What Caused the Rise of IS? Part I: A History of IS

Analysis by Alex IRELAND

The spectacular advance across Syria and Iraq of the group named Islamic State (IS) took many Western observers by surprise. From being just one of a collection of rebel militias battling Assad’s forces in the Syrian civil war, and before that the almost wiped-out Islamic State of Iraq group, IS now controls territory inhabited by millions of people. However, the popular understanding of how IS has been able to achieve this is hampered by the myriad polemics designed more to attack Western foreign policy than to inform. In two parts, this article will first overview IS’s history up to this date in order to aid analysis. In the second part it will assess the immediate origins, and root causes, of IS’s success.

In 1999, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi set up a Sunni Islamic militant training camp in Afghanistan on the back of funding from Osama Bin Laden, naming his group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, or Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, al-Zarqawi moved his fighters into the country, and they soon became known as one of the most violent groups of the insurgency. Al-Zarqawi pioneered the brutal executions and indiscriminate suicide attacks on civilians that the Iraq war became known for.

Members of the Iraqi insurgency, 2006 – Menendj, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.5
Members of the Iraqi insurgency, 2006 – Menendj, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

In late 2004 the group pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and renamed itself al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It established itself as the leading driver of the Iraqi insurgency, and built up a large network of militants loyal to, and dependent upon, its contacts and support. The group aimed to expel the US-led coalition and set up an Islamic state in Sunni areas of Iraq, and to this end managed to successfully take and control territory in the Sunni Anbar province. By 2007, however, the Sunni tribes that had previously supported AQI (now renamed Islamic State of Iraq following two mergers with other smaller militant groups) were increasingly alienated by its violent tactics and narrow interpretation of shari’a law. Supplied with weaponry by the US, these tribes allied against it. At the end of 2008, the group found itself mortally weakened by a combination of US-armed Sunni tribes and the United States’ 2007 ‘surge’ of troops, with most of its leadership killed or captured. A period of low activity followed.

In 2010 the new head of Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (later to be self-proclaimed ‘caliph’), replenished the group’s leadership with former military officers of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. This gave the group a combination of terrorist and conventional military skill that they were able to deploy to great effect in the Syrian civil war, sending guerrilla fighters under the guise of the militia al-Nusra Front. Having tried to formally merge al-Nusra Front with Islamic State of Iraq, and renaming the organisation Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the process, al-Baghdadi instead caused a split between ISIL on one side and al-Qaeda and al-Nusra Front on the other. Despite this, militants loyal to ISIL continued to make territorial gains in Syria, and then across much of Iraq. In June 2014, following its capture of Mosul, ISIL renamed itself simply Islamic State (IS) and declared itself to be a worldwide caliphate.

At this date, IS controls vast swathes of Iraq and Syria in its self-declared caliphate, and inspires militant and terrorist groups abroad in the Middle East and farther afield. IS administers its captured territory very much as a state, running schools, distributing food and aid, and even controlling prices of goods, and it relies upon alliances with local tribes to maintain control. In part II of this article, to be published next week, the immediate causes of IS’s success, as well as the reasons for its wider political resonance in Iraq and Syria, will be analysed.


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9 thoughts on “What Caused the Rise of IS? Part I: A History of IS

  1. Hi Alex !

    Many thanks for a very informative and well written article. I’m not a Millenial (born in WWII) but still like to learn.

    Part II was also helpful — are you planning to write part III ? I would like to understand better why Muslims outside the Middle East, especially those whose origins can be traced back to former colonial countries, are attracted to radical Islam.


    1. Hi Stephen L,

      Thank you very much for your kind comment, and I’m glad you found the article enjoyable and informative.

      Thank you also for your thoughtful question. I am afraid that I have no current plans to write a part III on IS, but I have written an article on what attracts Western people to radical ideologies in general, and this does have a few sections dealing specifically with radical Islam. I’ll attach the link below, and do my best to answer your question in the rest of my comment.


      I think there are two parts to the answer to your question. The first deals with why some Muslims outside the Middle East become attracted to radical ideologies in the first place. A lot of Muslim immigrant populations, especially in Europe, are very badly integrated with the rest of society. They are often subject to racism and general persecution, as well as often living in neighbourhoods that are poorer and more ignored by government services. This can all add up to a sense of dislocation from society, and frustration with having been treated badly, which can make someone more susceptible to falling for a radical ideology that gives them a sense of purpose and control over their life, as well as a cultural connection and feeling of belonging. This problem is neither unique to Muslims nor unique to people living in the West. Those from former colonial countries have an added source of grievance and feeling of persecution because of the way their countrymen have been treated in the past, and so have another reason to be susceptible to radicalisation.

      In terms of why it is radical Islam that is the ideology that radicalises many Muslims, there are again a number of reasons. Having often been made to feel like they don’t belong because they are Muslim or Arab, it makes sense for somebody to seek refuge in a set of ideas that are strongly based in the culture of their ancestors (be that the society they used to live in, or that their parents came from, or even their grandparents or great grandparents). Ideas rooted in the society that they came from are also a natural place to turn for somebody feeling like they do not belong in their current society.

      It is the case that the dominant counter-ideology coming from the Middle East at the moment is radical Islam, but past terrorist attacks have been carried out around the world in the name of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism, when these ideologies were dominant. Radical Islam’s rise as an ideology has coincided with the spread of the internet, however, making it far easier to radicalise people living outside the Middle East. Radical Islam is currently popular (although ‘popular’ is a strong word for a violent ideology which is rejected by the massive majority of Muslims) partly due to Saudi propagation of Wahhabist mosques across the world, which is a very conservative branch of Islam (though not in itself supportive of terrorism). Also, the high importance of religion to many people of Middle Eastern descent makes a radical ideology based on Islam a persuasive choice to fight back with when they are feeling that their culture, religion, country and race are all being persecuted. Part of the reason is simply that previous ideologies, such as communism and Arab nationalism, have been discredited.

      So really, one must look first at the reasons why some people outside the Middle East are attracted to violent ideologies based in the culture of the Middle East, and secondly at the reasons why the ideology of radical Islam is the current dominant violent ideology emanating from the Middle East.

      This reply is not comprehensive, but I hope it has answered some of your questions, and please do not hesitate to ask more.

      Best wishes,


      1. Did the US pulling out troops vastly contribute to ISIS being able to strengthen? I understand your article and the root causes. I’m just wondering if the answer to this question I have asked may explain ISIS’s ability of growing and expanding to being able to kill people in Paris.


      2. Hi Mike S,

        The US’s hasty withdrawal of troops definitely contributed to IS’s ability to expand in Iraq. They probably would not have been able to take any major cities had the US army still been involved. In fact, learning from this mistake has been the main reason that Obama recently extended the US military presence in Afghanistan.

        However, I don’t think the US troop withdrawal from Iraq massively contributed to IS’s ability to cause terror abroad. Regardless of American actions, they would still have had substantial territory in Syria, and possibly some rural Iraqi control too. Furthermore, IS-inspired terror attacks abroad are usually committed by inspired fanatics, rather than directed by IS as an organisation. Thus, even if they were confined to much smaller territory, this would not affect their ability to strike in Europe and the US.



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