In mid-2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in a move to turn the terrorist group into a territorial entity—a state with borders and, importantly, recognition. The combined weight of local and international efforts limited, retracted and has — by now — overwhelmed ISIS (as a state) and sent the group hurling to the far-flung ‘provinces’ of the Islamic State.
Charles Lister’s work (2015) The Islamic State – A Brief Introduction, provided a well-intentioned view on how a gang of terrorists went on to conquer land and intimidate thew world. While many of Lister’s conclusions may not have been validated, the research devoted to understanding the rise and impact of the group is exception.
How ISIS Succeeded
Lister’s book provides an incredibly clear and well-structured analysis over ISIS’s state-building capabilities. The book is — as stipulated — a brief introduction to the Islamic State, yet despite being brief, it is perfectly organised and readers can identify and locate the main and crucial information needed to understand the reasons of ISIS’s military success on the ground and its social success amongst the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria.
Additionally, Lister provides an interesting analysis on how ISIS was militarily successful—it combined three forms of warfare: conventional, guerrilla and terrorism. This capability was unprecedented in the Arab world. And, Lister provides an overview on how ISIS financed itself through the smuggling of oil, gas and antiques, and how its leadership was incredibly efficient while planning internal policies to match the level of finances it raised. Such as leadership-financing-strategy nexus effectively produced the trappings of a state, even though its legitimacy was based on a perverted ideology that mixed mis-readings of Islam and combined authoritarianism with wanton violence.
Degrading and Destroying ISIS
Understanding what ISIS is is a descriptive task. Teasing out ways to destroy the proto-terrorist-state requires analytical tools. In this, Lister expresses some interesting points. His strategy starts by viewing ISIS ‘as something qualitatively more significant than a terrorist organisation, but with a significant counterterrorism component in any suitable strategy for thwarting it’ (p. 51). He goes on to suggest that ‘it must incorporate not only counterterrorism practice but also aspects of economic, political, diplomatic, social, and religious policy’ (p. 64).
The only strategy adopted, until now, is military by nature. Efforts to promote economic and social development, to facilitate diplomatic solutions to the internal and regional conflicts that helped ISIS rise, seem too weak. Certainly the Geneva Peace Talks on Syria represent an international effort to solve the Syrian crisis, which is linked to the issue of spread of extremism in the region and globally. But apart from these — so far unsuccessful — efforts, the international community is mainly focused on backing the factions it supports, namely the Kurds, the Iraqi Army or the Syrian opposition. Doing so will not provide a long-term solution. Only a multi-pronged solution can.
To guarantee peace and stability in the region the key is to support to people—Sunni, Shia and the minorities. Whoever has the responsibility of governance over the territories that was once held by ISIS, needs to develop policies in a way that meets the deep and real needs of the populations living there. We cannot afford to ignore the discrimination and sectarian policies of some of the more restrictive regimes in the region (re: Syria). If we do, then we ought to be ready to deal with ISIS II since the fertile soil that gave rise to it will remain fertile. Many thanks to Lister for providing insights into a dynamic world of hate so that we may learn from our mistakes.