Why is the Islamic State group so resilient?

Why is the Islamic State group so resilient?
Comment: Many have questioned why such a brutal group could gain wide support. The answers are all around us, and a new strategy must counter them, says Emile Nakhleh.
6 min read
11 Jun, 2015
IS is well-resourced, motivated and ideologically driven
As the Islamic State continues to conquer territory in Iraq and Syria, and as the Assad regime teeters on collapse and the Iraqi government loses credibility, many in the West are wondering why the group remains resilient despite frequent coalition airstrikes.

If IS brutality is so abhorrent and its rule so medieval, why does it continue to garner wide support among Sunni Arabs and attract increasing numbers of would-be young fighters from western countries?

Recent analysis has focused on the complexity of the situation in Syria and Iraq, and on the pitiful performance of the Iraqi army on the battlefield, especially in Ramadi. A deeper analysis of the continuing IS blitzkrieg and its ideological appeal points to other and perhaps deeper explanations.


The phrase "success breeds success" is trite but true nevertheless. IS has used the conquest of Ramadi in Anbar and Palmyra in Syria as effective propaganda tools to attract more recruits and radicalise potential supporters. IS exploits its successes and highlights the failures of the Iraqi and Syrian armies, and the "un-Islamic" nature of the enemies it fights. Its projects its own coordination, determination, planning, and achievements and shows the Iraqi and Syrian armies in disarray.

Recent calls by the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, for more US military support and his growing reliance on pro-Iranian Shia militias play well into the IS psychological campaign to win the hearts and minds of Sunnis.

As long as Iraqi troops have no mission and no unifying nationalist goal to fight for, their will to fight remains elusive. Abadi took umbrage at the recent painfully truthful statement by the US defence secretary, Ash Carter, that the Iraqi army lost Ramadi because they had "no will to fight".


Western audiences are rightly appalled by the brutality of IS and are often bewildered why such brutality has so far not turned Sunni public opinion against it. The simple, inconvenient truth is that such gruesome violence is not unique to the group. Across the Middle East, Arabs have routinely suffered from violent repression. Thousands of innocent civilians are languishing in prisons in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Algeria, Yemen, and Libya. Human rights reports have documented many cases of illegal imprisonment, sham trials, torture, and rape.

The passing of mass death penalties in Egypt and the treatment of Shia and other minorities in the Gulf states are but two examples of regime repression and terrorism.

Arab citizens wonder why US news channels tout IS violence in their reports, yet barely mention regime violence. Juxtaposed against regime repression, IS brutality doesn't seem so exceptional, nor has it undermined its standing among Sunnis in Iraq and the Levant.

As some of these Sunnis watch western governments cozy up to repressive Sunni regimes - including in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and elsewhere - they find western media reports decrying IS brutality less compelling. Iraqi Sunnis are especially incensed at Washington's perceived tolerance of the Abadi government's continued discrimination against them.

The ongoing so-called debate in Washington about "who lost Iraq" and "who created IS" and the blame game that some neocons are playing against the Obama administration for pulling troops out of Iraq are an exercise in disingenuous sophistry. The invasion of Iraq and the Rumsfeld-approved decision by Paul Bremer in 2003 to disband the Iraqi army begat the first insurgency, which led to the creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its morphing into IS.

It's the height of dissemblance for Bremer to claim, as he did recently on Fox News, that Obama's decision helped create IS. Having served as the "Grand Vizier" of Baghdad's "Green Zone" after the US invasion in 2003, Bremmer would do well to go back and relearn the recent history of that beleaguered country. In any case, neither the IS nor Iraqi Sunnis are paying much attention to this Beltway babble.


The IS has used its caliphate ideology, which resonates with many Salafis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, to generate political and financial support. Simply put, this ideology calls for the resurrection of the Islamic (read Sunni) caliphate in the heartland of Sunni Islam. Sunni children have studied for centuries that in its heyday the caliphate existed in Damascus under the Umayyads for approximately a century before moving to Baghdad under the Abbasids, where it lasted for four or five centuries. Shia Islam developed in southern Iraq (today's Najaf and Karbala) in the last two decades of the 7th century.

The Salafi caliphate ideology, to which many Saudi Salafi Wahhabis adhere, views the Shia as "apostates" that should be killed. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the IS has sponsored or encouraged bloody attacks against Shia co-religionists in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The caliphate ideology calls for the establishment of an Islamic community, or ummah, ruled by leaders who behave in an Islamic way. For IS, and even for al-Qaeda, today's Sunni rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Jordan, for example, are not true Muslims and legitimate targets.

Some Western policymakers have correctly pointed out that the ideology of IS is more of a threat to the region and its leaders and less so to western countries. The growing numbers of radicalised western youth, however, could become a gathering threat in their societies.


The IS is wealthy and well armed. It has accumulated millions of dollars from banks it captured or broke into, from illicit trade, from oil fields, and from donations from the Gulf and elsewhere. IS has also captured tons of sophisticated weapons from Iraqi military dumps. It has bought other weapons on the black market through Iraqi military officers. IS has benefited heavily from the corruption in Iraq and Syria.

However, if the group's opponents were able to contain it in a specific territory, its access to weapons, money, and recruits would be curtailed, and hasten its demise.

Containing the IS requires a new US regional strategy:

Work with Turkey, Iraq, and the Kurds to form a ground fighting force to encircle IS. The US could provide intelligence, transport, and logistics.

Work with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to bring down the Assad regime. The US should refrain from assisting al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to achieve this goal.

Strongly encourage the Abadi government in Baghdad to include Iraqi Sunnis in the governance of Iraq. Economic opportunities and high-level government employment should also be extended to the Sunni community.

Persuade Arab dictators to open up their political systems and explain to them clearly and forcefully that autocracy is a relic of the past and that rulers should establish working partnerships with their citizens.

Work closely with the new Saudi leaders to curb the spreading of radical ideology in the name of Islam. If Saudi Arabia balks, the United States should make it clear that American interests and American values are not mutually exclusive and that the current mess in the Middle East is not sustainable. The regional states have the primary responsibility to chart a new trajectory for the region.

The US could take the lead in helping bring the region back from the brink without necessarily putting boots on the ground. If it takes these steps, the US can help contain and ultimately defeat IS. If not, the group's resilience, resources, and reach could enable it to break out of the Levant and into Egypt, the Arabian peninsula, and North Africa.

A version of this article originally appeared on LobeLog.