FPI Fact Sheet: Understanding ISIS

November 18, 2014

Following yet another brutal murder of an American citizen on Sunday by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL or IS), the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) believes the following fact sheet will be useful for policymakers, lawmakers, and the general public to understand the nature of the crisis and the ongoing threat that ISIS poses to regional stability and U.S. interests.

I. Context

Ungoverned territory, political instability, and endemic violence in Iraq and Syria shaped the regional context that made the rise of ISIS possible. As Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns said in September 2014, “Within a number of states, we’ve seen the collapse of a half-century old political order. Societies that for far too long had known far too little freedom, far too little opportunity, and far too little dignity began to erupt. … ISIL took advantage of all these developments – state collapse, proliferation of weapons, regional rivalries, and sectarian polarization – to prosper and grow.”

  • The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 enabled terrorist groups to develop and flourish in the country. As former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote in his 2014 memoir, “My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S.”
  • The vacuum of authority triggered by the Syrian civil war in 2011 allowed the country to become a key base for Islamist extremists. In January 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry called Bashar al-Assad “a one-man super-magnet for terrorism.” Valerie Szybala of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) wrote in August 2013, “The protracted conflict in Syria has made it an attractive battlefront for al-Qaeda; not only because of Syria’s strategic location in the Arab world, but also because it has created the type of environment in which al-Qaeda operates most effectively. War has disrupted the very fabric of Syrian society in hard hit areas, with the breakdown of existing governance structures, the displacement of vulnerable populations, and the increasing difficulty that many people face in meeting their basic needs.”
  • Iran’s destructive policies toward Iraq and Syria helped further lay the groundwork for the territory’s descent into bloodshed. Tehran’s aggressive posture in the Middle East—including its support for the Assad regime and Hezbollah, its fueling of sectarian tensions in Iraq, and its efforts to co-opt Baghdad as a client state—made ISIS at first seem less important by comparison, thus giving it the space to grow and flourish. “Behind all of this, the hidden hand of why we’re focusing on ISIS is Iran,” said U.S. Army veteran Richard Brennan, who is now with the RAND Corporation. “We wouldn’t have ISIS today if it hadn’t been the degree to which Iran had tried to destabilize the region and tried to broaden the Sunni-Shiite war that’s taken place.”

II. Al Qaeda and the Rise of ISIS

ISIS is an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). As an October 2014 Congressional Research Service report explained, “The Islamic State’s ideological and organizational roots lie in the forces built and led by the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq from 2002 through 2006—Tawhid wal Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) and Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (aka Al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQ-I). Following Zarqawi’s death at the hands of U.S. forces in June 2006, AQ-I leaders repackaged the group as a coalition known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).” In April 2013, having expanded its operations into Syria the year before, the group renamed itself ISIS.

  • The rebellion of Sunni tribes against AQI from 2006 to 2008 (also known as the Anbar Awakening) severely weakened the organization, but the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq allowed it to regroup. As a September 2013 report by ISW’s Jessica D. Lewis explained, “By 2011, AQI was still able to conduct attacks, but the organization was isolated, disrupted, and did not pose an existential threat to the state.” However, in a new round of violence in January 2012, “fatalities rose above 500.” By the first half of 2013, according to the National Counterterrorism Center, “Suicide bombers and car bombs … caused about 1,000 Iraqi deaths, the highest monthly violent death tolls since 2008.”
  • The onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011 spurred ISI to form an affiliate group called Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) that would seek to replace the Assad regime with an Islamic state. In December 2012, the State Department formally designated JN as a foreign terrorist organization. “Since November 2011,” it said in a statement, “al-Nusrah Front has claimed nearly 600 attacks – ranging from more than 40 suicide attacks to small arms and improvised explosive device operations – in major city centers including Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, Dara, Homs, Idlib, and Dayr al-Zawr. … Through these attacks, al-Nusrah has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.”
  • In early 2014, a power struggle between JN and ISIS over control of the anti-Assad movement led to a formal break between them. The dispute quickly spiraled into open violence that has claimed as many as 3,000 lives. As The Washington Post reported, the split “means that al-Qaeda no longer has representation in Iraq, where ISIS originated,” and “leaves Jabhat al-Nusra, which is widely regarded among Syrians as more moderate than the hard-line ISIS, as the sole representative of al-Qaeda in Syria.”
  • In recent weeks, ISIS and JN have reportedly reached a truce in order to focus their efforts against moderate rebels and the Assad regime. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in November 2014 that such cooperation remains limited to “tactical accommodations on the battlefield.” According to ISW’s Jessica Cafarella, however, the two groups “are eventually likely to cooperate at the operational and strategic level, as they share mutual goals. In the short term, this may include joint action against the Assad regime, which could relieve pressure on ISIS from the regime in Deir ez-Zour and embolden JN to initiate offensive operations against the regime on battlefronts that have stalled.”

III. Ideology

ISIS is not merely a terrorist organization, but an aspiring state rooted in a radical ideology that seeks to build a global caliphate through terror and bloodshed. As Geneive Abdo and Lulwa Rizkallah of the Stimson Center wrote, “The narrative ISIS advances is an Islamic Caliphate where Muslims can live free from oppression and be governed solely by the rules of Islam (as interpreted by ISIS). The state is ruled by a Caliph, to whom everyone pledges allegiance (mubaya’ah). In this state, there is no room for unbelievers.”

  • The ideology of ISIS reflects a repudiation of international boundaries and norms. As journalist Anand Gopal said, “I don’t think ISIS is necessarily more bloodthirsty than the Assad regime, or the Taliban, or al Qaeda, but what’s different about ISIS is that they are very happy to show their atrocities. They post it on Twitter. They put it on YouTube. And it’s because they have basically rejected the international order, and they’re rejecting working with the international order, and claiming their own order, an Islamic order harking back to the caliphate days, and because of that it seems like they’re much more bloodthirsty than any other group.”
  • ISIS embraces an extreme Salafist interpretation of Islamic governance. As Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations noted, “To the violent Salafi, tawheed [i.e., the oneness of God] is political as well as credal. To rule by democracy is to violate God’s sovereignty. Man-made law is the ultimate violation of pure tawheed and, to oppose this corruption of monotheism, extreme Salafis will walk the path of jihad. Their jihad is not to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or a secular government [per se]; it is to create ‘God’s government’ or a caliphate that holds up God’s law by applying their form of sharia.”
  • ISIS advances its ideology within the context of a state that performs traditional administrative functions. As Foreign Policy and The Atlantic recently reported, ISIS maintains electricity, water, sewage functioning, hospitals, transportation, an army, and schools, among many other public services. It is even developing its own currency. “ISIS is the most dangerous terrorist group in the world because they combine the fighting capabilities of al Qaeda with the administrative capabilities of Hezbollah,” David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert who worked as a top aide to Gen. David Petraeus, told Foreign Policy. “It’s clear that they have a state-building agenda and an understanding of the importance of effective governance.”
  • ISIS’ growth, and its ongoing competition with JN, reflects the decentralization and franchisement of Al Qaeda and its ideology. As The New York Times put it in January 2014, “What links these groups, experts say, is no longer a centralized organization but a loose ideology that any group can appropriate and apply as it sees fit while gaining the mystique of a recognized brand name. In short, Al Qaeda today is less a corporation than a vision driving a diverse spread of militant groups.”

IV. Regional Instability

ISIS poses a long-term threat to the stability of the Middle East. As ISW’s Kimberly Kagan, Frederick W. Kagan, and Jessica D. Lewis wrote in September 2014, “The permanent destruction of the Iraqi and Syrian states, a principal objective of the Islamic State, would be a grave blow to the international order and American interests. The Islamic State and regional events are bringing enormous pressure on Lebanon and Jordan, which may well collapse under the weight.”

  • ISIS’ control of vast swaths of territory provides it with a base to plan terror attacks. As terrorism expert Stuart Gottlieb wrote, “One of the great challenges ISIS poses is that it currently controls thousands of square miles of ungoverned territory; and it is recruiting highly motivated fighters from all over the world. This influx of fighters, along with the open space needed by ISIS commanders to formally train them, offers the group an ability to creatively think up and effectively carry out major attacks, including against the United States.”
  • Jordan fears that ISIS seeks to overthrow the monarchy. In October 2014, senior Jordanian security officials told IHS Jane’s, “Jordan’s security services and armed forces were put on the highest state of alert in September in response to the Islamic State’s growing capability and the belief that the group is a direct security threat to the country.” In September 2014, Majed al-Sharari, the mayor of Ma’an in southern Jordan, told CNN, “The Salafi jihadi movement has been in Jordan for years, not just in Ma’an but also in other cities ... if this movement in Iraq or Syria declares a war on Jordan, they will not hesitate to carry out operations in Jordan.”
  • ISIS attacks on Lebanon have threatened to drag the country into war. As the Associated Press reported, “The Islamic State group threat first came to Lebanon in August … In a surprise attack, Islamic State group and Nusra Front militants crossed over from Syria and overran the predominantly Sunni Lebanese border town of Arsal, hitting Lebanese army positions and killing nearly 20 soldiers.” Cross-border attacks by ISIS have continued regularly thereafter.
  • ISIS-linked groups in the Sinai Peninsula have unleashed a campaign of terror as part of an effort to overthrow the regime of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. On October 24, 2014, the terrorist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdas (ABM), which has sworn allegiance to ISIS, killed 26 Egyptian troops with a car bomb. According to Newsweek, members of ABM “claim that ISIS fighters are training and teaching them how to hone their terrorist skills.”

V. A Global Threat

ISIS considers itself the vanguard of terrorist activity worldwide. As Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in September 2014, “ISIL views itself as the new leader of the global jihad. It operates the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any extremist group. … We have seen ISIL use a range of media to tout its military capabilities, executions of captured soldiers, and consecutive battlefield victories. More recently, the group’s supporters have sustained this momentum on social media by encouraging attacks in the U.S. and against U.S. interests in retaliation for our airstrikes. … ISIL threatens to outpace al-Qa‘ida as the dominant voice of influence in the global extremist movement.”

  • The leader of ISIS has repeatedly threatened the United States. “I’ll see you guys in New York,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly told U.S. Army reservists as a prisoner in Iraq in 2009. In a July 2012 audio speech, he said that U.S. citizens “cannot travel to any country without being afraid.” In November 2014, he urged Muslims to attack “the agents of the Jews and crusaders, their slaves, tails and dogs,” and to “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere.”
  • U.S. Army intelligence has warned of a possible ISIS attack on American military personnel. As the Army Threat Integration Center (ARTIC) said in a September 2014 statement, “Given the continued rhetoric being issued by ISIL’s media services and supporters through various social media platforms the ARTIC is concerned of the possibility of an attack.” Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder said in July 2014 that the possibility of ISIS infiltration into the U.S. was “more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general.”
  • Foreign fighters have traveled to Syria to fight for ISIS, and may pose a security risk upon their return home. A CIA spokesman told CNN in September 2014 that more than 15,000 foreigners, including 2,000 Westerners, have gone to Syria from more than 80 countries. The Department of Homeland Security said in September 2014 that 100 people from the United States have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria. According to Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “The foreign fighters who flock to fight with IS or seek safe haven in the territories it controls will one day disperse, perhaps destabilizing other countries in the region. The Western passport-holders among them, along with ‘homegrown’ extremists merely inspired by IS, may seek to carry out attacks at home which are inspired but not necessarily directed by the group.”
  • In Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines have expressed fears of home-grown terrorists inspired by ISIS. As The Diplomat reported, “Authorities in these countries fear home-grown Islamic militants in league with Baghdadi and his Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will return and plot their own caliphate, not unlike Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) did when it launched its own terror campaign in league with al-Qaeda more than a decade ago.”

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