It’s impossible to watch, listen to, or read the news today without finding at least one reference to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. We hear that it is a terrorist organization, but we also hear government officials talk about it more like a belligerent country in an ongoing war. So, what exactly is the Islamic State, where did it come from, and what do its people want?
Born in War
The organization we know today as the Islamic State has its origins in the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003. The very short version of that war’s first year is that the administration of President George W. Bush accused the government of Iraq, then under the control of military dictator Saddam Hussein, of possessing weapons of mass destruction. The United States Congress authorized a military invasion of Iraq, which very quickly deposed Hussein’s rule. Though Hussein was no longer in power and was later caught and executed, the conflict in Iraq didn’t end.
This is where the language around the war gets confusing. Those fighting against American forces came to be known as “insurgents,” suggesting that they came from somewhere other than Iraq. And while many so-called insurgents were indeed Iraqi people, many other fighters came from elsewhere in the region. An especially prominent group was Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, a religious extremist group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This group ascribed to a version of Islam called Salafism, which is an intense variety of fundamentalism that advocates violence and a harsh interpretation of sharia law. Before long, al-Zarqawi’s fighters allied themselves with the infamous terrorist organization al-Qaeda.
Syria and ISIL
During the Iraq War, al-Zarqawi was killed. Under new leadership, his group named itself the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), with the intention of establishing a Islamic military theocracy, or caliphate, in one of Iraq’s fractured regions. Violence against Iraqi people created a backlash and ISI nearly crumbled. By 2008, most of the group’s leaders weren’t Salafi extremists, but surviving members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist group. Otherwise, many fighters for ISI were from other countries.
The biggest change for the Islamic State came with the Syrian Civil War. In the chaos of Syrian revolutionaries fighting against the government of Bashar al-Assad, Islamic State insurgents entered Syria and began attempting to take control of another troubled country. This is why the group is sometimes called ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). But because the group’s actions and ambitions have included many other countries in the Middle East, the preferred term by the United States government is ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).
The Power of the Islamic State
Today, the Islamic State has proclaimed itself a “Worldwide Caliphate” and its official position is that it is the legitimate ruling body of all Muslims – lead by a Caliph (a natural successor to the Prophet Mohammed). To date, no nation, international governing body, or Muslim organization has accepted that rule. So, if only the Islamic State recognizes its own legitimacy, how is it such a powerful organization?
The first thing to note is that the Islamic State has a habit of claiming responsibility for things its own fighters didn’t actually do. Most notably, the Islamic State claimed to have funded and directed a large group of fighters in the Syrian Civil War called al-Nusra, even though the two groups violently clashed. This variety of unilateral appropriation confuses the issue of who is and is not acting according to direction by Islamic State leadership.
But more than anything, the Islamic State’s power is in its media presence. The group captured the attentions of American and European domestic populations by kidnapping and killing foreign nationals, and video recording the entire process. The murders of foreign journalists and aid workers received a great deal of media attention in 2014, catapulting the Islamic State from a Middle Eastern insurgent group to a household name. These murders are notoriously gruesome, often carried out in the form of violent beheadings.
In the past two years, many independently operating terrorists have claimed allegiance to the Islamic State, though they have no means of communicating with its leadership. Terrorists from the Philippines to Chechnya and even the United States wave the black flag of the Islamic State, but they are not actually soldiers trained and organized by forces in Iraq and Syria. In short, the Islamic State is more of an idea rather than it is a real, cohesive political body.
Fighting the Idea
The full history of the Islamic State paints a very clear picture of how it was born and how it continues to thrive. Its origins are in the chaos of war, the radicalization of people suffering under the simultaneous pressure of local despots and foreign invaders. The Islamic State is, put simply, an appropriation of the very term “terrorism”, however nebulous and ever-changing that idea is. The organization’s name changes over the years, but its tactics of violence, media manipulation, and the consumption of other military groups stay the same.
Countries from all over the world have devoted their military forces to fighting the Islamic State, but violence is unlikely to truly destroy it. Wherever there is war, so-called Islamic State forces emerge. The radicals who attach themselves to the Islamic State flag depend on violence, confusion, and media attention to fuel their continued rise. The long-term solution to the Islamic State problem is, in a word, peace.
The ideal short-term solution still appears to be out-of-reach. How do you think the Islamic State should best be handled? And by whom?