Is the Rise of ISIS Really Such a Mystery?

A fascinating new article struggles to comprehend the group's rise to power.


If you’ve been watching the international response to the Islamic State militant group with a sense of dismay at that lackluster effort, an intriguing new article offers a novel explanation for why that campaign has seen little success: Officials in NATO countries are totally baffled by the group’s rise.

The article, “The Mystery of ISIS,” published in the New York Review of Books, grants anonymity to its author, a person with “wide experience in the Middle East and was formerly an official of a NATO country,” in order to review a set of recent books on the Islamic State and its rise to power in Iraq and Syria. The article’s central thesis is that while each of the books contains insights into the group, its history, and operations, none of the theories put forward to explain the rise of the Islamic State provide compelling explanations as to how this group was able to amass so much power, so quickly.

“Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS,” the author writes, using an acronym for the group. “None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough — even in hindsight — to have predicted the movement’s rise.” It is the inability to adequately understand the group, the author believes, that has crippled the effort to defeat it.

While it is difficult to speculate as to the author’s identity, it’s a remarkably candid document that speaks to the enormous gaps in our knowledge about the Islamic State. The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, is a total cipher, his biography barely rising above the level of rumor. Then there’s the mystery of how the Islamic State came to best other militants:

[Other insurgent groups] have sometimes blamed their collapse and lack of success, and ISIS’s rise, on lack of resources. The Free Syrian Army, for example has long insisted that it would have been able to supplant ISIS if its leaders had received more money and weapons from foreign states. And the Sunni Awakening leaders in Iraq argue that they lost control of their communities only because the Baghdad government ceased to pay their salaries. But there is no evidence that ISIS initially received more cash or guns than these groups; rather the reverse.

Meanwhile, the group has ended decades of theorizing on insurgent warfare — stretching back to Mao and Lawrence of Arabia — holding that militants should blend in among the locals and avoid holding territory, where they can be hit by the overwhelming firepower of their enemy. The author cites “U.S. Army studies of more than 40 historical insurgencies” that “suggest again and again that holding ground, fighting pitched battles, and alienating the cultural and religious sensibilities of the local population are fatal.” Despite adopting tactics that should cause it to fail, the Islamic State is far from being defeated. Yet another mystery.

Reports of how the group governs are rife with contradictions. Some describe it as “a well-run organization that combines bureaucratic efficiency and military expertise with a sophisticated use of information technology.” Others report the Islamic State is incapable of governing. Which is it? Another mystery.

But other parts of the essay are marked by the author throwing up his (or her) hands at trying to understand how extreme violence and depravity can in fact be appealing to the group’s recruits. Foreign fighters from around the world have joined the group: Norway, Egypt, Tunisia, France, Yemen, and Canada. Whether in wealthy social democracies or poor dictatorships, the Islamic State has managed to find recruits, leading the author to question theories that “social exclusion, poverty, or inequality” drive people to join the group.

Here, the author seems to want not to understand why violent nihilism can be attractive, almost as if she or he were afraid what she or he might find. “I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the author writes. “It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS.”

But social exclusion, poverty, and inequality exist in both Norway and Egypt, albeit in different numbers. According to champions of that theory of jihadi recruitment, the foreign fighter phenomenon transcends borders because those conditions do as well. Even if our understanding of foreign fighter recruiting is not complete, what we do know gives us some idea of how we arrived at this juncture in history.

At the same time, it is for this reason that the article is one of the best things to recently have been written on the Islamic State: It honestly grapples with the limits of our knowledge of the group. By documenting in fairly comprehensive fashion what we do and do not know, it points toward the weaknesses in the international response — the failure to understand how the group behaves within the context of local politics, and how its actions have ripped up the conventional wisdom of guerrilla warfare.

In this way, then, what is presented as a mystery isn’t so much a mystery: It’s perhaps the next avenue of inquiry to be pursued by officials and analysts.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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