Understanding ISIS


Unsurprisingly following the rise and rise of ISIS there is a glut of writing looking to better understand and explain the roots, origins and ascent of what is widely accepted to be the richest and most dangerous 'terrorist' group of the modern age.

Moubayed's books goes straight to the front of the queue as an excellent account of the wider politics that has created the conditions in which ISIS has flourished. Moubayed is a Syrian analyst who has spent time recently at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

His work starts, as with so many Middle East political classics, with a look at the fundamental principles and weaknesses of the post-Ottoman order, which he argues has seen nation states fall apart. The current era and its associated violence is based on the search for legitimacy with the failure of traditional post-colonial movements that nominally sought legitimacy in Arab Nationalism to the more sectarian groups of today.

Moubayed describes Al-Qaeda in Iraq as the 'biological father of ISIS' and explains in turn they were both 'born out of the failure of the Baath'. A critical point that is often missed by conflating all groups into one 'terrorist' bracket is the competition within them and in particular the point that he makes that 'Al-Qaeda and ISIS are now competing for more than the leadership of the jihadi movement: they are competing for its soul'.

The competition has found itself based around the notion of the 'caliphate' - only mentioned three times in the Quran but suddenly embraced as the answer to what Moubayed describes as the absence of strong Sunni leadership across the region which has developed into a Sunni identity crisis.

ISIS's caliphate knits together a steady growth in 'Jihadi movements' in Iraq and Syria. In Syria Moubayed explains that before the Arab Spring 'Jihadi pockets were mushrooming throughout the country, with or without the knowledge of the Syrian authorities'. So the sudden and rapid emergence of ISIS shouldn't come as a complete surprise.

The scale of the group's control is clearly laid out - between 35,000-50,000 fighters controlling over 35,000 square miles of territory (an area as large as Great Britain) with a population of over 6 million (larger than Denmark). Moubayed goes into detail around the balance of national and foreign fighters. Interestingly over 60% of Jabhat al-Nusra are Syrian compared with 10% of ISIS.

The caliph himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is profiled and comes across as an avid football fan who carries a photo of his mother in his wallet, speaks English, googles himself, loves wearing black and protected himself by marrying into the Duleim tribe. His methods of running his caliphate - through devolved power to local councils, landlord licensing, rent caps - not to mention a mechanised jihad that uses professional communication techniques to spread fear and coordinate networked fighters is fascinating.

Moubayed should be congratulated for breadth and scope of his interviews and research. He's put together a must-read on this all too topical and under-researched subject.