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The 7 biggest myths about ISIS

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Myth #1: ISIS is crazy and irrational

If you want to understand the Islamic State, better known as ISIS, the first thing you have to know about them is that they are not crazy. Murderous adherents to a violent medieval ideology, sure. But not insane.

Look at the history of ISIS's rise in Iraq and Syria. From the mid-2000s through today, ISIS and its predecessor group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, have had one clear goal: to establish a caliphate governed by an extremist interpretation of Islamic law. ISIS developed strategies for accomplishing that goal — for instance, exploiting the grievances non-extremist Sunni Iraqis have with their Shia-dominated government. Its tactics have evolved over the course of time in response to military defeats (as in 2008 in Iraq) and new opportunities (the Syrian civil war).

According to Yale political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, ISIS's strategy is pretty similar to ones employed by other revolutionary militant groups. Strategically, it's not especially crazy or uniquely "Islamist."

The point is that, while individual members of ISIS show every indication of espousing a crazed ideology and committing psychopathically violent acts, in the aggregate ISIS acts as a rational strategic enterprise. Their violence is, in broad terms, not random — it is targeted to weaken their enemies and strengthen ISIS' hold on territory, in part by terrorizing the people it wishes to rule over.

Understanding that ISIS is at least on some level rational is necessary to make any sense of the group's behavior — including the November 14 attack in Paris, if ISIS is (as seems likely) responsible. If all ISIS wanted to was kill infidels, why would they ally themselves with ex-Saddam Sunni secularist militias? If ISIS were totally crazy, how could they build a self-sustaining revenue stream from oil and organized crime rackets? If ISIS only cared about forcing people to obey Islamic law, why would they have sponsored children's festivals and medical clinics in the Syrian territory they control? (To be clear, it is not out of their love for children, whom they are also happy to murder, but a calculated desire to establish control and spread their ideology.)

This isn't to minimize ISIS' barbarity. They've launched genocidal campaigns against Iraq's Yazidis and Christians. They've slaughtered thousands of innocents, Shia and Sunni alike. But they pursue these horrible ends deliberately and strategically. And that's what really makes them scary.

Myth #2: People support ISIS because they like its radical form of Islam

You have probably heard that ISIS has a degree of popular support among some Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Muslims. That's true: without it, the Sunni militant group would collapse. People sometimes assume this says something about Islam itself: that the religion is intrinsically violent, or that Sunnis would support the group because they accept ISIS's radical interpretation of the Koran.

That's all wrong, and misses one of the most crucial points about ISIS: the foundation of its power comes from politics, not religion.

Let's be clear: virtually all Muslims reject ISIS's view of their faith. Poll after poll shows that violent Islamist extremism in general, and both al-Qaeda and ISIS in particular, are deeply unpopular in Muslim-majority countries.

The overwhelming bulk of ISIS's victims are Muslims — many of them Sunnis. A popular revolt among Iraqi Sunnis, beginning around 2006, played a huge role in defeating ISIS's predecessor group, al-Qaeda in Iraq. That revolt was partly inspired by anger at ISIS's attempt to impose its vision of Islam on Muslims who disagree.

ISIS's vision of Muslim life is pretty alien to actual Islamic tradition. Fundamentalist Islam — like most religious fundamentalisms — is a modern phenomenon. Extremist religious groups, frustrated with modern politics, hark back to an idealized Islamic past that never actually existed. The al-Qaeda/ISIS strain of violent radicalism owes more to 20th-century writers like Egyptian Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb than the actual historical Islamic caliphate.

So if Sunnis disagree with ISIS's theology and don't like living under its rule, why aren't the people in its territory rising up? The answer is about politics. Both Syria and Iraq have Shia governments. Sunni Muslims aren't well-represented in either system, and are often actively repressed.

Legitimate dissent is often met with violence: Bashar al-Assad gunned down protesters in the streets during the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations, intentionally slaughtering Sunnis in an ultimately successful attempt to turn the demonstrations into a sectarian civil war. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reacted violently a 2013 Sunni protest movement as well.

Sunnis in these countries understandably feel oppressed and out of options. When ISIS came in to their territory, many seemed to be willing to wait and see if life under their fellow Sunnis in ISIS is any worse than it was before. Rule under ISIS is, by all accounts, miserable — the group has proven utterly incompetent at operating an actual government that provides services like electricity and health care. However, it's still not obvious to Sunnis that there's any better alternative: Bashar al-Assad's regime is still murderous, Syrian moderates are weak, and the Iraqi government is aligned with some pretty vicious Shia sectarian militias.

Moreover, ISIS has mercilessly repressed any dissent. When local groups or Sunni tribes attempt to rise up, like the Abu Nimr in Iraq's Anbar province, ISIS slaughters them en masse. The Sunnis who initially saw ISIS as an ally against a terrible government are now stuck between tacitly tolerating ISIS rule or risking death — at the hands of either ISIS or its more hardline enemies.

Myth #3: ISIS is part of al-Qaeda

The key thing to understand about ISIS and al-Qaeda is that they are competitors, not allies, and certainly not part of the same larger group.

ISIS used to be al-Qaeda in Iraq. The group began splitting off from al-Qaeda in 2013, and was formally kicked out in February 2014. The core problem is that ISIS wouldn't listen to al-Qaeda HQ's commands: al-Qaeda wanted command over Syrian operations, which ISIS resisted, and repeatedly ordered ISIS to curtail its violence against civilians. (That's right: ISIS was too violent for al-Qaeda.)

For years, al-Qaeda was the clear leader of the global jihadist movement. The loose network of militant groups, extreme internet communities, and "lone wolf" individuals saw al-Qaeda as the gold standard — and many groups pledged allegiance to it or established some kind of junior-partner working relationship.

When ISIS broke off, it upended everything. By taking a chunk of territory the size of the UK in the heart of the Arab world, ISIS had come much closer to the end-goal of an Islamic caliphate than al-Qaeda ever did. All of a sudden, it didn't seem so clear that Islamist groups around the world should pledge themselves to al-Qaeda. ISIS fought openly with Jabhat al-Nusra, which is al-Qaeda's Syria branch — and outperformed it on the battlefield. ISIS controls considerably more territory in Syria that Nusra.

This ideological competition drives ISIS to be more violent. "They're in competition with al-Qaeda, and they want to be the leader," JM Berger, the editor of Intelwire and an expert on violent extremism, said. When ISIS executed American journalist James Foley and put the video on YouTube, or when it declared its intention to wipe out Iraq's Christians and Yazidis, it's not doing it just because they can, although among individual militants indulging a sick desire is certainly part of it. At a broader level, this part of ISIS's plan to beat al-Qaeda and spread the ISIS brand globally.

The worst part: This plan might be working: In Syria and Iraq, "they've already succeeded in attracting far, far more recruits" than al-Qaeda, Will McCants, the director of the Brookings Institution's Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, says. ISIS has established franchises in the east of Libya and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula; Boko Haram, the infamous Nigerian militant group, pledged itself to the Islamic State in March 2015.

ISIS accomplished all of this without planning, let alone attempting, anything like the 9/11 attacks. In general, ISIS has focused on holding its territory in Syria and Iraq rather than the type of spectacular international attack al-Qaeda is infamous for. If the November 14 Paris attack does turn out to be ISIS, then that could represent a significant shift towards al-Qaeda style tactics.

Myth #4: ISIS is a Syrian rebel group

It is true that ISIS opposes Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria, and the two have occasionally fought each other in Syria. But calling ISIS a "Syrian rebel group" misses two critical facts about ISIS. First, it's a transnational organization, not rooted in any one country, with lots of foreign fighters motivated by global jihadist aims as well as Syrian or Iraqi ones. Second, Assad and ISIS have not-so-secretly helped each other out in some crucial ways. ISIS and Assad are frenemies, not full-on opponents.

For one thing, ISIS predated the Syrian civil war. It first grew powerful as al-Qaeda in Iraq in the mid-2000s. After that group was defeated by Iraqi and American forces around 2008, its remnants began regrouping. Between 2008 and 2011, what's now ISIS put itself together out of prisoners it broke out of Iraqi jails and former Saddam-era Iraqi army officers. ISIS was not created by the Syrian rebellion: it took advantage of it.

Now, it's true the war in Syria benefited ISIS tremendously. It helped ISIS attract large numbers of new recruits with battlefield experience, attracted significant financial support from Gulf states and private donors looking to oust Assad, and gave it a crucial safe haven in eastern Syria. Had it not been for the Syrian war, ISIS as currently constituted would not exist.

In a weird way, this has all benefited Assad. The Syrian dictator has vigorously pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy during the war. He's tried hard to push the sectarian angle of the civil war, making it into a life-or-death struggle for his Alawite (Shia) and Christian supporters against the Sunni majority. ISIS's extremism has helped convince Alawites that defecting to the rebels means the destruction of their homes and communities.

Assad has also used ISIS to divide his other opponents: the moderate Syrian opposition, other Islamist groups, and the United States. One way he's done that is by focusing Syria's military efforts on the moderate Syrian rebels, leaving ISIS relatively unscathed. By allowing ISIS and other Islamist groups to become stronger at the expensive of other rebels, Assad made it much harder for the US to intervene against him without benefiting the rebels. And ISIS and moderate rebels have begun fighting against one another, further dividing the war in a way that's beneficial to Assad.

For most of the conflict, "ISIS almost never fought the Assad regime," Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me. "They were much more focused on fighting other opposition groups and gaining land their opponents had already acquired."

In essence, Assad and ISIS seem to have made an implicit deal: ISIS temporarily gets a relatively free ride in some chunks of Syria, while Assad gets to weaken his other opponents. The two sides still hate each other, and will occasionally clash openly. But both benefit by focusing on the rebels.

Myth #5: ISIS is only strong because of the Iraqi government's mistakes

There's a theory that the Iraqi government — particularly during former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's time in office — is solely, or mainly, responsible for ISIS's resurgence in 2014. It's true that Maliki's policies enabled ISIS's rise. But blaming him alone misses the real drivers of sectarianism in Iraq — and the complicated, multi-faceted reasons why uprooting ISIS from its Iraqi holdings remains so difficult today.

Maliki did a number of things that unintentionally enabled ISIS' growth. He used Iraq's counterterrorism laws to imprison Sunni dissenters. He exploited laws that prohibit Saddam-era officials from holding office (a number of those officials had been Sunni) to boot Sunnis out of the upper echelons of the government and military. He arrested peaceful Sunni protestors, and aligned himself with non-governmental Shia militias that had slaughtered Sunnis during the post-invasion civil war. That's only a partial list of Maliki policies that turned Sunnis against the Iraqi central government, and thus toward ISIS.

But it is simply incorrect to assign most of the blame for ISIS's rise to Maliki. For one thing, Sunni anger at Iraq's government, a quasi-democracy that empowers the Shia majority, runs much deeper than this one man. "Even if Maliki [were never] in power, there are some Sunni grievances that any Shia government would have problems with," Kirk Sowell, a risk consultant and full-time Iraq watcher, told me last year.

To take one example, many Sunnis wrongly believe that they're the largest demographic group in Iraq. This belief, spread during Saddam's time to justify Sunni minority rule, leads Sunnis to see any government they don't head up as fundamentally unjust. Neither Maliki nor his also-Shia successor, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, can fix that.

More to the point, ISIS isn't just an Iraqi problem. Its base in Syria today is just as, if not more, important than the land it controls in Iraq. They used to get money from wealth Gulf states, and still benefit from Bashar al-Assad's focus on defeating Syrian rebels rather than ISIS.

The really important takeaway here is that the roots of ISIS's initial support run deep. Fundamental Sunni grievances against the Shia Iraqi state continue to color Sunni views of their government, making it harder to get a pro-government uprising started in ISIS territory. The Abadi government will need to undertake deep, structural reforms if it wants to more effectively attract Sunni support.

And if ISIS is ultimately defeated on the battlefield, as seems likely, the only to keep it or some other Sunni insurgent group from rising again in Iraq is for the Sunni community to come to terms with the reality of living in a Shia majority state.

Myth #6: ISIS is afraid of female soldiers

Some have claimed that ISIS is really afraid of fighting all-female Kurdish military units. The theory is that ISIS fighters believe that if a woman kills you, you don't get to go to paradise.

The truth is that ISIS' approach to women is much more complicated — and troubling — than Western stereotypes about Islamists would suggest. ISIS has its own female brigades, and the group uses them to enforce its deeply misogynistic ideology.

The "ISIS is afraid of female fighters" theory originated with a stray quote in a Wall Street Journal piece about Kurdish advances against ISIS. It quotes a female Kurdish soldier as saying "the jihadists don't like fighting women, because if they're killed by a female, they think they won't go to heaven." Note that it's not an ISIS fighter, a scholar, or someone who's nessarily interrogated an ISIS fighter: just a random Kurdish soldier who may not be super-familiar with ISIS's ideology.

What we actually know about ISIS's approach to women, however, paints a rather different picture. ISIS has all-female battalions that operate in its territory. ISIS female fighters wear full burqas and carry rifles; they exist principally to force other women to comply with ISIS's vision of sharia law. "ISIS created [them] to terrorize women," Abu al-Hamza, a local, media activist, said in an interview with Syria Deeply.

ISIS's use of women is part of a rising trend of jihadist women claiming roles in violent Islamic extremist groups. "There is a process of female emancipation taking place in the jihadi movement, albeit a very limited (and morbid) one," Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on violent Islamism at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, told The Atlantic. "Many of them are eager to portray themselves as strong women and often make fun of the Western stereotype of ‘the oppressed Muslim woman.'"

ISIS is dedicated to oppressing women: it has institutionalized a system of religious sex slavery wherein captured women, particularly from the Yazidi religious minority, are "sold" to ISIS fighters. Somehow, perversely, it has managed to enlist large numbers of women to support this awful cause.

Myth #7: ISIS is invincible

Given that ISIS has held onto amounts of vast territory in Iraq and Syria for over a year, you might get the sense that ISIS is unstoppable. That it will not only succeed at establishing an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but expand.

This isn't true. ISIS is smart and powerful, to be sure, but it's quite vulnerable. Iraqi and Syrian fighters, with American backing, have made real inroads against the group — and there's good reason to think they could go even further.

In the first half of 2015 alone, ISIS lost about 9.4 percent of its remaining territory in Syria and Iraq, as the below map shows:

isis map territory lost

(IHS Jane's 360)

(IHS Jane's 360)

Overall, "they lost something like 25 percent of their [peak] territory" in the past year and a half of fighting, according to Brookings ISIS expert Will McCants.

This includes some significant losses. The Iraqi government recaptured Tikrit, a largely Sunni city in central Iraq, as well as Bayji, a long-contested town that's home to a major oil refinery. Iraqi Kurds seized Sinjar, a town that rests on a critical highway connecting ISIS holdings in Iraq and Syria. Syrian Kurds also cut off an important ISIS supply line when it seized the town of Tal Afar in northern Syria in June 2015. Since then, they've advanced to within 30 miles of ISIS's de facto capital, Raqqa.

Why has ISIS lost so much ground since its initial blitzkrieg? The biggest problem is that ISIS is surrounded and friendless in both Syria and Iraq, It has no major allies in Syria or Iraq, and is opposed (to varying degrees) by a huge list of enemies: the Iraqi government, Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government, Syrian Kurds, the US-led coalition, al-Qaeda, moderate Syrian rebels, Iran, Shia militias, and the Syrian government.

ISIS simply doesn't have the manpower to fight on this many fronts. As a result, it's constantly overstretched: when it defends or tries to counterattack in one place, it becomes vulnerable in another.

Second, coalition airstrikes have been surprisingly effective. ISIS's strategy has depended heavily on being able to maneuver openly and quickly throughout its territory, which is large. Airstrikes have significantly impeded ISIS's maneuvering room.

"The coalition's positive impact on the war against [ISIS] somehow remains the best kept secret of the war," Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writes in War on the Rocks. Knights credits the Iraqi army's recapture of Bayji to airpower "invisibly ripping apart a network of networks that feeds [ISIS] recruits and suicide bombs and car bombs."

Third and finally, ISIS ideology demands that it fight conventional battles rather than employ traditional insurgent tactics. ISIS's recruiting pitch and ideology center on the idea that it can hold and govern territory: put the "state" in Islamic State. If it can't do that, its well of recruits could dry up.

"When they declared the caliphate, their legitimacy came to rest on the continuing viability of their state," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told me last October.

None of this is to say that ISIS is liable to collapse tomorrow. ISIS's May capture of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Iraq's Anbar province, indicates that the progress against the group will be slow and staggered. But the point is that ISIS is far from the military juggernaut it's generally portrayed as — and, in some ways, is actually on the road toward defeat.


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