What Caused the Rise of IS? Part II: The Root Causes

Analysis by Alex IRELAND

In part I, this article gave an overview of the history of the Islamic State (IS) group. This second half will move on to analysing the reasons for its success, beginning with the immediate causes.

In Syria, funded by the group’s wealth from previous Iraqi plunder, it was the combined experience of IS’s soldiers and leadership, battle-hardened after years of fighting the American-led coalition in Iraq, that made them a powerful and professional foe. Initial success brought further sources of funding – control of oil and population to tax – and all-important prestige, both of which could be used to attract more fighters, and hence bring further territorial conquest. Across the (soon to be meaningless) border, the Iraqi army proved too weak to stand up to IS and their Sunni tribal allies’ attacks and fearsome reputation, suffering defeat after defeat.

The immediate causes beg two major questions. It was IS’s initial prestige and wealth that attracted fighters to it rather than to other groups, but why was there a ready supply of fighters to begin with? And why is it that IS can find tribal leaders willing to ally with it in Iraq and Syria to help maintain control over the areas it, and the tribal leaders, inhabit?

A coalition airstrike against IS in Kobane, October 2014 – public domain
A coalition airstrike against IS in Kobane, October 2014 – public domain

The answer to the first question is not, as is often assumed, that religious ideology radicalised these soldiers. It is now accepted (at least outside the mainstream press) that religion is not a major factor in militant extremism – rather it is poverty, frustrated expectations, and lack of options at home that push people to join terrorist groups and militias. In Syria, the general poverty and the specifically reduced opportunities available to Sunnis meant that there were plenty of disillusioned people willing to turn to violence in response to government attacks on their protests in 2011. The story is similar in Iraq, with the glory, pay, and purpose provided by membership of an armed group proving enough to entice people born into downtrodden areas of the country, and into the wrong Islamic sect, to join up. The Iraqi situation was antagonised by the ‘de-Ba’athification’ policies initially implemented by the American coalition, and expanded and continued under Iraqi government, which became a wholesale government job ban on anybody who had joined the Ba’ath party – even if simply as a necessary requirement of government employment. This created a further pool of excluded citizens, mostly Sunni, for whom joining a militia could prove attractive.

The sizeable foreign contingent attracted to IS seems at first a counterpoint to the argument that religious ideology was not the driving factor in recruitment. Religious justification is certainly a stronger factor in the attraction of foreigners to fight with IS. But just as the Spanish civil war attracted soldiers and adventurers from across Europe in the 1930s, it is identification with fellow oppressed Arabs or Muslims under attack, or a general wish to support one form of government against another (the Islamic-inspired uprising versus the secular Syrian state), rather than the explicit ideology of necessary jihad that has attracted most foreign soldiers to the Syrian civil war and to IS. Furthermore, attention on Western recruits often obscures the fact that many foreign soldiers of IS are from the wider Middle East, and subject to much the same pressures to join as citizens of Iraq and Syria. This is not to say that IS’s religious propaganda does not play a role – it certainly helps, and its role in legitimising IS is significant – but it is not the major driving force.

The answer to the second question – how the marauding IS is able to find local alliances and support – is linked to the first. In both Syria and Iraq, Sunni Muslims and majority Sunni areas have suffered at the hands of a regime that explicitly favours members of an alternate sect at their expense. Under al-Maliki, the Iraqi political system and military was increasingly purged of any Sunni influence, and in Syria Assad drew almost all of the political and military elites from his own minority Alawi sect. Thus, when a powerful Sunni militia advances through Sunni territory, it represents to many local leaders an attractive restoration of Sunni pride and influence. This is a powerful message to those who have felt their entire religious group to be economically neglected and politically ignored by the very government that IS are fighting against.

Although IS’s initial military prowess was crucial in securing the manpower, funds, and captured equipment necessary for its later success, the groundwork had already been laid for a Sunni militant group to capture large tracts of Syria and Iraq. Moreover, without this groundwork IS would not have been able to enjoy the success that it has. For this we may blame the general poverty and lack of options for many citizens in both countries, as well as the antagonistic sectarian policies pursued by both governments.


53 05 42

27 20 07


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