ISIS: A Short History

Petraeus’s “Awakening” campaign was accompanied by a surge of U.S. troops, and it worked … up to a point. Demoralized by the loss of Zarqawi, AQI’s foreign cadres melted away. But Petraeus’s plan was designed mainly to reduce the violence and allow the U.S. to leave Iraq, not to repair the Shiite-Sunni rift that Zarqawi had opened up. American politicians and military commanders talked of creating a space for political dialogue between the two groups, but the effort to enable that dialogue was, at best, desultory. It was left to Iraq’s elected government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to make a lasting peace.

As the U.S. discovered, Maliki and his Shiite-led governing coalition were more interested in recrimination than reconciliation. The Sons of Iraq were denied salaries they had been promised. Tribal leaders never got those government contracts. In Baghdad, Sunni politicians were ignored, often humiliated, sometimes prosecuted. The most senior of them, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, fled the country after being charged with terrorism; he was eventually sentenced to death in absentia.

Meanwhile, Maliki filled the ranks of Iraqi police and military with Shiites, some of them partisans from militias that had previously killed Sunnis. Sunni resentment now bubbled up again, setting the stage for AQI’s return.

ISI/ISIS: First Iraq, then Syria

By 2011, when the U.S. troop withdrawal was complete, AQI was being run by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and had morphed from a largely foreign to a largely Iraqi operation. Baghdadi himself, as his name suggests, is local. The absence of foreigners made it easier for the Sons of Iraq and their kin to ignore previous resentments against the group. There was also another rebranding: AQI was now better known as the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISI.

Baghdadi took Zarqawi’s tactics and supercharged them. The Shiites were still his main targets, but now he sent suicide bombers to attack police and military offices, checkpoints, and recruiting stations. (Civilian targets remained fair game.) ISI’s ranks were swelled by former Sons of Iraq, many of whom had previously been commanders and soldiers in Saddam’s military. This gave Baghdadi’s fighters the air of an army, rather than a rag-tag militant outfit.

With thousands of armed men now at his disposal, Baghdadi opened a second front against the Shiites—in Syria, where there was a largely secular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. What mattered to Baghdadi and his propagandists was that Assad and many of his senior military commanders were Alawites, members of a Shiite sub-sect. Battle-hardened from Iraq, ISI was a much more potent fighting force than most of the secular groups, and fought Assad’s forces to a standstill in many areas. Soon, Baghdadi renamed his group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), reflecting his greater ambitions. His black flags, emblazoned with the Arabic words for “There is no god but god” and the reproduction of what many believe to be the Prophet Mohammed’s seal, became ubiquitous.

Just as Zarqawi had in Iraq, Baghdadi overplayed his hand in Syria. He began to impose harsh strictures on Syrian towns and villages under ISIS control, especially in the province of Raqqa. In early 2014, Assad’s forces had regrouped and begun to strike back; in May, they retook the city of Homs, which had been the symbolic heart of the uprising. It was a blow for the rebels.

But Baghdadi was planning a much bigger, bolder strike—in his home country. The taking of Mosul the following month marked a new phase in ISIS’s evolution: It was now able and willing to seize and control territory, not simply send suicide bombers to their death. Baghdadi used the occasion to promote himself to “caliph” and renamed the group “the Islamic State,” in a nod to its now even bigger ambition of ruling the entire region from the Mediterranean to the Gulf.

He also broadened his list of targets. Although ISIS had encountered minority religious and ethnic groups like Christians and Kurds in Syria, there seems to have been no central directive about what to do with them: Fighters were free to exercise their discretion. But in Mosul, the word came down from the “caliph”: Non-believers must either pay a special tax, leave, convert, or face death. The last two options were preferred. The city’s ancient Christian community was the first to be targeted, and thousands fled. Then, as the Islamic State widened its operations, smaller groups found themselves in the firing line.

By now, IS and Baghdadi were dominating headlines around the world in ways Abu Musab al-Zarqawi could hardly have imagined. And people everywhere were asking: Where did these hellhounds come from?

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Bobby Ghosh is the managing editor at Quartz.

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