Myth #1: ISIS is crazy and irrational
If you want to understand the Islamic State, better known as ISIS, the first thing you have to know about them is that they are not crazy. Murderous adherents to a violent medieval ideology, sure. But not insane.
Look at the history of ISIS’s rise in Iraq and Syria. From the mid-2000s through today, ISIS and its predecessor group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, have had one clear goal: to establish a caliphate governed by an extremist interpretation of Islamic law. ISIS developed strategies for accomplishing that goal — for instance, exploiting popular discontent among non-extremist Sunni Iraqis with their Shia-dominated government. Its tactics have evolved over the course of time in response to military defeats (as in 2008 in Iraq) and new opportunities (the Syrian civil war). As Yale political scientist Stathis Kalyvasexplains, in pure strategic terms, ISIS is acting similarly to revolutionary militant groups around the world — not in an especially crazy or uniquely “Islamist” way.
The point is that, while individual members of ISIS show every indication of espousing a crazed ideology and committing psychopathically violent acts, in the aggregate ISIS acts as a rational strategic enterprise. Their violence is, in broad terms, not random — it is targeted to weaken their enemies and strengthen ISIS’ hold on territory, in part by terrorizing the people it wishes to rule over.
Understanding that ISIS is at least on some level rational is necessary to make any sense of the group’s behavior. If all ISIS wanted to was kill infidels, why would they ally themselves with ex-Saddam Sunni secularist militias? If ISIS were totally crazy, how could they build a self-sustaining revenue stream from oil and organized crime rackets? If ISIS only cared about forcing people to obey Islamic law, why would they have sponsored children’s festivals and medical clinics in the Syrian territory they control? (To be clear, it is not out of their love for children, whom they are also happy to murder, but a calculated desire to establish control.)
This isn’t to minimize ISIS’ barbarity. They’ve launched genocidal campaigns against Iraq’s Yazidis and Christians. They’ve slaughtered thousands of innocents, Shia and Sunni alike. But they pursue these horrible ends deliberately and strategically. And that’s what really makes them scary.
Myth #2: People support ISIS because they like its radical form of Islam
You have probably heard that ISIS has a degree of popular support among some Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Muslims. That’s true: without it, the group would collapse. People sometimes assume that this says something about Islam itself: that the religion is intrinsically violent, or that Sunnis would support the group because they accept ISIS’s radical interpretation of the Koran.
That’s all wrong, and misses one of the most crucial points about ISIS: the foundation of its power comes from politics, not religion.
Let’s be clear: virtually all Muslims reject ISIS’ view of their faith. Poll after poll showsthat violent Islamist extremism and especially al-Qaeda are deeply unpopular in Muslim-majority countries. The bulk of ISIS’ victims are Muslims — many of them Sunnis (ISIS is itself Sunni). A popular revolt among Iraqi Sunnis, beginning around 2006, played a huge role in defeating ISIS’s predecessor group, al-Qaeda in Iraq. That revolt was inspired, at least in part, by anger at ISIS’s attempt to impose its vision of Islam on Muslims who disagree.
ISIS’s vision of Muslim life is pretty alien to actual Islamic tradition. Fundamentalist Islam — like most religious fundamentalisms — is a modern phenomenon. Fundamentalist groups, frustrated with modern politics, harken back to an idealized Islamic past that never actually existed. The al-Qaeda strain of violent radicalism owes more to 20th century writers like Egyptian Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb than the actual post-Muhammed caliphate.
So if Sunnis disagree with ISIS’ theology and don’t like living under its rule, why do some of them seem to support ISIS? It’s all about politics. Both Syria and Iraq have Shia governments. Sunni Muslims aren’t well-represented in either system, and are often actively repressed. Legitimate dissent is often met with violence: Bashar al-Assad gunned down protesters in the streets during the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reacted violently a 2013 Sunni protest movement as well.
So Sunnis understandably feel oppressed and out of options. Some, then, seem to be willing to wait and see if life under their fellow Sunnis in ISIS is any worse than it was before. ISIS, for its part, appears to be attempting to exploit this concern: that’s why it’s set up community, child-care, and medical services in some of the Sunni communities it controls.
That doesn’t mean ISIS is morally better than Assad or Maliki: they group is still hyper-violent and genocidal. It’s just that outreach to Sunnis is part of their politico-military strategy.
Myth #3: ISIS is part of al-Qaeda
The key thing to understand about ISIS and al-Qaeda is that they are competitors, not allies, and certainly not part of the same larger group.
ISIS used to be al-Qaeda in Iraq. But the group split apart from al-Qaeda in February 2014 because it wouldn’t listen to al-Qaeda HQ’s commands, including orders to curtail its violence against civilians. (That’s right: it was too violent for al-Qaeda.) This ISIS-AQ divorce is a key reason why ISIS is so unremittingly violent, yet many people still lump the two groups together.
For years, al-Qaeda was the clear leader of the global jihadist movement. The loose network of militant groups, internet forums, and “lone wolf” individuals saw al-Qaeda as the gold standard — and many pledged allegiance to it or established some kind of junior-partner working relationship.
When ISIS broke off, it upended everything. By taking a chunk of territory the size of Belgium in the heart of the Arab world, ISIS had come much closer to the end-goal of an Islamic caliphate than al-Qaeda ever did. All of a sudden, it didn’t seem so clear that Islamist groups around the world should pledge themselves to al-Qaeda. ISIS fought openly with Jabhat al-Nusra, which is al-Qaeda’s Syria branch — and outperformed it on the battlefield. Today, ISIS controls far more territory in Syria than Jabhat.
This ideological competition drives ISIS to be more violent. “They’re in competition with al-Qaeda, and they want to be the leader,” JM Berger, the editor of Intelwire and an expert on violent extremism, said. According to Berger, one way they do that is by broadcasting images of their military prowess worldwide. In the sick, screwed up world of Islamic extremism, images of massacres are a show of strength.
When ISIS executed American journalist James Foley and put the video on YouTube, or when it declared its intention to wipe out Iraq’s Christians and Yazidis, it’s not doing it just because they can, although among individual militants indulging a sick desire is certainly part of it. At a broader level, this part of ISIS’s plan to beat al-Qaeda and spread the ISIS brand globally.
The worst part: There’s some evidence this plan is working. Even before ISIS’s rapid advance in June, ISIS was wresting groups in Tunisia and Libya away from al-Qaeda’s allegiance to their own. There have been ISIS-linked suicide bombings as far afield as Malyasia.
Myth #4: ISIS is a Syrian rebel group
It is true that ISIS opposes Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, and the two constantly fight one another in Syria. But calling ISIS a “Syrian rebel group” misses two critical facts about ISIS. First, it’s a transnational organization, not rooted in any one country, with lots of fighters who come from outside the country and are motivated by global jihadist aims as well as the Syrian war specifically. Second, Assad and ISIS are not-so-secretly helping each other out in some crucial ways, even as they fight. ISIS and Assad are frenemies, not full-on opponents.
For one thing, ISIS predated the Syrian civil war. It started as al-Qaeda in Iraq in the mid-2000s and, after that group was defeated by Iraqis and American forces around 2008, reformed in the same country. Between 2008 and 2011, ISIS rebuilt itself out of former prisoners and ex-Saddam era Iraqi army officers. ISIS did not grow out of the Syrian rebellion: it took advantage of it.
Now, it’s true the war in Syria benefitted ISIS tremendously. It allowed ISIS to get battlefield experience, attracted a ton of financial support from Gulf states and private donors looking to oust Assad, and a crucial safe haven in eastern Syria. ISIS also absorbed a lot of recruits from Syrian rebel groups — illustrating, incidentally, why arming the “good” Syrian rebels probably wouldn’t have destroyed ISIS.
In a weird way, this has all benefitted Assad. The Syrian dictator has vigorously pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy during the war. He’s tried hard to push the sectarian angle of the civil war, making it into a life-or-death struggle for his Alawite (Shia) and Christian supporters against the Sunni majority. ISIS’ extremism has helped convince Alawites that defecting the rebels means the destruction of their homes and communities.
And Assad has also used ISIS to divide his other opponents: the moderate Free Syrian Army, other Islamist groups, and the United States. One way he’s done that is by focusing Syria’s military efforts on the moderate Syrian rebels, leaving ISIS relatively unscathed. By allowing ISIS and other Islamist groups to become stronger at the expensive of other rebels, Assad made it much harder for the US to intervene against him without benefitting the rebels. And ISIS and moderate rebels have begun fighting against one another, further dividing the war in a way that’s beneficial to Assad.
In essence, Assad and ISIS seem to have made an implicit deal: ISIS temporarily gets a relatively free ride in some chunks of Syria, while Assad gets to weaken his other opponents. The two sides still hate each other, but both benefit from the status quo.
Myth #5: ISIS is only strong because of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki
There’s a theory that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is solely, or mainly, responsible for ISIS’s resurgence in 2014. It’s true that Maliki’s policies enabled ISIS’s rise. But blaming him alone misses the real drivers of sectarianism in Iraq — and the complicated, multi-faceted sources of support ISIS enjoys.
Maliki did a number of things that unintentionally enabled ISIS’ rise. He used Iraq’s counterterrorism laws to imprison Sunni dissenters. He exploited laws that prohibit Saddam-era officials from holding office (a number of those officials had been Sunni) to boot Sunnis out of the upper echelons of the government and military. He arrested peaceful Sunni protestors, and aligned himself with non-governmental Shia militias that had slaughtered Sunnis during the post-invasion civil war. And that’s only a partial list of Maliki policies that turned Sunnis against the Iraqi central government, and thus toward ISIS.
But it is simply incorrect to assign most of the blame for ISIS’s rise to Maliki. For one thing, Sunni anger at Iraq’s government, a quasi-democracy that empowers the Shia majority, runs much deeper than this one man. “Even if Maliki weren’t in power, there are some Sunni grievances that any Shia government would have problems with,” Kirk Sowell, a risk consultant and full-time Iraq watcher, says.
To take one example, many Sunnis wrongly believe that they’re the largest demographic group in Iraq. This belief, spread during Saddam’s time to justify Sunni minority rule, leads Sunnis to see any government they don’t head up as fundamentally unjust. Neither Maliki nor his also-Shia successor, current Prime Minister-delegate Haider al-Abadi, can fix that.
More to the point, ISIS isn’t just an Iraqi problem. Its base in Syria today is just as, if not more, important than the land it controls in Iraq. They’ve gotten funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, and wink-wink-nudge-nudge help from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
The really important takeaway here is that Maliki’s political defeat does not mean ISIS will wither away, nor that Baghdad political reforms could solve this problem alone. The Abadi government will need to undertake deep, structural reforms if it wants to address Sunni grievances. The Sunni community will have to reject ISIS and come to terms with the Shia majority. And even if all of that happens, ISIS will still have its base in Syria.
Myth #6: ISIS is afraid of female soldiers
A bizarre meme going around claims that ISIS is really afraid of fighting all-female Kurdish military units. The theory is that ISIS fighters believe that if a woman kills you, you don’t get to go to paradise.
The truth is that ISIS’ approach to women is much more complicated — and troubling — than Western stereotypes about Islamists would suggest. ISIS has its own female brigades, and the group uses them to enforce its deeply misogynistic ideology.
The “ISIS is afraid of female fighters” theory comes from a stray quote in a Wall Street Journal piece about Kurdish advances against ISIS. It quotes a female Kurdish soldier as saying “the jihadists don’t like fighting women, because if they’re killed by a female, they think they won’t go to heaven.” Note that it’s not an ISIS fighter, a scholar, or necessarily someone who’s interrogated an ISIS fighter: just a random Kurdish soldier, who may not be super-familiar with ISIS’s ideology.
What we actually know about ISIS’s approach to women, however, paints a rather different picture. ISIS has all-female battalions, called “al-Khansaa” and “Umm al-Rayan,” that operate in Syria. ISIS female fighters wear full burqas and carry rifles; they exist to force other women to comply with ISIS’s vision of sharia law. “ISIS created [them] to terrorize women,” Abu al-Hamza, a local, media activist, said in an interview with Syria Deeply.
ISIS’s use of women is part of a rising trend of jihadist women claiming roles in violent Islamic extremist groups. “There is a process of female emancipation taking place in the jihadi movement, albeit a very limited (and morbid) one,” Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on violent Islamism at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, told The Atlantic. “Many of them are eager to portray themselves as strong women and often make fun of the Western stereotype of ‘the oppressed Muslim woman.'”
ISIS is dedicated to oppressing women, and uses rape as a weapon to terrify the population into submission in territory it controls. Somehow, perversely, it has managed to enlist large numbers of women to help in that awful effort.
Myth #7: The US can destroy ISIS
You’ve probably heard it a million times: if only the United States stepped up its bombing campaign in Iraq, launched a combing campaign in Syria, or did more to help moderate Syrian rebels, it could destroy ISIS. The fact that it hasn’t, in this telling, is a damning indictment of President Obama’s feckless foreign policy.
The truth is even more disappointing: There is no magic American bullet that could fix the ISIS problem. Even an intensive, decades-long American ground effort — something that is politically not on the table, anyways — might only make the problem worse. The reason is that ISIS’s presence in Iraq and Syria is fundamentally a political problem, not a military one.
American aircraft are very good at hitting ISIS targets out in the open: on roads or in the desert, for example. That’s why US air support was extremely effective in clearing a path for Kurdish and Iraqi forces to retake the Mosul dam in mid-August.
But American airpower is much less useful in dense urban combat, where it’s also likely to cause unacceptable amounts of civilian casualties. In response to a stepped-up American bombing campaign, ISIS could hunker down in fortified city positions. That would force the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces to engage in bloody street-to-street combat. Historically, the Iraqi army has a bad track record in those fights. It spent a good chunk of early 2014 trying to dislodge ISIS from Fallujah, a city near Baghdad. It failed to permanently push them out, and killed a lot of Sunni civilians in the process.
What if the US also stepped up its campaign in Syria, arming the Syrian rebels and bombing ISIS positions? A pretty comprehensive review of research on arming rebels, by George Washington University’s Marc Lynch, suggests that wouldn’t have helpedeven back at the beginning of the civil war. The “moderate” Syrian rebels are too diffuse, and fighters shift in and out of alliances with ISIS and other radical Islamists.
If the US wanted to intervene in Syria against ISIS today, short of a full invasion, it would somehow need to enlist either Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who benefits from ISIS’s existence, or the moderate Syrian rebels, who are disorganized and hard-pressed by Assad already, to coordinate a major offensive. That seems improbable, to say the least.
Even if the United States reinvaded Iraq to destroy ISIS — which there is no indication it would do — there’s no guarantee that even this would succeed. The United States did defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq in the late-2000s, but it had lots of Iraqi help. The Bush administration’s 2007 troop surge would have failed if the Sunni population wasn’t already turning against al-Qaeda there.
“I take the somewhat modest position that the action of 6 million Iraqis may be more important than those of 30,000 American troops and one very talented general,” Doug Ollivant, the National Security Adviser for Iraq from 2005 to 2009, told me. Without changing Sunni views of ISIS and the Iraqi government, a stepped-up US ground presence might only further infuriate the Sunni population.
The key structural causes of ISIS’s rise, the multi-sided Syrian war and Iraqi sectarian tension, cannot be solved by American bombs alone. The US can block ISIS’s advances in some places, as it is doing in Iraqi Kurdistan, but eliminating ISIS is outside its power.
Myth #8: ISIS will self-destruct on its own
You occasionally hear, especially from supporters of the Obama administration’s cautious policy, that ISIS will eventually destroy itself. ISIS’s view of Islamic law is so harsh that no population would want to live under it for long, so a Sunni revolt against ISIS is inevitable. And ISIS will overreach: its desire to expand to new territory exceeds its actual military power, meaning that a devastating counterattack is inevitable.
This is certainly possible. But ISIS is not headed in that direction yet. That’s because ISIS is both smarter and stronger than many people give it credit for.
ISIS learned from the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq, its predecessor group. Though ISIS still insists on imposing its extremist interpretation of Islamic law in the territory it controls, it also sets up institutions that look a lot like a proto-government. They’ve installed health care clinics, run public forums where ISIS operatives socialize with adults, held activities for children, policed neighborhoods, and collected taxes.
The point of this, Washington Institute fellow Aaron Zelin wrote in September 2013, is to “lay the groundwork for a future Islamic state by gradually socializing Syrians to the concept.” According to Zelin, “ISIS has shown that it wants to avoid repeating the mistakes that its predecessors made in Iraq.” Since occupying Mosul in June, Iraq’s second-largest city, ISIS’s behavior has been similar (though not identical).
ISIS, then, is balancing its ideological desire to be brutal against its strategic imperative to maintain the support of local populations. It’s still as evil as it always was — just smarter about it.
To make matters worse, ISIS has never been stronger in military terms. The incorporation of former officers with Saddam-era Iraq, plus years of fighting in Syria, has made ISIS more tactically astute than most of its battlefield opponents. In June, it captured enormous amounts of advanced American weaponry dropped by the retreating Iraqi army. And its ranks have swelled in the wake of all of its victories: one estimate, from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, claimed that ISIS recruited6,000 fighters in July 2014 alone. That’s obviously a ballpark estimate, but it almost certainly reflects real growth inside ISIS.
The bottom line: ISIS does not appear at all bound to simply fall apart on its own. To defeat the group, Iraqis and Syrians would need to do something done to separate ISIS from its base of support in Iraq and Syria. And ISIS needs to be broken on the battlefield, if only to stop the recruiting drive created by its aura of invincibility.
Myth #9: ISIS is invincible
Reading the news of ISIS’s conquests in Iraq and Syria, and even its recent foray into Lebanon, you might get the sense that ISIS is unstoppable. That it’ll sweep Iraq, and really, truly, establish an extremist Islamic state in Iraq and eastern Syria.
This isn’t true. ISIS is smarter and more effective than it used to be, and it’s too strong to collapse on its own, but it’s still quite vulnerable. The Iraqi government, with Kurdish and American help, really could make major inroads against ISIS.
In June, when ISIS was sweeping Iraq, there were panicked predictions that Baghdad was about to fall to ISIS’s advance. It didn’t. ISIS didn’t even try to take the city, likely because it knew it couldn’t dislodge the huge concentrations of Iraqi troops there — or hold a majority-Shia city that would never accept it.
Iraqi demographics place a natural limit on ISIS’s advance. Even high-end estimates of ISIS’s strength — 50,000 troops — make it much smaller than the Iraqi army or Kurdish peshmerga. It’d be impossible for ISIS to take and hold majority Shia areas, where they’d be totally unable to build popular support. The Islamic State’s borders in Iraq are limited to northern and western, Arab-majority, Sunni-majority Iraq.
That’s a damning problem for ISIS. All of the major oil wells, which provide 95 percent of Iraq’s GDP, are in southern Iraq or Kurdish-held territory in the northeast. ISIS can’t advance on the Shia south, and a joint US-Kurdish campaign is reversing its gains in Kurdistan. ISIS has huge financial reserves for a militant group — maybe up to $1 billion dollars. But that’s a relatively small amount for a government, and any attempt to actually govern northwestern Iraq in the long run would lead to economic disaster.
“It’d be a permanent downward economic spiral — like Gaza, basically,” Kirk Sowell, a risk analyst and Iraq expert, says. An ISIS mini-state is just not sustainable.
When you pair the inevitable economic crisis in ISIS-held Iraq with ISIS’s brutal legal system, it seems like Sunnis will eventually tire of the group. That discontent may not be enough on its own to end the group’s rule, especially if it still believes the Iraqi central government would be worse for them. But it creates an opening for Iraqi Prime Minister-delegate Haider al-Abadi to reach out to disaffected Sunnis. He might be able to make allies among Sunni tribal militias.
Meanwhile, ISIS may alienate some its core Iraqi allies: militias who support a Saddam-style Sunni dictatorship. They’re generally secular and no fans of ISIS’s vision of Islamic law, and are only allied with it to fight the government. If ISIS’s Sunni allies turn against it, and the government does a better job making its rule look attractive, ISIS may lose the Sunni population — and most of its gains in northern Iraq. Again, that’s not inevitable, and will require some tough political changes in Baghdad, but the point is that ISIS is far from invincible.
ISIS’s hold in Syria, though, would be much, much harder to dislodge. It’s hard to imagine either Assad or moderate anti-Assad rebels mounting an effective military campaign against ISIS in the near term. But rolling back ISIS in Iraq, and containing it to Syria, would be a major victory, though an incomplete one as it would leave ISIS with a chunk of Syria. Still, this would limit the group’s reach in the Middle East and blunt its global appeal. And when Syria’s civil war finally does end, whenever that happens, eliminating ISIS will be the winning side’s first priority.