What Is the Motivation of ISIS - and How Did They Gain So Much Strength?

We've all heard of ISIS - the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a group claiming responsibility for terror attacks worldwide. They are simultaneously responsible for killing tens of thousands and displacing millions in Iraq, allegedly killing tens of thousands in Syria
(though notably less than the Syrian government according to this source,) and attempting to create a new caliphate under Sharia law; in other words, a theocratic nation, based on Islam and the teachings of Muhammed, using the laws and teachings of the Quran and Hadiths to guide them.
The antithesis of a secular and free society, where one is free to choose any, all, or none, of the religions of the world, and where one is free to speak their mind and peacefully oppose the government. The antithesis of many values the West claims to value (though even the West has its limits with shock-jocks and satire.)

What many don't seem to fully understand is the motivation behind this group - and many other issues and disputes plaguing the Middle East right now. Some claim ISIS is purely politically motivated, which is, at best, a naive claim. Some say that their motives are entirely religious, or represent the standard Muslim belief, and these people then point to ISIS as a reason to slander, hate, discriminate against, or in some rare cases assault people purely for identifying as Muslims. This is not uncommon in the United States, sad though it may be, that many seem incapable of separating people from a word they use as an identity. We don't exactly hold all Catholics guilty for the inquisitions or various atrocities committed during the crusades.

Overwhelmingly, few Americans seem to really understand the terrorist organization. They have both political and religious motivations, not simply one or the other, and we will attempt here to find out exactly what their religious and political beliefs are, which drive them to this madness and destruction.

So first, what are the possible political motivations of ISIS - or, what political climates allowed their ideology to flourish? Why are they in Syria and Iraq, primarily? What is going on in Syria's civil war?

Let's talk about religion a bit - the ideological goals and motivations of ISIS that stem from their religious convictions. Here in The Atlantic we see an enormous collection of works and insights into the Islamic State's motivations - and here on this blog we value brevity, so I will recount some of the more pertinent details, however I encourage you all to read the article if possible.

They write:

much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse. . . . The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

This gives us our first incite into what the group wants - establishment of the original, fundamental laws and teachings of Muhammad, without any interest in modernity or social progress from the last 1,400 years since Muhammad walked the earth. But what's this talk of apocalypse?

This talk of apocalypse is familiar to Christians, in that it is the end-times - of a different flavor, to be sure, but of similar purpose: to rid the world of unbelievers and establish dominion over the world and bring about peace for those who kept the faith. This is known as Islamic Eschatology, and as written both by our source from The Atlantic as well as here by the Daily Mail, it centers around the city of Dabiq in Syria, where there will be a great battle between all Muslims and "crusaders" (likely a contextual translation or paraphrase from the original.) Some say the battle will end with Jesus coming down to Jerusalem, where the armies of - supposedly - ISIS will be cornered, spearing the anti-messiah of Islam and leading the Muslim armies to victory, and proclaiming peace for Muslims to reign - this is gathered from scattered references throughout the Quran to "judgement day" or a "final day," or in some cases "great day." The Quran is not as orderly in this matter as the christian Bible, where most of the major end-of-days prophecies are gathered in the Book of Revelations. Here is one particularly useful source from the Hadith however.

Dabiq is very close to Turkey, a NATO member and ally to the United States.
The smoke from assaults on Dabiq can be seen within Turkey.


What is evident is their devotion. From the Daily Mail:

'The U.S. and its allies will descend on Syria once they see that the air campaign has failed. That is a promise by God and his Messenger.'

Abu Musa’b al Zarqawi, a violent and influential
militant and Islamic teacher that inspired
much of the theology of ISIS, before
dying in 2006.
Their theology regarding who is deserving of death is also surprising, as it encompasses more than what most Muslims would be comfortable with - with many westernized Muslims denying the idea of death sentences as appropriate in any event, but with one particularly important figure in ISIS advocating for more death sentences from apostasy and infidels than most fundamentalists think appropriate. This man's name is Abu Musa’b al Zarqawi, and he proclaimed that even shaving your beard, voting in an election, selling drugs or alcohol, and more, is apostasy and deserves death. Wearing western clothes alone will earn you a death sentence under his teachings, according to The Atlantic. Even being a Shiite Muslim earns you the sentence of death according to Zarqawi's teachings. This condemns hundreds of millions of Muslims to death. This drives home the point that ISIS does not represent, in any way, all of Islam, or even a majority of it. They want to kill most Muslims just like most non-Muslims. Zarqawi is dead now, killed in 2006 in Iraq by US forces, but the proclaimed caliph of ISIS, Baghdadi, is more than happy to continue his line of thinking, while he leads ISIS.

There is a lot more on the specific ideals of the group, on The Atlantic's article that we have been referencing, but for now, let us focus on what political machinations have arisen that allowed this group to rise and thrive so well. After all, it takes more than just a crazed religious ideology to form a large pseudo-state; it takes a political atmosphere that allows the group, or even encourages it, to grow.

Although Huffington Post would like us to believe that it's all because of George Bush (isn't everything, supposedly?) this is gross oversimplification, and rather humorous to boot. In fact, al Qaeda has been around for several decades, finding origins in the freedom fighters in Afghanistan who fought against a Soviet invasion in the later 70's and majority of the 1980's. This turned into al Qaeda a short time later, the group that claimed responsibility for the attacks on 9/11, destroying the two World Trade Centers in New York City, sparking the war on terror. George Bush may have been a bit misinformed or even - though it may be a bit unlikely - lied about certain facts going into Iraq, but the fact is that Iraq had refused UN-mandated weapons inspections, previously used chemical weapons on civilians within their own borders, invaded Kuwait and attempted to strike at the civilian population of the nation, and more, which helped lead to the first Gulf War, international sanctions, and eventual invasion by a US-led coalition in 2003. Allegations of harboring terrorists were just icing on the cake, but the invasion was, at the time, internationally backed and supported, for the most part. We cannot accuse Bush of acting independently or illegally against international sentiments and legalities at the time, especially when HuffPost admits that Congress gave him the authority to invade - which somewhat flies in the face of the accusation of it being "illegal."

But we also cannot pretend that from the time of 2003 onward, we did not leave a power vacuum in the region that allowed ISIS to grow and grow - and the Arab Spring, a series of attempted and successful revolutions in the Arab world starting in 2011, helped to further destabilize the region, resulting in the Syrian civil war (and other conflicts as well.)

In Iraq, sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni Islam are practically a tradition, sadly enough. To make things worse, Kurdish people, an ethnic group, were also targeted under Hussein's government, so when the United States deposed the dictator, there was massive sectarian conflict, and the unified government ceasing to exist left them able to practice their anger and violence hindered only by the military occupation at the time. Iraq is a deeply divided society, and has been for decades; had the USA somehow been successful in installing a strong and popular democratic government, with a competent and loyal military, perhaps they would have been stronger to resist the infiltration of terror groups, but as it stands, the nation was left with a military that was tribalistic, not nationalistic, which has led to embarrassing retreats to numerically inferior forces from ISIS. They simply lack the will to fight for the nation of Iraq.

Soldiers and policemen in Mosul simply abandoned their equipment,
and fled past Kurdish-led Peshmerga militiamen as they ran from ISIS.
The Iraqi military presence that fled, outnumbered the ISIS forces more than 30 to 1.


The perfect storm had brewed - a nation divided, lacking loyalty and a desire to fight, but having equipment to pillage; terror groups desiring a foothold and said equipment to use for their purposes; minorities that were more than happy to fight for a cause that was built on theocratic, rather than democratic, ideals, and no more strong government to keep these terrorist organizations from growing. First it was al Qaeda in Iraq, but soon they would be known as ISIS. It was George Bush's decision, backed by popular opinion and international support, to invade Iraq, and it was Obama's decision to pull out of the nation for the most part; this combination of decisions, across administrations, led to the power vacuum that did not address the ideological issues in the region adequately - neither can be fully blamed for what happened.

As for Syria, something similar had occurred - but it was revolution, not military occupation, that caused a power vacuum. Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, has officially been President since the year 2000, but amidst the Arab Spring that started in 2011 where many Arab nations desired revolution and new governments - democratically elected usually - the government in Syria cracked down violently against protests. Cornell University writes about how students were being tortured for putting up anti-government graffiti, which helped spark the protests that eventually ended in civil war, with the government making certain concessions to the people, but then moving tanks and snipers into cities affected by unrest - shutting off water and confiscating food as well.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria

Amidst the chaos of civil war that ensued, was another opportunity ripe for ISIS' taking - the country that held their pivotal city of Dabiq was now in massive conflict, and other nations involving themselves in the conflict recently has made things even more complicated.

Essentially, the overall conflict in Syria is now between Russia, Turkey, Syria's government, rebels in Syria desiring government change, ISIS, and the United States. Complicated enough? What has happened is essentially this:


  • Syrians start revolting in 2011 to change their government, recognizing it's oppression and desiring reform - but being violently put down, resulting in conflict.
  • ISIS takes hold in Syria in 2011 shortly after the protests and civil war break out. Now, the government of Syria, rebel forces, and ISIS, are all fighting for control of the nation - for different reasons. The government wishes to retain control, the rebels wish to instill new government to reduce or remove oppression, and ISIS desires control for their own theocratic desires, as we have discussed.
  • In 2015 ,Russia gets involved, fighting on the side of the Syrian government, to try and maintain control against ISIS and maintain their alliance with the Syrian government, to maintain power in the region.
  • The USA, meanwhile, is fighting against ISIS with airstrikes, and fighting against the government of Syria, to help the freedom fighters (as they are sometimes labeled) form their democratic and free government that they seem to desire.
  • Turkey's involvement extends primarily to areas close to the border of the two nations, as tensions heat between Turkey and Russia - especially since Turkey's shooting down of Russian jets in 2015, over Turkish airspace - and to ensure that ISIS does not attempt to invade Turkey.
The conflict in Syria is complex, and because of Russia's interest in also defeating ISIS, it is not easy to distill anybody in the conflict into a "bad" or "good" category - except, perhaps, for ISIS itself, and maybe the oppressive government of Syria itself - though most factions would sooner have the government of Syria reinstated than have ISIS gain more control in the nation.


It is the personal opinion of this author that the abolishment of many of these ideas and sects in the Middle East may not be accomplished until fundamental Islam's hold is weakened - Sunni's and Shiites may continue to fight for as long as there are governments in the region that are theocratic in nature and dominated by Islamic belief rather than secular thinking and a desire for a peaceful and strong region. For the immediate future however, it is clear that ISIS desires a showdown in Dabiq, a land battle where they are anticipating glorious victory, to herald the end of days.

Perhaps we should give them what they're waiting for - but the outcome might not be as glorious as they're hoping.

In the meantime, we should all hope that the USA and Turkish forces do not end up exchanging blows with Russian forces - a move that could lead to a conflict between Russia and NATO if things deteriorate further.

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