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Why ISIS? Why now?

The editors of Oxford Islamic Studies Online asked several experts the following question:

The world has watched as ISIS (ISIL, the “Islamic State”) has moved from being a small but extreme section of the Syrian opposition to a powerful organization in control of a large swath of Iraq and Syria. Even President Obama recently admitted that the U.S. was surprised by the success of ISIS in that region. Why have they been so successful, and why now?

We received responses from University of Chicago political scientist Robert A. Pape, the Brookings Institute's Shadi Hamid, sociologist Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina, and Lebanese journalist and editor Hanin Ghaddar.

Hanin Ghaddar: ISIS is an outcome of a much bigger problem

To answer this question, one has to go back to the roots of this organization. ISIS did not come from a vacuum, and it is not this shadowy bunch of militants that mysteriously managed to control large areas of Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been around for a very long time, and its roots go deeper than its current military achievements.

As an organization, ISIS originated from Al-Qaeda’s group in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, a member of ISI, established Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria in 2011. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formed ISIS in Syria, differences over ideology and strategy between ISIS and al-Nusra soon led to infighting, and eventually to a public repudiation by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri after Baghdadi refused his orders to leave Syria and return to Iraq.

Due to the difference in strategy, Baghdadi sought to create the Caliphate and his main priority was to self-sustain the Islamic State by strengthening its economy. This practical side of ISIS is very significant for its quick logistical and military success. According to many news reports, ISIS’ financial assets amount to $2 billion, with money secured from oilfields in eastern Syria, banks in Iraq, in addition to military supplies captured in Mosul. In addition, ISIS’s ability to operate as a real army lies in the fact that their military council is made up of former officers from Saddam Hussein’s army.

However, the popularity of the group lies somewhere else.

The states where ISIS is expanding and flourishing are visibly Iraq and Syria—the two states where Sunnis have suffered marginalization, humiliation, and brutal killing by the pro-Iranian Shiite and Alawi regimes. In both countries, the state did not offer a safe haven for citizens; on the contrary, the sectarian rhetoric practiced by community and political leaders added to the Sunni-Shia rift.

In Iraq, former PM Nouri al-Maliki’s inability to engage in dialogue with Sunni tribes, who helped fight al-Qaeda, led to the fall of Fallujah into ISIS hands in January. Maliki alienated these tribes and refused to share power with them. After the US withdrawal in 2011, these tribes went into open revolt against Maliki.

A feeling of betrayal also boosted this revolt, as the US started talks and unstated bargains with Tehran. It is not a secret that the International Coalition’s war against ISIS Syria did not stop Assad from bombing rebels in areas where ISIS is not in control. Ignoring the brutality of Assad by the West did not help reassure the Sunnis.

When Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s Quds Force Commander, and Iranian-backed militias like Asa’ib ahl al-Haq in Iraq and Hezbollah in Syria are left to wage war against the Sunnis in both countries, and aid the regimes in killing and torturing them, many Sunnis came to see ISIS as the most powerful defense against Iran’s persecution.

But it would be too naïve to only blame regional leaders and Western powers for the rise of ISIS, and enjoy the role of the victim. We are very much responsible, as people and communities. ISIS flourished in these two countries also because of the heightened sectarian rhetoric by the people everywhere. In the streets, traditional media, social media and inside homes and families, everyone is practicing sectarian hatred, and judging each other’s commitment to Islam.

Our governments has denounced ISIS and promised to secure all available resources to rid the world of its threats, but have we really condemned ISIS when our media, political leaders and Imams at mosques still speak the same sectarian rhetoric and call for hatred?

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran condemned ISIS and pledged to fight all terrorism. But authorities in both countries are still practicing public executions in public squares. Only recently, Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Nimr was sentenced to death. His prosecutors called for his execution by “crucifixion”, a punishment which in Saudi Arabia involves beheading followed by public display of the decapitated body. How is this really different from ISIS’s beheading practice?

Many of us condemned ISIS beheading and called them barbarians, yet very few objected to Hamas’ execution of the suspected informants after the recent Gaza war, or Iran’s hanging of gay teenagers from construction canes. Most of us actually approve of this practice.

ISIS is a product of our culture of sectarian rhetoric, violence and hatred. ISIS thrives on the injustice and corruption razing our state institutions and communities. Therefore, any policy that aims at fighting and destroying ISIS has to take this into consideration.

To make sure another ISIS does not emerge, the roots behind ISIS’s power and popularity should be targeted. Justice needs to prioritized. Iran should not be treated as the better evil and its regional militias need to be stopped as we are trying to stop ISIS. Assad—who has caused the death of almost 200,000 people—should leave power and he and his lieutenants should be prosecuted under the auspices of the International Criminal Court (ICC) without delay. Otherwise, sectarian hatred and violence will never stop, and ISIS will only get stronger.

ISIS and Hezbollah today feed into each other’s rhetoric of violence and acts of terrorism. Without Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, ISIS and al-Nusra wouldn’t have gained any popularity, and without ISIS’s power, causing fear among the Shia community and other minorities, Hezbollah would have suffered more pressure to leave Syria, even by its own community. They are frenimies and should be dealt with consistently.

In addition, our media and religious institutions should be held accountable for inciting hatred and sectarianism. Those who call for violence through TV channels and inside mosques should be punished, even if they haven’t personally spilled blood.

Our governments, regimes and leaders might not like to tone down this sectarian rhetoric, because sometimes it serves their regional political agendas. Therefore, this should come as a condition for them to join any international effort or regional initiative. International funding for governments should also come with cultural and social conditions, aimed at alleviating sectarian rhetoric and boosting citizenship.

It is a very extensive and difficult route, but it is the only way. You cannot bomb ISIS away; it will grow back. It should be eliminated from the roots.

Hanin Ghaddar is the Managing Editor of NOW Lebanon, where she has written on Lebanese and regional politics, and has been a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Shadi Hamid: Ideology and a Conducive Political Environment

ISIS is a “revolutionary” organization in a way that al-Qaeda and other like-minded extremist groups never were, and never really wanted to be. The “caliphate”—the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition—might have been an inspiration as well as an aspiration, but it wasn’t actually going to happen in real life. The historical weight of the caliphate, and its symbolic power among even less Islamically-minded Muslims, was simply too much (and not only that, you needed a large enough swath of territory to establish one). ISIS, even if it was destroyed tomorrow morning, will have succeeded in removing the mental block of the “caliphate.” Now, anytime there’s an ungoverned, or ungovernable, space, a militant group will think to itself: should we try to capture a piece of territory and announce our own little emirate? And, well beyond the rarefied realm of extremist groups, ISIS has succeeded in injecting the word “caliphate” back into the public discourse. In Turkey, for example, various writers, while opposing ISIS’s particular version of the caliphate, have been willing to discuss the idea of a caliphate.

In this sense, the question of whether ISIS enjoys much popular support in the Muslim world—it doesn’t—is almost beside the point. ISIS doesn’t need to be popular to be successful. In June, around 800 militants were able to defeat an Iraqi force of 30,000 in Mosul, the country’s second largest city. Ideology, morale, and, crucially, the willingness to die are force multipliers. But ideology can only take you so far without a conducive political environment. ISIS itself was perhaps inevitable, but its rise to prominence was not. It has benefited considerably from the manifest failures of Arab governance, of an outdated regional order, and of an international community that was unwilling to act as Syria descended into savage repression and civil war.

Graeme Wood made an important point in one of the only pieces I’ve read that takes ISIS's religious inspirations seriously: “ISIS’s meticulous use of language, and its almost pedantic adherence to its own interpretation of Islamic law, have made it a strange enemy, fierce and unyielding but also scholarly and predictable.” This is where ISIS’s aspirations to governance become critical, and where Obama’s description of the group as a “terrorist organization, pure and simple” seems both problematic and detached. Emphasizing the distinctive nature of ISIS—and getting it across—becomes difficult in a public discourse that is very focused on us, dealing with our Iraq demons and so on.

Shadi Hamid is a Brookings Institution fellow working on the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World in the Center for Middle East Policy and a regular contributor to The Atlantic. His most recent book is Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, published by Oxford University Press.

Charles Kurzman: ISIS's Unpredictable Revolution

Revolutions have been surprising experts for generations. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, for example, the CIA commissioned a report into why it had predicted, 100 days before the fall of the monarchy, that the shah's regime would ride out the protests. During the “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011, President Obama reportedly chastised the intelligence community for not having warned him in advance. Academics have a similarly checkered track record.

The reason is that revolutions are inherently unpredictable. They depend on the interactions and perceptions of large numbers of people at moments of confusion when normal routines and institutions are breaking down. I presented evidence of this confusion and the implications for prediction in my book, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran (2004).

After a revolution, though, it is common to demand explanations that make the unexpected seem inevitable. Many experts are happy to satisfy our desire for a causal narrative, selecting evidence from the run-up to revolution that might serve as a sort of retroactive prediction.

So why did a revolutionary group calling itself al-Daula al-Islamiyya fi'l-’Iraq wa'l-Sham (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) manage to occupy territory in Syria and Iraq in 2013 and 2014? I might point to its extreme violence (though the Iraqi and Syrian governments were capable of extreme violence as well), or its ideology of self-sacrifice (also visible among other Syrian revolutionary groups), or the support it received from foreign governments (no greater than the support that the governments received), or its leaders' strategic brilliance (knowable only post hoc), or any number of other factors. These are stories we tell to make ourselves feel that the world is an orderly place, where even the events we find most outrageous or troubling can be tamed through the causal logic of social science.

The real story of the revolution is that one group with weapons persuaded other groups with weapons to surrender or retreat, instead of shooting back. It persuaded large numbers of unarmed civilians to obey them or flee, instead of mobbing the revolutionaries and handing them over to other groups with guns. Those moments of conquest, enacted in confusion and panic with lives on the line—that is how this revolution occurred.

Charles Kurzman is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations.

Robert A. Pape and Sarah Morell: Four Reasons for ISIS’s Success

ISIS has been successful for four primary reasons. First, the group has tapped into the marginalization of the Sunni population in Iraq to gain territory and local support. Second, ISIS fighters are battle-hardened strategists fighting against an unmotivated Iraqi army. Third, the group exploits natural resources to fund their operations. And fourth, ISIS has utilized a brilliant social media strategy to recruit fighters and increase their international recognition. One of the important aspects cutting across these four elements is the unification of anti-American populations across Iraq and Syria—remnants of the Saddam regime, Iraqi civilians driven to militant behavior during the US occupation, transnational jihadists, and the tribes who were hung out to dry following the withdrawal of US forces in 2011.

The Sunni population’s hatred of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad has allowed ISIS to quickly overtake huge swaths of Iraqi Sunni territory. The Iraq parliamentary elections in 2010 were a critical moment in this story. The Iraqiyya coalition, led by Ayad Allawi, won support of the Sunni population to win the plurality of seats in Iraq’s parliament. Maliki’s party came second by a slim two-seat margin. Despite Allawi’s electoral victory, Maliki and his Shia coalition—backed by the United States—succeeded in forming a government with Maliki as Prime Minister.

In the months following the election, Maliki targeted Sunni leaders in an effort to consolidate Shia domination of Baghdad. Many of these were the same Sunni leaders successfully mobilized by US forces during the occupation—in an operation that became known as the Anbar Awakening—to cripple al-Qa’ida in Iraq strongholds within the Sunni population. When the US withdrew, they directed the aid to the Maliki government with the expectation that Maliki would distribute it fairly. Instead, the day after the US forces withdrew in December 2011, Iraq’s Judicial Council issued an arrest warrant for Iraqi Vice President Hashimi, a key Sunni leader. Arrests of Sunni leaders and their staffs continued, sparking widespread Sunni protests in Anbar province. When ISIS—a Sunni extremist group—rolled into Iraq, many in the Sunni population cooperated, viewing the group as the lesser of two evils.

The second element in the ISIS success story is their military strategy. Their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent four years as a prisoner in the Bucca Camp before assuming control of AQI (ISIS’s predecessor) in 2010. He seized upon the opportunity of the Syrian civil war to fuel a resurgence of the group. As a result, today’s ISIS militants are battle-hardened through their Syrian experience fighting moderate rebels. The Washington Post has described Baghdadi as “a shrewd strategist, a prolific fundraiser, and a ruthless killer.”

In Iraq, ISIS has adopted “an operational form that allows decentralized commanders to use their experienced fighters against the weakest points of its foes,” writes Robert Farley in The National Interest. “At the same time, the center retains enough operational control to conduct medium-to-long term planning on how to allocate forces, logistics, and reinforcements.” Their strategy—hitting their adversaries at their weakest points while avoiding fights they cannot win—has created a narrative of momentum that increases the group’s morale and prestige.

ISIS has also carved out a territory in Iraq that Shia and Kurdish forces will not fight and die to retake, an argument articulated by Kenneth Pollack at Brookings. ISIS has not tried to take Baghdad because they know they would lose; Shia forces would be motivated to expend blood and treasure to defeat ISIS on their home turf. Some experts believe the Kurds, likewise, are unlikely to commit forces to retake Sunni territory. This mentality also plays into the catastrophic performance of the Iraqi Security Forces at Mosul, forces composed disproportionately of Kurds and Sunni Arabs; when confronted with Sunni militants, these soldiers “were never going to fight to the death for Maliki and against Sunni militants looking to stop him,” writes Pollack.

Third, ISIS has also been able to seize key natural resources in Syria to fund their operations, probably making them one of the wealthiest terror groups in history. ISIS is in control of 60 percent of Syria’s oil assets, including the Al Omar, Tanak, and Shadadi oil fields. According to the U.S. Treasury, the group’s oil sales are pulling in about $1 million a day. This enables ISIS to increasingly become “a hybrid organization, on the model of Hezbollah,” writes Steve Coll in The New Yorker—“part terrorist network, part guerrilla army, part proto-state.”

Finally, ISIS has developed a sophisticated social media campaign to “recruit, radicalize, and raise funds,” according to J. M. Berger in The Atlantic. The piece details ISIS’s Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, advertised as a way to keep up on the latest news about the group. On the day ISIS marched into Mosul, the app sent almost 40,000 tweets. The group has displayed a lighter side to the militants, such as videos showing young children breaking their Ramadan fast with ISIS fighters. These strategies “project strength and promote engagement online” while also romanticizing their fight, attracting new recruits from around the world and inspiring lone wolf attacks.

Since June 2014, the US has pursued a policy of offshore balancing—over-the-horizon air and naval power, Special Forces, and empowerment of local allies—to contain and undermine ISIS. The crucial local groups are the Sunni tribes. These leaders were responsible for the near-collapse of AQI during the Anbar Awakening, and could well be able to defeat ISIS in the future.

Robert A. Pape is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) at the University of Chicago. Sarah Morell is an Undergraduate Research Associate at CPOST.

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