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.