The roots of ISIS

Imperialism, class, and Islamic fundamentalism

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seemed to explode out of nowhere to sweep into control of whole sections of Iraq and Syria. Once established as an incipient state, ISIS proclaimed its commitment to wage war against the existing states in the region, especially those controlled by Shia ruling classes. But they also challenged the Sunni fundamentalist regime in Saudi Arabia. This has provoked the Obama administration to launch an unrelenting air war against ISIS strongholds in defense of the existing order in the Middle East. In the early summer of 2016, America’s coalition with the Iraqi state, Shia militias and Iranian forces scored a decisive victory over ISIS in Fallujah. Obama next plans to retake Mosul, the Islamic State’s most important economic stronghold in Iraq. At the same time, in Syria, the United States in alliance with Syrian Kurds, Russia, Assad’s regime, Iran, and Hezbollah was closing in on the ISIS capital, Raqqah. The humanitarian cost of their victory will be horrific, killing untold numbers, displacing millions more in both countries, and intensifying sectarian and ethnic antagonisms throughout the region. These developments seem to spell the impending defeat of ISIS as a state. But the victory of the American forces and their allies will bolster the counterrevolutionary states in Syria and Iraq, and stabilize the existing reactionary order in the rest of the region. Moreover, as ISIS retreats from its state-building project, it will increasingly turn to the tactics pioneered by its al-Qaeda forbears of sectarian and terrorist attacks in the region and throughout the world. This will then provoke more imperialist intervention and sectarian repression from the existing states, risking further descent into barbarism in the Middle East. The ISR’s Ashley Smith interviewed Anand Gopal in mid-June about the roots of ISIS in Iraq. Gopal is author of the award-winning book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes and of numerous articles about US wars and occupations in the Middle East for Harper’s and The Nation, among other publications. He was recently on assignment in Iraq, writing for The Atlantic.

What are the current conditions in Iraq and Syria that you have observed?

As we speak, Iraq is in the midst of a major humanitarian crisis. I recently returned from the outskirts of Fallujah, a city famous for its resistance to and destruction at the hands of US forces over a decade ago. Since mid-2014 Fallujah has been under the dictatorial grip of ISIS, which has not allowed any citizens to leave the city. 

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces—backed by US airpower—have blockaded the city for months, not allowing food or medicines inside. It is like a medieval siege, no different than what Bashar al-Assad is doing to Syrian cities like Deir az-Zour. And the results are similar: widespread starvation, with people eating boiled leaves and animal fodder to survive. 

In June, Iraqi forces finally captured the city, but it came at a great cost to people living there. There are numerous reports of brutal torture and executions carried out by Shia militias. Meanwhile, the 10,000 or so families who have fled the city have been processed by the Iraqi forces, and the men were separated from the women and children. Now the women and children are living in squalid camps, while the men (and boys over the age of fourteen or so) are being kept in indefinite detention. 

The Iraqi government is enacting collective punishment on entire Sunni communities. Meanwhile, the US continues to increase its involvement, directly through a massive airstrike campaign and indirectly through the Iraqi forces. 

Western pundits give the false impression that Islamic fundamentalism as a potent political force stretches back centuries in the Middle East, and yet groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS are relatively new there. What precipitated their development in the region and in Iraq in particular? 

There were four factors that led to the rise of Islamism in Iraq, all of which date to the decades before the American invasion and occupation. First, it’s easy to look at the political forces today in the Middle East and assume that political Islam has always been dominant—but that could not be further from the truth. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Iraqi Communist Party was one of the most powerful actors in Iraqi politics; at its height, the cross-sect party had 25,000 members. The rising Baath party eventually crushed them—possibly with help from the CIA. 

In addition to its role in eliminating progressive movements, Saddam’s Baath Party damaged the legitimacy and credibility of secular politics because of its oppressive rule. In other words, secularism received a bad name because the most important remaining secular force, the ruling Baath party, was so cruel and corrupt. So with the two main representatives of mass dissent—communism and Arab nationalism—eliminated, a tiny minority of politicized individuals turned to various interpretations of political Islam. This process took place across the Middle East from the 1970s on, though in Iraq among Sunnis it was muted because of Iraqi state repression. 

Nonetheless, through the 1980s and 1990s small informal networks of individuals espousing some form of Salafism began to emerge. These networks focused on preaching and propaganda, and they were sometimes tolerated by the state so long as they did not speak against Saddam’s regime. 

The second factor leading to the rise of Islamism was the Iran-Iraq war, which killed hundreds of thousands and spurred the rise of religious motifs and symbols into the public sphere. To take one example, a woman wearing the veil was not a common sight in Mosul in the 1970s, but by the 1990s it was rare to see a Muslim woman without a hijab in public. In part, Saddam promoted this in order to bolster support for his war; he wanted to show that Iraq was more genuinely Islamic than the Islamist theocracy in Iran. 

Third, during the 1990s Saddam launched the “Faith Campaign,” which incorporated Islamic language and imagery into official discourse as a way to shore up his legitimacy in the wake of a massive Shia and Kurdish rebellion. For example, he changed the Iraqi flag to include the words “God is Great” and introduced religious instruction among the officer corps. He built mosques around the country, printed millions of Korans, and even introduced aspects of sharia law into society. In Baghdad, for instance, hundreds of sex workers—who had previously been tolerated—were rounded up and executed by the regime.  

The fourth reason for the rise of Islamism in Iraq relates to the global context. Around the world, the United States and regional powers like Saudi Arabia helped promote hardline political Islam as a counterweight to secular forces, or as a way to control local populations. One prominent example is the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s; the US armed and funded Islamist guerrillas, the mujahedeen, as a way to topple the Moscow-backed regime in Kabul. Although there were numerous forces within the mujahedeen who espoused a traditionalist, non-radical version of political Islam, the US purposefully supported the most radical groups. It funded the production of textbooks—read by millions of Afghan children—which glorified jihad and martyrdom. It created Islamist warlords by pouring billions into the country, and flooding it with arms. 

It was in Afghanistan that Arabs like Abu Musab al Zarqawi (the future founder of ISIS) met other radicals like Osama bin Laden, and the modern hardline “transnational” Salafist movement emerged. Another example is Israel, which helped create Hamas in the 1980s as a counterweight to the secular PLO. In this sense, the rise of Islamism in Iraq took place within a global context of Islamicization, which was helped along by the US and other world powers. 

How did the American invasion and occupation of Iraq trigger the rise of ISIS?

Although the Islamic State operates in Syria and has franchises around the world, ISIS is, at its core, an Iraqi phenomenon. And it’s impossible to understand the group without first understanding the social structure of Iraqi society before and after the US invasion. Historically, three groups have made up the Sunni ruling class in Iraq: Baathist army officers, the bourgeoisie, and tribal sheikhs. 

These groups aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s easier to understand if we treat them separately for the moment. Baathist officers comprised a key power base for the Saddam regime, and were drawn heavily (though not exclusively) from the Sunni population. The Sunni bourgeoisie functioned through its close ties to the regime, which practiced a version of state capitalism. After the US- and UN-imposed sanctions of the 1990s, which devastated the Iraqi economy, this group also became involved in smuggling. 

The third group, tribal sheikhs, needs some explanation. Arab tribalism in its current form is a modern invention, a result of empire and colonialism. In the nineteenth century, the Ottomans forcibly settled nomadic Bedouin communities to increase tax revenue and better control potential threats to the Sultan’s rule. The Ottomans broke up communal lands and promoted certain men as “sheikhs,” granting them deeds and other privileges in return for loyalty and taxes. 

Effectively, the Ottomans created a land-owning class, which every power after them (the British, Saddam, and the Americans) attempted to manipulate to their own ends. But unlike landowners in the West, these sheikhs’ social position depended on the state giving them resources, which they then distributed to their fellow tribespeople as a form of patronage. This type of patronage acted sometimes to blunt (but not eliminate) class struggle between peasants and sheikhs—because the peasants relied on redistribution from the sheikhs. But this also meant that the tribal sheikhs always owed their power to the state, and as such they tended to shift their allegiances to whichever authority would grant them privileges. 

When it invaded in 2003, the US plunged Iraqi society into chaos, wrongfully imprisoned and killed tens of thousands, and tore the country apart. All this is well known. What has not been analyzed in great detail, though, is the effect of this devastation on Iraqi class relations. Each of the three elements of the Sunni ruling class I mentioned earlier was directly affected. 

The Baathist officers lost their jobs and were banned from political life due to the de-Baathification program of L. Paul Bremer. The Sunni bourgeoisie lost the state that had supported them, and the US effectively imported a new business class overnight. These were Iraqi expats and elements of Shia religious parties, who became fabulously wealthy on US contracts and corruption. 

The third group, tribal sheikhs, lost their source of patronage. With the old Iraqi state removed, these sheikhs not only lost their privileges, they also lost their ability to redistribute or pass this patronage down to the poor farmers and rural workers who comprised their base. As a result, the Sunni ruling class and ordinary Sunnis joined together in a popular rebellion against the US occupation. 

Their reasons were different: the old ruling class was resisting because it had lost its privileges, while ordinary Sunnis were resisting because of the everyday humiliations and depredations of occupation. Many Sunnis called this the “nationalist resistance.” (However, because this resistance did not include Shias or Kurds, it did not represent a genuine Iraqi-wide national liberation movement).

Parallel to this resistance was a Sunni Islamist-jihadist resistance, led by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and similar groups. This movement originates in those individuals who had turned to some form of political Islam during the 1980s and 1990s, for the reasons I mentioned. They included some junior Baathist Army officers and religious students. They joined the resistance in 2003 but were soon jailed by the US in the vast prison camp in Bucca. There, they mixed with hardened al-Qaeda operatives—mostly non-Iraqis—who had fought in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and upon emerging from captivity they joined AQI and similar groups. 

Some who joined AQI would go on to become leading figures in ISIS. This does not mean, however, that ISIS is run by Baathists; rather, a portion of the leadership is former Baathists who have long-since renounced secular Baathist ideology in favor of radical Islamism. It’s more accurate to say that these men combine three distinct elements: the ideological vision of hardline Salafism, the military and intelligence expertise of army officers, and the Baathist totalitarian method of rule. 

Why did the nationalist resistance turn against AQI, and why did the Sunni tribal elite opt to go on the CIA payroll during the so-called Sunni Awakening? 

The US sought to portray the entire resistance as AQI-led, but in fact during the 2003–05 period it was a secondary actor to the nationalists. Ironically, the US portrayal of the entire resistance as Islamist helped build AQI’s cachet and allowed them to attract more recruits. An equally important reason for the growth of AQI was the class structure of Sunni society that I described earlier. 

Sunni sheikhs who had lost their power and privileges after the 2003 overthrow also lost their ability to distribute patronage to their followers. Under these conditions, the class antagonisms between poor rural workers and their sheikhs increased—which al Qaeda adroitly exploited. 

AQI recruited from small farmers, unskilled workers in the informal sector, and the unemployed, all of whom had lost the modest benefits of the tribal system. Many of these young men had moved to larger cities like Fallujah in search of work, where they lived the life of a poor rural immigrant. They were more poised than any other segment of society to radically question the old social order. They believed that the sheikhs had done nothing for them and were hypocritically sitting in their luxurious villas while proclaiming resistance to the Americans. 

From 2003 onwards, graffiti denouncing the sheikhs, and even the entire tribal system, began appearing in cities like Ramadi and Fallujah. AQI propaganda often criticized sheikhs and tribal customs. Under these conditions, AQI’s ranks began to swell. Young men who had been forced to pay deference to these sheikhs their whole lives were now given guns and immense authority over the lives and property of the sheikhs. In this way, AQI challenged the tribal system and the old social hierarchy, and became a direct threat to the sheikhs. 

At the same time, AQI challenged the revenue streams of the Sunni bourgeoisie and the tribal sheikhs. It began competing with these groups in the licit and illicit economy, and due to its greater firepower was often able to wrest control of trade networks. To take one example, the town of al-Qaim on the Iraqi–Syrian border had been the site of black-market smuggling since the sanctions days. An alliance of local businessmen and sheikhs from the Albu Mahal tribe had monopolized this trade, which they used to enrich themselves and to fund their insurgent group, which was fighting the American occupation as part of the nationalist resistance. AQI began to impinge upon, and then take over, these smuggling routes. 

For these reasons, the growth of AQI challenged the class interests of the Sunni elite, which had been leading the nationalist resistance. Faced with the prospect of either continuing to fight the Americans in the name of national liberation or protecting their privileges, the Sunni elites chose the latter. This is what became known as the “Sunni awakening,” the rapid reversal of 2006 and 2007 in which Sunni elites turned on AQI and sided with the Americans. This effectively ended the nationalist resistance. (The popular media narrative is that Sunni tribes turned against AQI because of AQI’s brutality, but in fact AQI only began killing sheikhs after they switched sides to support the Americans).

The US rewarded these elites by granting them contracts and allowing them to form militias, and almost overnight the sheikhs were able to reestablish the authority and privileges that they had lost after 2003. The sheikhs were now able to redistribute some of this wealth to their tribespeople, peeling away the base of support of AQI. Then, with US military backing, they attacked AQI, dislodged it from its sanctuaries, and expelled the group to the remote desert. By 2009, the insurgency—both Islamist and nationalist—was over. 

Again, politicians and the press portray sectarian conflict in Iraq as going back centuries, when in fact it has more recent historical roots. Can you explain what those roots are? How did the United States manipulate and encourage this division and in the end opt to back the Shia fundamentalist state? 

The roots of sectarianism date to the policies of the British, who generally promoted Sunnis at the expense of other groups, and to the policies of Saddam, who crushed Shia political movements and banned certain Shia religious practices. But it was only under the US occupation that sect became the main referent for political power, the defining identity. 

This was because the US viewed Iraqis in sectarian terms and treated them as such, something expressed through de-Baathification and other laws, through the quota system, and through the Shia religious parties that the US empowered. The US refused to see Iraqis in their various nuanced identities—confessional, ethnic, political—and instead collapsed them into three categories: Sunni, Shia, and Kurd. 

Washington reinforced this by importing Iraqi exiles who had no natural constituency within the country and who operated through a sectarian logic. For example, the US packed the 2003 interim governing council with Iraqi expats and members of Shia Islamist parties. This divide and rule was a page out of the classic colonial playbook, and like the historical example, it had the effect of making these categories real and more important. Iran played a similar role: the clerical regime backed Shia Islamist parties and a number of deadly Shia militias, which produced the bizarre outcome of two antagonistic parties—the US and Iran—backing the same forces in Iraq.

So instead of rectifying the inequities and injustices of Saddam’s regime—such as those against Shias—the US and Iran inverted the situation, and effectively excluded Sunnis from mainstream political and economic life. It was under these conditions that AQI was able to spark a Sunni–Shia civil war, which began in 2006. Its rationale for doing so was to eliminate the Sunni middle; the group would place bombs in crowded Shia areas, killing many civilians, which would spark the Iraqi state and associated Shia militias to commit reprisals against Sunni civilians. 

It became impossible for Sunnis (or Shias) to remain neutral or above the sectarian fray. This was a factor in driving some Sunnis to join AQI, or to accept its violently anti-Shia rhetoric. It’s worth noting that ISIS, AQI’s successor, uses the same logic today, both inside Iraq and globally. When ISIS affiliates carry out attacks in the West, the strategic goal is to provoke a violent and Islamophobic response by Western states and societies, thereby making it impossible for Western Muslims to remain neutral. ISIS strategists hope that these affected Muslims will then join the Islamic State. In this way, ISIS (and AQI before it) depends on racism and Islamophobia in the West, and anti-Sunni politics in Iraq, to survive and grow. 

For two reasons, the civil war that AQI set off in 2006 was over by 2008. First, as I mentioned, the Sunni Awakening was able to defeat AQI. Second, by siding with the US, Sunni nationalist groups entered into a détente with the Shia-dominated state. In reality, this meant that Sunnis had lost the civil war, but this was not clear to them or most observers at the time. 

How did ISIS manage to sweep into control of most of Sunni Iraq? 

When the US pulled out of Iraq in 2011, the balance of forces was the following: The Iraqi state, under the control of Nuri al-Maliki and the Shia ruling class, was firmly in power due to an alliance with the US and Iran. Meanwhile, the Sunni ruling class had been supported since 2007 by the United States, through millions of dollars in contracts and jobs. The Shia ruling class did not want to share power with Sunni elites—many of whom it had been fighting just a few years before—while the Sunni elites were unwilling to forgo the significant financial and political power they had accrued from the Awakening. 

The US was supporting both the Shia and the Sunni ruling classes but was unprepared or unwilling to reconcile the two sides—because doing so would have meant dismantling the entire post-2003 order. So it withdrew hoping that the two sides would reconcile by themselves, thereby ignoring the structural contradictions in the post-2003 system that would make such reconciliation impossible in the absence of either renewed civil war or a revolution. And as it turned out, renewed civil war and revolution was exactly what happened. 

The march towards the second Iraqi civil war began after 2011. In the rivalry between the Shia-dominated Iraqi state and the Sunni elite, it was ordinary Sunnis who paid the price. In one town after the next, Iraqi security forces tortured and disappeared rounded-up innocent Sunnis. A protest movement erupted in late 2012, where activists set up tents in major Sunni cities like Fallujah, Ramadi, and Hawija. Protesters were demanding an end to discriminatory policies like the de-Baathification laws and the notorious counterterrorism laws, under which so many Sunnis had been disappeared. 

The dynamics of the protests were similar to the post-2003 insurgency: a nationalist uprising led by the Sunni bourgeoisie, tribal sheikhs, and former officers who had mass support among Sunni society. And like in 2003, radical Islamists like AQI comprised only a tiny part of the movement. The Iraqi state’s response was to increase its repression; in Hawija, for example, state security forces massacred protesters. 

By December 2013, the movement had morphed into an armed struggle, which had wide support in Sunni communities. At this point, Maliki effectively declared war on the movement, which had the immediate effect of splitting the Sunni ruling class. Some elites, especially in more tribal areas like Ramadi, decided to support the state, while others in places like Fallujah declared a revolution against Baghdad. Protest leaders established a revolutionary council in Fallujah that ran the city for nearly six months in 2014. 

In this environment, AQI—which had now rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—made a comeback. They allied with the revolution against Baghdad and portrayed themselves as protectors of Sunnis against the Shia state. As the state increased its repression, ISIS was able to turn this idea into reality. In Fallujah, for example, the Iraqi army indiscriminately shelled the city, killing thousands. This forced the revolutionary council to increasingly rely on ISIS, which had greater access to heavy weaponry. By doing so, however, the revolutionary elites dug their own grave. 

In January 2014, Fallujah’s revolutionary council consisted of a mélange of groups and individuals who had previously belonged to the nationalist resistance against the Americans: ex-army officers, sheikhs, Islamists, and secularists. In addition, there were a half dozen insurgent groups operating in the city, all of which had been active in the fight against the Americans. In just six months, ISIS was able to co-opt some members, kill others, until it enjoyed complete authority inside the city. 

It did so, in part, by exploiting the same class grievances that AQI had, recruiting among the rural poor, unskilled workers, deracinated urban immigrants, the unemployed, and other lumpen elements. These were the groups that were the most exposed—both economically and in terms of state predation—from the inability of Sunni elites to redistribute wealth and protection downwards. Across Sunni Iraq, ISIS also exploited the divisions created by the US Awakening Program: in all areas the US supported some tribes more than others, and ISIS was able to recruit among those who lost out from this process. 

In the town of Heet, for example, the US showered the Albu Nimr tribe (which lived on the town’s outskirts) with contracts and government jobs, at the expense of those inside the town. So ISIS recruited from the town dwellers. In Samarra, the Albu Baz tribe benefitted disproportionately from the Awakening with jobs and money—so ISIS recruited from other nearby tribes that had lost out. 

Through these three processes—killing competing groups, supporting the poorest elements of a community against its elites, and supporting communities that had been excluded from American and Iraqi patronage—ISIS was able to sweep across Sunni parts of Iraq, dislodge the Sunni elite, and exert hegemony over anti-state Sunni politics. 

Does ISIS have a sufficient social base to withstand and survive Obama’s war? If the US does defeat ISIS will it provide a solution to the ongoing crisis in Iraq and Syria?

Although I’ve described ISIS as exploiting the class antagonisms of occupation and post-occupation Iraqi society, it’s important to understand how this works in practice. Unlike other Islamist movements that have a poor and working-class base—Hizbollah, for example—ISIS’s record of redistributing wealth downwards or instituting social welfare programs has been mixed. Such initiatives certainly do occur, but these activities have been subordinated to the Islamic State’s war effort. Moreover, these efforts have been damaged by the collapse of the economy in Islamic State territories, which was brought about by a variety of factors, including collapsing oil prices and US and Iraqi blockades of cities like Fallujah. 

Therefore, the Islamic State’s appeal is not because the group is able to actually address the class antagonisms of Sunni society, but rather because it offers something far more elemental: protection against a Shia-dominated state that many poor Sunnis see as predatory, and a direct challenge to the old social hierarchy, at least symbolically. This is why, for example, one of the first things ISIS does when it takes over a territory is to demolish the houses of big tribal sheikhs. 

For poor and marginalized elements of Sunni society, the prospect of wielding immense power over traditional authority structures is powerfully alluring. What all this suggests, though, is that ISIS lacks a positive program for Sunnis and instead offers a negative program of the most reactionary sort. We have seen this before throughout history, where mass social dislocation due to war has led to a revolutionarily nihilistic rejection of the pre-existing social order; examples include Nazism and the Khmer Rouge. 

ISIS is a grotesque expression of the severe crisis of legitimate representation in Sunni politics. Organizations that may have challenged both sociopolitical inequality within Sunni society and sectarianism within Iraqi society—such as the Iraqi Communist Party, the largest cross-sect party in Iraqi history—have been effectively eliminated. Meanwhile, liberal organizations have proved incapable of addressing the contradictions of modern Arab society—something we see acutely in Egypt. Tribes are incapable of providing resistance to the inequities produced by power, because their very nature is to ally with ruling elites. This leaves the field to Islamism, and the case of the Islamic State shows that the best organized and most ruthless among them can win the day. 

Despite this, ISIS’s hegemony over anti-state Sunni politics is likely coming to an end. It has suffered significant losses on the battlefield, as well as major financial losses due to the reasons I mentioned. Under pressure from US airstrikes, the Iraqi army, Shia militias, Kurdish forces, and Syrian revolutionaries, it has lost strongholds like Fallujah and will soon be evicted from all major towns and cities. 

This means that the Shia-dominated state has won the second Iraqi civil war. What it means for Sunni communities is less clear; most citizens have been unable to return to cities like Ramadi and Fallujah after the eviction of ISIS. What is certain, though, is that the underlying tensions that produced ISIS in the first place have not been resolved. The sectarian divisions that the US wrought on the country, the ascendancy of Islamist parties, the venality of Sunni and Shia ruling classes that grew rich through opportunism and American contracts, the failed state populated by hundreds of militias—none of these will have been resolved by the defeat of ISIS. 

The situation you describe seems bleak? Where do things go from here?

It’s easy to see this state of affairs and fall into despair. However, Iraq has shown signs of promise, too. Whenever the threat of violence has receded, such as 2009–11, and last summer in Baghdad and southern Iraq, cross-sect and secular movements have asserted themselves in protest actions and parliamentary formations. This suggests that sectarian groups thrive on violence and chaos—and that sectarianism is exacerbated by foreign meddling, particularly from the United States and Iran. 

The real hope in reversing this state of affairs lies across the border in Syria, where Syrian revolutionaries have been struggling against Assad and foreign powers despite incredible odds. A revolutionary victory in Syria would likely change the face of Sunni politics in Iraq. And as in Iraq, when violence in Syria decreases non-Islamist forces rise to the top. In April, for example, during a partial ceasefire, Syrians came out in cities across the country to protest both Assad and al-Qaeda. 

Right now, the main factor impeding Syrian revolutionaries from overthrowing Assad and delegitimizing al-Qaeda is the foreign intervention of Russia and Iran. Meanwhile, United States policy—which prefers preserving the current Syrian ruling class in some form rather than supporting a popular revolution—is increasingly sliding into a de facto alliance with Russia. Under these conditions, solidarity with the Syrian revolution—the main hope for not just Syria, but the entire region—is more important than ever.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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