The following article is based on my own interpretation of the said events. Any material borrowed from published and unpublished sources has been appropriately referenced. I will bear the sole responsibility for anything that is found to have been copied or misappropriated or misrepresented in the following post.
Raj Ranjan, MBA 2015-17, Vinod Gupta School of Management, IIT Kharagpur
In assessing what has empowered ISIS, it is important to know how the organization started. There are two paths that led to the creation of ISIS: bin Laden and Zarqawi. Osama bin and his lieutenants created al-Qaeda at the end of the 1980s from among the network of jihadists that were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, al-Qaeda began funneling funds to jihadists in/going to Iraq, many of whom eventually followed Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi accepted al-Qaeda support but did not pledge himself to al-Qaeda right away because of significant differences in goals and ideology between himself and bin Laden. After the initial period of operating as an independent group, Zarqawi and his forces eventually did pledge loyalty to al-Qaeda and began calling themselves al-Qaeda in Iraq/Mesopotamia in 2004. While operating in Iraq as an al-Qaeda branch, the group (along with several of its allies) began calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq in mid-October 2006, only a few months after the U.S. killed Zarqawi. By this time, the tensions between the group and al-Qaeda’s central leadership that had existed before the group had pledged itself to al-Qaeda had resurfaced, especially as the group became increasingly brutal, murderous, and extreme to Iraqi civilians, not only many Shiites—whom the Islamic State groups considered apostates worthy of mass execution—but also many Sunnis who were not on board with their extreme vision for Islam; bin Laden and al-Qaeda HQ preferred a more inclusive vision for its operations and one that would focus on attacking U.S. troops, not Iraqi civilians.
The most effective ground troops against ISIS so far have been the Kurds, in both Iraq and Syria. The Kurds are mostly traditionally Sunni Muslims, so harder for ISIS to dismiss as infidels. They have a strong sense of (Kurdish) nationalism and are defending the territories they themselves inhabit. ISIS presents itself as an international/supranational caliphate, so cannot demonize the Kurds for their ethnicity or culture. The analog for most of ISIS’s current territory is local Sunni Arabs. The threat posed by terrorism is merely symptomatic of larger underlying problems. Crush Isis, whether by bombing or employing boots on the ground, and those problems will still persist. A new Isis, under a different name but probably flying the same banner, will appear in its place, much as Isis itself emerged from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The long-term solution is of approximately the same sort: disarming ISIS rhetoric and recruitment by taking away the grievances of its targeted communities. The recent and extended history of tyranny in the region, whether by traditional monarchs or military dictators in or out of uniform (and frequently supported by the United States and its Western allies), is a source of great frustration, as the Arab Spring demonstrated. Unfortunately, the Arab Spring was mostly unsuccessful, but the long term is a different matter; and any democracy that emerges will have to be pluralistic, not winner-take-all as has so far been the case in Iraq. There will need to be a Palestinian state, of course. Iran, before or after it finally becomes democratic, will need to back away from its aspirations of regional power through influence in proxy states (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen). We know Arabs can build and sustain secular, modern societies, and it seems clear that most of them would prefer such societies to the reactionary medieval-ism of ISIS. That, in the long term, is what will put an end to the success and appeal of ISIS.