ISIS | Fawaz A. Gerges

Summary of: ISIS: A History
By: Fawaz A. Gerges


Dive into the riveting story of ISIS, its shocking rise to power, and the impact it continues to have on the world in ‘ISIS: A History.’ Author Fawaz A. Gerges delves into the ideological roots, strategies, and key events that contributed to this infamous group’s meteoric ascent. This book summary explores how ISIS capitalized on political turmoil and exploited sectarian divisions in the Middle East, while highlighting the conditions that led to its formation and growth. Understand the crucial differences and rivalries between ISIS and al-Qaeda, and grasp the chilling tactics employed by ISIS, such as sexual slavery and public executions. Fawaz A. Gerges offers vital insights into the ISIS phenomenon, painting a comprehensive picture of the group’s motivations, objectives, and eventual decline.

The rise and decline of ISIS

In 2013 and 2014, ISIS surprised the world by taking on the Iraqi military and seizing Mosul. Despite facing relentless attacks by the US-led coalition and other local forces, ISIS showed resilience, creativity, and organizational depth. By 2016, however, its caliphate was in decline, losing territories, key figures, and financial networks. Thousands of fighters were killed in battles, and the flow of foreign fighters slowed down. Yet, ISIS’s influence lives on through cross-border networks, secret strongholds, and sleeper cells in Yemen, Egypt, and elsewhere. Even though its ideology turns potential allies into enemies, ISIS’s adherents remain determined to continue their fight. While ultimately doomed to self-destruct, ISIS’s activities will continue to impose a heavy toll on the world.

Understanding ISIS and Its Raison D’être

ISIS’ emergence was a reaction to broken politics in the Middle East and the Sunni-Shia rift. Unlike al-Qaeda, which targeted the West, ISIS sees Shia Muslims as its true foe. It also aimed at governing a state, unlike its predecessor. By perfecting anti-Shia and anti-Iranian rhetoric, ISIS seeks to unite Muslims under a pan-Sunni identity, appealing to those who believe their faith is threatened. ISIS has expanded from a small group of radicals to one of the most prominent organizations waging global jihad. Although it gained notoriety for targeting Western locations, its true aim is to destabilize the Middle East further.

The Roots and Tactics of ISIS

ISIS was born in Iraq, where its extremist beliefs’ rise was fueled by the country’s decades-long brutal regime and the post-US invasion instability. The group then moved into Syria, where Raqqa served as its capital and primary revenue source derived from oil, agriculture, and taxation. ISIS’s ideology grew on the basis of Salafi-jihadism, hyper-Sunnism, and hatred for the Shia population. This led to ISIS’s fierce rivalry with the Nusra Front, even though both groups share similar ideologies. Despite their differences, they both resort to brutal tactics and violence in their pursuit of power.

ISIS’ Use of Sexual Violence and Recruitment Tactics

ISIS not only uses sexual violence as a weapon of war but also employs it as a tool to recruit individuals into their organization. The group favors young boys and girls, who are the most highly valued in their system of slavery, while adult women are considered the least valuable. ISIS presents a utopian and political project to appeal to poor, directionless Sunni men, offering them a path to salvation by rebuilding the lost caliphate. Despite losing territory in Syria, the organization still attracts new recruits, partly due to the reluctance of the US and Britain to deploy ground troops. Thus, ISIS is likely to maintain some presence for years to come.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: The Making of a Radical Leader

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, born Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh in 1966, was a crucial figure in the development of ISIS. Zarqawi grew up poor, and after his father’s death, he quit school and later went to prison on charges of sexual assault and drug possession. In prison, he found faith and ultimately memorized the Qur’an to deal with the stress of solitary confinement and torture by Jordanian authorities. After his release, he set up a jihadist training camp and swore allegiance to bin Laden but had a more radical vision of Salafi-jihadism. The dysfunctional political system in Iraq after the US-led invasion and occupation and the exclusionary policies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki were driving forces behind ISIS’s resurgence. Baghdadi, another radicalized leader, became fixated on vengeance during his imprisonment in Camp Bucca and became more radical after his release, eventually enlisting in Zarqawi’s Islamic State of Iraq. Both men followed the script of entering prison as marginally radical and exiting as hardened terrorists.

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