ISIS has become a notorious menace in today’s world, its name synonymous with ideologically motivated savagery. But what exactly explains the group’s spectacular rise and its unsettling recruiting success? In ISIS: A History, (April, 2016), Fawaz A. Gerges argues that ISIS is a manifestation of the breakdown of state institutions and intense foreign intervention. In contemplating its future trajectory, Gerges takes a look at the group’s weaknesses, including what he terms “extreme totalitarianism, even with its allies”, as well as the absence of “a social and economic blueprint”. Today, Gerges answered a few questions about why this written history is so important and what needs to be understood about ISIS.
What makes your book different from other recent books on ISIS?
FG: In the last two years a significant amount of books on ISIS have been published, and more are yet to be released. While most books do a great job at presenting ‘ basic’ facts about the organization and the chronology of its activities, with this book I want to produce an approachable analysis of ISIS’ mission, ideology, struggle and strategy. The book highlights some important features and aspects of ISIS history that have received at best limited coverage in the other available works.
In a way, ISIS: A History is an extension of my two previous books on the global jihadist movement: Why Jihad Went Global [Cambridge University Press, 2005] and The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda (Oxford University Press, 2011), in that it contextualizes the organization, its growth and evolution within the global jihadist movement. My aim is for the reader to understand how ISIS emerged out of the complexities of militant jihadist politics and to explain the ideological framework within which the organization operates and how it consolidates and expands its influence near and far. I also provide an important analysis of the relationship(s) between the “Arab Spring” uprisings and the rise of ISIS, which in my opinion, is an aspect that has too often been neglected and side-lined.
What’s the most important thing you want your readers to understand about ISIS?
FG: I would want the reader to understand that the spectacular surge of ISIS should be understood on one level, as the symptom of a severe, organic crisis of Arab governance and on another level, as a manifestation of decades of developmental failure in the Arab world and the social and economic pauperization of Arab societies. Moreover, ISIS is in part a product of intense and persistent foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Arab countries.
Among the important arguments and conclusions presented in this book is the recognition of diversity among radical religious activists: global jihadists are not a monolith and their internal conflicts and power struggles are significant in shaping their actions. Similarly, it is shown that while these groups are embedded in local, regional and global context, in the case of ISIS, the local dimension of the movement is pivotal.
What do you think would most surprise your readers to learn about ISIS?
FG: While the world is captivated by ISIS’ brutality and institution of a modern sex trade, less is known about the group’s capacity to govern, how it is digging in, and embedding itself deeper into the fabric of life in war-torn Iraq and Syria. By increasingly acting like a pseudo-state, ISIS makes the inhabitants dependent on its services, planting the idea in their minds that they are in control. In zones torn out by war, insecurity and abject poverty, ISIS has increasingly co-opted local communities under its control by filling a governance void and providing public services and good salaries. According to local residents in Raqqa, Deir al-Zour, Mosul, Fallujah, and other cities, ISIS has set up rudimentary bureaucracy and administration and functioning institutions; it improved security and law and order, if harsh, and provided jobs in decimated economies. Residents report that ISIS delivers important services, such as bakeries, policing, a swift sharia-based justice system, identity cards and birth certificates, consumer watch, garbage collection, dare-care centres, clean and well-run hospitals, and procured teachers to work in its schools, even though the quality of these services is neither stellar nor free.
As a result, ISIS is both welcomed and feared by Sunni communities who have lived through decades of repression, tyranny, corruption and violence.
What is the most understood aspect of ISIS?
FG: The most understood aspect of ISIS is its brutality. The group is synonymous with savagery, which the group is itself openly advocating. From the videoed beheadings of hostages and dissidents to the ethnic cleansing of minorities, ISIS makes a point of disclosing its goal to cleanse Sunni society of other cultural influences. In Iraq, it clearly aims at dismantling the diverse social fabric made up of Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians. A case point illustrating ISIS’ ethnic cleansing is its extraordinary punishment against the Yazidis, in the summer 2014, after its capture of Mosul.
How does your explanation of the rise of ISIS differ from that of others?
FG: As I mentioned earlier, while jihadist groups are embedded in local, regional and global contexts, in the case of ISIS, its local dimensions are significant. Although ISIS is an extension of the global jihadist movement in its ideology and worldview, its social origins are rooted in a specific Iraqi context, and, to a lesser extent, the Syrian war that has raged since 2011. Its strategic use of sectarian clashes between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims within the Iraqi and Syrian contexts has greatly benefited the organisation and shaped its activities. In addition, like the Taliban, if ISIS retains control over territory and peoples and delivers public services, it would likely consolidate its hegemony and gain the inured consent of the governed. This makes ISS radically different from and more dangerous than Al Qaeda Central, which never controlled territory and people or had immediate designs to create a state of its own. In contrast, ISIS is building a rump state in both countries and offers a subversive vision that dates back to seventh century Arabia. By doing so, it threatens the foundation of the Middle Eastern state system in a fundamental way than no other non-state actor has done before.
What are the most important differences between ISIS and Al-Qaeda?
FG: What sets ISIS apart from other non-state actors, including Al Qaeda Central, is possession of material capability, will power, and ideological capital, which it combined to deadly effects. ISIS controls a wide swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria that contains a population estimated at over 5 million people. In addition it controls a sectarian army numbering more than 30,000 fighters. In contrast during the height of its power in the late 1990s, Al Qaeda Central possessed fewer than 3,000 fighters with no territories of its own. Moreover, while Al Qaeda’ s Osama bin Laden was under the protection of Mullah Omar, the late Taliban leader in Afghanistan, by anointing himself supreme ruler of Muslims worldwide, ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi directly challenged Omar’s claim to the same title. ISIS’ blatant challenge of the Al Qaeda leadership and its imperial ambitions show an organisation determined to impose its will as a new major player in the region and a de facto State as well.
There is also an important ideological distinction between the two organisations. Al Qaeda emerged from an alliance between ultraconservative Saudi Salafism, or Wahhabism, and radical Egyptian Islamism, known as Salafi-jihadism. In contrast, ISIS was born of a marriage between an Iraq-based AQI (Salafi-jihadism) and an identity frame of politics. The ISIS ideological lineage of Salafi-jihadism, a union between Saudi Wahhabism and revolutionary Egyptian Islamism, forms part of the ideological impetus, the other part of its ideological nature is a hyper Sunni identity driven by intrinsic and even genocidal anti-Shia ideology.
Is ISIS more or less dangerous to the West than Al-Qaeda? Why?
FG: From a Western perspective, ISIS’ swift conquests in the Arab heartland, which is strategically and economically significant, constitutes a serious security dilemma facing pro-Western Arab regimes. Western governments also fear the potential spill-over effects of the expansion of ISIS’ power on their own national security in the long term. More than 20,000 foreign fighters from more than 90 countries have travelled to Syria and at least 3,400 of them come from Western countries. The fact that the number of foreign fighters continues to increase is particularly alarming and reflects a phenomenon that deserves critical scrutiny. European and American leaders are also anxious that the foreign fighters radicalized and militarized in Iraq and Syria could return home and carry out terrorist attacks. The Charlie Hebdo attack in France on 7 January 2015 did little to qualm such fears.
Do you think ISIS is a longterm threat?
FG: Yes I do. ISIS’ umbilical cord is tied to the raging sectarian fires in Iraq and Syria and the clash of identities that is ravaging Arab countries. If those problems are not dealt with, even if ISIS is defeated, there is always the risk of another like-minded militant group, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the official arm of Al Qaeda Central, filling a power vacuum in the region. If as I argue ISIS is a manifestation of the breakdown of state institutions, then the fragile authoritarian state system must be rebuilt on a more solid, legitimate foundation. What we need is for governments in the region to be transparent, inclusive and representative of their population. They need to deliver public goods, including jobs, and give millions of young men and women a stake in the future of their countries. A more complex challenge is also to confront ISIS’ ideology and worldview. Following the repression or, in the case of Iraq and Syria, the abortion of the Arab Spring uprisings, a lot of people feel that peaceful demonstrations had failed to provide them with the justice, freedom and dignity they had called for. As a result we now need to (re)-convince them that there are nonviolent options that can bring about meaningful and substantive political change. Until we do, the menace of the “Islamic State” will remain a problem both for the Arab-Islamic world and for the international community.
Has ISIS gone global?
FG: Although ISIS attracts recruits from various countries, as of now, it remains more interested in the ‘near enemy’ than ‘the far enemy’. Clearly, ISIS has placed the struggle against the Americans, Europe and even Israel as a distant secondary goal that must be deferred until liberation at home is achieved. One needs to recall that at the height of the Israeli assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014, after being criticised by militants for failing to intervene, ISIS insisted that its main struggle was the one it wages against the Shias. ISIS is more interested in building a Sunni “Islamic state” in the heart of Arabia and consolidating its grip on the Iraqi and Syrian territories in which it occupies than marching on Rome or Washington. In his second address to the world, Baghdadi explained that ISIS’ grand ambition is to expand in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. The group has also managed to obtain pledges of allegiance from factions who had been part of Al Qaeda in Egypt, Libya, Somalia, and Nigeria. ISIS has even made inroads in Yemen, home to Al Qaeda’s strongest affiliate (AQAP), in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and is also beginning to challenge the Taliban in Afghanistan and several prominent figures among the Al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban factions have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi.
What do you think is most likely to happen with ISIS in the near future? In the long term?
FG: The menace of the “Islamic State” needs to be taken seriously. As “Islamic State” militants swept across Syria and Iraq, they destroyed, damaged and looted numerous cultural sites and sculptures, condemning them as idolatry. For an authentic Islamic state to be erected, the Sunni militants of ISIS feel that the Islamic lands must be cleansed of apostasy and heretics regardless of the human or civilizational costs. In fact, ISIS’ planners are keen on displaying ideological zeal and purity to outbid rival Islamists and show that they are the sole defender of the faith and the (Sunni) umma.
For example, in an attempt to cleanse Sunni society of other cultural influences, ISIS has sought to dismantle the diverse social fabric made up of Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, Yazidis, Druze, and Christians that have developed and persevered from the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq.
A case point illustrating ISIS’ ethnic cleansing is its extraordinary punishment against the Yazidis, a tiny religious minority who represent less than 1.5 percent of Iraq’s estimated population of 34 million and whom ISIS considers heretics. After the capture of Mosul and its outlaying towns in summer 2014, including Sinjar, near the Syrian border, home to tens of thousands of Yazidis, ISIS engaged in systemic cultural cleansing, forcing hundreds of thousands of minorities from their homes, and using sexual violence as a weapon by indiscriminately raping Yazidi girls and women. ISIS viciously attacked the Yazidis, killing men and boys of fighting age and abducting a total of 5,270 Yazidi girls and women (at least 3,144 are still being held at the time of writing), which were subsequently forced into sexual slavery, according to human rights organisations, United Nations figures and community leaders. To handle the modern sex trade, ISIS has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by its Islamic courts. And systemic rape has become an established and an increasingly powerful recruiting tool for ISIS to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.
One of the weaknesses of ISIS is its extreme totalitarianism, even with its allies, as well as lack of a social and economic blueprint. The schism between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the official arm of Al Qaeda Central, in Syria shows that its strategy to impose itself as the absolute jihadist movement does not always work out in its favour. Instead, it can lead to internal splits and turn former allies into enemies. ISIS has mastered the art of making enemies of the entire world, including potential allies, and top militant clerics and theorists. Although for now ISIS is ascendant, its long term prospects are grim. Once ISIS’ military fortunes decline it would face a reckoning. Under ISIS, there is no breathing space for social mobilization and political organization, including like-minded Salafi-jihadi activism. ISIS possesses a totalitarian, millenarian worldview that eschews political pluralism, competition and diversity of thought. Baghdadi and his associates criminalize and excommunicate free thought and the idea of the “other” is alien to their messianic ideology. Any Muslim or co- jihadist who doesn’t accept ISIS’ interpretation of the Islamic doctrine are apostates who deserve death.
Fawaz A. Gerges is author of ISIS: A History. He is professor of international relations and Emirates Professor in Contemporary Middle East Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His many books include The New Middle East, Obama and the Middle East, and The Far Enemy. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Foreign Affairs, and other publications.