The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which claimed responsibility for Tuesday's terror attacks in the Belgian capital of Brussels, has become grimly familiar to the world after its Middle Eastern conquests and now its growing terrorist campaign abroad. But to understand this group — how it became so powerful, what it wants, why it commits these attacks — you have to understand the long and surprisingly tangled story of its rise. And that story, told here from its first moments through today, begins not in Iraq or Syria, but far away in Afghanistan:
You will notice that perhaps the key player in ISIS's rise was someone who never lived to see the group fight under that name: a semi-literate Jordanian who fought under the name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Often described as "a thug" who had nothing of the charisma or the ideological sophistication of Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi nonetheless founded the group that would later become ISIS, and pioneered a style of jihadist terrorism far more extreme than even al-Qaeda.
Zarqawi made his name fighting in Iraq during the war there in the mid-2000s, before he was killed in a US airstrike. But the ideology and strategy he developed — along with the group he formed — would later culminate as ISIS, which would enact his terrible ideas in both its march across Iraq and Syria and, now, in its growing campaign of terror attacks abroad, including in Europe.
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 Syrian leader Bashar al-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, the group 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.