ISIS | Fawaz A. Gerges

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


In the book, ‘ISIS: A History’, author Fawaz A. Gerges discusses the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its impact on the world. The summary explores the early victories of ISIS, such as the seizure of Mosul, and the rapid expansion of the group through Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Additionally, Gerges dives into the ideological differences between ISIS and Al-Qaeda, particularly in terms of territorial control and targeting Shia Muslims. Furthermore, the book examines the contributing factors to ISIS’s rise, including the Arab Spring, the ongoing civil wars in the Middle East, and the exploitation of Sunni grievances.

The Resilience of ISIS

The unexpected rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, in 2013 and 2014 took the world by surprise. With just a few hundred soldiers, the group managed to defeat the Iraqi military, which had been trained by the United States at a cost of roughly $25 billion. Though the West and the Middle East quickly learned to take the group seriously, it has shown remarkable resilience despite relentless bombings and ground offensives. While the caliphate was dismantled in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, ISIS continues to operate through cross-border networks, secret strongholds, and sleeper cells, which are spread out in Yemen, Egypt, and other places. The movement may have lost traction but it remains insidious and influential in creating havoc across the globe.

ISIS’s Rise to Power

The rise of ISIS was due to the broken politics in the Middle East. Unlike its predecessor, Al-Qaeda, ISIS claimed territory and attempted to run a state. Its leader, Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, challenged Al-Qaeda’s leadership by claiming the title of “supreme ruler of Muslims worldwide.” ISIS’s focus was not primarily on Western targets but rather on wreaking havoc in the Middle East, targeting Riyadh, Baghdad, and Damascus. The group defied Al-Qaeda’s recommendations to stop attacking Shia targets and identified Shia Muslims as their real enemies. The rift between Shia and Sunni Muslims is the primary factor driving ISIS’s rise, and by perfecting its anti-Shia, anti-Iranian rhetoric, ISIS appeals to a “pan-Sunni identity.” In this way, the group sought to cast itself as a benevolent defending force, despite its violence, by positioning itself at the center of efforts to stop a Shia ideology threatening to swallow the Muslim world.

ISIS’ Origin & Extreme Ideology

ISIS was born in Iraq and learned its tactics from the previous Baathist regime. It moved to Syria, claiming Raqqa as its capital and main source of income. Salafi-jihadism forms its ideological foundation, reinforced by identity politics and extreme anti-Shia sentiment. It considers any competition, even from groups with similar ideologies, as a threat.

The book delves into the origins, tactics, and ideologies of ISIS. ISIS’s thirst for violence and blood has its roots in Iraq’s ultraviolent past. Although there is no direct link between Saddam Hussein and ISIS, the group learned its vicious tactics from his regime. Iraq’s dictatorship refused any dissent and ruled with fear and intimidation. ISIS mimics these ways. Moving into Syria, ISIS claimed the city of al-Raqqa as its capital and main revenue source. Its income stems from oil, agriculture, crime, and taxing residents of the caliphate.

Salafi-jihadism and identity politics form the foundation on which ISIS bases its worldview. Added to this mixture is extreme anti-Shia sentiment, which defines the group as “hyper-Sunni.” ISIS considers the Nusra Front, a group developed on Baghdadi’s orders, as its enemy for defying Baghdadi’s call to join ISIS. Despite sharing almost identical ideologies, ISIS and al-Nusra became sworn enemies. ISIS’s extreme intolerance of competition is evidenced by this conflict.

ISIS Tactics of Sexual Violence

ISIS has been effectively using rape, sexual slavery, and genocide as strategies for recruitment and conquest. Poor, directionless Sunni men are attracted to the group’s promise of rebuilding the lost caliphate, providing them a cause worth giving their life. Initially, ISIS targeted Yazidi men, kidnapped thousands of women, and forced them into sexual slavery. Girls and boys are sold via contracts notarized by ISIS courts, with young children being the most valuable. ISIS continues to maintain a presence, directing a far-reaching campaign towards Sunni men. Although the group has lost turf in Syria, encouraged by the reluctance of western nations to deploy ground troops, recruits continue to pour in.

The Radicalization of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Born into an impoverished family in Jordan, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi dropped out of school and was later imprisoned for sexual assault and drug possession. While in prison, he found religion and became radicalized. After his release, he set up a jihadist training camp near Iran and leveraged events in Iraq to pursue a more radical vision of Salafi-jihadism. The dysfunctional political system in post-US invasion Iraq and exclusionary policies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki were two key driving forces behind the resurgence of ISIS, according to the book.

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