The appeal of ISIS

The sudden appearance of ISIS as a major force in the Middle East has taken many people, including me, by surprise. I had initially thought that this was just one more group to seize the headlines, the latest to claim the mantle of the leader of those forces whose aim is to rid the area of foreign military presence, like al Qaeda in the past, to be replaced by a new group in a year or so.

But two things have persuaded me that what we are seeing may be something more permanent. One was an excellent talk by Tufts University professor of history Hugh Roberts (whose specialty is Algeria but whose interests span the whole region) a couple of weeks ago on the origins of ISIS. The other is an article by James Harkin in the latest (November 2014) issue of Harper’s magazine (behind a paywall) titled How The Islamic State Was Won where the author reports on what he has learned from conversations that he has had in the region with fighters, enemies, and potential recruits.

One thing has particularly puzzled me, and that is the appeal of ISIS to people across the globe who are going to the region to join up. ISIS has demonstrated a shocking level of deliberate brutality. I am not just talking about the westerners whose deaths garnered a great deal of publicity but of hundreds, even thousands, of Iraqis and Syrians and others who have been executed in order to make some statement or other, and whose deaths have been publicized in slick videos. One would think that this would alienate many people. And yet, every day brings reports of young people in the west and around the world leaving their homes and heading to that region to join them. What could be their appeal?

Roberts said that it is a mistake to think of ISIS as a bunch of deranged religious fanatics. He says that they are doing a rational calculus that is using violent means as part of a deliberate strategy in the service of their goal of redrawing the national borders in that region, essentially nullifying the boundaries that were drawn by the British and French in 1916 in anticipation of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The secret Sykes-Picot agreement carved up the region into areas that served British and French interests and formed the basis for the current maps.

He says the roots of ISIS’s appeal lies in the increasing realization in the region that the western powers, especially the US, UK, and France, want the states in that region to be client states and will not brook any sign of independence. Show such signs and they will destroy your country. He points as evidence to this the fact that the countries that the US has destroyed (Iraq, Libya, Syria, with Iran and Algeria likely on the list) were those that were actually the most modern. It is true that they had autocratic systems and even tyrannical leaders but that was not the problem, since many other countries in that region fit that bill and the west is fine with them. Their problem was that they were not client states, had independent ideas, and thus had to be destroyed.

As a result we now have failed states in Iraq, Libya, and Syria and such states are fertile grounds for militant non-state forces and serve as excellent incubators for the Islamic militant groups that are now seizing control of large amounts of land. None of those countries were hospitable to these groups before their collapse, so the wars of aggression launched by the US, UK, and France can be seen as laying the groundwork for the emergence of these militant groups, and ISIS has been the biggest beneficiary.

What is remarkable is that in the regions it has taken control, ISIS has set up civil structures that mirror those of a real government and created orderly societies. It runs schools and hospitals and orphanages, collects taxes, cracks down on crime, provides charity and other welfare measures to the needy, down to even creating a consumer office to prevent price-gouging and measuring the price and quality of everything sold. In return, it brooks no dissent whatsoever and insists on the most rigid interpretation of Islam, including strict segregation of the sexes and other extreme puritanical steps. One can see how a people weary of constant war and destruction and death and desperate for safety and stability and the basic necessities of life might find this bargain appealing, at least in the short term. Harkin spoke to many people who used to fight with other groups that were fighting against ISIS who are now slowly shifting their alliance to it, seeing it as the group that has the most appealing long-term vision, combined with the resources to actually have the prospect of realizing it. This explains why there are now estimated to be about 15,000 foreign fighters in Syria alone, many of them battle-hardened veterans, from Chechnya, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Brazil, Sweden, China, Mexico, Algeria, Europe, and the USA.

Given that the goal of ISIS is to take and hold large portions of land with the idea of creating a new Islamic state that transcends old boundaries and would be the home of the Sunnis, the deliberate public brutal murders of westerners by ISIS can be puzzling, since it seems to be deliberately designed to infuriate public opinion in the west and draw those countries into the conflict. Since the US and its allies could, if they used their full military resources, undoubtedly sweep though the region and drive out ISIS, the way it overcame Iraqi forces in 2003, why would ISIS seek to goad the west into greater involvement in the region?

Roberts says that the executions can be seen as a cold-blooded calculation by ISIS that the US will not send in ground forces again, the only thing that can reclaim the territory now controlled by ISIS. Instead the three western powers and their allies will feel forced to do something and their only option is to increase their bombing in the region, further cementing the view in the greater Islamic diaspora that the west seeks only to kill and destroy them. The US will not support Assad in Syria, who has the ground forces that could pose a threat to ISIS if it were not fighting the US-backed rebels in his country.

So the west will bomb and the more the west bombs, the more the appeal for ISIS’s message that what the west seeks is submission and destruction of the Islamic world and that what needs to be done is to create a new state. And it seems that this message has great resonance with a lot of young Muslims around the world who are flocking to join what they see as this great adventure in redrawing national boundary lines that will result in the creation of a powerful new Sunni Islamic state that will be able to resist the dominance of the west and make the Islamic world proud once again.

What we are seeing is a re-fighting of a version of the colonial wars from a previous century and we are headed for a long and terrible period in the region.


  1. Erik Jensen says

    This is an interesting analysis, but I don’t understand a few claims. If ISIS is truly popular among the people of Iraq, then why didn’t they win elections, at least locally? If they can only impose their will by force, then doesn’t that imply that they are NOT popular? I understand that the political process in Iraq is flawed, but were there any votes for ISIS in the last election? If there are 15,000 foreign fighters, then what percentage of the entire region’s population is this? I’m not convinced they are popular.

    It was my impression that the “most modern” countries in the region were Turkey and Tunisia, so the idea that the western powers are against modern countries seems odd. The USA has intervened in Yemen and Afghanistan which are not “modern”. Libya was bombed in the 1980s because they supported terrorism and violated international law with their claims on the sea. Libya was bombed more recently because they were slaughtering their own citizens. Yes, the USA and other western powers support their (compliant) friends and work against their enemies (even when it is a single person at different times like Saddam Hussein), but it isn’t always about that.

  2. Mano Singham says

    ISIS is only interested in creating a Sunni state and they are carving out a nation from the Sunni-majority regions in the various countries. Sunnis are not a majority in Iraq and so they would not win elections. But more than that, they are simply not interested in the democratic process which works within the boundaries of the existing nation states. They want to re-draw the map.

    The US has bombed countries for many reasons so a single one may not work for all. The bombing of Afghanistan was in response to al Qaeda being there and the bombing of Yemen has been for the same reason, since al Qaeda shifted some of their action there after Afghanistan became untenable as a basis of operation. al Qaeda never had a stronghold in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

    As for Turkey, it has been a NATO member since 1952 and thus part of the western alliance. Tunisia does not have a history of problems with the US, as far as I know.

  3. abear says

    I read a lot about how all the problems in the middle east and developing countries is always the fault of the west and what they are doing now or did before in past centuries.
    What about how the Ottoman empire influenced this? It had centuries of rule in these areas and when it collapsed it left the region basically backwards and a disunited mess of tribes segregated in close proximity.
    Then there are the people that live there. Don’t they have any responsibility to try to build a society themselves and stop murdering each other because of a 1400 year old religious schism?
    It’s about time these “experts” started examining them as adult humans that have responsibility for their own actions instead of blaming other people for their behavior.

  4. abear says

    Mano wrote:

    ISIS is only interested in creating a Sunni state and they are carving out a nation from the Sunni-majority regions in the various countries. Sunnis are not a majority in Iraq and so they would not win elections. But more than that, they are simply not interested in the democratic process which works within the boundaries of the existing nation states. They want to re-draw the map.

    I think that is inaccurate. ISIS stood for an Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham and includes all of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel- area that includes Sunni, Shia, Christian, Jews, Yazidi, Druze, and others. When they morphed into the Islamic State they made their intentions clear they claimed authority for the entire Muslim world from West Africa and beyond and demanded their allegiance. Further they have stated the objective of expanding the “caliphate” to the entire world.
    I agree that they don’t care about democracy and they want to redraw borders, but their intentions go far beyond erasing the Sykes-Picot borders.

  5. busterggi says

    I think its a lot simpler -- there are authoritarian, brutal thugs of every color & religion -- and bullies of a feather prey together.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    The more the US “intervenes” in the Middle East, the more chaos and hatred thrive.

    ISIS thrives on chaos and hatred, as shown by their whole history so far.

    Therefore, they “rationally” try to provoke more US intervention.

    By all signs, they’re getting exactly what they want. If we had a significant street-protest anti-war movement, probably they’d send a new US recruit to suicide-bomb it.

  7. says

    @abear. I don’t think any serious commentator says that all the problems in the Middle East are all the fault of the west. But the west is definitely a cause of the problem. The Ottoman empire is also a cause as are a large number of others. But since the combined western powers dominate world politics and the west is the only power we have any control over, it makes sense to talk about the role it has in continuing the problems. Sure, there are people who say all the problems are caused by the west, they are wrong.

    And if you look at the history of almost any country in the region, these people have tried to act like adults and build up societies since the partitioning of the region. And as Mano mentioned, if that society doesn’t serve the interests of the world powers, they ensure that that society is destroyed and replaced with something easier to control.

  8. lorn says

    The nations invaded were all Soviet client states with dictators selected by the USSR. Which is also why they were the most ‘modern’ and why they rebounded into religious extremism as a bridge to plaster over the suppression of groups out of favor with the central government. When the USSR was a power they maintained control over client states but when they ran into economic difficulties support and control loosened and the client states ran amok. Internally, externally, or both. Yes, at their strongest, the states all suppressed groups like ISIS simply because maintaining a monopoly on power is what strong totalitarian governments do. There is a very good reason why skill at controlling populations is a ISIS strong point, the core of ISIS is made up of the officer corp of the Iraqi army. Suppression of resistant populations and messy wars of attrition were what he Iraqi army spent most of its time doing. Invasion of Iraq didn’t create ISIS. The hare brained decision to demobilize the mostly Sunni Iraqi army and the de-Baathification of the government pretty much did.

    It reminded me of what was written about the end of the hundred year war. Thousands of well armed and trained men who knew nothing but war were left idle and wandering the countryside. Peace was restored when the Pope declared a crusade and all those wandering warriors were given a mission, waaaaay over there.

    ISIS has provided a vision and mission, a caliphate.

    It doesn’t come at it from the direction I do but a good analysis with many good points:

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