ISIS: How and Where they Came From

One major foreign policy issue facing the world over the past few years is the rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). ISIS is an anti-Western militant group whose goal is to establish an independent Islamic state. ISIS currently controls territory in both Iraq and Syria and is seeking to gain more territory throughout the Middle East. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, ISIS has taken advantage of regional instability and publically promoted itself online with graphic videos of threats and violence. The rise and spread of ISIS has further confounded policy makers with regards to their promoting stability in the Middle East. In recent years, there has been much debate at the highest levels of government over ways to combat ISIS and the reasons behind its creation and expansion. As with many other foreign policy issues, the debate over ways to fight ISIS has evoked debate on both sides, with some arguing for a more forceful response and others seeking to stay out of the conflict. The underlying reasons behind the rise of ISIS can be contributed to a number of factors such as the current instability in the Middle East, cultural and religious differences, and intervention in the region by western powers such as the U.S.

The formation of ISIS can be traced back to 2004, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in response to the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein from power in 2003. AQI played a major role in the Iraqi insurgency that followed. They reacted to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq with a variety of violent acts that resulted in the deaths of civilians and U.S. soldiers alike. Despite the fact that AQI was weakened after the death of al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike in 2006, the organization survived and a faction of AQI separated and began to rebrand itself. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over as head of this organization in 2010, changed its name to the Islamic State (IS) in 2011, and the group grew more violent as U.S. forces began to withdraw from Iraq (Dassanayake).

As the U.S. further withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011, IS began to expand its efforts into Syria to fight against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. In 2012, IS established the Al-Nusra Front, a satellite organization of IS headed by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, establishing a base for IS outside of Iraq. The expansion of efforts into Syria gave IS an opportunity to expand its ideology into a newer territory. In an attempt to prevent a rift between both organizations, al-Baghdadi unified Al-Nusra Front and IS in 2013. The name of the organization was then changed to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, al-Julani refused to align his group to al-Baghdadi, and switched his allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. As a result of the rivalry between the two groups, Al-Zawahiri announced the unification (between ANF and IS) had been annulled as of June, 2014. On January 3, 2014, al-Zawahiri announced he had severed all connections with ISIS. As a result, the disputes between ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front worsened, leading to violent clashes between both groups and further adding to instability in the two countries. As of today ISIS, Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda all operate in the region.

One of the major underlying reasons behind ISIS’ rise is the instability of the Middle East. Historically, preexisting disputes in the region have been cultural and religious in nature and have only worsened with the addition of western intervention over the past century. One of the main religious disputes has been between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. This dispute causes tension and a desire for dominance in the region between countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two largest and most stable powers in the region. Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni, whereas Iran is primarily Shia. Interestingly enough, Iraq and Afghanistan, two unstable countries, have sizable populations of both Sunni and Shia Muslims. Furthermore, recent escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict and debate over nuclear proliferation has stirred tension. In addition, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has destabilized the country and made it a prime recruiting ground for ISIS.

Another reason for ISIS’ creation is the Middle Eastern backlash against western intervention and foreign policy. After the discovery of oil reserves in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, numerous western powers sought to gain a foothold in the region in order to meet their need for resources. With the increasing demand for oil, the U.S. began to assert its influence by supporting western-backed dictators in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In addition, the U.S. has intervened on numerous occasions in order to keep these leaders in power in order to preserve its own interests, such as supporting regime change and military action against leaders who reject U.S. goals and interests U.S. policy of intervention in the Middle East is manifested in the Carter Doctrine, which was laid forward by President Jimmy Carter in his 1980 State of the Union Address. The Carter Doctrine stated that the U.S. had the right to intervene in order to defend its interests in the Middle East, in particular, to ensure the access to oil. As a result of the Carter Doctrine, the Middle East became a focal point of U.S. foreign policy, resulting in increased anti-American sentiment throughout the region.

The most notable example of the U.S. intervening in the Middle East occurred in Iran in 1953 through Operation Ajax. Operation Ajax was the CIA backed a coup that removed Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, giving more power to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled Iran as an absolute monarch for the next 26 years, executing an estimated 60,000 political opponents, using secret police forces such as SAVAK to torture and intimidate regime opponents such as leftists and Islamists, and allowing little dissent against his rule. One of the major reasons behind the U.S.-backed coup was that Mossadegh sought to nationalize Iran’s oil production and use the profits to improve the lives of ordinary Iranians. This commandeering of its oil reserves did not align with U.S. interests. Operation Ajax is considered to be an important factor behind the 1979 Iranian Revolution and another reason Iran and the U.S. have a strained relationship today. This reaction to U.S. intervention resulted in heightened instability in the country, which allowed for the current Islamic Republic of Iran to take control. Similarly, the volatility derived from U.S. actions in Iraq and the Syrian Civil war has now promoted the recent rise of the similarly-titled “Islamic State” of Iraq and Syria.

The main ideology of ISIS is based off Salafi-Jihadism, a form of Sunni Islam that follows a strict interpretation of the Quran and promotes violence against non-believers. ISIS’ primary goal is to establish an independent Islamic State in the Middle East and expand its influence into other parts of the world. In order to achieve these goals, ISIS uses several brutal methods, such as mass killings, beheadings and systematic cruelty against those who would challenge their actions, both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In addition, ISIS promotes its goals through videos and social media sources, by which the group seeks to gain more recruits. ISIS justifies its actions through religion, as members feel that they have a moral obligation to kill whoever stands in the way of their establishing an independent Islamic State.

ISIS has received funding from a variety of different sources. A main source is from oil smuggling on the Turkish border, through which ISIS sells oil from Syrian oil fields that it controls for as little as $25 per barrel. Another source of funding for ISIS comes from wealthy individuals in Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. These donors have long served as sources of funding for ISIS as well as for other violent anti-Western militia groups in the Middle East. Between all of those sources, U.S. officials estimate that ISIS is bringing in close to $1 Million per day in order to fund its operations.

ISIS also relies on foreign fighters from a number of countries. Some 20,000 foreign nationals are currently fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, with roughly 3,400 from Western countries. In addition, an increasing number of U.S. citizens are seeking to join ISIS. According to Congressman Michael McCaul of the House Homeland Security Committee, the number of U.S. citizens seeking join ISIS this year is 150, up from only 50 last year. McCaul also stated that 18 Americans have already succeeded in joining ISIS and 18 others who have joined the similar Islamic terrorist groups. One of the members included is Douglas McAuthur McCain, a Californian who was killed in August while fighting alongside ISIS in Syria.

There are several possible ways in which the international community can defeat ISIS and restore a sense of stability to the Middle East. At this point, a ground invasion of Syria and Iraq by US troops would only make matters worse because it would result in another major war in the Middle East and directly play into the goal that ISIS has of drawing Western powers into the conflict. One such option to fight ISIS would be for the core countries such as the US to change their economic policy towards the Middle East. If the Middle Eastern Countries become economically interdependent on the United States and each other, the beginning of trade would bring an end to the fighting, leading to increased stability. Stability in the region would help to defeat ISIS because ISIS needs the instability of the region to survive. Furthermore, another thing that would go a long way to help encourage more stability in the Middle East would be for the US and other Western powers to acknowledge their past instances of intervention in the Middle East. Doing so would increase the level of trust between them and the governments of many countries in the region and make them more willing to work to defeat extremism and terrorism. Additional options to fight ISIS include working with local governments in the Middle East in order to identify threats, identify funding for ISIS and similar groups, the US reducing its support for Israel and disavowing itself from the belief of Zionism, and work to increase public understanding with regards to the reasons why ISIS was created and its stated goals and ideology.

Works Cited:

Cambanis, Thanassis. “The Carter Doctrine: A Middle East Strategy past Its Prime.” Boston Globe. Boston Globe Media Partners LLC. 14 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Dassanayake, Dion. “Islamic State: What Is IS and Why Are They so Violent?” Express. Northern and Shell Media Publications, 13 Feb. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.

Dehghan, Saeed Kamali, and Richard Norton-Taylor. “CIA Admits Role in 1953 Iranian Coup.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 19 Aug. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Dilanian, Ken. “US Intel: IS Militants Drawing Steady Stream of Recruits.” AP News. Associated Press, 11 Feb. 2015. Web. 02 May 2015.

Ghitis, Frida. “Why ISIS Is so Brutal.” CNN. Cable News Network, 3 Feb. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

“ISIS: Portrait of a Jihadi Terrorist Organization.” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 26 Nov. 2014. Web. 02 May 2015.

Reynolds, Ben. “Iran Didn’t Create ISIS; We Did.” The Diplomat. The Diplomat, 31 Aug. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.

Windrem, Robert. “Who’s Funding ISIS? Wealthy Gulf ‘Angel Investors,’ Officials Say.” NBC News. NBC News, 21 Sept. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

the author

Matt is a graduate of Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

9 Readers Commented

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  1. Staysha on October 15, 2016

    Now I feel stupid. That’s cleared it up for me

  2. Thomas on February 27, 2017

    Valuable and timely information. Thanks!…

  3. Ljube on March 1, 2017

    Your post has moved the debate forward. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Nawaf on May 11, 2017

    Wonderful article! It really shows that the Middle East is beset with numerous foreign policy struggles.

  5. Thomas on July 10, 2017

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