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Essay on the History of the Terrorist Group ISIS

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The terrorist group ISIS is the most recent threat that has emerged within the context of the War on Terror taking place within the nation of Iraq and surrounding areas. This essay will cover the history of ISIS and it's impact on the US. In order to understand the nature of this threat and the response of the United States to the threat, it will be necessary to gain a greater understanding of the history of ISIS.

This is where the present sample essay will begin. After describing the history of the organization, the essay will shift into a consideration of the ideology underlying ISIS and why this makes the organization into an especially virulent threat. After this, the essay will proceed to a discussion of the response of the United States to ISIS. Finally, the essay will conclude with an evaluation of the moral and political implications of the conflict between ISIS and the United States. 

History of ISIS

ISIS is an acronym standing for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; it is also sometimes know as ISIL, because sometimes "Syria" is replaced with the term "the Levant". At a certain level, one gets the impression that ISIS just emerged from nowhere: the organization was not a presence in Iraq when the United States was actually engaged in full-scale military operations there and has only emerged as a strong political power since the American withdrawal from Iraq. Ward has pursued the hypothesis that the origins of ISIS can be traced back to an American prison camp in Iraq called Camp Bucca:

"According to a CBS News investigation, at least 12 of the top leaders of ISIS served time in Camp Bucca, including the man who would become the group's leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. CBS News obtained photos of 10 of them in Bucca's yellow prison jumpsuits" (paragraph 7).

So, it would seem that a group of prisoners met in Bucca and began developing political ideology and strategy; and this was the beginnings of the organization known today as ISIS.  

Over time, ISIS has emerged as one of the most powerful forces active in Iraq, with a quite large portion of Iraq—approximately a third, going by the relevant political maps—under its control. Over the course of the past several years, it is likely that various parties that would later consolidate into ISIS participated in the insurgencies against the United States (see Ward).

ISIS in Iraq 

However, for a considerable period of time, it would seem that it was somewhat difficult to mark a meaningful difference between Al-Qaeda proper, the precursors of ISIS, and the Ba'athists loyal to Saddam Hussein. From an American perspective, the most important point was likely that these different organizations were simply engaged in a military alliance against the United States. However, ISIS clearly differentiated itself from Al-Qaeda in 2013; and the organization declared itself the official government of the parts of Iraq under its control in 2014. 

The magnitude of the terrorist threat presented by ISIS may make it somewhat misleading to merely identify the organization as a terrorist group. As Waddell has pointed out:

"Rather than using targeted attacks to further specific goals, ISIS is waging full-out war on the Iraqi government in a campaign to capture territory, then governing those territories in an organized fashion. ISIS is already laying down new laws in Iraq" (paragraphs 3-4).

Conceptually, then, ISIS is not behaving in the way that one might expect a terrorist group to behave. Rather, ISIS is conducting itself as a rebel government that has the ambition of capturing more and more territory and eventually becoming the official government of all of Iraq and the Levant (as its name would indicate). If ISIS continues to be perceived as a terrorist group, then this is surely not for geopolitical reasons but rather ideological ones.

The ideology of ISIS would seem to be very close to the ideologies of other Islamic fundamentalist organizations (such as Al-Qaeda itself) that obviously are terrorist in nature. At this point in the discussion, it may be helpful to turn to a closer discussion of the ideology of ISIS. 

Ideology of ISIS

Ideologically, ISIS would seem to draw from the fundamentalist Islamic movement known as Wahhabism. According to the Islamic Supreme Council of America:

"The origins of nearly all of the 20th century's Islamic extremist movements lie in a new Islamic theology and ideology developed in the 18th and 19th centuries in tribal areas of the eastern Arabian Peninsula. . . . The premise of this new, narrow ideology was to reject traditional scholars, scholarship and practices under the guise of 'reviving the true tenets of Islam' and protecting the concept of monotheism" (paragraphs 4-5).

The man at the center of this ideology was called Muhammed ibn Abd-al Wahhab. From a certain perspective, there would seem to be a kind of analogy between what Wahhab tried to do for Islam and what Luther tried to do for Christianity. However, given the cultural and historical context of Wahhab's movement (notably the lack of Enlightenment and modernity), the movement turned into an ultra-conservative ideology that was later to be adopted by Islamic fundamentalists of all stripes.

When one reviews the fruits of this ideology within ISIS, one is automatically tempted to wonder whether the organization is clinically insane. For example, as McLaughlin has pointed out, ISIS's own publications explicitly promote: the enslavement and rape of women, the murder of civilians, the sacking and plundering of cities, the implementation of a policy of genocide, and the condemnation of all people who do not adhere to ISIS's brand of Islam.

Indeed, if one were not aware of the reality of the threat currently faced by the world, one would almost be inclined to wonder whether the ideology of ISIS is an elaborate self-parody: these are the kinds of statements that one tends to make about other organizations or peoples when one wishes to dehumanize them or associate them with pure "evil"; there are surely not the kinds of statements that organizations and peoples tend to proudly make about themselves. It can be suggested that the fact that ISIS sees what most of humanity would think of as evils as being in fact being merits should surely cause concern for anyone concerned with the cause of freedom and basic human rights.   

The historical record also makes it clear that this is not mere rhetoric on the part of ISIS. As the UN News Service has indicated regarding ISIS:

"a staggering array of gross human rights abuses and acts of violence of an increasingly sectarian nature were committed by the group . . . over a period of nine weeks" (paragraph 1).

So, ISIS not only openly adheres to an ideology of committing a full spectrum of atrocities against all perceived enemies, it also has a demonstrated willingness to put this ideology into concrete practice. Therefore, if ISIS were to actually win governance of all of Iraq, then it is fully to be expected that the nation of Iraq will all under what would essentially be a reign of terror. Moreover, it is clear from ISIS's political agenda that the organization perceives its legitimate jurisdiction to be not just Iraq but surrounding areas as well; this could potentially lead to the ideological destabilization of all of the Middle East.

U.S. response to ISIS

Misztal and Michek have identified four key elements in the American strategy against ISIS. These are: one, systematic airstrikes against ISIS targets in both Iraq and Syria; "support for forces" fighting ISIS on the ground; taking counterterrorism efforts to prevent attacks by ISIS; and the delivering humanitarian assistance to those in need (paragraph 6).

This strategy was announced by President Obama in September 2014. In addition, the United States has also sought to alienate ISIS within the Arab world itself. Several nations, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, have pledged support for American efforts against ISIS and opposition to ISIS itself. There's also the matter of counterterrorism as it relates to the law. The US needs to ensure it's upholding the law and ensuring that civil rights policies aren't violated.

Naturally, there has been some skepticism about whether it would really be wise for the United States to become involved in an Iraqi conflict in Iraq. However, the general political consensus seems to be that ISIS is too dangerous and deranged to be ignored. As Coll has put it:

"The question about President Obama's resumption of war in Iraq is not whether it can be justified but where it will lead. Air strikes against a well-resourced guerilla army will do little if they are not accompanied by action on the ground. it would be a catastrophic error for the United States to take on that role" (paragraph 8).

In short, what is still needed in this situation is a coherent strategy. The United States is committed to fulfilling a significant support role in the struggle against ISIS; but the main ground force would presumably need to come from rival political organizations within Iraq itself. Whether it is feasible to expect such a united force to emerge remains to be seen. 

Implications if ISIS keeps growing

One of the implications of the emergence of ISIS is that the United States' engagement with Iraq has necessarily been renewed. This is not even simply because of the United States' previous operations in Iraq, insofar as those operations were in fact peripheral to the War on Terror proper. Rather, one must conceptualize the struggle against ISIS as genealogically related to the United States' military efforts in Afghanistan, and not Iraq.

Whether it would be geopolitically accurate to still classify ISIS as a "terrorist" group is a moot point in light of the fact that the stated agenda of the organization is to bring a reign of terror down upon Iraq and surrounding areas—and from there, presumably seek to expand this reign further across the world if possible. In a meaningful sense, ISIS is in fact a significant threat against all of civilization; this is not a fantasy spun by American warmongers; it is a concern for the entire free world, and must be treated as such. 

Secondly, it is worth pointing out that given the level of extremeness exhibited by ISIS and its ideology, the organization should be stripped of any moral protections that could be afforded to it by philosophical doctrines of moral or cultural relativism (see Gowans). This is because what ISIS proposes is not a new culture for Iraq and the Levant but rather the abolition of all culture.

As one has even the slightest notion of universal moral criteria that must be respected by all human beings, one must necessarily oppose ISIS, because it is precisely these most basic values that ISIS seeks to annihilate and threatens national security. Again, this would normally seem like exaggeration and demonization; but the truth is that the organization's own publications speak for themselves (see McLaughlin). ISIS, as an organization, would seem to be a partisan of what the modern world normally calls "evil"; and if any organization today deserves to be resisted with military force if necessary, it is probably this one.  


In summary, the present essay has discussed the history of the organization ISIS, the ideology of the organization, the response of the United States to the organization, and moral and political implications of the response. An important point that has emerged here is that the United States' struggle against ISIS should not be understood as a continuation of its war in Iraq per se but rather as a continuation of its legitimate War on Terror.

Properly understood, ISIS would be the heir to Al-Qaeda, and not Saddam Hussein. This is why the general political and moral consensus would seem to be that the United States is justified in taking military action against ISIS. The important question now, though, is precisely how to proceed at the level of strategy in order to achieve desired objectives.

Works Cited

Coll, Steve. "In Search of a Strategy." The New Yorker. 8 Sep. 2014. Web. 26 Nov. 2014. 

Gowans, Chris. "Moral Relativism." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2008. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.

Islamic Supreme Council of America. "Islamic Radicalism: Its Wahhabi Roots and Current Representation." Anti-Extremism. n.d. Web. 14 Sep. 2014.   

McLaughlin, Jenna. "ISIS Magazine Promotes Slavery, Rape, and Murder of Civilians in God's Name." Mother Jones. 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

Misztal, Blaise, and Jessica Michek. "An Overview of ISIS Threat and U.S. Response." Bipartisan Policy Center, 25 Sep. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2015. 

UN News Service. "'Staggering Array' of Gross Human Rights Abuses in Iraq." UN News Centre. 2 Oct. 2014. Web. 26 Nov. 2014. 

Waddell, Kaveh. "Isis Is More than Just a 'Terrorist Organization'." National Journal. 17 Jun. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2015. 

Ward, Clarissa. "The Origins of ISIS: Finding the Birthplace of Jihad." CBS. 4 Nov. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2015. 



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