Foreign Policy Blogs

A Comprehensive Analysis of the Islamic State (IS)


Some describe it as the result of a disengaged American foreign policy; some look at it as a byproduct of an aggressive post-Saddam Iranian foreign policy in the region; then there are those who regard it as a creation of Sunni Arab states to undermine Assad and Iranian interests and contain Iran’s ambitious foreign policy in the region. These are only some of the views on what is behind the rise of the Islamic State — also known as ISIS and ISIL — and its subsequent onslaught in Syria and Iraq.

A newly released report by the Soufan Group takes a comprehensive and analytic look at the radical Sunni Muslim group and sheds light on a whole range of factors that have contributed to its initial emergence and subsequent evolution to its present stage. The report delves into the Islamic State’s political and ideological agenda by uncovering its ideological affiliations from 14th century Islamic theology all the way to present radical Salafist movements, and explains how it justifies the brutal violence it commits against the subjects under its control.

The report underlines the epic failure of governance by the Iraqi State and the sectarian agenda pursued by then Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki as important socio-political factors that contributed to the rise of the Islamic State. According to the Soufan report, Maliki’s policies “had made the Sunni minority in Iraq ready to support any group that appeared to have the potential to reverse its increasing marginalization. Sunni tribal support continues to be essential to the viability of the Islamic State.” And from a wider regional perspective, lack of trust in leadership and failure to meet the expectations of masses is cited in this report as another key factor that makes the message of Islamic State appealing to many.

One of the chapters in the report is a timely focus on the Islamic State’s savvy internet media campaign. This chapter explains why the use of social media channels, Twitter in particular, weighs heavily in the group’s media strategy. According to the report, the Islamic State has “an army of writers, bloggers and researchers who monitor global media, in particular social media who tweet links of videos, generally with high production values, which are then further distributed.”

Other chapters analyze the Islamic State’s military, administrative, and financial operations. The 60-page report was written by the Soufan Group’s senior executives Richard Barrett, Robert McFadden, Patrick Skinner and Lila Ghosh. It can be accessed in its entirety here.