ISIS and the Challenge of Islamist Extremism

The group known variously as Islamic State and ISIS has brought death and chaos to the Middle East and beyond. Aaron Edwards charts the rise of ISIS, and argues that more sophisticated – and imaginative – thinking is needed to halt the advance of Islamist extremism.

The brutal beheading of Western journalists and humanitarian aid workers by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) dominated the headlines in 2014. Images of captives in orange jump suits, forced to read out statements criticising Western government policy towards the Middle East before being casually decapitated, have earned the Sunni terrorist group a reputation for barbarity. Yet, we must not lose sight of the fact that ISIS is a non-state actor that has emerged as a direct consequence of the deteriorating political and security situation in both Syria and Iraq. It is worth delving into the reasons for its meteoric rise.


The rise of ISIS

The emergence of ISIS and its break with al-Qaeda's ‘general command’ in February 2014, has had profound repercussions for the stability of both Syria and Iraq. Known variously as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Islamic State (IS) by Western commentators, or Daesh by Arabs, the group has acted as a lightning rod for disaffection across the region. Capitalising on the unfulfilled promise by Nouri al-Maliki's government to share power with marginalised Iraqi Sunnis, ISIS seized the key north-western cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul in the first half of 2014. According to the Iraq Body Count, 17,049 people lost their lives in 2014, almost double the figure for 2013.

That Iraq has seemingly relapsed into civil war should not surprise political scientists. Since the end of the Second World War few intra-state armed conflicts have actually ended tidily. Research undertaken by the World Bank confirms that 90 per cent of all armed conflicts in the 2000s were onsets of previous conflicts, a dramatic rise from the 1960s when the figure was less than half.

Dan Smith (2004) notes four main reasons for the resumption of violence: insecurity on the part of one or more belligerents; disappointment by one or more parties that they have not achieved what they set out to achieve; disagreement and possibly even fragmentation amongst one side or another; and a failure to deal with the underlying causes of the armed conflict. Applied to Iraq, all four are certainly present to a greater or lesser degree.

ISIS is remarkable in that it has drawn its resilience from amongst Sunni tribes who were effectively cut off from al-Maliki's Shia-dominated government. ISIS has nimbly managed these tribal dynamics across Syria and Iraq. As Hassan Hassan, an analyst with the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi, notes, the success of the strategy lies in how ISIS ‘allows local forces to govern their own state of affairs, which increases rivalry and reduces the visibility of ISIS’.

Nevertheless, in Iraq particularly, ISIS has had to take into account the guiding hand of the Ba'athist elites who found themselves excluded from post-2003 Iraq. It is no accident that the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (see box), may have had military training, probably as a conscript in the Iraqi Army. His top two deputies are former Ba'athist generals.

The military prowess demonstrated so decisively on the battlefield in places like Mosul, nonetheless, disguises the difficulties ISIS faces when it comes up against more organised resistance. In the town of Kobane along the Syrian-Turkish border, a 135-day siege between Kurdish Peshmerga forces and ISIS was only lifted after determined single combat exchanges and assistance from the United States, Britain, France and other states, who spirited weapons and equipment to their Kurdish allies and dropped heavy ordnance on ISIS positions. The bombing campaign has had limited success across the other border in Iraq, however, due mainly to the failure to understand the dynamics at play on the ground. Western states remain undeterred in their strategy of bombing ISIS mobile columns and defensive positions, while providing training and equipment for Iraqi security forces, ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel groups and Kurdish forces across the region.

Meanwhile, ISIS continues to put down firm roots in Iraqi cities, by manipulating local power dynamics. Life in Mosul is grim. ISIS, writes Patrick Cockburn, demands that non-Sunnis ‘pay a special tax, or be killed’, with ‘other sects and ethnic groups denounced as Shia or polytheists were being persecuted, imprisoned, or murdered’. The sectarian bigotry displayed by ISIS has exposed the organisation's fervent Islamist extremism. It is important, however, to place ISIS's brand of Islamism in its proper context, and its genealogy stretching back many decades in the Middle East, a region that has become the epicentre for a worldwide turn towards violent jihad.


Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was born Ibrahim Awad al-Badari in Samarra, Iraq in 1971. A quiet and pious youth, he later graduated with an MA and PhD from the University of Islamic Sciences in the Adhamiya district of Baghdad. At the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi was thought to have been still pursuing his studies and initially refrained from joining the organised resistance that grew up as the invasion turned to occupation. By 2005 he had been detained in Camp Bucca where he was interrogated for terrorist activities.

Released in 2009, he assumed the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, also known as Islamic State in Iraq, or ISIL) following the death of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. In 2013 Baghdadi announced the merger of Islamic State in Iraq with the al-Nusra Front in Syria, to form the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

In February 2014 ISIS was denounced by al-Qaeda's ‘general command’ for the way in which it was conducting its military operations, amongst other things, and became an unrecognised offshoot. By the summer of 2014 Baghdadi's forces had swept across broad swathes of Syria and Iraq and seized the Iraqi cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul. Baghdadi is said to be able to trace his lineage back to the first Caliph, the Muslim prophet Abu Bakr Siddiq, who took over after the death of Prophet Muhammad. This disputable fact is, nevertheless, thought to have given sustenance to the leadership cult that has grown up around him.

Islamist extremism redux

Islamist extremism is nothing new. Experts are divided over whether ISIS is exhibiting elements of Wahhabism (a state-based religious ideology that regards Shi'ism as unIslamic), Salafism (present among many non-state armed groups in the Middle East) or Takfirism (from which al-Qaeda draws its sustenance). All three types of Islamism believe in ‘pure Mohammadan Islam’, in which they represent the one true religion and every other sect or ethnic group should be eliminated. Groups such as ISIS have selectively interpreted Islamic teachings and their only unifying vision is for a world in which Sharia Law is implemented at the point of a gun.

Here, the writings of Egyptian Sayyid Qutb – specifically his influential book Milestones (1948) – are of paramount importance. In Milestones, Qutb articulates a vision of Islam that draws on the centuries of recorded history of the Islamic faithful or ummah (‘community’). Qutb highlights at every turn the strategy of jihad (‘struggle’) that some have argued is the only true path that a Muslim can follow if they wish to gain admittance to the internal pleasures that awaits their martyrdom in paradise.

Having studied in the United States in the late 1940s, Qutb returned to Egypt in 1951 disenchanted with what he saw. He promptly joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a militant organisation formed by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. In the Brotherhood, Qutb found a home for his view that violence was the only antidote to Western ‘decadence’ and the ‘excess’ propagated by apostate regimes in the Arab world. Qutb was arrested and imprisoned for plotting to overthrow President Gamal Abdel Nasser's new regime. He was executed in 1966. Qutb was of fundamental importance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who joined the Muslim Brotherhood the previous year, aged just 14. Al-Zawahiri was later arrested and tortured by the Egyptian authorities and has since become the leader of al-Qaeda.

In an analysis of the role of ‘change and continuity in global terrorism’, Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin says that al-Qaeda is ‘a mix of new and old’. She argues that perhaps the most profitable way to analyse the current period of change and continuity is to ‘broaden our focus beyond arguments about al-Qaeda's nature, towards a deeper understanding of the historical, social, and political context within which it has appeared’. As with war, terrorism ‘reflects the context within which it occurs, as well as the kinds of states against which it has arrayed’. This applies equally to ISIS and the vast constellation of other Islamist organisations around the world.


Problems of labelling

Focusing too heavily on the labelling of various Islamist groups can be unhelpful, too.

As Observer journalist, Jason Burke, argued in his book Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, that concentrating on labels ‘is to misunderstand not only its true nature, but the nature of Islamic radicalism then and now’. In order to avoid misunderstanding this variant of terrorism, Burke suggests, we must avoid the Western question ‘what do they want?’ and, instead, ask ‘why do they feel the need to act in the way that they do?’ We might not like the answers we hear, but at least we will be closer to understanding the world view of those who have committed – and are planning to commit – some of the most heinous atrocities.

In his pioneering work Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human, anthropologist Scott Atran answers Burke's question by positing the theory ‘that people don't simply kill and die for a cause. They kill and die for each other’. If we side-step the tendency to apply the Cold War logic of counting the number of enemies ranging against us, their military strategies and tactics, and also the tendency to want to dissuade them from their path by ‘talking’ to them, we might find that other, more imaginative, responses are effective in curtailing the processes that give rise to Islamist extremism around the world.

In this respect we must not treat those who turn to extremism as some kind of exotic species. Most of the young people who venture overseas in search of jihad come from stable domestic environments; their parents are often pillars of the community who only wish the best for their children. ISIS's cadre of ‘foreign fighters’ are drawn mainly from the European states of France, Britain and Belgium amongst others (see graph). Many of these young men – some 90 per cent are male – are in search of adrenalin-fuelled adventure and, in some cases, marriage and other ‘spoils of war’. As the psychologist James Waller put it in his book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (Waller, 2007), ‘we need no longer ask who these people are. We know who they are. They are you and I’. The most pressing question, Waller informs us, is: ‘How are ordinary people, like you and me, transformed into perpetrators of genocide and mass killing?’


Understanding Islamist extremism

In order to understand the rise of ISIS and other Islamist extremist groups more generally we must also examine what is going on in the wider international political context. States may not have lost their centrality (certainly not for realists) but they are being joined by non-state actors, such as ISIS, multi-national companies and NGOs. These non-state actors have a real say in the direction states take on defence and security. The United States is also becoming less and less predominant on the world stage today and without clear decisive victories against non-state opponents in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was ample space created for new challengers to emerge and challenge the states they left behind. In this power vacuum it is inevitable that these sorts of non-state actors will seize the opportunity to fill the power gap.

So how can we combat an extremist organisation like ISIS? As I have noted above, various solutions have been proposed which range from bombing columns of fighters into oblivion through to the dusting down of old manuals on counter-insurgency and working alongside ‘indigenous forces’, in lieu of deploying Western ‘boots on the ground’. The reality is that none of these are effective solutions by themselves, because they do not rely on a systematic reading of the unique social, political, economic, cultural and religious circumstances in this part of the Middle East. These essentially statist solutions apply the dominant ethno-centric thinking of political units, that have singularly failed to think about these matters in a sophisticated way There has been too much emphasis on change and not enough on continuity. The West come at these challenges like they did 200 years ago, when artifacts were brought to London and Washington and other cities and placed in curiosity boxes and treated as exotic and other-worldly.

It is regrettable that in the quarter of a century since al-Qaeda was formed around the charismatic figure of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, we are still no closer to understanding the phenomenon of Islamist extremism. In a rush to offer quick analysis, terrorism experts have failed to tell us basic things about groups such as ISIS, like, for example, why they do what they do, what drives them, and how we can dissuade them from their path of jihad. Moreover, there is also a conceptual confusion about whether these groups are terrorists, insurgents, or a mixture of both. We need to be clear about the terminology we apply to violent extremism if we are to avoid misunderstanding the security threat it poses – and to succeed in tackling it effectively.


Further reading

  • Atran, Scott Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human (London, 2010).
  • Burke, Jason Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (London: Penguin, 2003; 2007).
  • Cockburn, Patrick The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (London: Verso, 2015).
  • Hassan, Hassan ‘Divide and rule: how ISIS is exploiting tribal faultlines to govern its territory’, The Observer, 26 October 2014.
  • Kurth-Cronin, Audrey ‘What is Really Changing? Change and Continuity in Global Terrorism’ in Strachan, Hew and Sibylle Scheipers (eds) The Changing Character of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • Smith, Dan Causes and Trends in Armed Conflict (Berlin: Berghof Research Center, 2004).
  • Waller, James Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).