OPINION

How the Islamic State rose

Insights into the fault lines in West Asia

The rapid and violent rise of the Islamic State (IS) baffled many. Unheard of until 2013, the IS suddenly started making headlines with its brutal tactics and solid military victories in Iraq and Syria. Within a few months of announcing its formation, it captured huge swathes of territories in both countries, effectively erasing the border between them. What helped Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his men defeat even conventional forces such as the Iraqi military and gobble up territories in such little time?

Veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn’s book, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution , one of the first books to be published on the IS, seeks to answer this question. Mr. Cockburn, who covers West Asia for The Independent newspaper, goes deeper into the roots of today’s IS to the 1980s Mujahideen jihadism in Afghanistan that was backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. What has allowed the IS to emerge today is the region’s geopolitics. The Syrian civil war, in which different countries in the region are involved through their proxies, destabilised the country leaving territories for jihadists to capture and turn into havens.

Willian McCants, who directs the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, takes this narrative forward in The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State . If Mr. Cockburn’s tiny book stays focussed on the rise of the IS, Mr. McCants goes into the military strategy and sectarian ideology of the organisation. The IS’s actions may look barbaric, but the group had a plan. It used the spectacle of violence to stir up religious fervour among disaffected youth worldwide and drew them to its core, tied up with the former Ba’athists in Iraq, and moved ahead with a clear blueprint to establish the ‘Caliphate’.

In ISIS: The State of Terror , Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger offer a detailed description of the rise and reign of the group. The IS is more than a bunch of crazy fighters and a Caliph.

In a couple of years, the IS has evolved into one of the most potent terrorist machineries. The State of Terror covers the different arms of the group — its foreign fighters, social jihad, electronic brigades, and so on. The IS may now be losing territories to Kurdish rebels in Syria and the Iraqi Army in Iraq, both backed by the U.S. But its ideology, like that of al-Qaeda and other jihadist organisations, is unlikely to fade away in the near future given the geopolitical and sectarian fault lines of West Asia. And these books offer insights into these fault lines.

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