In the few short years since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria formed, it has done the seemingly impossible, seizing vast areas of the Middle East to form a mini state it calls a reincarnation of the ancient caliphate. It is at war with all its neighbors and virtually the entire world, yet somehow persists, and is launching increasingly deadly terror attacks abroad.
To understand how this terrible group came about and how it has grown so powerful, you need to understand the story behind its rise. And that is a story that goes back decades, to long before ISIS existed.
You will notice that while ISIS is in many ways a specific phenomenon of the Arab Middle East, it is also a product of much larger international forces and events. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and later the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq provided a movement of Arab volunteers with battlegrounds and with a narrative, however false, of global religious war.
The 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, in which the US and Saudi Arabia funded and supported the rebels, became known as the Afghan jihad, for the Arabic word for struggle. The fighters, known as mujahideen, were not all extremists, but among their ranks of Arab volunteers grew an extremist movement that gave the world al-Qaeda.
But if the 1980s Afghan jihad gave us al-Qaeda, then it was the early-2000s Iraqi jihad, when a new generation of volunteers fought the American invaders, that perverted jihadism even beyond the extremes of al-Qaeda. The group we came to know as “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” or AQI, was affiliated with Osama bin Laden’s movement, but it was really something all its own, and exponentially worse. It deliberately slaughtered fellow Muslims so as to provoke an Iraqi civil war between Sunni and Shia, and it pioneered the videotaped beheadings and other tactics with which we are now all too familiar.
Al-Qaeda and AQI did not get along well during the Iraq War — even bin Laden felt AQI went too far and was too violent. That division is crucial to understanding ISIS and its aims today. Their disagreement resurfaced years later, in 2012, when AQI reconstituted itself under the name Islamic State of Iraq and began intervening in the mounting civil war in Syria. Eventually, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Qaeda went from ideological disagreements to open fighting and, after the Islamic State added Syria to its name and became ISIS, open war.
ISIS owes its rise and survival in great part to, as you can see in the above video, the political disintegration of Syria and Iraq. Sunni Arabs in both countries, disillusioned and long abused, tolerated ISIS just long enough for it to move in and seize territory. The Syrian military is too focused on fighting rebels to focus on ISIS, which Assad tolerates in any case. The Iraqi military is too hollowed out by the state’s 2003 collapse and the Iraqi government’s growing corruption to do much good.
But it seems likely that eventually, ISIS will be pushed back and its mini state, never really a viable project, will collapse. But when that happens, it will almost certainly revert to what it was in the mid-2000s in the height of the Iraq War, when it was known as AQI: a terror and insurgent group. As AQI, it posed less of a threat than ISIS, but it was still capable of terrible violence; it still led genocidal massacres, produced beheading videos, and terrorized millions of people. As long as Iraq and Syria remain in some degree of chaos, as they likely will for many years, groups like AQI will find a haven there.