Fiercely Focused: The Rise of the Islamic State

In recent years, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerged as the dominant extremist militant group in the Middle East. Images of the Islamic State’s merciless military campaigns and beheadings of Western hostages (including American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley) have flooded mainstream media. The barbarity of the Islamic State belies an important fact about the organization: they are well-organized, well-funded, and fiercely focused.

The Islamic State’s goal is to restore a Caliphate: an Islamic government led by a supreme religious leader ostensibly descended from the Prophet Muhammed. The Islamic State has clear strategies to accomplish this goal: they are adept at using social media to advance their extremist ideology and recruit new militants; they’ve built a sustainable revenue stream from oil and organized crime rackets; and they exploit popular discontent among non-extremist Sunni Iraqis with the Shia-dominated and U.S. backed Iraqi government.

Yes, The Islamic State are genocidal adherents to a violent ideology, but they are not stupid. Yes, they’ve butchered thousands of innocent Shias, Kurds, Yazidis and Christians throughout the Middle East, but that bloodshed was neither random nor purposeless. That ISIS conducts their campaign of violence deliberately and strategically is what makes them so scary.

ISIS justifies this bloody campaign by invoking an extreme interpretation of Islamic sharia law. A recent article by Vox summarizes how the Islamic State draws its power from politics, not religion. Virtually all Muslims reject The Islamic State’s view of their faith. In fact, Saudi clerics said the acts of terrorism perpetrated by Islamic State fighters are a heinous crime, according to sharia law. And Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of sharia law is not exactly moderate.

Despite the overwhelming majority of Muslims who oppose the Islamic State’s medieval interpretation of Islam, the group remains effective. The Islamic State’s fighting force — estimated to be as many as 31,000 — and propaganda machine has successfully exploited the ancient schism between Shiites and Sunnis. In fact, the Islamic State’s’ main propaganda publication Dabiq, which is named for a town in northern Syria where many ISIS militants believe their final, apocalyptic battle will take place, actively recruits new militants around their extremist ideologies.

However, the Islamic State does not rely on propaganda alone to recruit new fighters. ISIS pays soldiers $1,000 per month — an upper-middle class income in most Middle Eastern countries. The organization itself earns between $1-$3 million daily by exporting oil from captured fields in Syria and western Iraq. The militant group robbed $1.5 billion from Iraqi banks and has sold electricity and other energy resources to Syria. ISIS secured $2 million in funding from private donors in Qatar. And of course, the organization also makes money by ransoming the hostages it doesn’t behead.

The Islamic State has many hallmarks of a fully functioning government. Still, many Western leaders are misinformed when it comes to ISIS. President Obama once called the Islamic State al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team.” This comparison is not only misguided but flat out wrong. The two militant groups maintain differing ideologies, and the Islamic State has eclipsed al-Qaeda in terms of numbers and effectiveness. Western confusion about ISIS resulted in strategic errors. For example, the U.S. military unwittingly helped ignite the Islamic State by allowing captured militants to network in detention centers. Many members of ISIS’ current leadership met at Camp Bucca, a major American detention center in southern Iraq.

There is no magic bullet that can fix the ISIS problem because ISIS’s presence in Iraq and Syria is a complex military and political issue. ISIS is smarter and more effective than other Islamic militant groups. It likely won’t collapse on its own. But as recent Kurdish military victories demonstrate, ISIS is still vulnerable. In the end, it may take an unlikely alliance between the Shia-led Iraqi government, the Kurds, Syrian rebel groups (both secular and Islamist), Western governments, and possibly even Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered regime to wipe ISIS from the map.

Originally published at on July 3, 2015.

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