ISIS: A History, by Fawaz A. Gerges

Unbeatable? This extremist group has little to offer in times of peace, says Christina Hellmich

July 21, 2016
Silhouettes of Islamic terrorists aiming guns at sky
Source: iStock

Islamic State (also known as Isis, Isil or by its Arabic abbreviation Da’esh) has stunned the world with its savagery, destructiveness and military successes. Within less than 36 months, it rose from relative marginalisation to taking the lead of the global jihadist movement, controlling a swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria roughly the size of the UK, and an army estimated to number more than 30,000 combatants. What explains its startling rise, and what does the future hold?

ISIS: A History traces the journey of the group from inception and consolidation in Iraq to the military surge that allowed it to settle and expand in Syria and beyond, in a structured, highly readable manner. Gerges is clear, and it is here that the book excels, that Isis cannot be explained in isolation but must be examined in the larger sociopolitical context in which it emerged. The starting point for the discussion is the positioning of Isis as an extension of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), itself the result of the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. A detailed examination of the post-Saddam political establishment and its incapacity to foster national identity demonstrates the rapid growth of intercommunal distrust and a deepening of the Sunni-Shia divide. Beyond Iraq, particular attention is paid to the breakdown of state institutions in Syria, its descent into full-blown war and the consequences of the Arab Spring in neighbouring countries to shed light on the conditions that fuel Isis.

With slim prospects for meaningful change in the circumstances that enabled the spectacular surge of Isis, is the group here to stay? While its rise must be contextualised within the social and material conditions of the Middle East, the assessment of its future prospects requires a closer look at the group’s worldview and ideology. Its ultimate goal is to resurrect a caliphate free of Shia and other minorities in the lands of Islam. A detailed overview of the changing agenda from the early days of AQI under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi shows an increasingly narrow view of the umma (community of Muslims) and reliance on ever more violent means. With an ideology that thrives under the conditions of war, Isis has moved the binary worldview of jihadism to new extremes – turning even the most established jihadists into mortal enemies. Increasingly fragmented within and bereft of theological backing, the organisation relies overwhelmingly on violence with little to offer for times of peace. Contrary to current fears that Isis may be unbeatable, the cracks within are undeniable and its long-term future is far from certain.

While Gerges’ insights and conclusions are spot on, it is surprising that he frames his analysis with reference to the global “Salafi-jihad”, a term widely criticised as an unhelpful, superficial label, drawing on concepts that are subject to much controversy and unable to readily explain the rationale of a contemporary movement. Greater reference to the extant literature, such as that of Nelly Lahoud on the jihadis’ path of self-destruction that is central to the argument presented here, would have further strengthened the discussion. However, ISIS: A History makes a welcome contribution to the debate, and will be of interest to both general readers and specialists.

Christina Hellmich is reader in international relations and Middle East studies, University of Reading.


ISIS: A History
By Fawaz A. Gerges
Princeton University Press, 384pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780691170008 and 9781400880362 (e-book)
Published 27 April 2016

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