The Rise of the Islamic State: Four Key Factors for its Unexpected Success – part one

by Andrin Hauri. He graduated from the University of Lausanne with a Master’s Degree in Political Science and holds a Diploma of Advanced Studies in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from the University of Basel.

The Islamic State (IS) [1], until 2014 a terror group little known outside of security circles, has fought its way up to the leadership position of the global jihadist movement. The terror group has achieved this feat within a very short period of time, ignoring the historic lessons learned from insurgencies around the world. Thus, the difficulty lies in explaining this rise against all odds and identifying the factors enabling IS to achieve this. In this series of articles, the author argues that there are at least four interrelated key factors, which were and continue to be central for the success of IS. The first one is the continuous recruitment of two groups of supporters.


Rather than slowly sinking into insignificance after losing 95 per cent of its manpower by the time US troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the Islamic State (IS) has carved itself a terror state in the Greater Levant, which wiped clean the 100-year-old colonial border between Iraq and Syria. IS’ forces size, skills, and weapons, as well as its ability to seize and hold territories, control the population, and impose its own law, are without precedent in the history of Islamic terrorism.

IS has achieved this despite ignoring the historic lessons learned from virtually every insurgency around the globe. After its expansion into Syria in 2011, the terror group deliberately provoked almost every country and faction within reach into joining the fight on the side of its enemies, thereby further increasing the asymmetry of power. Still, IS was not overpowered on the battlefield, instead expanding its influence and territories. Rather than hiding among the local population and dissipating when confronted by stronger regular forces, IS held on to ground and fought pitched battles against the Iraqi military, while even increasing the size and military clout of its forces. Through the proclamation of the caliphate, the terror group made itself even more assailable, and turned the control of territory into a strategic necessity for preserving its legitimacy. Nevertheless, despite the constant attacks, IS has been able to establish elaborate governmental structures in its self-styled state, while successfully defending most of the caliphate’s territory. Rather than relying on their support as other insurgencies have, IS has alienated large segments of the local population by imposing rigid social codes, and enforcing its draconian rule. Yet, it seems, the support of locals has not wavered decisively. Instead of hiding or denying its brutality and violence, as many other terror groups have done, IS has created a sophisticated propaganda machine to broadcast its atrocious practices to anyone willing to watch. Despite condemnatory media coverage, the terror group continues to enjoy considerable popularity and is able to recruit followers in almost every world region. Today, rather than suffering the backlash of its seemingly self-defeating strategic choices, IS is still the most successful Islamic terrorist group in the world. The first key factor for this continued success of IS is the recruitment of two groups of people: ex-Ba’athists and foreign recruits.

Early on in the evolution of IS, its leadership and ranks were swelled with ex-Ba’athists and former Saddam-era officers. This unlikely cooperation between the former security personnel of Saddam’s mainly secular regime and one of the most radical Islamic extremist groups in existence can be largely explained by two events over the last 25 years. The first was a state-sponsored initiative under Saddam in the mid-1990s, the so-called Faith Campaign, which intended to Islamise Iraqi society. Thereby, Saddam hoped to garner political support from the religious establishment in the aftermath of the devastating defeat in the Gulf War 1990/1 and the popular uprisings that followed. (Hamza Hendawi and Abdul-Zahra Qassim, “ISIS Top Brass Is Iraqi Army’s Former Best and Brightest“, Haaretz, 08.08.2015).

As a consequence, piety and even radical religious views were suddenly tolerated among the personnel of Iraq’s notorious security agencies. The second event was the “de-Ba’athification” policy during the US occupation of Iraq. As senior and mid-ranking ex-party officials were banned from joining the new security services, many of them joined the anti-American insurgency, which in the beginning was still relatively secular. Some of them did so to earn a living, others out of hatred for the new Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Over the years, however, Islamic militants grew in prominence within the insurgency, while many ex-Ba’athists became radicalised, either on the battlefield or in prison cells – such as those at the notorious Bucca camp. (Isabel Coles and Ned Parker, “How Saddam’s men help Islamic State rule“, Reuters, 11.12.2015).

Following the death of IS’ first leader, Abu Musʼab al-Zarqawi, in 2006 and the purge of the group’s ranks between 2007 and 2010, IS commanders killed by US and Iraqi troops were often replaced by ex-Ba’athists from Saddam’s military or intelligence services. (William McCants, “How ISIL Out-Terrorized Bin Laden“, Politico Magazine, 19.08.2015). They would prove helpful in running an authoritarian state. Today, it is estimated that around 100-160 Saddam-era veterans are holding mid- and senior-level IS leadership positions, in the terror group’s Military Council or as governors of IS’ wilayah or “provinces” for example. Furthermore, they run IS’ battles and oversee its intelligence activities. (Hamza and Qassim, “ISIS Top Brass Is Iraqi Army’s Former Best and Brightest“).

These men are some of the brightest and most experienced minds that have sprung up from the Iraqi security establishment, forged by a military staff college education and steeled by more than three major wars over the last 35 years. Their knowledge and experience has been absorbed into IS’ DNA and increased the terror group’s tactical prowess and intelligence capabilities manifold. This has been pivotal to IS’ success in recent years. The Saddam-era veterans provided the necessary organisation and discipline to transform IS from a terrorist group to today’s ruler over a self-styled state. They drilled the ragtag volunteers, drawn from across the globe, into an effective fighting force. Their tactics too are much more refined than the ones of average jihadists. They have years of experience in waging asymmetrical campaigns in Iraq and Syria — and a weapons stockpile fit for conventional warfare. By integrating terror tactics like suicide bombing and improvised explosive devices with conventional military operations, they devised a highly successful approach with which to assault the Iraqi and Syrian army.

Thanks to the Saddam-era veterans, IS intelligence capabilities are also remarkable, with operations showing a high degree of sophistication. The terror group’s intelligence agencies conduct classic intelligence infiltrations, execute targeted assassinations in government controlled areas, and organise stay-behind cells when on the defensive. (Hamza and Qassim, ISIS Top Brass Is Iraqi Army’s Former Best and Brightest). They also run an extensive network of informants, often using young children as spies in public spaces, such as markets or mosques, and women in private spaces, such as funerals or family gatherings. Many Saddam-era officers are also respected members of their communities with close links to tribal leaders, providing IS with critical tribal ties, as well as a support network. Hence, the ex-Ba’athists joining IS have not only strengthened the terror group’s intelligence network and fighting tactics, but are also instrumental in running the caliphate.

Flow of foreign fighters to Syria by Gene Thorp and Swati Sharma, The Washington Post, January 27, 2015. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, nearly a fifth of the fighters come from Western European nations.

Flow of foreign fighters to Syria by Gene Thorp and Swati Sharma, The Washington Post, January 27, 2015. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, nearly a fifth of the fighters come from Western European nations.

Foreign Recruits
True to its ideology, IS has committed itself to constant territorial expansion of the caliphate. This necessitates enormous manpower, drilled into an effective and devoted fighting force. Foreign recruits fulfil this function. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the later unrest in Syria already drew veteran jihadists from other war theatres to the region. The land gains of IS in 2014, however, suddenly gave the terror group a territory with which to attract and house them, which greatly intensified this influx. Ever since, a continuous stream of men and women — from over 90 countries as diverse as Norway and Yemen — has been flocking to the region to join IS or Syrian rebel groups. (Karen Krüger, “Die IS-Jugend: Generation Dschihad“, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 22.11.2015).

Aside from putting boots on the ground, the recruitment of foreigners offers the advantage of bringing a wide range of linguistic and professional skills to the group. It is estimated that IS has more than 20,000 foreign fighters among its ranks, mostly from Arab but also from Western countries. (Daniel Byman, “ISIS‘ Big Mistake“, Foreign Affairs, 15.11.2015; Nicholas J. Rasmussen, “Hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security ‘Countering Violent Islamist Extremism: The Urgent Threat of Foreign Fighters and Homegrown Terror’“, 11.02.2015). Thus, IS recruitment of internationals has far exceeded the number of foreign mujahedeen fighting Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan in the 1980s. They are a mix of veteran jihadists and new, inexperienced volunteers. (Bruce Hoffman, “ISIL is Winning“, Politico Magazine, 10.09.2015).

The foreign veteran jihadists fighting for IS come mainly from the Middle East and North Africa region. They are former soldiers or fighters with combat experience from other war theatres, such as Libya. Many veterans also hail from Central Asia and the Caucasus region, like Chechnya or Dagestan, where they have been fighting Russian troops for over a decade. Military experience and tactical adeptness combined with the fanaticism of radical Islam has made them very capable and highly regarded soldiers. IS draws on their experience and prowess to carry the day for IS on the battlefield. It is them, alongside some new volunteers, who usually lead the charge in the first wave of an attack. Local Arab fighters, on the other hand, often only move in once a territory has been cleared or to shore up defensive positions. The new, inexperienced volunteers, coming from places like the West, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries, join IS for different reasons to the veteran jihadists or the native recruits. These may include the youthful yearning for adventure, the search for identity or to give humanitarian assistance to fellow Muslims. (Scott Gates and Sukanya Podder, “Social Media, Recruitment, Allegiance and the Islamic State“, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 9, Issue 4, August 2015, p. 110-1).

Previous career training is extremely valuable for IS, as it is in need of many experts to run its self-styled state. Besides fighters, the terror group has also called for doctors, engineers, and construction workers to join the group. (Katherine Brown, “Analysis: Why are Western women joining Islamic State?“, BBC Online, (06.10.2014). Foreign recruits who lack any valuable skills however quickly end up as cannon fodder at the front. Alternatively, they may be used as suicide bombers, who are commonly unexperienced foreign recruits. This offers IS the double benefit of employing an effective military tactic while at the same time getting rid of incompetent recruits or fighters who have fallen from grace. (Stephan Pruss, “Terroristische Verlockung“, Tages-Anzeiger, 20.08.2015).

ISIS Regional Map May 2016-01_5

Expansion and Attacks outside the Middle East
In a major change of tactics in 2015, IS now no longer asks all recruits to travel to the caliphate to join them. (Ramsay Stuart, “IS Bombers in UK ready to attack“, Sky News, 07.09.2015). Instead, they urge some supporters to remain where they are in order to either found new IS provinces or execute local attacks. The terror group also sends foreign recruits back from the caliphate to their countries of origin — a practice that was denounced by IS supporters in 2014 who referred to returnees not as soldiers but as dropouts who should “review their religion”. (Graeme Wood, “What ISIS really wants“, The Atlantic, March 2015). Besides using foreigners as part of its primary campaign in Iraq and Syria, this new strategy allows IS to employ them for two additional tasks that are critical for its strategy: expansion and attacks in the west.

IS is expanding its sphere of control outside Iraq and Syria by providing general guidance and support to the local campaigns of other jihadists which at first appear to have no ostensible connection to IS. If thereby IS can successfully integrate itself into the power vacuum of a conflict zone, this will sooner or later be made official through the acknowledgment of the local jihadists as official affiliates of IS and/or the public announcement of a new province. IS is pursuing this strategy in Libya and Afghanistan, for example. To date, IS has established provinces in almost a dozen countries stretching from West and North Africa to Southeast Asia and the Caucasus. In addition, about thirty countries have jihadist groups that claim allegiance to IS, including Nigeria and the Philippines. (“The Mystery of ISIS“, The New York Review of Books, 13.08.2015). Expansion gives IS a number of benefits. For a start, it allows the terror group to absorb losses while maintaining its narrative of “God-given” success; setbacks on one front can be conveniently masked by successes on another. (Harleen Gambhir, “ISIS Global Intsum“, Institute for the Study of War, 07.05.2015). It also allows IS to adapt to new fronts and environments, adding to the terror group’s skill set. Furthermore, a presence in various places increases the resilience of IS’ primary campaign in Iraq and Syria. Should IS lose the urban centres in Iraq and Syria, the terror group can move to their beachhead in North Africa, Libya. Should the security situation in this country stabilise, IS could instead start destabilising Tunis next door to build a base of operations there, moving southwards into the Sahel, or eastwards to Yemen and Afghanistan. (Jonathan Githens-Mazer, “To Defeat Daesh Start with Their Strategy“, Royal United Services Institute, 06.07.2015).

Assessment of the affiliation and current status of terror groups (klick to enlarge; Clint Watts, "When The Caliphate Crumbles: The Future of the Islamic State’s Affiliates", War on the Rocks, 13.06.2016).

Assessment of the affiliation and current status of terror groups (klick to enlarge; Clint Watts, “When The Caliphate Crumbles: The Future of the Islamic State’s Affiliates“, War on the Rocks, 13.06.2016).

For attacks in the West, IS counts on three different types of foreign recruits. The first are battle-tested foreign fighters, returning from Iraq and Syria in order to execute terror attacks in their home countries. The second are longstanding jihadist sympathisers with some loose contact to the terror group, who often receive some formal training or logistical support but operate semi-autonomously. The third are so-called “lone wolves”, individuals who sympathise with the cause of jihadism, but have no formal training or direct affiliation with IS. (Prem Mahadevan, “Resurgent Radicalism“, Center for Security Studies, 01.04.2015). IS encourages all three types of recruit to carry out lethal terror attacks against “soft targets” in the West and elsewhere. Such attacks have become an important element of IS strategy. Besides receiving significantly more media coverage than attacks in the Middle East, they are important in maintaining the morale of the terror group’s members and sympathisers. Furthermore, the polarisation such attacks likely create between the general public and local Muslim communities confirms IS’ narrative of a global fight against Islam. They are intended to provoke responses among western governments and societies that alienate and radicalise more Muslims. (Gambhir, “ISIS Global Intsum“).

In conclusion, the recruitment of both ex-Ba’athists, after the US invasion in Iraq, and foreign recruits has been instrumental in the rise of IS, making it one of the decisive factors for the success of the terror group. The former lent it the necessary knowledge and experience to morph from a terror organisation into a totalitarian ruler of a self-styled state with a capable fighting force and intelligence service. The latter provides IS not only with the necessary human resources to run the caliphate but also the volunteers to fight its battles. Furthermore, foreign recruits who do not travel to Iraq and Syria or return from there help IS to expand its influence abroad and take their campaign into the cities of its many enemies around the globe.

In the second part of this series of articles, the author argues that the caliphate is the second key factor for the success of IS.

[1] Since its beginnings as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, the terrorist group today known under the name Islamic State, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or Daesh has changed its leader and name several times. For reasons of clarity, throughout this series of articles, it is referred to only as Islamic State or its abbreviation IS.

This entry was posted in English, Security Policy, Terrorism.

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