ISIS: A Short History

The terrorist group's evolution from fervid fantasy to death cult
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An ISIS fighter in Mosul (Stringer/Reuters)

The Sunni militants who now threaten to take over Iraq seemed to spring from nowhere when they stormed Mosul in early June. But the group that recently renamed itself simply “the Islamic State” has existed under various names and in various shapes since the early 1990s. And its story is the story of how modern terrorism has evolved, from a political and religious ideal into a death cult.

JTJ: The Early Days

The group began more than two decades ago as a fervid fantasy in the mind of a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A onetime street thug, he arrived in Afghanistan as a mujahideen wannabe in 1989, too late to fight the Soviet Union. He went back home to Jordan, and remained a fringe figure in the international violent “jihad” for much of the following decade. He returned to Afghanistan to set up a training camp for terrorists, and met Osama bin Laden in 1999, but chose not to join al-Qaeda.

The fall of the Taliban in 2001 forced Zarqawi to flee to Iraq. There his presence went largely unnoticed until the Bush administration used it as evidence that al-Qaeda was in cahoots with Saddam Hussein. In reality, though, Zarqawi was a free agent, looking to create his own terror organization. Shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, he set up the forerunner to today’s Islamic State: Jama’at al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad (the Party of Monotheism and Jihad), which was made up mostly of non-Iraqis.

Although Zarqawi’s rhetoric was similar to bin Laden’s, his targets were quite different. From the start, Zarqawi directed his malevolence at fellow Muslims, especially Iraq’s majority Shiite population. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda regarded the Shiites as heretics, but rarely targeted them for slaughter.

Zarqawi’s intentions were underlined with the bombing of the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, the holiest place of Shiite worship in Iraq. I was at the shrine when it happened, and remember many survivors asking, “Why us? Why, when there are so many Americans around, bomb us?”

One reason: sheer convenience. The Shiites were easier targets because they didn’t yet have the ability to fight back. But there was also a political calculation. After Saddam was toppled, Shiite politicians replaced the Sunnis who had long dominated power structures in Iraq. Zarqawi was counting on Sunni resentment against the Shiites to build alliances and find safe haven for his group. It worked: Zarqawi sent dozens of suicide bombers to blow themselves up in mosques, schools, cafes, and markets, usually in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods or towns.

AQI: The rise and fall

By 2004, Zarqawi’s campaign of suicide bombings across Iraq had made him a superstar of the international “jihadi” movement, and won the endorsement of bin Laden himself. Zarqawi now joined his group to bin Laden’s, rebranding it al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI. (It is also sometimes called al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, but don’t confuse that with AQIM, which refers to the Algerian franchise, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.)

Soon, however, Zarqawi’s targeting of civilians created misgivings among the core al-Qaeda leadership. In 2005, bin Laden’s right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote a letter chiding the Jordanian for his tactics. Zarqawi paid it no heed. Last year Zawahiri likewise took ISIS’s new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to task for his excessive ferocity—and was again ignored.

By the spring of 2006, Zarqawi was beginning to see himself as something more than an “emir” or insurgent commander: He aspired to spiritual leadership as well. (His successor as “emir,” Baghdadi, would make the same transformation, appointing himself “caliph” after taking Mosul.) No longer content merely with alliances, he began to insist that his Iraqi Sunni hosts submit to his harsh interpretation of sharia law—veils for women, beheadings for criminals, the whole nine yards. Those who resisted, even prominent figures in the community, were executed.

But Zarqawi’s ambitions were cut short in June, 2006, when the U.S. Air Force dropped a pair of 500-pound bombs on his hideout, 20 miles north of Baghdad.

His death came just as the tide was turning against AQI. Many Sunni tribes, chafing at Zarqawi’s sharia rules, had begun to fight back. The U.S. military, led by General David Petraeus, capitalized on this to finance and support an insurgency-within-an-insurgency, known as the “Awakening.” Tribesmen willing to fight AQI, even if they had previously fought the Americans, were designated “Sons of Iraq,” to underscore the fact that most of AQI’s commanders were foreigners, like Zarqawi himself. These Iraqi Sunnis believed that joining forces with the U.S. would give them immunity from prosecution from previous crimes, lucrative government contracts to rebuild devastated Sunni areas, and a share of political power in Baghdad.

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Bobby Ghosh is the managing editor at Quartz.

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