Origins of the Islamic State and How It Became So Dangerous

Obviously, I assume that you know that the Islamic State is a terrorist organization. However, politicians and talking heads try to educate us without actually knowing who and what they’re talking about. My goal for this article is to let you know just what we’re dealing with.


The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is a militant terrorist organization with the ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate. (A caliphate, like the Abbasid Caliphate in the medieval era, is essentially a kingdom ruled by Islamic law.)

Contrary to what a certain orange revisionist may have told us on the campaign trail a year ago, President Barack Obama did not create ISIS. Actually, the group has its origins in 2002 as a loose affiliate of Al-Qaeda. In 2004, under the leadership of Jordanian criminal Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the group formally joined Al-Qaeda as their militant wing in Iraq (dubbed simply as Al-Qaeda in Iraq or AQI).

However, the terrorist group under Zarqawi maintained goals and beliefs that were even too extreme for the rest of Al-Qaeda, specifically their hatred of Sunni Muslims, extreme tactics, and prioritization of internal enemies over the West. While the two groups formally split in late 2013 or early 2014, they largely operated independently for quite a while before that point (AQI even rebranded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq or ISI in 2006). If you’d like to read a more detailed analysis on the origin of ISIS go here.

The Rise of the Islamic State:

The Islamic State as we know it today really started after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the mantle as leader in 2010 from a string of deceased predecessors, including Zarqawi. After years of decline, it was Baghdadi that truly brought ISIS to international recognition. The way I see it, there were three major events that allowed ISIS to seize power and for Baghdadi to assume the role as the most hated individual in the world.

  1. The withdrawal of U.S. and Coalition forces from Iraq
  2. The death of Al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden
  3. The Arab Spring and Syria’s civil war

The withdrawal of the United States and its allies from Iraq left a massive power vacuum in the region. The government that we left had insufficient infrastructure and military power to stomp the Islamic State out. Since then, ISIS has wreaked massive havoc in the country.

The death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 signaled the symbolic demise of Al-Qaeda. The terrorist organization had been substantially weakened as it was and losing its figurehead felt like a death knell in the eyes of the international community. This left an ideological vacuum for ISIS to replace Al-Qaeda as the world’s boogeyman.

The mass political turbulence of the Arab Spring from 2010 to 2012 left both ideological and physical power vacuums throughout the Arab world. Many of the revolutions were peaceful, but in countries like Syria, violent resistance became the norm. The ensuing civil war in Syria, which neighbors Iraq, was the perfect breeding ground for ISIS to propagate.

What Makes them Dangerous:

In 2014, once ISIS had established itself in both Iraq and Syria, the group declared a Caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. For a short period of time, primarily in 2015, they probably felt pretty confident.

They controlled significant territory in both Iraq and Syria that was well connected over land. In early 2016, there was even a major concern that ISIS could potentially take the most populous city in Syria (pre-civil war), Aleppo.

(Photo: BBC and IHS Conflict Monitor)

Since then, ISIS has suffered numerous military defeats and lost territory, but the same principle still applies.

There were three primary causes that allowed the Islamic State to sew so much terror in such a short period of time. Singular purpose, extensive funding, and recruitment/propaganda.

Since 2014, the Islamic State has had one very clear goal over everything else: to establish an Islamic Caliphate. This common goal has allowed ISIS to be shockingly cohesive as an organization under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As long as Baghdadi is alive, it doesn’t seem like that is subject to much change.

Furthermore, ISIS is very well-funded. In 2015, it is estimated that they made somewhere from $1 million to $3 million per day. Those numbers probably make ISIS the most well-funded terror group that the U.S. has faced.

What sets their fundraising strategy apart is how diverse it is. While internet donations from sympathizers abroad play a role, the international intelligence does a pretty good job curbing much online fundraising. Instead, through their conquest of much of Iraq and Syria, ISIS uses the resources that come from their territories.

Oil, extortion/taxation of the population, and captured banks are among the largest contributions to the group’s wealth. When you add the income gained from wealthy donors from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other countries around the Middle East, it’s no surprise that ISIS doesn’t lack funding. For more detailed information on where ISIS gets its funding, go to this Washington Post article.

More than anything else, the Islamic State’s recruitment and propaganda strategies are extremely dangerous. Recruiting in the Middle East is easy enough. They promise freedom from Western oppression and a restoration of Islamic law to their territories. Their propaganda is Joseph Goebbels-esque in its distortion of reality and efficiency. Essentially, ISIS paints the West as the personification of evil and the Islamic State as a Muslim utopia. They reportedly also pay their fighters $400 a month.

As horrible as the situation is, it’s easy to see how a young, angry, unemployed man who lost a family member as a result of U.S. involvement in Iraq or under the brutal Assad regime in Syria can become disillusioned and see the Islamic State as an enticing option.

Even more dangerous is their recruitment tactics used abroad through the Internet. ISIS targets young, impressionable, lonely Muslims and manipulates them into believing their propaganda. In essence, they hone in on Muslims kids that feel like outsiders in Western culture. While this tactic hasn’t been very effective in the United States (as the government usually catches wind before anything happens), it is frightening to think that there are people in the U.S. that have tried to join ISIS.

Perhaps if we, as a country, could come together and make young Muslims feel welcomed instead of berated, alienated, blamed and banned, that tactic wouldn’t be so dangerous to our national security.


Sources: BBC, Washington Post, Stanford University, The Economist, Citizens for Global Solutions