How to Understand ISIS


Malise Ruthven in The New York Review of Books:

The extreme jihadists, of course, are now mainly drawn to the so-called caliphate ofISIS, also known as Daesh. While several books have already charted the rise of ISISout of the chaos of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, in ISIS: A History, Fawaz Gerges joins Lynch in explaining its provenance more specifically as a direct consequence of the sectarian feelings the invasion unleashed, for which America must bear responsibility:

By destroying state institutions and establishing a sectarian-based political system, the 2003 US-led invasion polarized the country along Sunni-Shia lines and set the stage for a fierce, prolonged struggle driven by identity politics. Anger against the United States was also fueled by the humiliating disbandment of the Iraqi army and the de-Baathification law, which was first introduced as a provision and then turned into a permanent article of the constitution.

In his well-researched and lucidly argued text Gerges shows how the US de-Baathification program, combined with the growing authoritarianism and exclusion of Sunnis under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, provided fertile conditions for the emerging of ISIS out of al-Qaeda under the brutal leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, his even more extreme successor. Al-Baghdadi is an evident fraud whose claim to legitimacy by virtue of descent from the Prophet’s tribe Gerges discredits on genealogical grounds.

De-Baathification, based on the American envoy Paul Bremer’s foolish analogy with the postwar denazification of Germany, had deprived the country of the officer class and administrative cadres that had ruled under Saddam Hussein, leaving the field to sectarian-based militias. As Gerges rightly observes, Baathism as practiced in Iraq and Syria was “less of a coherent ideology than a hizb al-Sulta, a ruling party that distributed rewards to stakeholders based on loyalty to the head of the party.” In view of the absence of ideological content, it was hardly surprising that disenfranchised former officers of Saddam Hussein’s army, facing exclusion from Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, should have migrated to the militant version of Sunnism Gerges calls Salafi-jihadism.

In analyzing ISIS’s success, Gerges points to the legacy of Paul Bremer: some 30 percent of the senior figures in ISIS’s military command are former army and police officers from the disbanded Iraqi security forces. It was the military expertise of these men that transformed the Sunni-based insurgent movement of al-Qaeda in Iraq into ISIS, “an effective fighting machine, combining urban guerilla warfare and conventional combat to deadly effect.”

More here.