Understanding the Rise of ISIS

The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction

By Charles R. Lister

Brookings Institution Press, March 2015

(Brookings Institution Press)What It's About

Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, delves into the interests, tactics, objectives, and history of the Islamic State. He traces the organization's roots back two decades, to various Sunni jihadi groups, and details how the current instability in Iraq and Syria has allowed the Islamic State to flourish and expand. More than a simple terrorist organization, Lister argues, the Islamic State is a militant group that has developed a "model for social governance." As a result, he suggests, the only way to truly dismantle the organization is to improve conditions in the countries where it is active—thereby eliminating its appeal as an alternative to existing governments.

Target D.C. Audience

Journalists who cover foreign policy in the Middle East; researchers at foreign policy think tanks; congressional staffers who work on foreign affairs or homeland security issues; anyone who is looking for a deeper understanding of the Islamic State's objectives and history.

Best Line

"During its post"“June 2014 offensive in Iraq, [ISIS] has managed alliances with other armed Sunni factions, many of which it would ordinarily perceive as its enemies. While these 'relationships of convenience' are far from steady "¦ they will last while the greater fight against the government continues."

To Be Sure

Lister's policy prescriptions for weakening the Islamic State hinge on increasing stability in Iraq and Syria. However, while he suggests that this task should be undertaken, he doesn't say how it might be accomplished. He says that the West should take an active role in the process but that local actors should lead the way—especially when it comes to gathering intelligence about the Islamic State's leadership. Beyond those parameters, he offers few specifics.

One Level Deeper

For those looking to know more about the individuals behind the growth of the Islamic State, Lister has compiled an appendix titled, "Who's Who in the Islamic State Senior Leadership," which includes ranks, given names, and jihadi names of the senior members of the militant group.

The Big Takeaway

The Islamic State is often described as the richest terrorist group in history, but Lister makes the case that, given its size and the scope of its goals, it is "qualitatively more significant" than a terrorist organization—and neutralizing it will require more than counterterrorism efforts.