What is ISIS?

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has emerged as the most terrifying and brutal of extreme jihadist groups (and that is against tough competition, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia).

Why have such extreme Islamist groups emerged in so many places in recent years?

Odd as this may sound, it is not because of the appeal of extreme Islam itself.  A study of fighters in Syria by Mironova, Mrie, and Whitt found that most fighters join ISIS and similar groups because (1) they want vengeance against the Assad regime and (2) they found from experience that the Islamist groups take the best care of their fighters — caring for the wounded, supporting them in battle.   In situations of social breakdown — which are generally NOT caused by the Islamist groups themselves, but by problems of finances, elite divisions, and popular unrest due to oppressive or arbitrary actions by the state – extremists tend to have major advantages.

This has always been the case throughout the history of revolutions: moderates are usually outflanked and outmaneuvered and out-recruited by radicals; so much so that the triumph of radicals over moderates is a staple of academic work on the trajectory of revolutions, from Crane Brinton to my own.

Why does this occur?  In situations of major social breakdown, involving violence, disorder, and the collapse of established institutions, moderates — whose main qualification was usually experience in, and command of, those now-collapsed institutions — simply do not have the resources to establish order, nor do they have the drive and discipline to start from scratch.  Instead, they often are equally concerned about how to protect what remains of their position and wealth, and are distrustful of others competing for power.

Radicals, by contrast, start fresh.  They draw on the inspiration of their ideological cause, but that is not what matters to others.  What matters is that radicals are usually willing to make sacrifices, to embrace all supporters, and to build a new community to pursue their goals.  They are the most zealous in pursuit of what people want and need in times of collapse:  local order, discipline, a supportive community, and success in attacking perceived enemies.

Radicals thus add organizational power and discipline to their ideological message.  It is the former, not the latter, that draws in followers.  Yet the ideological message cannot be neglected; as I argued in my work on revolutions, once radicals are in power, that message shapes their post-revolutionary policies.  Extremists in seeking power are often extremists in power, which makes them so dangerous.  Moreover, those who initially join radical movements for discipline and community support are often indoctrinated and become convinced supporters of the radical cause.

ISIS is not just a terrorist or jihadist group; it is a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow governments to create a new regime that it views as more socially just (the Islamic caliphate) than the secular dictators it is fighting.  It is interwoven with several other conflicts that it did not produce but that have given it the opportunity to thrive: that between Sunnis and others Iraqis for control of Iraq, a conflict that goes back to Saddam Hussein and was heightened by the US invasion and the civil war it unleashed; that between Sunnis and other Syrians for control of Syria, a conflict that goes back to the founding of the Assad dynasty and beyond; and that between Sunnis and Shias for control of the Middle East, a struggle that goes back over one thousand years but has recently been inflamed by struggles among Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Emirates for domination in the region.  ISIS feeds off of all of these conflicts, and offers its followers a way to be powerful and secure amidst chaos.

This analysis indicates a three-fold approach to dealing with ISIS.  First, military reprisals to blunt its success and undermine the feeling of invincibility it has given to its converts.  These can only come from forces at least as well-organized and disciplined.  However, at present the only such force in the region is the Kurdish peshmerga; but this is a militia without heavy arms or air power and which has no ability to project power beyond the borders of its own enclave in northern Iraq.  Thus external forces — the U.S., or NATO — must play a major role.

Second, the civil institutions that provide a power-base for moderate political organizations and their leaders must be rebuilt and given credibility.  In Syria, this cannot happen until the Assad regime falls; in Iraq this cannot happen until a post-Maliki government establishes its credibility and effectiveness.  And as long as the main support of the Iraqi government is Iran, with its policy of seeking a strongly Shia dominated and anti-Sunni regime in Iraq, no Iraqi government will gain credibility with the Sunnis of Iraq who support ISIS.  Given that the Assad regime looks unlikely to topple given its support by Russia and Iran, and that Iran is unlikely to give up its goals to shape a friendly regime next door in Iraq, the prospects for the second step remain poor. This raises a huge strategic question for the U.S. — even if military intervention stops ISIS for now, how can the second phase of putting effective moderate regimes in power that will win supporters away from ISIS be accomplished?

Third, the ongoing Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East is fueling every sort of violent group:  Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS, and others.  At some point, the global community will have to lean on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to cease their proxy wars and come to an agreement similar to that of 1648 in Europe, which ended the Thirty Years War that capped over a century of religious conflicts: every country can control its religious policy within its own borders, but agrees to stop meddling in religious conflicts in other countries and to respect other countries’ full sovereignty.  This may be a distant goal (it took nearly a century in Europe) but is vital if the region is ever to know stable peace.

In sum, America’s hasty retreat from Iraq left much unfinished business, which has now arisen in the form of the radical ISIS threat.  To contain that threat will require both a coordinated military response, and the sustained effort to create credible and legitimate government institutions that the U.S. abandoned too soon.  It may also require stronger efforts (air strikes similar to those aimed at ISIS) to undermine the Assad regime; as long as Assad remains in power radical jihadis will continue to seek vengeance for the acts he has already committed.  Once the radical threat has been defeated, then efforts can advance on moderating broader Sunni-Shia conflicts in the region and developing a general framework for peace (which would include Israel and Palestine).

This sounds costly and time-consuming.  It is; much as it took an international coalition to bring Napoleon to his Waterloo it will take an international coalition and sustained effort to bring down radical Islamist movements in the Middle East.  Yet the lesson of history is that without this effort, we will see the rise of an increasingly powerful radical jihadist revolutionary state spreading across the entire Middle East.  That is the present choice that our past choices have left us.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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11 Responses to What is ISIS?

  1. JA says:

    Typical absurd western analysis with an Israeli bias. Assad should have been supported. The first Gulf war began because we could not keep our nose out of other people’s affairs. The Iraq war was a stupid and deadly venture and it will take untold generations before the effects diminish. Assassinating Mossadegh led to the Iranian revolution. Every American policy in the middle east has been misguided including a bias towards Israelis over Palestinians. The real cause of ISIS is a surfeit of young males in the middle east with no prospects for jobs or families of finding a way to become part of society. The same is true in the EU but there the problem is compounded by differing cultural values and an excess of pornography. The image I like best to defeat ISIS is that of an army of angels of those unjustly murdered by vicious, violent, inbred subhumans blocking the way to paradise for the so-called martyrs of the Jihadi movements and blocking their access to their promised reward of virgins in the afterlife.

  2. Paul berry says:

    “as long as Assad remains in power radical jihadis will continue to seek vengeance for the acts he has already committed” : As long as the USA remains in power radical jihadis will continue to seek vengeance for the acts they already committed. This is the simple argument of logic, Professor. The fact is that no one can tell a definitive future, one may predict, one may suggest a strategy, or an outcome, but that is all. The larger questions left unanswered are about moderate voices rising out of the Caliphate, about an economic manifesto rising from the Caliphate that could provide a challenge to the Global Usury Capitalist System. Is ISIS capable of morphing into a movement that appeals broadly to the trampled masses of Middle Eastern diaspora, of the European underclass in general? Or is ISIS itself, the simple capitalist creation of the Arab business class reacting to the attempt of the USA military to leave the area? Imagine the upheaval in the USA when it tries extra-judicial drone strikes in South Central Los Angeles?

    • I don’t at all dispute that US policies, including drone strikes, give logic and support to jihadist recruitment and ISIS. I said as much in my blog. And you are right that the US will continue to be targeted for acts it has already committed, even if it changes course. Nonetheless, the US needs to provide air support to ground operations if the latter are undertaken by Iraq, Turkey, or other local militaries from regional states who seek to destroy ISIS to defend themselves. What the US should avoid is unilateral actions and strikes that feed the narrative of “West vs. Islam.”

  3. fortiradici says:

    Saw Charlie Rose interview el-Sisi the other night. He’s a piece a work (or a “POS”?). The grinning slimeball is certainly worse than Morsi (he washed his hands about Morsi’s, Mubarak’s & the AJ journalists treatment). Saddam Hussein was a nasty sucker but ….. but…..! And Afghanistan! Same old, same old. Am reading Frederick Sleigh Roberts, Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar, V.C., K.G., K.P., G.C.B., O.M., G.C.S.I., G.C.I.E.etc, etc… autobiography. Like Sarah Palin’s fervent followers are wont to say “is it hopey & changey enuff fer ya yet?” See you soon!

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  5. VSM says:

    Prof. Goldstone, your comments on the situation with ISIS are instructive, and one could consider them “revolutionary” since indeed they aim to transform the societies that they are taking over according to a dystopic vision of their own. But I’m still left to wonder while when most revolutions when turning violent do tend to enable more radical elements, it doesn’t answer why a particular violent Jihadist group like ISIS (even out of the wide spectrum of Islamists out there) should become powerful out of other possible ideologies and groups out there such as Nationalist, Leftist? why should Puritan sunni Islam become more appealing out of all the possible options?

    Also why should ideology primarily matter after the establishment of new order? when does one mark this break? when ISIS announces itself an Caliphate even as it still expands its domain? To me it seems that ideologies are formative even during revolutionary struggle or civil war, consider how the vision ISIS has plays out in which groups it chooses to targets for cleansing as it takes territory: the Shia it considers apostates, the other minorities such as the Kurds and how it draws recruits beyond ethnic identities and national boundaries. Their discipline also seems to be reinforced by their enthusiasm for the new Caliphate and what that means for them.

    The other historical revolutionary groups such Communists in China or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua had radical visions of social transformation but as they fought against the old order they were still concerned with preserving the economic and social viability of the populations they came to govern (even as they eliminated key opponents of the old regime). To follow Tilly’s thesis, the states to become powerful need to preserve their populations and their economic base in order to suck capital and resources from the population to increase their own power and prestige. With ISIS they seem to be undercutting this future potential by displacing large populations and minorities, ultimately undermining the economic base to draw from. To follow Foucault, ISIS seems to have a strong disciplinary power and as you mentioned organizational strength, they also liberally use the sovereign power over life and death often, but they lack the bio-political power of modern states over populations to make them productive source for increasing power, in the long term they could turn their territory into a social and economic ghetto. So if am not wrong it seems like ideology should also play an important role in strategies of revolutionaries and there needs to be an explanation for why some radical ideologies seduce more than other radical options (while granted this isn’t a market where revolutionaries just freely choose, there are historical constraints).

  6. Pingback: Weekly Links | Political Violence @ a Glance

  7. fortiradici says:

    Jack, commenting etc is a laborious process on your site. I’m tech challenged but not crippled & it’s tuff signing on. Ten minutes ago I left a comment regarding using the 1648 European approach in the middle east, more or less saying : “Borders? Whose borders?” (eg: Picot Sykes et al)

  8. Tom says:

    Jack, why do I repeatedly have to “fill in my…. details..to log on.”? Can’t you make this process easier. As for getting States in the middle east to take care of business inside their borders (Europe 1648), one minor detail, which, whose, when established ” borders “?

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