ONCE UPON A TIME

A timeline analysis of the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, by Monisa Kolla.

The group began more than two decades ago as a fervid fantasy in the mind of a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A onetime street thug, he arrived in Afghanistan as an aspiring Mujahideen in 1989, too late to fight the Soviet Union. He went back home to Jordan, and remained a fringe figure in the international violent jihad for much of the following decade. He returned to Afghanistan to set up a training camp for terrorists, and met Osama bin Laden in 1999, but chose not to join al-Qaeda.
The fall of the Taliban in 2001 forced Zarqawi to flee to Iraq. There his presence went largely unnoticed until the Bush administration used it as evidence that al-Qaeda was in cahoots with Saddam Hussein. In reality, though, Zarqawi was a free agent, looking to create his own terror organization. Shortly after the United Sates of America led invasion of Iraq in 2003, he set up the forerunner to today’s Islamic State: Jama’at al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad (the Party of Monotheism and Jihad), which was made up mostly of non-Iraqis.
Although Zarqawi’s rhetoric was similar to bin Laden’s, his targets were quite different. From the start, Zarqawi directed his malevolence at fellow Muslims, especially Iraq’s majority Shiite population. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda regarded the Shiites as heretics, but rarely targeted them for slaughter.

By 2011, when the U.S. troop withdrawal was complete, Al Qaeda Organization in the land of two rivers(hereinafter AQI) was being run by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and had morphed from a largely foreign to a largely Iraqi operation. Baghdadi himself, as his name suggests, is local. The absence of foreigners made it easier for the Sons of Iraq and their kin to ignore previous resentments against the group. There was also another rebranding: AQI was now better known as the Islamic State of Iraq(hereinafter ISI).
Baghdadi took Zarqawi’s tactics and supercharged them. The Shiites were still his main targets, but now he sent suicide bombers to attack police and military offices, checkpoints, and recruiting stations. (Civilian targets remained fair game.) ISI’s ranks were swelled by former Sons of Iraq, many of whom had previously been commanders and soldiers in Saddam’s military. This gave Baghdadi’s fighters the air of an army, rather than a rag-tag militant outfit.
With thousands of armed men now at his disposal, Baghdadi opened a second front against the Shiites—in Syria, where there was a largely secular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

It feels absurd. Violent Jihadism should be thought of as a small, toxic strain within Islamic civilization, not a civilization itself; neither a serious ideological competiton. In the 1930s, when fascism and communism were at their ideological height, many believed they could produce higher living standards for ordinary people than democratic capitalist societies that were prone to devastating cycles of boom and bust. No one believes that about radical Islam today. I suspect, democratic capitalism’s real ideological adversary is not the “radical Islam” of ISIS. It’s the authoritarian, state-managed capitalism of China.

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