The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is a complex, hybrid organization that is challenging to conceptualize as a political unit in the international system. It is precisely this hybridity that constitutes a virulent and violent challenge to the region and global order. The rise of ISIS has been a paradigm-shifting event; the Arab and Muslim non-state actor has carved out a new state in the Arab world, a system of states whose borders have remained relatively unchanged since the aftermath of World War II. And still, ISIS has global aspirations. This dynamic is what makes ISIS so difficult to comprehend, as it operates on both national and transnational levels.
Some scholars and analysts, having neglected the study of Iraq after the war in 2003, are now scrambling to write about it. Some of the resulting literature focuses on what ISIS does, while other works are part of the debate on what ISIS is. This article examines what ISIS is and how that explains what it does, a synthesis that is often missing in both perspectives.
For example, the venerable international relations scholar, Stephen Walt, argues in Foreign Affairs that ISIS is a revolutionary state, regardless of its Islamic pretentions, on par with the Bolsheviks and the Khmer Rouge. In his highly debated Atlantic article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Wood argues that ISIS is an apocalyptic terrorist organization practicing a version of the faith grounded in Islamic sacred texts. Despite the name of ISIS’ magazine, Dabiq (named after a town in Syria where it says the end of times will be ushered in), ISIS is not an apocalyptic death cult.
There are 10 dimensions of ISIS that serve as evidence that it intends to endure rather than implode. However, in the end, despite its desire to endure, the idea of ISIS, or “ISISism,” will eventually lose its appeal.
Understanding ISIS at the National Level
ISIS emerged due to a confluence of events on a national level in Iraq after 2003, which was exacerbated by the collapse in stability of bordering Syria after that country’s conflict began in 2011. On this level, ISIS is:
1) An intractable insurgent group created under the leadership of Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (now-slain head of al-Qaida in Iraq) during the Iraqi insurgency that began in 2003. Arab Sunni tribes in Iraq defeated the group in 2008, but it regained momentum when it withdrew to a collapsing Syria in 2011.
2) An organizational shell for former Iraqi Baathists and career military and intelligence officers under Saddam Hussein, as well as large swaths of the Iraqi Arab Sunni population who lost their jobs and prospects for the future after Iraq’s armed forces were disbanded by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 or denied employment due to de-Baathification policies.
3) A functioning, violent, revolutionary state that emerged in 2014 in Iraq and Syria, and governs in regions where governance has collapsed, collecting taxes and providing services.
4) A state that, as of 2014, seeks to create a homogeneous space in the north of Iraq and Syria through the expulsion of heterodox Muslims and non-Muslims and destroying their sites of worship.
5) A concurrent economic network based on warlordism, with an extractive economy generating revenues from illicit sales of oil and antiquities, a practice that began during the Syrian conflict. The network is recruiting youth, even children, along the lines of other warlord-messianic armies, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.
An examination of this fifth element is near absent in the literature on ISIS, which tends to focus on its military dynamics or how “Islamic” it is. This warlord network necessitates a study of the leverage of water, oil and antiquities as the terrorism of scarce resources, and the role of these resources in allowing for ISIS’ endurance.
Climate change has led to the competition in Iraq and Syria for water, arable land and another type of arable land: oil fields.
The Syrian drought that began in 2006 has led to the internal displacement of millions of Syrians, particularly affecting the region in the upper Euphrates, the area where ISIS re-emerged after its defeat in Iraq. ISIS since then has crafted tactics that I term “hydro-terrorism,” the manipulation of the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, either flooding or withholding water from downstream areas by opening or closing dams, while delivering water to people living in areas it controls to gain legitimacy.
ISIS’ destruction of artifacts and sale of portable antiquities on the black market has eradicated the cultural legacies of the upper Mesopotamian basin. Not only have religious architecture and pre-Islamic monuments been obliterated, but also literature, including millennia-old liturgical texts from these communities. Antiquities have been a lucrative commodity for ISIS.
I define hydro-terrorism, petro-terrorism and antiquities-terrorism in relation to narco-terrorism. ISIS, like drug cartels, depends on commodities sold on the black market and uses those revenues to gain popularity in the domains it controls. Water and oil ultimately converge in terms of understanding ISIS’ endurance in the area it governs. Its ability to deliver potable and hot water, as well as petroleum byproducts for cars, electricity generators and gas canisters for cooking, serves as part of legitimizing its promise of delivering services more reliably than the Iraqi or Syrian governments.
Thus, ISIS poses a dilemma for the legitimacy of political power and governance for Syrian and Iraqi leaders; its emergence is partly due to filling the gap between people’s aspirations and their resources and capacities. By delivering water, electricity and relative security in areas it governs, ISIS has achieved a level of governance that has eluded the governments of Iraq and Syria. By offering jobs to disaffected youth and services to its population, ISIS seeks to offer an alternative vision of governance in juxtaposition against the failures of the Syrian and Iraqi states.
In this regard, ISIS is a vehicle for social mobility for the youth bulge in not only Iraq and Syria, but also the wider region; many of its foreign fighters came from post-Arab Spring states like Libya and Tunisia. The youth bulge — a disproportionate amount of the population under the age of 30 in the Middle East — is a defining factor in ISIS’ ascendance.
The crises that allowed ISIS to emerge include class, religious and ethnic conflicts, particularly mobilizing youth along these lines. ISIS uses identity politics, regionally and transnationally, particularly through religion, to challenge ethnic-based loyalties, such as Kurdish, or nationalist loyalties, such as allegiance to the Iraqi or Syrian nation. ISIS has successfully managed to reshape the identity of disaffected and traumatized youth in both these states and across the Middle East.
ISIS has manipulated sectarian identity politics as a result of the trajectory that began in 2003. The invasion of Iraq was the first time the U.S. invaded, occupied and administered an Arab state. This invasion resulted in Iraq’s first Twelver Shia-led government, the first state led by this sect in the entire Arab world. ISIS reinvigorated itself as a result of a revolt against an Alawi Shia-led state in Syria, one of the most durable regimes since the rise of Hafez al-Assad in 1971. ISIS emerged in light of weak political institutions established in Iraq after 2003 and the failing public sector in Syria after 2011. Disillusioned Sunni out-groups, particularly youth, swelled ISIS’ ranks, reacting against rule from Shia in-groups at the helm of their countries.
ISIS on the Transnational Level
The Islamic State’s behavior on the transnational level provides the context in which the Paris and San Bernardino attacks emerged. On this level, ISIS is:
6) A transnational terrorist organization, which merged with al-Qaida in 2004 but split off in 2014, and is now a rival. But ISIS differs in that it maintains a standing, mass-mobilized army and seeks to create a state.
7) A fulfillment of the desire to see the pre-modern institution of the caliphate resurrected, yet embraces the tools of post-modernity to communicate that caliphate in a globalized world, such as Twitter and Hollywood-esque videos circulated on YouTube.
8) An institutional culmination of a violent Salafi trend within Islam, with anti-Shiism at its core.
9) An organization that, since 2014, has set up regional branches, including in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
10) An organization with a transnational constituency, including foreign fighters from the Muslim world and the West, that can conduct terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East, in a metropolis like Paris or inspire them in suburban towns like San Bernardino.
It is the 10th dynamic of ISIS that has generated most attention in the aftermath of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, which represent how ISIS has reshaped its identity beyond the Middle East. ISIS has been able to simultaneously attract young, foreign fighters to come and fight for it, or inspire disaffected youth or middle-class professionals to conduct attacks against the nations in which they are citizens.
While the current literature on terrorism often seeks to find an overall causal factor that leads youth to join groups like ISIS, this might be an impossible task. Having been part of this youth demographic as both a Western Muslim and Iraqi Muslim, I believe radicalization differs with each individual. Nevertheless, ISIS’ leadership has developed a message and a vision for the future that has reconfigured the identities of youth to reject any previous national allegiance. ISIS’ power lies in its ability to seduce Muslims in places as far away as France and California or in its current bases to repudiate their national identity and strike out against their “former” nations through acts of terrorism. The ability of ISIS to inspire terrorism in Europe and the U.S., or aggressive social media campaigns ranging from tweets and Facebook posts of beheadings to antiquity demolition, demonstrates the enabling effect of the globalization of terrorist communication. But this does little for ISIS’ military fight for survival in Syria or Iraq, which is its strategic and political priority. Rather, such violence, both material and virtual, serve as tools of transnational displays of asymmetric power against Western states and the global order, by demonstrating that if Western bombers can target Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa, ISIS in turn can target Western capitals and suburbia.
The Future of ISIS
In December 2015, ISIS and the Iraqi military fought in the city of Ramadi in Anbar province. This battle was slow, with fighting taking place street by street, house by house. This type of dynamic will be the long-term determinant of ISIS’ survival. Despite the numerous nations involved in conducting air strikes against ISIS — including the U.S., France and Russia — on the ground, Syrian Kurdish militias and an array of Iraqi militias and official armed forces are the ones depriving ISIS of territory. Due to the difficulty of removing ISIS from towns and cities, this ground war ebbs and flows. When ISIS loses Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, it can no longer claim to be a state. This could take months or years. The independent variables are the numerous actors combating ISIS and their will to take on this group.
Perhaps one of the most valuable assessments of what the future holds can be found in the work of scholar Scott Atran, who addressed the U.N. Security Council in April 2015, one of the first anthropologists asked to do so. He has carried out systematic studies in places such as the Iraqi city of Kirkuk among former ISIS fighters, and the banlieues of Paris and barrios of Barcelona with young people who seek to join the group. In his presentation, Atran described ISIS on the transnational level as a violent, contagious counter-culture in an age of globalization. Thus, regardless of ISIS’ fate on the national level in Syria and Iraq in terms of holding territory, it could persist globally. The five transnational elements I point out would continue to exist. ISIS would no longer be a state, but a “paradise lost” that still could inspire acts of violence in Europe and the West in the name of revenge, or among its regional branches in other troubled states such as Libya and Afghanistan.
Violent counter-cultures have existed in the past. From the 1880s to the 1930s, the anarchist movement was the equivalent of ISIS-esque terrorism. Anarchists conducted isolated yet spectacular acts of terrorism, such as the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley on September 14, 1901. This 9/14, if you will, encapsulated the zeitgeist of times when anarchists targeted heads of state and industrialists in regions including Italy and Russia. The movement even had its own foreign fighters. Illustrious British authors like George Orwell volunteered to fight in the anarchist militias during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, the Syrian conflict of its time. Policing efforts across the world dismantled anarchist cells, and Stalin-loyalist Communist forces and General Francisco Franco’s army defeated anarchists in Spain. Eventually the violent form of anarchism lost its luster and appeal over time. Today it exists as a counter-culture movement protesting every World Trade Organization and G-20 summit, smashing the facades of Starbucks rather than assassinating heads of state. It is no longer the terrorist movement of the past.
I believe this will be the fate of ISISism. It might persist as a counter-culture for years, if not decades, to come. But as long as Muslims around the world consistently condemn, contradict, resist, and combat ISISism, it will stay on the fringe, a counter-culture movement that will eventually lose its appeal.