Since its meteoric rise to global infamy by mid-2014, the group that now calls itself the “Islamic State” (or, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS) has occupied a central place in the minds of policymakers and analysts, establishing itself as international public enemy number one.2 In so many ways, ISIS has also constituted a source of embarrassment for the security community.3 First, very few, if any at all, of the same experts who are quite literally obsessed with the group today foresaw the rise of ISIS to prominence in Iraq and Syria until it actually happened. Second, despite all the intellectual energy devoted to understanding “what ISIS really is” (or, what it really wants), not to mention the accumulation of considerable data on the group, we still do not understand the organization significantly more than we did in mid-2014. Consequently, there is little agreement in the security community over the true nature of ISIS and the proper strategy to effectively “degrade and destroy” the organization.4
ISIS remains unpredictable and inexplicable for two main reasons. First, the existing frameworks utilized to explore “what ISIS really is” are not appropriate for a holistic assessment of the organization, prompting analysts to mistake ISIS’ tactics or propaganda for its political objectives. Second, an almost exclusive emphasis on trying to understand ISIS per se distracts from the symbiotic and complex relationship between ISIS and the bigger regional crisis that gave birth to the organization in the first place.
This article draws attention to three interrelated dynamics that may help students of international politics make sense of ISIS.5 First, ISIS is best seen as a “process,” not as a static “thing” that can be easily identified.6 The challenge, then, is to uncover the mechanisms through which the group energizes its ever-evolving strategy. Second, understanding ISIS’ strategic resilience requires evaluating the group’s state-building and power-projection strategies in the context of regional dynamics. ISIS’ successes and failures, and most certainly its future prospects, cannot be divorced from the ongoing, multi-dimensional crisis in the region.
Third, thinking of ISIS as a “process” also makes it necessary to consider the groups’ impacts on the greater Middle East with respect to two interrelated dimensions: sectarian tensions and the impacts of the group on existing ethnic relations in the region, especially in the context of the so-called Kurdish question. The impacts of ISIS on the region, in particular, can be analyzed with respect to two key dimensions. First, ISIS is a project that aims to transform the political and human terrain in Iraq and Syria; its leadership is consciously adopting strategies that aim to remake the territories it controls in its own image, while also destabilizing the entire region. The second dimension is rarely discussed: the rise of ISIS created numerous challenges as well as opportunities for all relevant actors. Concerned with the challenges and ever-anxious to take advantage of the opportunities, the regional actors are playing an active role in reshaping the Middle East, a region that will most likely look considerably different in the next decade.
The remainder of the essay unfolds in four sections. The first section offers a brief historical narrative outlining the rise of ISIS. Second, I examine the existing frameworks that are utilized to analyze the group, underlining their weaknesses and strengths. The third section evaluates ISIS’ strategic resilience in the context of the regional dynamics. In the fourth section, I examine the ways in which ISIS has been reshaping regional dynamics, especially with respect to sectarian and ethnic relations.
A History of Violence
Until mid-2014, security analysts (scholarly or otherwise) and global media either ignored ISIS or collapsed it under numerous organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda (AQ). In less than a year, ISIS captured an estate as big as the UK across Syria and Iraq, establishing itself as a geographical reality and an unprecedented challenge to regional stability in the Middle East. ISIS’ penchant for publicizing its acts of violence7 (which has been appropriately called “jihadist porn”) and its mastery of social media8–not to mention, its institutionalization of slavery and ethnic cleansing– have rendered the group global public enemy number one, even forcing AQ to publicly distance itself from its offspring.
The title of “state” was adopted to cover the increasing weakness of the group and ISI’s “statehood” existed only in its title
The origins of ISIS can be traced to the Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, previously a minor AQ associate who was famously denied even a basic audience from Osama Bin Laden in the late 1990s, partially due to Zarqawi’s reputation as an unrefined hothead with a past colored by substance abuse and petty crime. During the course of the late-1990s, Zarqawi ran a paramilitary training camp in Afghanistan that was loosely associated with AQ. In 2001, Zarqawi fled to Northern Iraq during the U.S.-led Operation “Enduring Freedom,” seeking refuge with Ansar al-Islam, a radicalized Kurdish group. There, he founded Jamaat al-Tahvid wa-l-Jihad (JTWJ) and, anticipating the potential for a jihadist insurgency, moved his operations to Baghdad right before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Zarqawi’s JTWJ gained itself a reputation for brutality and effectiveness, most notably through its attacks on the UN headquarters in Baghdad, various Shia mosques, and civilians. Zarqawi’s initial exploits in Iraq also highlighted his two-pronged trademark: sectarian targeting and publicized savagery (especially beheadings). Zarqawi’s trademark gained him notoriety and an increasing following, but also motivated Osama Bin Laden, who did not share Zarqawi’s penchant for sectarian violence, to keep a distance between AQ and Zarqawi.
Eventually, Zarqawi’s increasing profile and continuous appeals to AQ-central for formal affiliation prompted Osama Bin Laden to commission JTWJ as AQ in Iraq (AQI) and Zarqawi as its leader in October 2004. Until Zarqawi was killed in 2006 in a U.S. air strike, the Zarqawi-led AQI wreaked havoc in Iraq, simultaneously exploiting and inflaming sectarian tensions in the region.9 In fact, the drift between AQ-central and AQI (which would eventually evolve into ISIS) can be traced back to this period. Zarqawi’s brutal methods attracted criticism from AQ-central, expressed most notably in a letter sent by AQ’s [then] second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2005.10 In the letter, Zawahiri, albeit in a diplomatic and quasi-formal fashion, warned Zarqawi that AQI’s sectarian strategy (not to mention its targeting of Sunnis) was damaging AQ-central’s reputation. A second, yet less-pronounced, point of contention involved the issue of “governance.” While Osama Bin Laden and Zawahiri openly opposed the idea of forming Islamic quasi-states before conditions became ripe (Bin Laden feared that a premature attempt at statehood would eventually hurt the prospects of founding a caliphate down the road), Zarqawi showed great interest in establishing a form of territorial governance based on an extremely strict interpretation of sharia rule.