ISIS: A History

Princeton University Press, April 2016


The Islamic State has stunned the world with its savagery, destructiveness, and military and recruiting successes. What explains the rise of ISIS and what does it portend for the future of the Middle East? In this book, one of the world’s leading authorities on political Islam and jihadism sheds new light on these questions as he provides a unique history of the rise and growth of ISIS. Moving beyond journalistic accounts, Fawaz Gerges provides a clear and compelling account of the deeper conditions that fuel ISIS.

The book describes how ISIS emerged in the chaos of Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion, how the group was strengthened by the suppression of the Arab Spring and by the war in Syria, and how ISIS seized leadership of the jihadist movement from Al Qaeda. Part of a militant Sunni revival, ISIS claims its goals are to resurrect a caliphate and rid “Islamic lands” of all Shia and other minorities. In contrast to Al Qaeda, ISIS initially focused on the “near enemy”—Shia, the Iraqi and Syrian regimes, and secular, pro-Western states in the Middle East. But in a tactical shift ISIS has now taken responsibility for spectacular attacks in Europe and other places beyond the Middle East, making it clear that the group is increasingly interested in targeting the “far enemy” as well. Ultimately, the book shows how decades of dictatorship, poverty, and rising sectarianism in the Middle East, exacerbated by foreign intervention, led to the rise of ISIS—and why addressing those problems is the only way to ensure its end.

An authoritative introduction to arguably the most important conflict in the world today, this is an essential book for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the social turmoil and political violence ravaging the Arab-Islamic world.

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– 2017 Gold Medal Winner in Current Events (Political/Economic/Foreign Affairs), Independent Publisher Book Awards

– Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Government and Politics, Association of American Publishers

– A CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS Book of the Week, August 7, 2016

– One of Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Books of 2016 in Current Affairs

– One of Choice‘s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2016


“A thorough survey of the genesis of the Islamic State, from al-Qaida wannabe to lethal caliphate.

The Islamic State emerged strong from the shattered democratic ideals of the Arab Spring and, before that, the devastating sectarian violence that resulted from the American invasion of Iraq. In this rigorous synthesis of what is actually known about the jihadi terror group, Middle East scholar Gerges (International Relations/London School of Economics and Political Science; Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment?, 2012, etc.) looks at its power center and leaders and the troubling incursions by the group into Iraq, Syria, and Kurdish territories since the summer of 2014. He also examines its enormous wealth from oil and the black market and recruiting attraction for young, disaffected rural, religious men. In contrast to al-Qaida, which was nearly destroyed by the death of Osama bin Laden and swore vengeance on the “far enemy” (the U.S., Israel, and the Western powers), the Islamic State has focused its fury on the “near enemy,” the apostate Shias. Gerges sees this as an ongoing genocide in contrast to the relatively few deaths of Western journalists and others. The group’s leadership, especially Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has thus co-opted the global jihadi movement, moving into the chaotic vacuum left by the American invasion of Iraq, appropriating the Baathist tools of repression, and offering “aggrieved Sunnis a potent pan-Sunni (Islamist) identity.” Though the Islamic State perversely took credit for the unleashing of popular discontent during the Arab Spring, Gerges points to the power grab resulting from the “grand collusion” between Arab autocrats and their patrons to maintain the status quo. The author looks carefully at the rise of leaders such as al-Baghdadi, but he concludes that the ideological-driven terror organization will eventually self-destruct because it cannot supply the civil state and institutions of freedom and social justice that the Arab people desperately want and need.

A specific, timely, well-rendered exegesis of the unfolding global threat.” – Kirkus (starred review)

“This timely history gives a clear-sighted account of the ascent of the so-called Islamic State (IS) – one with far-reaching implications. The book’s findings and conclusions have profound relevance not just for the future of IS in Iraq and Syria, but also for salafi jihadism, regional security in the Middle East and North Africa and international peace and security.

ISIS: A History dispels myths and misconceptions about global jihadism and examines the conditions that enabled IS to seize vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and proclaim a ‘caliphate’ in June 2014. Fawaz A. Gerges delivers a robust rebuttal of recent ahistorical accounts that variously portray IS as the invincible and unassailable leader of a monolithic jihadism; a linear progression of Al Qaeda (AQ); or as a product of the Arab Spring. ISIS: A History contests all of these narratives.

From the Arab Spring to the Establishment of the Islamic State

The book shows how, by 2010, the group founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq was on the brink of implosion. Its targeting of civilians, suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings had met with increasing Sunni resistance, most notably from the sahwa – or awakening councils – which were at war with al-Zarqawi’s brand of genocidal sectarianism.

It recalls how the Arab Spring uprisings were not, for the main part, characterised by fundamentalist religious symbolism or the black flags of AQ or IS, but rather by peaceful civil protest and a common desire for more inclusive, less autocratic and more representative governance. The linking of salafi jihadism with the Arab Spring is given short shrift in this history, not least because parliaments and participation in electoral politics are considered blasphemous by IS, which seeks a return to hakimiyya – God’s sovereignty and laws and the rules of seventh-century Arabia.

The evidence that Gerges pieces together presents a picture of a movement that perhaps owes little to the charisma of its leaders, but a great deal to the US-led invasion of Iraq and the post-war dismantling of state structures. A point made with emphatic clarity throughout the book is that: ‘[t]he destruction of the Iraqi state in 2003 was the most important variable in the emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its subsequent rebirth as ISIS’.

The book narrates how, during the disastrous post-war era, the process of de-Baathification and the establishment of a sectarian-based political system polarised Iraq along Sunni-Shia lines. This sectarian rift deepened and widened under the premiership of Nouri al-Maliki.  Increasingly, authoritarian rule that centralised power in the hands of Shia Islamists further fuelled the sectarianism on which IS feeds.

Critically important for the ascent of IS was the exclusion of the sahwa under al-Maliki’s leadership, which led senior Baathists to defect to AQ and IS in Iraq, providing the military prowess that enabled its fighters to sweep into the country’s Sunni heartland. The second driving force behind the ascent of IS was, of course, Syria’s descent into war – the book further narrates how this empowered IS, principally through the formation of alliances of convenience with Sunnis in revolt against the regime of Bashar al Assad.

Another dominant theme that emerges in ISIS: A History is the extent to which IS has been riven with internal dissent and beset by external opposition. In chronicling the bloody struggle for leadership of the jihadist movement, Gerges documents how this is fiercely contested by AQ in Syria and by other salafi-jihadist groups. The seizure of territory and resources in Iraq and Syria cannot be ascribed to one united monolithic jihadist movement. While IS has proved adept in the formation of alliances of convenience to achieve its war aims, these have been, and will continue to prove, temporal and divisive. The defining characteristic of IS in this history is its mastery of the art of making enemies and strategic miscalculations, which have left the movement over-extended, waging war in multiple battles on multiple fronts.

The conclusions reached in this analysis are unequivocal – the writing is already on the wall and the movement cannot live up to its motto of remaining and expanding: ‘[t]o think the unthinkable, a collapse of the “Islamic State” might not be imminent but it is conceivable in the near future’. Although many caveats and qualifications may delay the penning of IS’s obituary any time soon, these do not detract from the author’s principal conclusions that IS is a doomed, structurally defective movement, lacking any manifesto for governance and bereft of ideas or policies. This analysis should not invite complacence about the menace of IS. The book has already proved prophetic in its assessment that as the movement loses territory, it will make spectacular strikes elsewhere. The attacks in Brussels took place shortly after the book went to press.

With little to offer Sunni communities in the future other than genocidal war, the worst of the distant past and the destruction of fourteen centuries of progress and enlightenment, the movement cannot sustain its hadanah sha’biyya (social base) or establish the broader constituency it will need to survive. Its military prowess and spectacular attacks in the region and the west may prove attractive to young fighters, but it is essentially a hyper-sectarian youth movement bereft of sustainable support. Professor Gerges asserts that no prominent Muslim scholar supports the ‘caliphate’ or its self-anointed caliph – indicted even by radical Islamist scholars as a ‘theocratically illiterate mediocrity’ with ‘no leadership skills’.

If this reading of recent history is correct, then the implications and magnitude of the challenges are clear: remove the conditions through which IS thrives – despair, sectarianism, abject poverty and war – and the group will atrophy and wither. If IS is a manifestation of the breakdown of state institutions, then fragile sectarian and authoritarian state systems must be rebuilt on more legitimate foundations, which will require inclusive and representative government that can meet the needs of their citizens. If IS is above all a youth movement that appeals to the alienated and poor, then the needs of the region’s massively growing youth, currently beset by poverty and unemployment, must be given an alternative other than political authoritarianism, economic and developmental failure and poor governance.

Written and edited with pellucid clarity, ISIS: A History is an important book that will have broad appeal beyond academic, diplomatic and policy-making circles. It will perhaps resonate most deeply with those who have a stake in peaceful reform of the region, many of whom have opposed the forces that derailed one of the greatest mass movements of civil protest in recent history: 

The challenge is to provide hope to the millions of men and women who called for justice, freedom and a life with dignity, as we saw during the Arab Spring uprisings, while simultaneously convincing them that there are non-violent options that can bring about meaningful and substantive political change.  Until we do, the menace of the ‘Islamic State’ and similar Salafi-jihadist groups will remain a problem both for the Arab-Islamic world and for the international community.” – Chris Hamer, LSE Book review.

“Well-researched and lucidly argued.” – Malise Ruthven, New York Review of Books

“[Written] with energy and clarity, and out of uncommonly extensive knowledge.” – Robert Fulford, National Post”Impressively detailed. . . . His argument is all at once persuasive, deeply depressing, yet hopeful. For all the years of sclerosis in the Middle East, political systems can be rejuvenated. The revolutions of the Arab Spring marked an attempt to do just that, and while hope has been hijacked by extremists, the opportunity to try again and again can never be taken away.” – Daniel Flitton, Sydney Morning Herald

“Perhaps the most informative, clearly expressed, sober book on the subject.” – William Armstrong, Hurriyet Daily News

“[Gerges’s] book is one of the most coherent, comprehensive and persuasive histories of ISIS to date and deserves to be widely read.” – Richard Cockett, Literary Review

“[The book’s] strength stems from the sheer breadth of the survey offered by Gerges.” – Shiraz Maher, New Statesman

“Gerges is clear, and it is here that the book excels, that Isis cannot be explained in isolation but must be examined in the larger sociopolitical context in which it emerged. . . . ISIS: A History makes a welcome contribution to the debate, and will be of interest to both general readers and specialists.” – Christina Hellmich, Times Higher Education

“This is quite simply the definitive book on the group by a very smart, well-informed guide to the region, superbly researched, well-written and intelligent throughout. Everyone opining about ISIS should be required to read this book first.” – Fareed Zakaria, CNN Global Public Square

“The achievement of Fawaz Gerges . . . in his compelling, insightful book is to highlight the social and sectarian pressures that led so many Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis to turn to Isis as protectors.” – Michael Burleigh, The Times

“Terrific.” – Michael Brull, New Matilda

“This is a comprehensive account of how ISIS emerged in the Middle East, triggered by the US invasion of Iraq, Syria’s civil war, the collapse of the Arab Spring, and sectarian Sunni-Shi’a struggles. Gerges systematically details the complex social and political dynamics leading to ISIS’s prominence among the Salafi-jihadist family of rivals. . . . This authoritative, empirically rich study based on primary Arabic sources should be must reading for policy makers, strategists, scholars, journalists, students, and anyone seriously concerned about the human condition.” – Choice

“A remarkably clear and detailed taxonomy of ISIS.” – Jerome Donnelly, America

“Written and argued with admirable clarity, ISIS: A History is a significant book with clear appeal beyond academic, diplomatic, and policy-making circles. This is a highly recommended volume and one that sets the standard for those interested in understanding the phenomenon we have come to know as ISIS.” – Colin Wight, Australian Book Review