It has provoked everyone—and attracted too many unskilled, disaffected Englishmen and their familiesby James Harkin / December 27, 2015 / Leave a comment
The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (IS) emerged from the swamp of the Syrian civil war in spring 2013. The clue was always in the name. Al-Qaeda’s aim had been to build a terror organisation powerful enough to take the battle to its Western enemies. IS saw its mission as more religiously purist and constructive—to improve the piety of Sunni Muslims and build a government around them.
Like any primitive state, it began by taking a monopoly on violence and coercion. For impoverished Sunni Muslims who were sick of the ruthlessness of the Syrian regime and the money-grubbing corruption of the rebels, it wasn’t entirely unpopular. The revenge cult of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, had thrived amid the chaos, but the appearance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham spoke of something new—a pressing demand for the re-establishment of order. To some ordinary Sunni Muslims who simply wanted to live their lives, having the Islamic State lay down the law didn’t seem like a bad bet. “Even if their system is bad,” an opposition activist from Homs called Hamza Sattouf told me, “the fact that they have one is good.”
We failed to understand the Islamic State until it was too late. The old saw that IS was a Saudi-sponsored, Wahhabi proxy—a leftist trope dating from the 1980s—was always wide of the mark. The neo-conservative contribution, that IS was a cunning false flag engineered by the Assad regime, was even more risible. It was repeated by witless think-tankers in London, New York and Doha, almost all of whom have never been to Syria since the uprising and who get their information from Skype and Twitter.
Yet Islamic State was one of the few militias that didn’t appear to be a wholly owned rebel proxy—one reason, as I show in my book Hunting Season, why military assaults and campaigns of targeted assassination by those same proxies backfired at every turn, turning real rebels into mercenaries and almost always fueling its rise.
But if we underestimated IS in the beginning, we’re overestimating it now. In Syria, IS built on the extortion and kidnapping rackets that it had kept its predecessor groups afloat in Iraq in the previous decade; the plan was that kidnapping,…