillar says that he repeatedly objected that there was no evidence of Iraqi support for Zarqawi. Iraqi documents seized after the invasion showed that the police were actually looking for Zarqawi but were unable to find him. (So much for the oppressive efficiency of police states.)

The U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, brought the “far enemy” “near,” and that created the basis for collaboration between the two rivals. In 2004, Tawhid and Jihad was renamed al Qaida in Iraq (AQI), and it began to thrive. Correspondence captured at bin Laden’s safe house suggests that this was never an easy relationship. Bin Laden complained regularly about Zarqawi’s activities, such as attacking Iraqi allies who objected to AQI’s indiscriminate killing of Shia civilians. Al Qaida leaders argued that AQI’s behavior would alienate Sunnis from the cause and undermine the global jihadist project. The complaints, it appears, left Zarqawi unimpressed.

Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. air strike in 2006. His successors, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Misri again changed the name of the organization, which now became the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). Then they, too, were killed by U.S. and Iraqi forces. In 2010 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed the leader’s post, which he retains to this day. Complaints from al-Qaida continued.

In 2006 it appeared that AQI was succeeding in its interim goal of starting a Sunni-Shia civil war. Under its new name, ISI forged an alliance with other Iraqi militant groups, but the new coalition soon fell apart. Before the end of 2006, the Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq’s western Anbar province, who had been a main source of the insurgency’s strength, had become fed up with ISI, its tactics, and its efforts to undermine their traditional role in the region (not to mention its disruption of their smuggling operations). Tribal leaders turned against ISI and joined forces with the Americans, initiating the “Sunni Awakening.” (At about the same time, U.S. forces launched their “surge” in Baghdad and Anbar, and Shia militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr began restraining his forces, possibly as part of an effort to regain control of his increasingly fractious party.) ISI discovered that its lack of ties to the community and its apparent inability to maintain alliances left it vulnerable and exposed when its allies turned on it. American and Iraqi government forces began getting the upper hand. Meanwhile, the Americans elicited a promise from the Baghdad government that it would incorporate the Sunni tribal forces into Iraqi state and military structures.

ISI was weakened but not destroyed. In its more desperate state, it appeared to reconcile with al-Qaida. But then the civil war that developed in neighboring Syria after 2011 gave it new opportunities. In 2012 ISI sent some of its people to Syria, where they founded a new organization, Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front). Unlike its parent organization, Jabhat al-Nusra took a gradualist approach to their shared goals, cooperated with at least some other antigovernment militias in Syria, recruited locally, and apparently formed real roots in the country. In April 2013 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi moved more fighters into Syria and announced the merger of ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra into a new organization, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — except that Jabhat al-Nusra, or a sizable portion of it, refused to go along with the plan.

By January 2014 ISIS was engaged in open combat with several other Syrian rebel groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra. Contributing to this state of affairs was not only ISIS’s insistence on taking over the insurgency, but its seizure of territory from other rebel groups for its own Islamic state. Moreover, instead of fighting government troops, ISIS sold oil to Damascus from the oil fields that it had seized. The Syrian regime reciprocated by concentrating its attacks on other rebel groups, reinforcing the impression that ISIS was actually on the regime’s side. (Damascus may have done this to help sow dissension among the rebels, but ISIS made it easy to do.)

As early as May 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra appealed to the central leadership of al Qaida, in Pakistan. Ayman al-Zawahiri decided in its favor, proclaiming that Jabhat al-Nusra was the official al Qaida affiliate in Syria and that ISIS should return to Iraq. He sent personal emissaries to reconcile the two factions, to no avail. In the meantime, ISIS actively attempted to persuade other jihadist groups to switch their loyalty from al Qaida to ISIS. In February 2014 al Qaida denounced ISIS, broke off its affiliation, and declared that it was “not responsible for ISIS’s actions.” Shortly afterward, an ISIS suicide bomber killed one of Zawahiri’s emissaries.

Yet, even as this conflict was developing, ISIS crossed back into Iraq in January 2014 and seized the city of Fallujah and many other parts of Anbar province. To everyone’s surprise, ISIS launched a sudden offensive in June 2014 in which it seized much of the Sunni-populated western and northern parts of the country. (ISIS announced that it was going to Baghdad and the Shia holy sites to its south, then as the government rushed its disorganized forces to those areas, ISIS proceeded to occupy everything else.) In the process, they seized not only territory, but also vast quantities of arms, ammunition, vehicles (including tanks), and cash (variously estimated from $88 million to $400 million) from banks, reportedly making them the world’s richest and best jihadist organization.

How did this happen? Curiously, ISIS acted in alliance with some of its most ardent former enemies, the Sunni tribes of western Iraq and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a militia organized by former Baathist officers of Saddam Hussein’s army!* According to a survey conducted in Mosul, people there are convinced that they have been occupied primarily by Baathists, not jihadists. Reportedly, the newly installed revolutionary governors of Nineveh (Mosul) and Tikrit provinces are former Baathist generals.

That these groups would ally themselves with ISIS, even tactically, is an indication of how unpopular the current Iraqi government has become among the Sunnis. Prime Minister Maliki, for instance, never incorporated the Sunni Awakening into the Iraqi state and military as promised. Instead, he cut off their payments and began arresting them as former terrorists. When Iraqi security forces opened fire on peaceful Sunni demonstrators, killing 50, in April 2013, the rebellion was back on. Maliki than made it harder for those Sunnis still willing to operate within the system by depicting the coming battle as a continuation of the Sunni-Shia conflict stretching from the seventh century.

Now that ISIS’s odd coalition has made such spectacular advances, many specialists are asking themselves how long it will be before ISIS alienates its new allies and cuts itself off at the knees. The first clue came with the audacious declaration of June 29. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi again changed the name of the organization (this time simply to the Islamic State, not limited to any particular countries) and proclaimed the caliphate, with himself as caliph. He called on all Muslims everywhere to recognize him as their leader and evidently dissolved all rival jihadists organizations into his own. As they say in New York, the fellow has chutzpah.

In the end ISIS’s allies are likely to break with it, unless Iraq’s Shia-dominated government continues to insist on pushing them together. If and when that happens, ISIS will likely suffer once again from the vulnerabilities of a weakly rooted “vanguard” organization. The losses may not be as severe as they were during the Arab Awakening of 2006–2008 because this time there will be no U.S. surge to support the tribal militias. Some have suggested that the vulnerabilities could be partially offset by a rush of new enthusiastic jihadist recruits, mostly from places not ruled by ISIS. It is also possible that some al Qaida affiliates, such as al Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula, could switch their allegiances to ISIS in the glow of its recent victories. Iranian military intervention on behalf of the Baghdad government could also alter calculations by drawing Saudi Arabia and other regional powers to the Sunni side. Nonetheless, as things stand now, ISIS is racking up enemies left and right. Even the Syrian government, which has refrained from attacking it in Syria, has bombed it in Iraq (no doubt, trying to win Baghdad as an ally in its own civil war). Chances look good that it will proceed to shoot itself in the foot.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.