ISIS: A History
Michael Degerald, PhD candidate, University of Washington
"For the moment, ISIS is ascendant. [T]he organization is both a symptom of the breakdown of state institutions in the heart of the Arab world and a clash of identities between Sunni and Shia Muslims." Out of this two-pronged base, Fawaz Gerges builds an intricate and convincing argument about the multiple facets of ISIS, or the Islamic State. His work is not the first to attempt a comprehensive explanation of the group, but it is clearly a superior work. Every important facet of the emerging body of information and analysis surrounding ISIS is present, with nuances and details that Gerges adds from his rigorous study of Arabic primary and secondary sources, and English secondary literature. Most important, perhaps, is the balance between structure and ideology as explanatory factors that he achieves.
Gerges begins Chapter One by exploring the clash between Sunni and Shia Muslims in its broad outlines: "Ideology is a super-glue that binds Salafi-jihadist activities and combatants to each other and allows the movement to renew and revitalize itself after suffering setbacks." Here, he shows a detailed knowledge of larger spheres of Salafism, outlining many different thinkers and pointing readers to some of the central texts in a subsection he calls "Theorist Enablers of ISIS." Gerges includes important Salafist figures who reject ISIS and point to specific doctrinal grounds for doing so. He adds welcome detail and nuance to questions such as "How Islamic is ISIS?" that circulated virally after a polemical piece was published in The Atlantic some months ago. Gerges's most substantive chapter, "Where ISIS Came From," lays out a detailed narrative centered around the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, standard elements in an emerging consensus. Gerges draws on a wide variety of sources to provide a more detailed timeline of Zarqawi's life as a jihadi than other works I have read. He discusses the individuals around Zarqawi, especially Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, presenting him as having shaped Zarqawi, who ultimately eclipsed him in jihadist zeal. This timeline covers Zarqawi's years in prison, his time in Afghanistan and, ultimately, his arrival in Iraq. There are many fresh details in the span from 2003 to 2010 that trace leadership changes in ISIS and their ongoing disagreements with the al-Qaeda leadership. It also describes those who succeeded Zarqawi after his death, Abu Hamza al-Muhajjer and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. This 47-page section could easily stand alone and forms a useful timeline for the rest of the book.
Chapter Three analyzes the problems in Iraqi politics since 2003, filling in some necessary background in Iraqi history. If other works have fallen into too much focus on jihadis and not enough on the rest of Iraq's politics and power struggles, Gerges aims here to correct that. The chapter focuses significantly on the dysfunction of the Iraqi state, circling back to the breakdown of state institutions. Gerges does not let powerful individuals off the hook here, emphasizing their agency and responsibility. He explores the way disenfranchised Sunni Iraqis came to see Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad as a front for Iranian interests. Gerges highlights Maliki's pernicious role in post-invasion Iraq, but he does not devote the entire chapter to him. He adds much-needed detail to the myriad reactions of Sunnis to the occupation, especially tribal leaders who opposed al-Qaeda. A complex picture emerges of the corruption of Maliki's government, the Sahwa movement of predominantly Sunni tribes that aligned with U.S. forces to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the general failure of the Iraqi political establishment. Curiously, despite otherwise surveying the literature well, Gerges never mentions Charles Lister's chapter in The Syrian Jihad about the Assad government's facilitating jihadi movement across the border into Iraq during this period.
Chapter Four returns the focus to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, adding significantly to what is known about his personal history and how his leadership shaped the organization from the middle of 2010 on. He also focuses, all too briefly, on the way "ISIS's command-and-control tier emerged with 'made-in-U.S.-run-prisons' tags" (p. 133). The role of prisons in radicalization gets a mere one-page treatment here, but it deserves more. As this deals with former Baathists in Camp Bucca, Gerges devotes Chapter Five to investigating the relationship between Baathists and jihadists. He forcefully pushes back at some of the established literature on the subject, as well as popular perceptions of a secular, Baathist core in the group instrumentalizing jihadism to return to power in Iraq (pp. 153-54): "Far from hijacking ISIS, many Baathists migrated en masse to Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS" (p. 155). He also points to a split among former officers along nationalist and Islamist lines. He dates the co-option of former officers to 2006, making it a result of post-invasion dynamics, rather than Saddam's cultural policies to promote Islam in the '90s, as others have claimed. "Hussein was not a born-again Muslim," he says dismissively, "…and his Faith Campaign was merely a propaganda stunt designed to project the image of a pious president" (p. 157). Instead, Gerges sees a rising tide of religious sentiment after 2003, including among Baathists, and that this transition is "a testimony to the breakdown of Iraq's state institutions and the transformation of the new ruling elite and social classes" (p. 160). Of greatest interest, perhaps, is the detail near the end of the chapter that ISIS publicly tried to slander a leader of Jabhat al-Nusra by stating the person had been a member of Fidaiu Saddam (p. 162). The person's supposed Baathist past was used to discredit his jihadi credentials.
Chapter Six is a helpful elaboration of an argument many have stated ambiguously: the war in Syria helped ISIS flourish. Gerges is not the first to describe Jabhat al-Nusra's role in the covert entry of ISIS into the Syrian war, but he usefully links events in Syria to his larger argument about institutional collapse. He connects much that is known more broadly to a series of revelations from a twitter account that seems to belong to an ISIS insider, @wikibaghdady. Chapter Seven fits the rise of ISIS into a timeline relating to the failure of the Arab Spring uprisings. The author recounts al-Qaeda's absence from the initial mobilizations of the Arab Spring, citing documents and correspondence from Bin Laden, Zawahiri and others. "What these statements show," begins Gerges, "is that Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Libi and Awlaki were caught off guard by the storm that was the Arab Spring, and labored to understand its impact" (p. 206). Gerges not only aptly argues that "Salafi-Jihadists benefited from the post-Arab Spring chaos as a result of the collusion between counterrevolutionary forces at home and abroad…" (p. 209), but he also ties it to his central argument. "In Libya, Yemen and Syria, and to a lesser extent in Iraq, the brutal suppression of protesters militarized the largely peaceful uprisings and caused a breakdown of state institutions, particularly in the security sector" (p. 210). In taking on those who find Western conspiracy behind the Arab Spring, Gerges asserts that "such critics do not recognize the failure to structurally transform society and politics in the Arab countries resulted not from the lack of political cohesion at the popular level, but from the lack of real engagement among the popular, intellectual, and political elites" (pp. 213-14). He argues that these conspiratorial views deny agency to those who mobilized for change and show a lack of confidence in popular movements. Rather than being part of these movements, Gerges argues here that "Al-Qaeda and ISIS along with Salafi-jihadist groups, are counterrevolutionary movements par excellence" (p. 215).
The rest of the chapter returns to the ISIS worldview: rejection of modernity "while using its logistical and propaganda techniques" (p. 215). He comments on this at different places in the book, but always in passing. This actually works well—acknowledging this dimension of the discussion without getting lost in heavily academic and abstract discussions of modernity. He also mentions Sayyid Qutb in his closing section, addressing here something that perhaps should have been addressed in Chapter One: "The World According to ISIS." It is hard to overstate Qutb's influence on jihadi thought, and, while the condensed version on p. 217 includes his most important concepts, this reviewer found it too brief. Even Gerges acknowledges, "His [Qutb's] call resonated near and far and marked the beginning of the global jihadist movement." This is high praise for a man barely mentioned in the book, tucked in the end of the chapter about the Arab Spring. This is especially true because Gerges (correctly) emphasizes the importance of Qutb's near enemy/far enemy distinction to jihadist thought. Gerges does mention Qutb two other times in the book, but passes over him all too quickly. On p. 37, Qutb is mentioned only in reference to his concepts being used by Salafist theorist Abu Bakr al-Najji. On p. 90, Qutb is influential enough to have a wave of jihadis named after him, the "Qutbians," who form part of the author's argument about generational change in al-Qaeda. This gap is most likely due to the fact that Gerges wrote in detail about Qutb several years ago in The Far Enemy: How Jihad Went Global, which he cites multiple times in this work. While Gerges may worry he is repeating himself, readers unfamiliar with Qutb do not get what they need to know.
The conclusion, "The Future of ISIS," addresses details of the organization on the ground in Syria and Iraq. There is not much new here for readers who have been following analyses of the group, but the overview is largely complete for those unfamiliar with how ISIS is governed. If something is lacking, it is the dimension of women under ISIS rule. Readers get a brief discussion of the al-Khansa brigade of women inside ISIS earlier in the book, but little else. Especially since the argument of the book centers on the collapse of institutions, tracing more clearly the impact on women in Syria and Iraq is called for. Likewise, where Gerges generally addresses questions of radicalization with nuance, there is nothing here about why women join the group, and that is true of the literature more broadly.
Finally, I remain skeptical about the usefulness of the near enemy/far enemy distinction as it applies to ISIS. Overall, Gerges's argument is that ISIS shifted back to fighting the near enemy while al-Qaeda was always focused on the far enemy. In the broadest sense, this is true. However, with the collapse of states in the region, especially in Libya, Syria and Iraq, the tyrants who are a staple target of ISIS discourse fell, and chaos reigned. Gerges acknowledges that, with the entry of Russia and the United States into the war in Syria, the distinction between the near and the far enemy broke down. However, I worry it is even more than that. From the day ISIS seized territory and governed it themselves, the paradigm needed to be rethought. The near-enemy concept seems to have slipped to Shiite and other non-Sunni civilians rather than the Westernized Arab tyrants Qutb saw as having usurped God's hakimiyya with a new form of jahiliyya. That's almost certainly Zarqawi's lasting influence, but it seems to muddy the concept. These criticisms aside, this book is head and shoulders above others I have read on ISIS. It has a very solid structure; and it does justice to the impact of the Syrian war, the American invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the leadership struggles inside ISIS and al-Qaeda, as well as between them. Gerges has made an important contribution to the burgeoning literature on ISIS.