ISIS by Anne Alexander

The slick violence of the propaganda of the deed which ISIS has made its trademark continues to mesmerise. The threat appears to be everywhere: in British teenagers’ bedrooms, whispering and calling through Kik and WhatsApp. Killing diners and concert-goers in Paris. On the beaches of Tunisia, slaughtering sunbathers. In the ruins of Palmyra. Overrunning Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus. Making alliances with Boko Haram in Nigeria and temporarily raising its black flag over Derna and Sirte in Libya. Losing Tikrit but taking Ramadi. Camped at the gates of Baghdad.

Most news coverage of ISIS oscillates between the extremes of overconfident predictions of the organisation’s imminent demise and exaggerated depictions of its prowess, reflecting the difficulties which the rise of this ‘state’ has caused the global powers and their local allies. I believe that the rise of ISIS needs to be understood as a partial expression of the group’s leaders’ ability to build a political and military organisation aided by the interaction of three interrelated historical processes.

The first is the catastrophe which engulfed America’s imperial dreams of remaking Iraq in a neoliberal image after 2003. However, rather than remake Iraq, US policy has played a central role in unmaking Iraqi society (even if the name of the state survives). US politicians divided a country they could not otherwise rule, triggering ethno-sectarian  war between Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Northern Iraq and between Sunni and Shi‘a Arabs in the centre of the country and in particular around the capital, Baghdad. The geo-political realignments at a global and regional level as a result of the US defeat in Iraq have been equally significant, taking the outward form of sectarian polarisation at a regional level between camps of allies associated with the competing ambitions of Tehran and Riyadh, and these in turn have fed into and intensified sectarian polarisation at a local level, particularly in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has proved adept at turning these realignments to its leaders’ advantage: feeding off the atmosphere of poisonous sectarianism encouraged by the Saudi rulers as they sought to contain and defeat popular mobilisations in the Gulf and posing as the sectarian defender of Sunni interests against Iranian encroachment in Iraq and the wider region.

The catastrophic defeat of the Syrian revolution is the second process which has played a central role in the rise of ISIS. It is intimately linked to the overall defeat of the revolutionary wave of 2011, which shook the region from Morocco to Bahrain, but contributed its own dynamics and created specific opportunities for ISIS’s leaders at critical moments in the group’s recent evolution. The collapse of the revolutionary hopes of 2011, combined with vicious counter-revolutionary violence directed at the region’s most important reformist current within the Islamist movement – Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – was always highly likely to set the scene for the revival of terrorism as a political tactic. ISIS benefited from the tide of despair flowing across the region, offering a flag of convenience for some whose hopes of achieving social and political change by other means were dashed.

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