Why is the Islamic State group still expanding?

Why is the Islamic State group still expanding?
Comment: Despite being the target of an international military coalition, and being subjected to attacks from several groups in Iraq and Syria, IS remains resilient. Why?
5 min read
30 Nov, 2015
Northern Iraq has seen large-scale battles between IS and its rivals [Getty]

After the Islamic State group's devastating attacks in Paris on 13 September, analysts have presented two observations about the organisation's power both in the region and globally.

One theory is that IS has hit its limits, and its newly globalised terrorist acts were due to its stalling military campaigns in the Middle East and North Africa. Its recent operations in Sinai, Lebanon and France indicate that it is going to great efforts to show it has international reach, while it is losing ground and suffering thousands of casualties on home soil.

The other view is that it also shows IS' vast operational capacity and is able to challenge great powers in different continents. IS "has developed an external operation agenda that it is now implementing with lethal effect", said CIA director John Brennan. Although IS has recently lost some territory, it has captured more in other places.

     How is a force of 30,000 able to resist aerial attacks and ground troops in the hundreds of thousands?

The common denominator between these two evaluations relates to IS' grip on power in its territory in Iraq and Syria and its capacity to hit soft targets across the world.

How are three of the world's top military powers, the US, Russia and France - and some regional countries - unable to defeat the extremist group? How is a force of 30,000 able to resist aerial attacks and ground troops in the hundreds of thousands?

Group cohesion

One answer lies in IS asabiyya or social cohesion and sense of solidarity in the ranks. IS has shown that it is a unified force with a group consciousness. There is a sense of shared purpose, a cohesion that could once be found in tribes and clans. 

Ibn Khaldoun used this theory to explain the rise and fall of civilisations and local powers alike. He describes asabiyya as the fundamental bond of human groups and the basic motive for historical change in the context of tribal societies. Asabiyya is neither necessarily nomadic nor based on blood relations; rather, it is generally analogous to group solidarity and community ties.

When we look at the corruption and dysfunctionality of most Arab regimes, this theory explains the seeds of their downfall and the rise of Islamist groups. We have not yet seen any dissolution of IS' asabiyya into the factionalism and individualism that usually diminishes these kinds of groups' collective capacity as a political unit.

Conditions on the ground still exist wherein new cohesive groups such as Boko Haram, IS and the Taliban can emerge on the periphery of the dominant regime.

Power vacuum

Pulling US troops out of Iraq in 2011 and the uprising against the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad led to a power vacuum in both Iraq and Syria. From these points, Baghdad and Damascus had no identifiable central bases of authority. Obama's timetable for an exit of US troops was at best overly optimistic and at worst dangerously reckless.

The resulting power vacuum provided the region's worst actors with a safe haven from which to operate. If George W Bush's invasion of Iraq was bad, Obama's rush to leave was worse, at least for the security and safety of Iraqis. Under Iraq's new semi-democratic regime - armed by the US and backed by Iran - the Sunnis of the north and west became increasingly aggrieved, and this provided the perfect opportunity for IS to fill the power vacuum.

Amid this vacuum, fanatical Islamist groups flourished in both countries under the banner of al-Qaeda and later, IS.  The two countries' conflicts amplified each other and fostered an ever-deeper sense of radicalism.

Even if IS is defeated, it is not clear which forces will fill the power vacuum that then reopens. For this reason, regional and international powers are doubtful about the success of any ground invasion.

Sunni-Shia schism

IS represents a Sunni brand of Islamism while the Iran's government is the embodiment of Shia Islamism. These two forces and their supporters are now fighting face-to-face in Syria and Iraq.

A Sunni Islamist state in Afghanistan could not survive after 9/11 due to Bin Laden's strategy of global terrorism.
IS learned the lesson and established its regime in conquered territories.

The mayhem in Iraq and Syria presented an opportunity to Sunni Islamists to establish their own "Islamic" state as opposed to the neighboring Shia state in Iran. The distinctive lines of war in Iraq and Syria are sectarian.

Political Islam is about going back to "pristine Islam" and this is a suitable context for reviving the conflict between Shias and Sunnis. During the eras of colonialism and nationalism this conflict was marginalised, but now this schism between sects is more active than ever.

Pros and cons

The above explanations of the rise and strength of IS have their own advantages and disadvantages. The Asabiyya theory ignores the power of modern organisations and social media. IS has been good in using both.

Shia-Sunni conflict explains the situation in Iraq but the Assad regime is a secular state. The power vacuum in Syria became pronounced after the Arab Spring, but Sunnis were represented in Iraqi government.

When US forces left Iraq, the government did not confront a major uprising. As a result, it is not possible to explain the rise and strength of IS using just one of the above theories.
We must pick and choose some elements from each of them to make this modern phenomenon more understandable.

Sectarianism is not the reason for the rise of IS, but when Iran entered the conflict in Syriathe groups could use this trend for the recruitment of foot soldiers. Instead of social cohesion, we should use ideological ties to explain the unifiying force in this organisation. The power vacuum was just the igniting force and not the engine.  

Majid Mohammadi is an Iranian-born academic and the author of several books in Persian and English on politics, arts and religion in Iran.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.