Where does ISIS come from?

Issue: 151

Miriam Scharf

A review of Abdel Bari Atwan, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (Saqi, 2015), £9.99

Rosa Luxemburg said that capitalism would end in either socialism or barbarism. Looking at the Middle East, as hopes of democracy and social justice have been dashed by counter-revolution and violence, and at the West’s depictions of Islamic State or ISIS, barbarism might seem to have triumphed. Abdel Bari Atwan, editor for 25 years of the Arabic daily AlQuds AlArabi and now running the news website Rai al-Youm, is well placed to give an informed account of the origins, ideology and spread of ISIS.

His subtitle and first chapter respond to the public’s fear and fascination with the horrific images that roll across the world’s media. Atwan says that, “without digital technology it is highly unlikely…Islamic State would ever have come into existence, let alone been able to survive and expand”.1 He does not pursue this unlikely thesis; however, it does serve to emphasise the modernity of ISIS. He moves quickly on to a deeper analysis of their material and ideological origins.

Atwan reminds us of the First Gulf War and the UN sanctions, which resulted in the deaths of 1.7 million Iraqis, half a million of them children under five. In 2003 the United States and the UK bombed, invaded and occupied—more millions died, were injured and were displaced. Washington’s Paul Bremer proceeded to dismantle and privatise Iraq’s state-owned industries, including the oil industry. Atwan suggests that the US neocon focus on promoting sectarian identities was “a deliberate plan to disarm and fragment Iraq in order to eliminate the threat such a large, oil-rich country could offer both Israel and US regional hegemony”.2

To understand the origins of ISIS it is essential to show how Iraqi opposition to this Western intervention developed. In the early armed opposition Atwan identifies Baathists, ex-Iraqi army personnel, Saddam’s ex-security forces and seven Sunni Islamist groups. Before 2004 there were also five Shia groups fighting the occupation in what Atwan describes as “a rare moment of secular unity”.3 But after the installation of the Shia-dominated government, many of them swapped their arms for jobs and influence. Some Sunni Islamists, from the start, stated their intention to expel the invaders and establish an Islamic State in Iraq. Atwan shows how the fomenting of sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni was promulgated first by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an extremist Jordanian jihadi, and from 2004 also by Al Qaeda. By 2006 an umbrella Sunni jihadi organisation had been formed—Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).

Atwan describes how the success of this group arose from a number of factors. He identifies the US “Awakening” campaign, when large numbers of Sunnis were successfully recruited to fight with the US against Al Qaeda/ISI extremism, as a key turning point. He says: “They believed a fair, democratic and representative regime would emerge.” This is disingenuous at best. The Awakening was based on the US encouraging Sunni tribal and political leaders to arm themselves as long as they fought with them against ISI. As Atwan says, they were willing to do this due to their political marginalisation under Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister, but they were already fighting on a sectarian basis. The US switch from Shia to Sunni did not give an impetus to nationalism or democracy; it helped to militarise sectarian competition. Atwan then describes how the US-imposed sectarian-based political system continued. Having helped arm and train 100,000 Sunnis, the US left Iraq, and Maliki proceeded to exclude and eliminate what he saw as a threat to his power. His cronies grabbed wealth and jobs while the excluded US-trained Sunnis became the backbone of IS.

In a chapter on “the Taliban, Al Qaeda and IS”, Atwan details the divisions developing between the jihadi groups. We can get an idea of these differences in their responses to the Arab Spring. While ISI attacked “un-Islamic ideologies, such as filthy and evil secularism, infidel democracy”, Mullah Omar, still the Taliban leader at the time, congratulated the Egyptian people for “the victory of the historical uprising”. We also learn about the allegiances ISIS gained from Islamist groups across the Muslim world, including Al Qaeda affiliates Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiah. Atwan provides well-researched estimates on foreign recruitment numbers and explains how the “push” of rising Islamophobia, alongside the “pull” of fighting for one’s beliefs and joining the Umma, both served as reasons for large numbers of Muslim youths turning to radical Islam and to ISIS as their champion.

However, by concentrating on armed factions and government actions, Atwan does not sufficiently explain the deepening of sectarian identity among the population. One important basis for the growth of sectarianism, especially in Iraq, arose from material needs. Anne Alexander explains how post-invasion privatisation fed sectarianism. As state services closed down, people were increasingly forced to turn towards local mosques, Islamic charities and tribal connections to meet their basic welfare needs. National or social identities weakened. This dynamic intensified when protection from violence became a priority.4

Bashar al-Assad’s brutal response to the revolutionary upsurge in 2011 turned Syria into a ferment of civil war. The crushing of democracy and the promotion of armed groups created conditions for the growth of ISIS. Atwan leaves out the role aggressive privatisation played in laying the basis for revolt. His post-1945 history of Syria is useful: for example, knowing about past Muslim Brotherhood opposition can explain why Assad reacted so brutally to the first peaceful protests in 2011. However, there is no coverage of his rule since 2000. Atwan therefore ignores the exacerbation of social and economic inequality spurred by a neoliberal privatising agenda. These undermined the Syrian Baath Party’s social pact, whereby the government provided services in return for total control. Jonathan Maunder has shown how dissatisfaction with increasing poverty and state authoritarianism fed the Syrian uprising and Bassel F Salloukh has elsewhere given an interesting example of how the uprising in Aleppo was first divided on class lines before becoming sectarian.5

Atwan describes the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Syrian jihadi opposition groups, citing estimates of $5 billion in Saudi funding. Jihadists, who had flowed into Iraq during the surge against occupation, now flowed back again to Syria. He draws on information from Rai al-Youm correspondents to detail the composition of the Free Syrian Army, the Supreme Military Council and the Islamic Front (a Saudi initiative). These groups were meant to provide the moderate opposition the West was so desperate to back. Atwan quotes Patrick Cockburn on moderates in Syria by 2013: “there is no such thing”.6 Here he brushes over the role of the many democratic organisations active in Syria. Ghayath Naisse, a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current, writing in October 2013 explains how Syrians were still organising demonstrations and making democratic demands, albeit now having to protect themselves with arms.7

The book has a convincing biography of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of Islamic State. We learn how Baghdadi took part in the insurgency against the Western occupation of his country. He is credited with establishing the branch in Syria, creating the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and masterminding a successful fight to gain leadership over other jihadi groups. Atwan explains how ISIS integrated former Baath members into their command structure and made alliances with groups mobilised by Sunni tribal alliances. This combination was able to take the city of Mosul in June 2014. The Iraqi army troops evaporated before them, allowing Baghdadi to declare the arrival of the Islamic State with himself as caliph.

Atwan’s description of the structure of ISIS’s state machinery and councils comes from the organisation’s own publicity. Details of daily life in the new caliphate have also been gleaned from social media contacts. There are reports that the poor get food and housing, and that teachers receive salaries. There appears to be improved order, albeit owing to fear. Atwan reiterates the point that ISIS knows and benefits from the fact that populations exhausted by violence and chaos will find relief under anyone who can establish law and order.

This is explained further in the chapter on the “Management of Savagery”. Here the 2004 document of the same name written by Abu Bakr Naji, an Al Qaeda ideologue, is examined. ISIS’s media department disseminated images of high-impact violence quickly and widely, as part of its psychological strategy. Atwan gives us Naji’s three stages for re-establishing the caliphate. The first sees “the exhaustion of the superpowers”. The second, the “administration of savagery”, commences with the breakdown of regular armies enabling the mujahideen (jihadi fighters) to prevail as the people yearn for the return of law and order. Then follows Naji’s list of actions to be followed in stage three, “the establishment of the Islamic State”.8 Rather than simply join in the demonisation of ISIS, Atwan points out that all countries are established through war; and psychological terror is part of every army’s arsenal. He reminds us it was the Americans who used “shock and awe”.

The problem with Atwan’s analysis is that he views Islamism as if Islamist groups are all essentially creatures of imperialism and therefore cannot have anti-imperialist motivations. He gives a powerful account of how Western powers worked consistently to encourage Islamism in opposition to other ideologies, whether Communist or nationalist, but does not see the material basis for the pull of Islamism on layers of the poor both as an ideology and a way of organising resistance.

Atwan notes: “Since 1980 the US has intervened in the affairs of 14 Muslim countries, at worst invading or bombing them… Latterly these efforts have been made in the name of the ‘War on Terror’ and the attempt to curb Islamic extremism”.9 He is unequivocal: “The policies of the US and Britain—which see them supporting and arming a variety of groups for short-term military, political or diplomatic advantage—have directly contributed to the rise of IS.” A glance at British relations with the Ottomans, then the Arabs, all in the interests of empire, precedes a post-1945 analysis centring on the question of oil security for the Western powers: “To counteract the rise of pan-Arabism, the West began to support Islamist tendencies within each country—mostly branches of the Muslim Brotherhood—and worked hard to create strong and binding relationships with Islamic, pro-Western monarchies”.10

Atwan quotes UK and US politicians, which serves to show the West’s arrogance, but he appears to accept their ability to set the agenda. After the Iranian Revolution, Margaret Thatcher said: “The Middle East is an area where we have much at stake…it is in our own interest that they build on their own deep, religious traditions. We do not wish to see them succumb to the fraudulent appeal of imported Marxism”.11 Of the intervention in Afghanistan, US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote: “We should concert with Islamic countries a propaganda campaign and a covert action campaign to help the rebels”.12 A quote from Tony Blair in 2004 encapsulates Western policy at this time: “We want moderate, mainstream Islam to triumph over reactionary Islam… A victory for the moderates means an Islam that is open: open to globalisation”.13

Fair enough, this was the West’s aim, but Islamist movements are not mere puppets dancing to the tune of the West. This view over-emphasises the role of US (and UK) policy and underplays the developments of political Islam in different countries and movements in the region itself in response to decades of economic and political change. Whatever Western imperialist intentions, Islamist groups have developed their own agendas and trajectories, ISIS being only one proof of this.

Atwan devotes a chapter to Saudi Arabia and their massive funding of Wahhabism through the region and beyond, exposing them as the primary source of jihadis and jihadism. The irony is that the monster the Saudis have done so much to create now sees its key mission, according to Atwan’s insider contacts, as overthrowing the “near enemy”—the House of Saud.

When Atwan turns to the jihadis themselves, their recent variants and the whole context of the rise of Islamism, his analysis is very limited. An explanation of the rise of radical Islam needs reference to the long period of anti-colonial struggle and the failure in the Middle East of other ideologies, including socialist, nationalist and reformist Islam. It needs to include more recent social and economic developments.

Atwan is describing rather than analysing. This leaves many questions unexamined. Atwan’s emphasis on how imperialist and regional powers have manipulated, funded and built Islamist groups means he does not sufficiently distinguish between reformist Islamists, those who work within the state, and jihadi Islamists, those who want to overthrow the state. Socialists need to understand the social roots of political Islam, why so many turn to this ideology in their hope for a better society, how reformist and radical Islam involve different social layers, and how contradictions emerge in both.

Chris Harman, in “The Prophet and the Proletariat”,14 analysed the social base of Islamism in Egypt, Algeria and Iran. Harman explains that: “‘Islamist reformism’ fits the needs of certain major social groups—the traditional landowners and merchants, the new Islamic bourgeoisie (like those of the Muslim Brotherhood who made millions in Saudi Arabia) and that section of the Islamic new middle class who have enjoyed upward mobility.” Islamist movements, providing reforms in line with Islamic rules, offer a cultural transformation, without challenging the system. But these reforms do not “satisfy the other layers who have looked to Islamism—the students and impoverished ex-students, or the urban poor. The more the Muslim Brotherhood [or other Islamic reformists] look to compromise, the more these layers look elsewhere, seeing any watering down of the demand for the installation of Islam of the Koranic years as betrayal”—so there is a pull towards radical Islam.

Like many Arab nationalists Atwan’s description of Islamism sees it as reactionary so it cannot be supported. But In Egypt this mistake led many secular leftists to side with the state against the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood, leading to the even more violent and repressive government of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.

Harman explains: “The Islamists are not our allies. They are representatives of a class which seeks to influence the working class, and which, in so far as it succeeds, pulls workers either in the direction of futile and disastrous adventurism or in the direction of a reactionary capitulation to the existing system”.15 Socialists need “an approach that sees Islamism as the product of a deep social crisis which it can do nothing to resolve, and which fights to win some of the young people who support it to a very different, independent, revolutionary socialist perspective”.16

Since Harman wrote this in 1994, years of neoliberalism have led to a massive increase in the layers of educated urban poor. The failure of the 2011 revolutions in Egypt and Syria, and the defeat of reformist Islamism with Mohamed Mursi’s overthrow in Egypt are important factors in the turn to radicalism. In Iraq and Syria an approach looking to a revolutionary perspective has few social forces to work with at present. In the midst of war only armed groups seem to count. But it does not help if in this situation analyses of Islamism are over-simplified. Socialists need to understand the social basis of radical Islam and the importance of resistance both to imperialism and to their own oppressive states to those involved in these movements.

The contradictions in reformist Islam are obvious when looking at “Muslim” states like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. Reformist Islam was wiped off the agenda in Iraq, for Sunnis at least, when they were bombed, occupied, excluded and humiliated. It is understandable why so many turned to jihadism for some hope of recovering status and control of their lives. The contradictions in radical Islam will have started to become obvious to those living in the Islamic State and will remain when the fighting is over. Cultural reforms can be delivered but Islam will not challenge capitalism. Islam asks the rich for charity; it demands more social justice but presents no challenge to private wealth and exploitation. Armed struggle, hoping for implementation of a regional state with Islamic traditions, is the limit of what ISIS offers.

Also outside the scope of Atwan’s narrative is a wider perspective, looking at how regional powers have become more influential as a result of the decline of US hegemony. He also does not look at the dynamics and potentialities of the mobilisations by those wanting a more just, democratic and equal society. For Atwan the Arab Spring and its suppression are merely part of the power vacuum ISIS was able to feed upon. Yet any answer to the horrors of sectarian violence or imperialist bombing needs to look to where such struggles can be developed again.

The book’s conclusion is that ISIS is with us for the long term and that Western and regional powers fed its rise, but that the “perfect storm” that led to its phenomenal success was the invasion of Iraq and the collapse of Syria. Atwan’s account gets away from describing ISIS as irrationally evil, the depiction used to justify bombing. It probably gets as near to the facts on the ground as possible, at the time, using internet sources and contacts. The main body of the book, explaining ISIS’s origins and describing its development, has useful information, if not a deep political and social analysis, and serves as a damning indictment of Western and regional intervention in Iraq and Syria.

Miriam Scharf is a socialist and activist in Newham, east London.


1 Atwan, 2015, p ix.

2 Atwan, 2015, p46.

3 Atwan, 2015, p47.

4 Alexander, 2015.

5 Maunder, 2012; Salloukh, 2015.

6 Atwan, 2015, p109.

7 Naisse, 2013.

8 Atwan, 2015, p156.

9 Atwan, 2015, p190.

10 Atwan, 2015, p193.

11 Atwan, 2015, p196.

12 Atwan, 2015, p196.

13 Atwan, 2015, p199.

14 Harman, 1994.

15 Harman, 1994, p55.

16 Harman, 1994, p58.


Alexander, Anne, 2015, “ISIS and Counter-revolution: Towards a Marxist Analysis”, International Socialism 145 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/isis-and-counter-revolution-towards-a-marxist-analysis/

Atwan, Abdel Bari, 2015, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (Saqi).

Harman, Chris, 1994, “The Prophet and the Proletariat”, International Socialism 64 (autumn), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1994/xx/islam.htm

Maunder, Jonathan, 2012, “The Syrian Crucible”, International Socialism 135 (summer), http://isj.org.uk/the-syrian-crucible/

Naisse, Ghayath, 2013, “Syria: A Revolt from Below”, Socialist Review (October), http://socialistreview.org.uk/384/syria-revolt-below

Salloukh, Bassel F, 2015, “Sectarianism and the Search for New Political Orders in the Arab World”, Middle East Institute (17 July), www.mei.edu/content/map/sectarianism-and-search-new-political-orders-arab-world