By Nick Anstett
The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, or more commonly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, currently stands as the most frequently discussed threat to national and global security. The religious extremist group first established in 1999 came to prominence in the last year in its meteoric rise to power in the Middle East, now controlling wide swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq. ISIS’s violent campaign made headlines worldwide due to its cultural and ethnic cleansing and public displays of violence such as the beheading of former American photojournalist James Foley in August 2014.
With a complex internal dogma that plays off both regional, cultural, and religious identity, the structure of ISIS makes it inherently difficult to combat. Its declaration establishing itself as a religious caliphate for Sunni Muslims in 2014 has led to its self-positioning as a figure impossible to ignore in discussions of modern Islam even as the majority of the Muslim community denounces this. As highlighted in a March 2015 piece by “The Atlantic,” despite wide-spread dismissal by most Sunni-Muslim theologians, much of the dogma spouted by high ranking ISIS members’ draws inspiration from specific readings of the Qu-Ran directed towards military action relevant during its initial writing. Regardless, the pseudo-religious basis of ISIS’ internal structure and mission has made it a powerhouse in the region and abroad with significant allies arrising outside of its regions of operation. As recently as Oct. 16, ISIS has been accused of “crowdsourcing” its terror efforts. According to NBC News, Malaysian hacker Ardit Ferizi sent ISIS a hit list of relevant targets within the U.S. that included the names of over a 1,000 individuals. Coupled with its evolving political structure which fed off power gaps left behind from the Iraq War and the ongoing Syrian civil war, ISIS’ hold on Middle Eastern politics is not an issue that can be solved easily.
Part of what makes ISIS so disconcerting and dangerous is not only its current violent action and twisting of religious dogma but also its history. The organization was originally founded 15 years prior to its current state of vitriolic prominence, and in-between became bedfellows with a wide variety of other extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda. Its existence represents the illusive and evolving nature of Middle Eastern extremist groups in that they prey off holes in politically strained regions with twisted promises of religious salvation. Combatting ISIS is not akin to going to war with a foreign political power or even previous insurgency groups such as Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, both of which continue to exist despite efforts by the US and its allies, but rather to fighting something more nebulous or fluid. The further the US or its coalition allies dig into combatting the organization, the more prevalent its ideology appears to those listening.
It is fair to claim that ISIS exists in its current state partially due to the involvement of the U.S. in Iraqi politics following the end of hostilities in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Both the Bush and Obama administrations’ mishandling lead to the positioning of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki into power. As highlighted by a July 2015 piece in “Newsweek,” al-Maliki throughout his organization instituted a wide variety of anti-Sunni Muslim policies including the unprovoked arrests of high ranking Sunni officials. These actions would ultimately lead toward the fervor of Sunni radicals within the state and eventually the rise of ISIS to power. Among the groups betrayed by al-Maliki’s sudden shift in political agenda included the paramilitary group known as Abnā al-Irāq or the “Sons of Iraq.” This predominently Sunni group worked in conjunction with the U.S. military in the waning years of the Iraq war. In 2008, Al Jazeera’s website reported that the efforts of the “Sons of Iraq” were directly responsible for lower incidents of insurgent related violence. The group was also influential in helping to placate animosity of the Sunni Muslim population in the nation towards the predominently Shiite government elected and appointed following the war. The “Sons” were ultimately disavowed by their own government and left with no option other than re-alligning their loyalty with ISIS. This not only armed ISIS with one of the most successful military groups operating out of Iraq in the process but also robbed Sunnis of a sympathic body within the state’s government. Al-Maliki’s violation of the very governmental process that the U.S. helped install and regulate following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship represents a fundamental failing of U.S. policies that spans administrations and political parties. The Bush administration failed in its championing of an inherently prejudiced political leader despite clear evidence of violence and corruption, and the Obama administration followed suit in its lack of successful regulation of al-Maliki in the whinding down of operations in the region following the conclusion of the Iraq War.
The stabilization of the Middle East and the defeat of ISIS is not a part-time job. It cannot be accomplished through a partial understanding of regional politics or religious identity and most certainly not through widespread military action. As highlighted on Sept. 28 by CNN, the conflict with ISIS remains at a standstill. More than 7,000 air strikes have not led to any extensive change in the region, nor has the recapturing of the Iraqi city of Tikrit. The efforts of Iraq and Shiite militias to capture key oil fields earlier this month halted the surge of its military campaign. ISIS is not a problem that can be solved from afar or with boots on the ground. As long as the region lacks political stability and possesses deep seated religious and ethnic prejudices, ISIS or parallel organizations will continue to create violence and terror regardless of how extensive a military campaign outside nations may launch. If the world wishes to truly make progress in not only defeating the organization but also maintaining a long lasting peace, it is going to need to buckle down and explore all options and avenues or else the cycle of violence could continue perpetually. The key lies not with military action but rather with extensive understanding of the complex religious, tribal, and ethnic divides that make up contemporary Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the Middle East. ISIS exists now in its current form due to the inability of Western countries to adequately understand the country it tried to rebuild. Future success lies in the recognition of these mistakes.