What is ISIS? Where did it come from, and how did it achieve so much success so quickly?
The well-respected German news magazine Der Spiegel, citing captured ISIS documents, interviews and intelligence sources, provides a compelling origin story for the organization that I highly recommend. I’m sure it will be dissected and critiqued extensively in the days to come, but if it holds up under that analysis, it will significantly alter our understanding of the group, its goals and perhaps how to fight it.
The short version:
ISIS is not motivated primarily by Islamic fundamentalism. Instead, it is the secret creation of Col. Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawia, a former Iraqi intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein, who created the organization as a means to regain Sunni control of Iraq. The seeming religious nature of the group was a conscious strategic decision, enabling ISIS to attract fighters from around the globe and distract attention from its secular ambitions.
As Der Spiegel puts it:
“IS has little in common with predecessors like al-Qaida aside from its jihadist label. There is essentially nothing religious in its actions, its strategic planning, its unscrupulous changing of alliances and its precisely implemented propaganda narratives. Faith, even in its most extreme form, is just one of many means to an end. Islamic State’s only constant maxim is the expansion of power at any price.”
Al-Khlifawia was killed in a confrontation with Syrian rebel groups in 2014. Citing documents authored by al-Khlifawia and captured after his death, Der Spiegel argues that he and other Sunni veterans of the Iraqi military organized ISIS along the same security-state model used by Saddam. The person whom we have known as the head of ISIS, the radical cleric Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was in this account hand-selected by al-Khlifawia and his colleagues to serve as ISIS’ “religious face.”
Again, take the time to read the entire piece, if possible, and do so with the understanding that elements of it are certain to be challenged. But it does seem to bolster the case that ISIS is the deadly spawn of our decision to invade Iraq, and of our subsequent incompetent attempt at occupying and “nation-building” that tragic country.