"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

ISIS: A History

Fawaz A. Gerges
Princeton University Press


From the Introduction: Down the Rabbit Hole and into the History of ISIS

Following a rapid rise and concomitant territorial conquests, the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and wa-Sham or Le­vant), or by its Arabic abbreviation, Da 'esh, has for now, by de­fault, taken operational command and leadership of the global jihadist movement, eclipsing Al Qaeda Central (AQC), which attacked the US homeland on September 11,2001. At the time of writing, ISIS controls a wide swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, as large as the United Kingdom, with a population esti­mated at roughly between six million and nine million people. Additionally, ISIS controls a sectarian army numbering more than thirty thousand combatants, in part through an amalgama­tion of local armed insurgencies in Iraq and Syria and foreign recruits.

ISIS's military surge in Syria and Iraq in 2013 and 2014 was a rude awakening for regional and global powers. Despite being trained by the United States and costing anywhere be­tween $8 billion and $25 billion,1 the Iraqi security forces were shattered like a house of glass in the summer of 2014 by ISIS's blitzkrieg, which was carried out by a force numbering only in the hundreds or at most the low thousands, catching neighbor-ing states and the great powers off guard. According to the New York Times, an army that once counted 280,000 active-duty personnel, one of the largest in the Middle East, was now believed to have as few as 50,000 men by some estimates.2 In
June 2014, a few weeks before ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, with a population of almost two million people, US president Barack Obama derisively dismissed the organization as amateurish and said that it did not represent a seri-
ous threat to America's regional allies or interests: "The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a 'j.v.' team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant____ I think there is a distinction between the capac-
ity and reach of bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian."3 Although Obama is correct to say that ISIS did not pose an immediate or a strategic menace to the US homeland, critics seized on his comment as evidence of the Administration's underestimation of ISIS's strength.

From 2013 until the summer of 2014, ISIS overran Iraqi, Syr­ian, and Kurdish security forces and rival Islamists as well. The group's prowess was confirmed by the seizure of al-Raqqa and Deir al-Zour provinces in Syria in 2014 and the expeditious col­lapse of four Iraqi divisions overnight in Mosul and elsewhere in northern Iraq under the determined assault of outnumbered fighters in summer 2014.4 ISIS's sweep of the so-called Sunni Triangle—an area of central Iraq to the west and north of Bagh­dad mostly populated by Sunni Muslims—and the threat to the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil alarmed the governments across the Middle East and the Western powers. US officials feared that Saudi Arabia and Jordan might be the next ISIS targets.5

By the end of 2014 ISIS had captured approximately a third of Syrian and Iraqi territories and had edged closer to the Iraqi-Jordanian-Saudi Arabian frontiers, with significant networks of supporters in both Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, ISIS is purported to possess a few hundred fighters on the Syrian-Lebanese border at Lebanon's eastern and northern front. ISIS and its network of like-minded militants have car­ried out spectacular suicide bombings and made multiple deadly incursions into Lebanese territory, capturing dozens of Lebanese security forces and traumatizing a society already po­larized along social and sectarian lines. In addition, the organ­ization's tentacles have spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, North Africa, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and beyond, exposing the fragil­ity of the Arab state system and the existence of profound ide­ological and communal cleavages within Middle Eastern and Islamic societies.6 To maintain their interests and prevent the collapse of the Iraqi and Syrian regimes, the United States and Russia are leading two different coalitions and waging sus­tained airstrikes against ISIS and other affiliated armed groups in both countries. At the time of writing, at the end of 2015, the effectiveness of the US and Russian coalitions has been lim­ited due to the fierce rivalry between the global and regional powers. This might change, as in November 2015 ISIS alleg­edly exploited a security loophole at Sharm al-Sheikh Airport in Egypt and smuggled a homemade bomb on board a Russian jet, which killed 224 passengers. The group also carried out a mas­sive operation in Paris with seven suicide bombers that killed and injured hundreds of civilians on November 13,2015. A day earlier ISIS struck a crowded neighborhood in Beirut, Leba­non, with two suicide bombers leaving a trail of blood and de­struction. On December 2,2015, two "supporters" of the group, a husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, twenty-eight, and a wife, Tash-feen Malik, twenty-nine, attacked a social services center in San Bernardino, California, in the United States, killing at least four­teen people and wounding twenty-one. Russia and the Western powers, particularly France, have begun to indirectly coordi­nate with one another, ratcheting up attacks against areas held by ISIS in Syria, though this coordination is still in its infancy.