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History and Origins of ISIS

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Security
Wordcount: 3923 words Published: 11th Feb 2019

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Since the last United States (US) presidential elections, there has been a raise in hate speech and crimes, frequently by right-wing parties and often directed towards Muslims, there has also been an emphasis on ISIS propaganda (Lewis, 2017). The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, is an offspring of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which is a branch of the group al-Qaeda. The Islamic State, aka the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or in Arabic Da’esh, is a Sunni Salafi-jihadist militant movement and unrecognized quasi-state as it once controlled 10 million people (see Figure 1). As ISIS is a descendent of al-Qaeda, in order to outline its birth, this paper will explain the origins of al-Qaeda and the history that leads up to ISIS. Primarily done through a literature review, this paper will look at historical events, periods and their deeply rooted issues that led up to the formation of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in Iraq and more importantly ISIS starting with the Ottoman Empire to the 21st century. This is the history of the rise of ISIS to what it has now become.

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Rise of ISIS

It is perceived around the world that al-Qaeda is a terrorist group that conducted or has inspired many horrible acts of violence since the 21st century including a series of car bombings and shootings, 9/11, and more. Although, ISIS is also known as a terrorist group, a key difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS are their enemies, al-Qaeda engages in a war with the West, while ISIS is more involved in the Middle East (Lister, 2015). This has caused the war on terror, which include international military campaigns, particularly by the United States, as we will discuss. Although, some attacks have been inspired by ISIS in the West, the organization does not advocate for such actions or war on the West, unlike al-Qaeda who conduct 9/11 style attacks, ISIS usually does not participate in major terrorist attacks against the West (Lister, 2015). ISIS is rather reluctant to engage with the West directly or to ‘take on’ the West, this can be seen through the refusal of attack Israel, as it is a US ally nor did it openly pick a side in the Israeli-Palestinian War (Lister, 2015). In spite of this, they are still a terrorist group who conduct horrendous acts of violence and cruelty such as the use children soldiers, kidnapping and sell women as sex slaves or force them to marry their fighters, murder praying Shiites, and sell organs on the black market, all in the name of Allah. Furthermore, ISIS is known to use Sunni resentment[1] against Shiites in their fight and recruitment as they are a Sunni group.

ISIS is a Salafi[2] jihadist militant movement with great power; by 2014, the group embodied 31,000 Muslims fighters who have joined its rank from nine different countries (Hassan, 2016; Lister, 2015). Many of these ISIS fighters join for religious reasons, other believe that the group offers some answers and a purpose to their anger towards Shiites and Westerns (VIDEO). Their commitment to establish a unitary state or caliphate with no borders in the Middle East and wish to extend this to India (Lister, 2015).

Ottoman Empire & Colonial Era

 During the time of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, the Tanzimat, which is the reorganization of the Empire, brought about the development of an elite and liberal nationalism with the goal of independence from colonial powers, but saving the beneficial characteristics of these Western states and their markets (Hazbun, 2015). This reorganization caused power to centralized and the bureaucracy to modernized and that opened new markets. This challenged the national identity, sovereignty, self-determination and security of Middle Eastern countries, but also created different groups with a common interest in these capitalist economies, which the need for specific political representation (Hazbun, 2015). While supporting the modernization of the upper class, these reforms also caused lower social classes to become populist[3] and develop a radical nationalism as they wished to oppose these developments (Hazbun, 2015). This internal separation occurred until Sykes and Picot[4], British and French diplomats respectively, divided the Ottoman Empire and created new territorial borders (Hazbun, 2015). The collapse of the Ottoman Empire, thus, started British rule and French rule in the Middle East. These new states (and borders) were rejected by, “Arab nationalist and social-reformist ideologies territorial nationalisms, Islamic solidarity and tribal identity” (Hazbun, 2015). This gave rise to populist protests and revolts for independence across North Africa, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq against the imposed leaders from the recent protectorates (Hazbun, 2015). When independence occurred, there was still a dependence on external powers, which caused a more recent rise of middle class of urban professionals that led “radical Arab-nationalist, socialist, labor and communist movements that sought to challenge both the colonial states and the Arab elite who had inherited political power and economic privileges” (Hazbun, 2015). These movements sought change through the modernization and socio-economic reforms that the middle-class could identify with. The institutionalization of inequality in the colonial-era resulted of the Sykes and Picot agreement and led to the social discontent of Middle Eastern society that sparked disruption that can be seen as the root revolutionary groups.


 During the 1950s and 1960s, the region was occupied with disruption and change, which some call the Arab Cold War due to the series of uprisings and conflicts (Hazbun, 2015). As the radical Arab-nationalist groups challenged the Western influence in the area; Arab politics were also altered by ‘street politics’[5], an ideological shift and social movements (Hazbun, 2015). These groups rallied enough support to promote Arab-nationalist leaders that opposed the West, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian President. Even though, many Arab-nationalist revolutions were accomplished with military coups, the objective was to take over a state and claim sovereignty over its resources (Hazbun, 2015). During President Nasser’s government, Egypt became the first Arab regime to have state power and encourage “self-determination and modernization” and grew to be a regional force (Hazbun, 2015).

In the mid sixties, the basis of their confrontation with the old system was gone, as their modernization of welfare, programs and development could not be done without external support (Hazbun, 2015). This made governments turn to autocratic means of social control and the suppression of conflicting views. The same people that encouraged Arab-nationalist leaders, such as Nasser, now were the same people “who provided the social bases for the rise of the radical Islamist movements that challenged the legitimacy of the rulers of the secular modern Arab states” (Hazbun, 2015). And the governments need for external help led to foreign intervention and dependence which continued opposition domestically, regional competitiveness and conflict (Hazbun, 2015).

Arab-Israeli War

In 1967, the Arab-Israeli War was fought by Syria and Egypt to regain occupied territory taking by Israel[6] and other Middle Eastern countries competed for control. An accumulation of factors above lead to the definition of regional politics in the Middle East to be described in terms of conflict and feuds. The oil Crisis of 1973 produced an even larger divide between the Middle East with oil-producing countries (such as Iraq) gaining more wealth and influence while non-producing countries were heavily on intervention and aid (such as Syria) (Hazbun, 2015).

By the 1970s and 80s, the inequality in Arab states grew to new heights that made societies and citizens dissatisfied and caused resentment towards the government, and its top officials, due to the lessening of protections and corruption (Hazbun, 2015). Therefore, governments restrained mobilization and political expression, and they relied more heavily on international support, from foreign nations such as the United States. This support allowed leaders to keep their power and security while facing domestic threats of discontent. It is through this social repression, government exhaustion and an authoritarian regime that helped emerge militant Islamist movements, which ideologically challenged the “modern secular-nationalist state” (Hazbun, 2015). These movements and groups used violent means in order to overthrow regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia (Hazbun, 2015). Among Islamic jihad actions were the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and numerous tourists’ attacks.

During the Cold War, in 1979, the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan with intentions of defending the authoritarian leader against rebels (VIDEO). For many of these rebels, they were fighting for a religious struggle, called the mujahid, and some developed extremist views (VIDEO). One of the rebels who did so was Osama Bin Laden, a well-educated Saudi, which later created al-Qaeda and was executed by the US forces in 2011 (Stern & Berger, 2016). Another rebel was Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, uneducated Jordanian and former gangster, who later created ISIS (Fishman, 2016; Stern & Berger, 2016). These fighters subsequently used the civil unrest and discontent to their interests and founded their own militant groups.

Al-Qaeda was founded in 1988 with recruit fundamentalist soldier that fought against the Soviets earlier on; the terrorist organization became a network that defended the struggle against Islam’s enemies (Riches, & Palmowski, 2016).

United States Foreign Policy in the Middle East and its Effects

 As the US does not work or encourage terrorist groups, by the late 1960s, they had abandoned rational nationalism’s progressive reforms and modernization (Hazbun, 2015). Instead, they created closer ties with the Israelis and practiced containment policies of radical Arab states (Syria for example) and invaded Lebanon in order to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organization[7] (PLO) (Hazbun, 2015). In order to help the US interest and development a Middle Eastern strategy, they kept close relations with growing authoritarian regimes and “backed their efforts to suppress social and political mobilization” (Hazbun, 2015). The support of authoritarian regimes for national interest, as well as, disregarding human rights and American values of democracy and freedom has become a recurring pattern in US foreign policy.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, policy makers in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations wanted to use US power to contain instability and lead the regions into the modern world (Hazbun, 2015). This led to an even greater difference between societal and national rhetoric of insecurity that led to the foundations of Arab uprisings (Hazbun, 2015).

US foreign policies and actions regarding the Middle Eastern disruption and violence lead to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which caused an increase in societal insecurities and division (Hazbun, 2015). This 2003 invasion was largely opposed to by neighbouring countries as they did not perceive Syria as a threat, and thus, US went to war with limited support from the region (Hazbun, 2015). Under President Bush, the US alleged that Iraq had nuclear weapons and the hosting of al-Qaeda members by Saddam Hussein (Fishman, 2016). The US secretary of state also emphasized Zarqawi as the leader of a fatal terrorist network, which made Zarqawi internationally known and in doing so, actually recruited fighters (Fishman, 2016). Furthermore, the consequences of the invasion were wide and include breaking civil order, mobilization of Sunni jihadist movements in Iraq and the general radicalization of Sunnis (Krieger, 2014). Both before and after this intervention and conflict, Sunni radicalization increased, but more importantly the US withdrawal from Iraq caused a power vacuum that the group took advantage of (Lister, 2015). Particularly due to the failure of the United States government to establish and “leave behind sustainable democratic institutions, a well-trained army, a functioning bureaucracy, and relative ethnic and sectarian harmony” (Lister, 2015). As ISIS’s growth is dependent on the particular military and political situation that has resulted from the isolation of and hostility to the Sunni population by the government and the lack of infrastructure left behind by the US (Lister, 2015). This lack of permanent and beneficial action in Iraq happened in Afghanistan and in Lybia, where the US overthrow Gaddafi, but did not build a new government (Lister, 2015). This lack of action has created a hatred for the US of which ISIS has benefited from (Lister, 2015).

Thus, this invasion set the foundations for ISIS, for example, the Sunni dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, destroyed the nation’s army, which led to thousands of angry and unemployed Sunni-Iraqi soldiers who joined the Sunni insurgency (Stern & Berger, 2016). As jihadist groups saw this as a repeat to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, many came to fight of which Zarqawi (VIDEO). The jihadist group led by Zarqawi became the most violent group in Iraq and targeted mostly Shiites, which sparked the Sunni-Shiite civil war.

By 2004, Zarqawi was famous jihadi, fighter of the struggle against the enemy of Islam, by that time, al-Qaeda had weakened and thus an alliance was formed between both leaders which lead to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which was created to fight against US forces in its occupation of Iraq (Hassan, 2016; Stern & Berger, 2016).

Until 2006, Iraq Sunnis stand up to Zarqawi and he was killed by an US air strike (Fishman, 2016). Then, US leaves Iraq in 2011 as it has stabilized according to them.

According to Hassan, “Iraqi Sunnis have been subjected to years of political and economic marginalisation, state-sanctioned repression, lawlessness and rampant corruption in the hands of Iraq’s Shia-led government under the former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki [and others]. They have rebelled by joining ISIS” (2016). Which leads to the Arab springs in the Middle East in 2011, caused by Syrian dictator Assad suppression of protesters that leads to a civil war (Fishman, 2016). As he fears external intervention (that will overthrow his dictatorship), he releases jihadists that were supposed to help suppress protesters, but instead make them more extreme (VIDEO).

In Iraq, the remains of Zarqawi’s groups are still allied with al-Qaeda, but are now known as ISI (the Islamic State in Iraq) lead by religious scholar Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Fishman, 2016). In 2012, Baghdadi sends top ISI deputy in Syria to start a new al-Qaeda branch that will fight along the rebels called Jabhat al-Nusra (Stern & Berger, 2016). In order to gain strength, Baghdadi strikes prisons and releases former jihadis, as well as, forming new fighters (VIDEO). A year later, he announces that he is taking over all al-Qaeda forces in Syria, in addition to Iraq, the group therefore expands to be known as ISIS to include Syria (Fishman, 2016; Stern & Berger, 2016). The al-Qaeda branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, rejects Baghdadi’s ISIS and causes civil war (Stern & Berger, 2016). As the oppression and conflict in Iraq allowed ISI to expand, the Syrian violence caused Baghdadi to expand in Syria (Stern & Berger, 2016). Nevertheless, ISIS grows powerful in Syria, because Assad tolerates its rise (which he does because it divides his enemies within Syria and causes an emphasis of foreign power on ISIS rather than on himself and his regime) (VIDEO).

In early 2014, ISIS had been disowned by al-Qaeda claiming “ISIS is not a branch of the group, we have no organizational relationship with it, and is not responsible for its actions” (Stern & Berger, 2016). Yet this break in alliance did not hinder ISIS; by summer 2014, ISIS has a large army within Syria, which invades Iraq militarily and become victorious quickly due to a corrupt Iraqi army (VIDEO; Fishman, 2016). According to Fishman, this invasion of ISIS in Iraq “signalled the emergence of a new force in the Middle East – a hybrid organisation that combined terrorist tactics, military precision, religious ideology, and technological and bureaucratic innovation (2016). And because many Iraqi Sunnis are tired of the Shiite authoritarian government, most welcomed ISIS or at least tolerated them in Iraq (VIDEO). Within days of entry in Iraq, ISIS had captured 1/3 of its territory and a large part of Syria.

ISIS’s goal is more audacious that al-Qaeda’s as it wants to revive the ancient caliphate and expand it to involve all Muslims (VIDEO).


In conclusion, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s origins are found the roots of al-Qaeda particularly in its offspring al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Al-Qaeda and ISIS are said to be ideological twins, but strategic enemies, as they both adhere to the same ideology, yet, ISIS overshadows al-Qaeda due to its control of territory and oil rigs, its large financial resources, its great success in the proclamation of caliphate and its alliance to many Islamic groups that have pledged alliance to it like Boko Haram (Lister, 2015). The development of ISIS and its self-proclaimed Caliph al-Baghdadi was a mixture of societal exclusions and discrimination (both ethnic and religious) that explains the “angry, disillusioned and marginalised Iraqi Sunnis” support for ISIS (Hassan, 2016). Thus, the combination of political and religious oppression and personal circumstances led ISIS to grow strong from the roots of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (Hassan, 2016). In addition, some critics of US foreign policy claim that the US caused the birth of ISIS due to its withdrawal of Iraq in 2010, which left the group with the ‘space’ to expand with limited military resistance.

There is a general consensus and hope within scholars that ISIS will be soon defeated, especially with its current size. Recently, ISIS lost its control in Raqqa by its seizure by an alliance of Syrian and Arabs fighters backed by the US after a 3 year hold, which greatly diminishes the group’s power. This is, of course, a watered down and simplified version of the origins and history behind ISIS.

As Fishman explains, the defeat of ISIS will depend on how it is defined, meaning that if it is defined as a cult with a distort interpretation of Islam, its abolishment would simply account for explaining its false views, rather than if it is defined through violent actions that need a war to destruct the organization (2016).

“As President Barack Obama observed at the 2015 White House conference on countering violent extremism, ‘When governments oppress their people, deny human rights, stifle dissent or marginalise ethnic and religious groups, or favor certain religious groups over others, it sows the seeds of extremism and violence’.” (Hassan, 2016).

“In the modern globalised world, diversity and cultural crossovers are becoming a matter of routine. Hybridity is transforming different Islamic countries and regions into autonomous cultural systems; thus posing a challenge to the conventional categorical oppositions of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘other’.” (Hassan, 2016).

Please note:

This is a ‘watered down’ version of historical facts and the origins of ISIS. All sections discussed could have been discussed in great detail as they are complex matter, as well as, more events could have been discussed. Although, for this paper, I decided to give a simple yet far lengthen view of the rise of ISIS.


Lister, C. R. (2015). The Islamic State: a brief introduction. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press.

Hazbun, W. (2015). A History of Insecurity: From the Arab Uprisings to ISIS. Middle East Policy22(3), 55-65. doi:10.1111/mepo.12143

Riches, C., & Palmowski, J. (2016). ‘PLO’, ‘al-Qaeda’, and ‘ISIS’ in A dictionary of contemporary world history: over 2800 entries.

Krieger, J. (2014). US Invasion of Iraq in The Oxford companion to international relations.

Fishman, B. (2016). Defining ISIS. Survival (00396338)58(1), 179-188. doi:10.1080/00396338.2016.1142145

Hassan, R. (2016). ISIS and the Caliphate. Australian Journal of Political Science, 51(4), 759–771. https://doi.org/10.1080/10361146.2016.1242115

Stern, J., & Berger, J. M. (2016). ISIS: the state of terror (First ECCO paperback edition). New York: Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.




Figure 1. Map of ISIS control. We can clearly see the decrease in ISIS control between January 2015 and October 2017.

[1] The Sunni and Shiite divide started in … and is caused by ideological differences among which ….

[2] Salafism is an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam

[3] A populist is a member of a political party that represents ordinary people and their interests.

[4] The Sykes and Picot Agreement divided the former Ottoman Empire who had been newly defeated by the members of the entente cordiale (France and Great Britain) into new borders and sphere of influence and control.

[5] Street-politics refers to the use of the streets to discuss and protest their wants from their government.

[6] This capture of land by Israelis from the Palestinians is part of a long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a complex and ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

[7] Founded in 1964, the PLO wants a secular and democratic state of Palestine, along with the elimination of Israel (Riches, & Palmowski, 2016).


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