What Comes After ISIS?

With the recurring territorial losses that ISIS has endured during the past months, the decrease in financial income, plunge of foreign fighter flow, and the upcoming battle for the de-facto capital in Raqqa, it is important to think about the post-ISIS period through revising the root causes which led to the rise of jihadist movements such as Al Qaeda and ISIS so that any future settlement would take these causes into consideration to avoid a similar or even worse scenario in the future, albeit under different names and approaches. This paper aims to examine how authoritarianism, societal divisions, Islamism, foreign intervention, and the presence of Israel have contributed in one way or another to the rise of jihadist groups.

In order to accurately understand the dramatic rise of ISIS, it cannot be treated as an isolated event. ISIS is the product of historical, social, political, and religious conditions which were not and are not being addressed in previous and current conflicts.[1] What is known as ISIS stems from the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) which stems from Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which was the Iraqi wing of Al Qaeda. Founded in 2004, AQI rapidly increased its influence in the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, and two years later, announced the formation of ISI. By 2008, ISI had lost its foothold in Anbar, and assessments concluded that the group was defeated; however, the manner that ISIS burst onto the scene indicates that even if the current campaign against ISIS successfully diminishes the military power of the group, it might reappear a few years later, unless the root causes are properly addressed.[2]

The artificial divisions of state borders, which did not take into consideration the ethnic, tribal, and sectarian differences, are one of the contributing factors to the extended crises in Arab countries, and therefore, the rise of radical Islamism. Arab countries have passed through three main phases: colonial states after WWI, post-independence states after WWII, and authoritarian rule that lasted for decades till the Arab Spring. These regimes were able to forge stable and resilient relationships with the different structures of power to impose a false social peace which held the different Arab states together; however, with the intensification of communal politics, this no longer seems to be the case.[3]

On the other hand, it was more than just geography which led to the current crisis in the Middle East. Instability is embedded in the political choices of the colonial powers, the “divide and rule” tactic adopted, and subsequent authoritarian rule. For example, France laid the foundations for a Maronite Christian dominated Lebanon while adding large areas inhabited by mainly Sunni and Shiite Muslims who did not accept this division of Syria. Other examples include the heavy recruitment of Alawites and other minorities into the army in Syria to prevent a Sunni resurgence[4], and the support for a Sunni minority to rule over a mostly Shiite, as well as Kurdish, population in Iraq. All three examples led to sectarian and ethnic conflicts that are still ongoing till today, in one form or another. Inter-communal violence was not fully absent from the region before colonialism; however, the manipulation of these differences, rather than incorporating them in a just and inclusive political system, to preserve the interests of colonial powers laid the foundations for previous and current conflicts.[5]

The negation of the promise by the British to grant Arabs independence if they rebelled against the Ottomans led to a shift from building democratic constitutional governance systems, as in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, to aggressive nationalism aimed at driving out the colonialists. This shift led to the rise of military regimes in the 1950s and onwards. Military rule was coupled with a wave of Arab nationalism aimed at diluting the socio-demographic differences among the population. These differences were brutally suppressed as seen with the regimes of Hafez Assad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Gaddafi in Libya. This imposed social peace gave way with the uprisings against these authoritarian regimes and resurfacing of these societal divisions.[6]

The structural flaws in the border divisions and the political systems installed have led to an identity crisis among the different segments of the population where the sense of citizenship never fully took shape. National identities were either on par or at odds with primordial identities such as ethnicity, religion, or tribal belonging. This was due to the tactics adopted, first by colonial powers, and then by ruling regimes, to play on these societal divisions to maintain their grip on power. The presence of any marginalized community will undoubtedly lead to a certain degree of animosity towards the state and other communities as well. This failure in identity building through addressing the concerns of the different communities and minorities as well as the weakening of the state during the Arab Spring uncovered the deep cracks present within the Arab populations which laid a fertile ground for extremism and were intelligently exploited by jihadist groups.

Middle Eastern countries range from authoritarianism to improper democracies with limited political participation. Because most of Arab countries are “rentier” states where the government manages the resources and provides services to the population, rulers were not pressured into gaining the consent of the population. Resources were split between security services to repress opponents and rewarding supporters. Authoritarianism was “accepted” in return for social and economic policies, as well as stability. This went hand in hand with building a bureaucracy which included a selected class of loyalists ranging from business cronies to jurists to preserve the grip on power.[7]

Arab regimes relied on building tool of cooptation and coercion instead of developing inclusive institutions. This naturally entailed widespread repression of political groups and social institutions that remained opposed to the state through the development of exceptional procedures such as emergency and antiterrorism laws.[8]

The high rates of corruption, clientalism, and rising needs of the population strained the state’s ability to keep providing the same levels of economic and social service as before. This led to a shift from incorporating the masses to a minority of influential figures. Combined with the low quality of education, poverty, increasing rates of unemployment, a population surge, and rising aspirations for values of “freedom” and “social justice”, resentment spread among the youth and the general population.[9] Furthermore, the marginalization of moderate Islamic groups, especially after the Arab Spring, has pushed some of the disenfranchised youth towards more extreme factions who engage in acts of violence as a form of retribution to the brutality that dictatorial regimes employ. Successful attacks are encouraged such youth to join and are seen as a balancing act to the repression they endure.[10]

The lack of a properly functioning political system based on popular participation and accountability strained the social contract between the governor and the governed. A coopted opposition rendered largely ineffective and the absence of an independent civil society greatly limited the options of citizens interested in political life. This led to different segments in society: those who were arrested as political prisoners, those who abstained from political life in general, and those who saw religion as the only way of expressing themselves. The last segment is naturally more susceptible to the messages of Islamist groups in general, and jihadist groups in particular when pushed to a certain level. The inability of these individuals to express themselves in a democratic manner under an authoritarian regime, while seeing many others being violently oppressed, no doubt had an impact over their ideology and acceptance of violence as the only means to achieve their aims.

Foreign intervention in the Middle East which mainly aimed at maintaining oil flow from the region, preserving the supremacy of Israel, and the alleged combating of terrorism has contributed to the rise of jihadist groups today. For decades, the support provided by the West to dictatorial regimes in the Middle East such as Kuwait, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia has halted democratic transformation under the pretext of preserving stability. This is coupled with the political clout to Gulf regimes that spread a Wahabist conservative Islamic ideology on which interpretations of Al Qaeda and ISIS are based. In addition, the conflict with Israel was used as an excuse by certain Arab regimes to curtail freedoms and socioeconomic development as seen with Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Assad in Syria.[11] The support provided by Western countries which supposedly call for democracy to different authoritarian regimes in the region because they were able to provide stability and preserve their interests shows the detrimental effects it had on the populations of these countries. In addition, the military presence of the United States on “Islamic Holy Land” in Mecca and Medina, the US invasion of Iraq based on false pretenses, and the unwavering support to Israel further fueled the anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. All of these factors are consistently mentioned in the discourse of jihadist groups, and they resonate among large segments of the Arab population, albeit in different degrees.

The rise of jihadist groups can also be financially and logistically linked to several Arab regimes which used these groups to further their own interests in the Middle East. One prominent example is Saudi Arabia which spends tens of billions of dollars to export its Wahabist interpretation of Islam. This involvement also includes but is not limited to Qatar and Kuwait.[12] Another example is the Assad regime that allowed safe passage of Al Qaeda operatives to pass through Syria into Iraq during US occupation.[13] A more recent move is the intentional release of hundreds of Islamist militants from Syrian prisons in an effort to empower extremist groups at the expense of more moderate opposition factions.[14]

The implantation of a Jewish state of Israel on Palestinian territories greatly undermined the self-determination of the region’s populations and gave an excuse to military dominance over the political scene under the slogan of “no voice may rise above the voice of battle”.[15] Following the defeat of Jordanian, Syrian, and Egyptian armies in the 1967 war with Israel, Arab nationalism was used as an ideological slogan to rally the people around the ruling regimes which aimed at liberating Palestine; however, the quick defeat of the Arab armies shook the belief of a large segment of the population in the established military governments. The legitimacy that authoritarian regimes relied on was repealed. This led to a search among the people for alternatives. The vacuum created an opportunity for Islamists to indicate that the defeat was the result of the deviation of the Arab regimes from the religious path of Islam. State failures, repression, corruption, and an identity gap backed by religious justifications became the rallying cry for Islamists seeking to gain power and popular support.[16]

Jihadist groups, like Al Qaeda, have called and continue to call for the liberation of Palestine in their rhetoric in an effort to appeal to the emotions of Arabs whose supportive political position of Palestine is well known. This is coupled with the religious significance of Jerusalem and Al Aqsa Mosque to Muslims worldwide. Despite the fact that targeting Israel has not been among the central practical goals of both Al Qaeda and ISIS, the consistent reference to Palestine is being used as leverage to attract as many recruits as possible to their calls of jihad.[17]

The leading figures in Al Qaeda, most notably Bin Laden, were killed, and Al Qaeda, as an organization, has lost a significant part of its effectiveness after years of being targeted; however, this has not prevented the emergence of other comparable and even more brutal organizations such as ISIS. Hence, the discussions about defeating ISIS militarily does not necessarily indicate that the methods used and ideologies followed will not reemerge in other forms.[18]

The large wave of opposition within the population towards the ruling regimes led to the initial toleration and even support by Sunni actors and tribal leaders for AQI and ISIS later on. These “alliances” are generally held together by the actions of the “common enemy” rather than ideological affinity which is why tribal and insurgent leaders eventually rebelled against AQI and their draconian way of rule. As long as no credible alternative is presented, there will always be some degree of passive support for such groups.[19] If disenfranchised Sunnis are not dealt with in a proper and inclusive manner, the social and political conditions that enabled these groups to achieve these gains will lead to a similar, if not more destructive, result.[20] A direct consequence of regaining military control of all areas controlled by ISIS is a shift in tactics by the group from conventional warfare towards insurgency through relying on hit and run attacks. Another consequence is the return of hundreds of foreign fighters to their home countries where they will automatically become a security threat, and new conflicts might occur. A third consequence is the expected attempt of Al Qaeda to exploit the vacuum resulting from the defeat of ISIS to strengthen its own position.[21] The conditions, such as a long legacy of jihad, economic despair, governmental vacuum, and deep societal polarization, which led to the rise of jihadist movements, could again push certain communities to resort to violence especially with an already existing jihadist network and infrastructure that could easily form new mutations.[22]

To prevent the reemergence of ISIS or any other new jihadist movement, the demands of marginalized communities, mainly Sunnis, have to be seriously taken into consideration. Political inclusion is a crucial first step towards rebuilding the trust between the Sunni community and the state. This also applies to the different communities as well. For example, in Iraq, the power structure has to be designed in a manner which includes Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, and other minorities where each has developed their own form of governance. Repeating the same mistake of excluding a certain community from power and refusing to decentralize power to the governorates will reignite tensions and spur more violence.[23]

Another issue is the absence of trust between the different communities that has to be gradually rebuilt if any long term stability is to be achieved. The cycle of sectarian and ethnic violence, as well as massacres and revenge killings, committed by militias from all over the spectrum have severely damaged inter-communal relationships.[24] For instance, Sunni residents of towns in the governorates of Diyala and Salah el Din in Iraq have been prevented for two years by the armed Shiite militias from returning to their homes. A similar scenario is occurring in several Syrian towns such as those bordering Lebanon. Demographic change is a fact and an expected result of such war; however, one side of the argument is that there is a systematic plan to replace Sunnis with Shiites is being implemented to preserve Iran’s connection to the Mediterranean while the opposing side states that this an expected limited depopulation of towns retaken by the Assad regime and its allies from the Sunni majority opposition.[25]

As long as the central government lacks the needed power to enforce order on its own, power struggles between and within the different communities, as well as disputes over control of liberated territories, will likely lead to other conflicts in the future.[26] The first step which is imperative to sustainable peace is an inclusive, pluralistic political system which recognizes, represents, and protects the different communities and minorities. What is also crucial is that these communal identities do not encircle the whole functioning of the state, rather it could be provided for example through a specific legislative body, possibly a bicameral system with a Senate, which has jurisdiction on specific issues agreed upon by the different communities. Over time, the wounds and scars of the ongoing conflict will gradually heal while hopefully heal gradually allowing cross-communal movements and thus leading to a much needed sense of citizenship.

A perfect formula or blueprint to follow does not exist because the local contexts and societal formations of each country in the region is different from the other, and the success of a certain strategy in one country does not necessarily mean that it will succeed in another.[27]

The emergence of support for jihadist groups is not an isolated incident and cannot be dealt with alone without dealing with the underlying factors. Focusing on military efforts while neglecting the need to protect civilians from revenge killings, reconstruction efforts, integration into the military, and political inclusion will come at the expense of stabilization and long term stability. Defeating ISIS may eliminate the group in its current form, but the reasons for its rise are still the same. As long as the domestic policies of Arab regimes and the foreign policies of Western and regional powers do not change, then jihadist groups will reappear and take a foothold again in the Middle East.

[1] Ahmed, N. (2017) After Mosul The Coming Break up of Iraq and End of the Middle East, Middle East Eye, Retrieved from

[2] Tonnessen, T. (2016) Destroying the Islamic State Hydra Lessons Learned from the Fall of its Predecessor, Combating Terrorism Centre, Retrieved from

[3] Sayegh, Y. Crisis of the Arab Nation State, Al Hayat, Retrieved from

[4] EIR (1996) French Imperial Roots The Alawite Sect’s Service to France, EIR, Volume 23, Number 45, pp. 25-30; Landis, J. & Montagne, R. (2012) In Syria’s Sectarian Battle Who are the Alawites, NPR, Retrieved from

[5] Klein, J. (2015) The Colonial Roots of Middle East Conflict, Counter Punch, Retrieved from

[6] Osman, T. (2013) Why Border Lines Drawn with a Ruler in WW1 still Rock the Middle East, BBC News, Retrieved from; Miller, A. (2013) Tribes with Flags, Foreign Policy, Retrieved from

[7] The Economist (2014) The Arab World Tethered by History, The Economist, Retrieved from; Achy, L. (2012) The Breakdown of the Arab Authoritarian Bargain, Carnegie Endowment, Retrieved from

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dandachli, R. (2017) Fighting Ideology with Ideology: Islamism and the Challenge of ISIS, Brookings Institution, Retrieved from

[11] Frantzman, S. (2014) How the West is Responsible for All the Problems in the Middle East, Seth Frantzman, Retrieved from

[12] Butt, Y. (2016) How Saudi Wahhabism is the Fountainhead of Islamist Terrorism, Huffington Post, Retrieved from; Sengupta, K. (2015) Turkey and Saudi Arabia Alarm the West by Backing Islamist Extremists the Americans had Bombed in Syria, The Independent, Retrieved from

[13] Scarborough, R. (2013) Al Qaeda Rat Line from Syria to Iraq Turns Back against Assad, Washington Times, Retrieved from

[14] Sands, P. & Vela, J. & Maayeh, S. (2014) Assad Regime Set Free Extremists from Prison to Fire Up Trouble During Peaceful Uprising, The National, Retrieved from

[15] The Economist (2014) The Arab World Tethered by History, The Economist, Retrieved from

[16] Al Jazeera (2009) 1967 and the Rise of Extremism, Al Jazeera, Retrieved from

[17] Levitt, M. (2009) Israel as an Al Qaeda Target Sorting Rhetoric from Reality, Combating Terrorism Center, Retrieve d from

[18] Pillar, P. (2014) ISIS in Perspective, The National Interest, Retrieved from

[19] Tonnessen, T. (2016) Destroying the Islamic State Hydra Lessons Learned from the Fall of its Predecessor, Combating Terrorism Centre, Retrieved from

[20] Pillar, P. (2014) ISIS in Perspective, The National Interest, Retrieved from

[21] Byman, D. (2016) What’s Beyond the Defeat of ISIS, Brookings Institution, Retrieved from

[22] Wehrey, F. & Lacher, W. (2017) Libya after ISIS, Foreign Affairs, Retrieved from

[23] Yahya, M. (2016) Looking Beyond Mosul, Carnegie Endowment, Retrieved from

[24] Ibid.

[25] Al Tamimi, A. (2017) Why the War in Syria May not be about Demographic Change, Syria Deeply, Retrieved from; Chulov, M. (2017) Iran Repopulates Syria with Shia Muslims to Help Tighten Regime’s Control, The Guardian, Retrieved from

[26] Mironova, V. & Hussein, M. (2016) Iraq after ISIS, Foreign Affairs, Retrieved from

[27] Dandachli, R. (2017) Fighting Ideology with Ideology: Islamism and the Challenge of ISIS, Brookings Institution, Retrieved from