An IS(IS) Reading List – Part One

I have compiled a short (well, that was the intention haha) reading list about IS(IS) and the politics that come with it. Mainly based upon recent work in the public domain I found these readings very helpful and inspiring for my own thoughts and work. If you have suggestions to add to the list, don’t hesitate and contact me.

The rise of ISIS

Who Are the Soldiers of the Islamic State? – Syria in Crisis – Aron Lund – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The Islamic State is well known to field large numbers of foreign fighters, such as the Chechen forces under Omar al-Shishani, a Georgia-born jihadi commander. But the number of foreigners should not be overstated. According to the CIA, the total number of jihadis that have traveled to Iraq and Syria in the past few years is thought to be around 15,000—but that doesn’t mean that the Islamic State has enrolled 15,000 foreigners.

Who Runs the Islamic State? | The Rise of ISIS |  FRONTLINE | PBS

ISIS is unlike any other terrorist group in recent memory. It has to keep hidden while also running a state. That’s created a clandestine group of leaders anxious to protect themselves from rivals — and airstrikes — but who also must engage in the mundane business of governance. They order executions and craft military campaigns, but also issue traffic tickets, regulate the price of foodstuffs and consider whether cigarettes and motorbike racing are acceptable to their brand of Islam. (They are not.)

Who these men are remains mostly a mystery.

Profiling the Islamic State | Charles Lister –  Brookings Institution

In a new Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper, Charles Lister traces IS’s roots from Jordan to Afghanistan, and finally to Iraq and Syria. He describes its evolution from a small terrorist group into a bureaucratic organization that currently controls thousands of square miles and is attempting to govern millions of people. Lister assesses the group’s capabilities, explains its various tactics, and identifies its likely trajectory.

The state in IS

Jihadi-Salafi views of the Islamic State – Joas Wagemakers – The Washington Post

The alternative to IS that Jihadi-Salafis come up with in their debates about founding an Islamic state is therefore not principally different, but only procedurally. Salafi ideas on state building in general only diverge from those espoused by the supporters of IS in the details. Despite the fierce criticism that Salafis of various types level against IS, they actually resemble one another quite a lot with regard to state building. Still, the rise of IS has made clear to Jihadi-Salafis that for an Islamic state to work, it needs the support of the people, who must be ready and willing to tolerate such a project. This makes the propagation of Islam (dawa) as a means of preparing people for the ultimate goal of Islamic statehood all the more necessary. Although some Jihadi-Salafis have recognised this for some time, quietist Salafis have taken this long-term approach for decades. As such, the rise of IS may have contributed to a greater realization among Jihadi-Salafis that founding an Islamic state requires sustained efforts and is no sinecure.

The Islamic State’s model – Aaron Y. Zelin – The Washington Post

There is one key difference between al-Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s model for expansion. Al-Qaeda wanted to use its new franchises in service of its main priority: attacking Western countries to force them to stop supporting “apostate” Arab regimes, which without the support of Western countries would then be ripe for the taking. This has only truly worked out with its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On the other hand, while the Islamic State does not have an issue with its supporters or grassroots activists attacking Western countries, its main priority is building out its caliphate, which is evident in its famous slogan baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding). As a result, it has had a relatively clear agenda and model: fighting locally, instituting limited governance and conducting outreach. This differs from al-Qaeda’s more muddled approach – it hoped a local franchise would conduct external operations, but many times franchises would instead focus on local battles or attempts at governance without a clear plan, as bin Laden had warned. Moreover, the Islamic State has had a simple media strategy for telegraphing what it is doing on the ground to show its supporters, potential recruits and enemies that it is in fact doing something. This accomplishes more, even if it appears that the Islamic State is doing more than it actually is, in comparison with al-Qaeda’s practice of waiting for a successful external operation to succeed and then claiming responsibility after the fact.

How much of a state is the Islamic State? – Quinn Mecham – The Washington Post

Rather than assessing the “Islamic” qualities of the Islamic State group, I will focus instead on the “stateness” of this group as it has developed in early 2015. The contemporary name of this group implies both that it is Islamic and also that it is a state. My principal argument is that while the Islamic State does not have all of the characteristics that we usually attribute to states, it does have many of them, and that its trajectory to date is toward increasing levels of stateness. This matters a great deal, not only because it shapes the lives of the people who live within Islamic State-controlled territory, but also because it has implications for how outside actors should engage with this group. In particular, the more the Islamic State actually resembles a state, with its security provision and regulatory institutions, the less international actors will be able to “degrade” or “destroy” the group without also degrading or destroying the fundamental functions of the state. Attempts to degrade and destroy these emergent state institutions will likely lead to anarchy, which often comes with profoundly negative consequences.

The ‘radicalization’ thing

Five myths about violent extremism – Daniel Byman – The Washington Post

Citing the “tragic attacks in Ottawa, Sydney,  and Paris,” the White House on Wednesday is convening a summit on violent extremism. Its goal is admirable and ambitious: neutralizing terrorism’s root causes by stopping people from radicalizing in the first place. Yet the causes of violent extremism are poorly understood, and programs are often targeted at the wrong audiences. So to help the world leaders at the summit do more good than harm, let’s dispel some of the biggest myths.

Why academics can’t get beyond moderates and radicals – Jillian Schwedler –  The Washington Post

For much of the past decade, analyses of Islamist groups have been organized around a distinction between moderates and radicals. Analysts and scholars have never agreed on precise definitions of either, but the distinction has largely been used as a point of departure. In the post-Arab-uprisings Middle East, with sectarianism increasingly salient and the Islamic State (also called ISIS) altering the landscape of jihadism, scholars should ask whether these categories continue to provide the kind of analytic traction that made them valuable in the past. The constant pressure on scholars of Middle East politics to respond to a growing wave of Islamophobia has complicated efforts to rethink these categories. Public engagement is a vital part of the academic mission, but has our need to constantly reiterate in public that all Muslims are not Islamists and that most Islamists are moderate constrained our scholarly analyses by forcing us to retreat into the language of moderates and radicals?

‘Defining’ Terror, and Why ISIS Suits the West | Chimene Suleiman – Media Diversified

ISIS have never shocked the West. Not really. They are an al-Qaeda template with a Twitter handle. There are only so many ways you can torture and kill someone, and it’s nothing Abu Ghraib hasn’t seen before. But is there anything that suits the West’s understanding of the Middle East more than a group of highly violent, Islamic-obsessed men who shout Allahu Akbar as a prelude to murder? Probably not.

Prevent and anti-extremism education | Paul Thomas and Ted Cantle –  openDemocracy

As Arun Kundnani points out, many of the leading international academic experts on terrorism now question the very notion of ‘radicalisation’ and policies based
on preventing it. That is not because the terrorist threat isn’t real: but they do question the assumptions and impacts of policies implemented on the basis of
the ‘radicalisation’ theory.

Here, the concept of ‘do no harm’ is relevant and we have previously argued that Prevent’s assumptions, approach and overwhelming focus on young Muslims are
both ineffective and counter-productive. Our argument is based as much on what Prevent is NOT doing or encouraging as much as on a critique of what it is

The Islam issue

What ISIS Really Wants – Graeme Wood – The Atlantic

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

What The Atlantic Left Out About ISIS According To Their Own Expert | Jack Jenkins – ThinkProgress

ThinkProgress reached out to Haykel, who agreed to an interview to help dispel any misconception that he is trying to score “political” points, explaining, “my approach is a scholarly one and not motivated by an agenda.” He admitted that he had initially read Wood’s article quickly — “it’s a long piece,” he joked — and declined to directly address most of Wood’s claims other than to insist the piece was ultimately “[Wood’s] argument … not my argument.” Still, he didn’t shy away from expanding on some things the author left out or possibly misrepresented, and offered a revealing examination of what’s at stake when fighting ISIS.

The Atlantic Ignores Muslim Intellectuals, Defines “True Islam” As ISIS – Murtaza Hussain  – The Intercept

Wood is right in pointing out that there are people in the world today — including those carrying black banners in places like Raqqa and Mosul — who take religion very seriously.But just as a failure to recognize this fact may represent the bias of a Western observer, there is also a glaring bias in dismissing or ignoring the great mass of established and recognized religious scholars of Islam in the Muslim world whose theological conclusions are starkly at odds with the radical revisionism of Islamic State.

This stupidity needs to end: Why the Atlantic & NY Post are clueless about Islam – H.A. Hellyer –

There will be those that will insist that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam or religion in general — that ISIS is primarily a social and political phenomenon, bereft of ideology entirely, or simply using Islam as a superficial justification. Counterterrorism studies indicate that for very many people in the broader radical Islamist universe, non-ideological factors certainly play magnificently important roles. At the same time, it is also the case that for radical Islamists, an ideological component not only exists, but is crucial in understanding their world views. In some shape or form, for ISIS supporters, religion certainly plays a role. But what religion, precisely?

The easy answer is to say “Islam” – but it is also a rather lazy answer.

In Defense of Islam – Ross Douthat –

So even as we acknowledge the obvious and describe ISIS as Islamic, we should give the rest of Islam credit for being, well, Islamic as well, and for having available arguments and traditions and interpretations that marginalized this kind of barbarism in the past, and God willing can do so once again. Those arguments and traditions may not suffice to synthesize Islam fully with Western modernity; whether that’s possible (or desirable) is a larger and more complicated debate. But we can reasonably hope that they will suffice intellectually in the face of the Islamic State, whose arguments for its own deep orthodoxy are contradicted by centuries of Muslim theology and tradition, and which is as much at war with the lived historical reality of Islam as it is at war with Christianity, secularism or the West.

Beyond Authenticity: ISIS and the Islamic Legal Tradition. – Suhaira Siddique – Jadaliyya

If ISIS is claiming to be Islamic, they will have to construct their claim for legitimacy and their law on precedence, but how they understand that precedence and how they engage with that precedence reveals more about the brutality of their ideology and methodology than it does about classical Islamic law. If ISIS is both fundamentally shifting the way the law is conceived, and also the very parameters which govern legal thinking in various arenas, then it requires that individuals reject a simple binary of Islamic and unIslamic and engage more deeply in these discussions. This is of course not to negate the fact that the existence of ISIS is emerging from the systemic and continuous military and cultural degradation of the area it now controls, but to seriously evaluate their own claim of being Islamic alongside the cacophonous sounds of either those who agree or disagree.

ISIS and Authority by Kecia Ali |

Some attempts to assess ISIS’s legitimacy have focused on the fact that reputable Muslim authorities – clerics, scholars, ‘ulama – uniformly distance themselves from ISIS and condemn its brutal tactics. Though unwilling (for sound theological reasons) to declare leaders or followers of the Islamic State apostates, some have been willing to describe its actions as sinful, evil, or even “un-Islamic.”

But these arguments from authority worry me too. When women do something “impermissible” – lead Friday prayer, open a Women’s Mosque, interpret the Qur’an in feminist ways – self-described “traditional” Muslims offer similar condemnations: these acts, and these actors, are outside the pale of tradition. Regardless of the sophistication of the arguments presented, the response is that those who make them are not properly trained. What authority do they have? In sum: how dare they?

Today’s Top 7 Myths about Daesh/ ISIL | Juan Cole – Informed Comment

The self-styled ‘Islamic State’ Group (ISIS or ISIL), the Arabic acronym for which is Daesh, is increasingly haunting the nightmares of Western journalists and security analysts. I keep seeing some assertions about it that strike me as exaggerated or as just incorrect.

“I’m down for a Jihad”: How 100 Years of Gang Research can inform the Study of Terrorism, Radicalization and Extremism | Decker | Perspectives on Terrorism

One of the difficult tasks in the social sciences is integrative, interdisciplinary work. There are many commonalities across the social sciences in method, theory, and policy. The study of gangs has a tradition in the U.S. that dates back nearly 100 years, with an emerging focus in Europe and other parts of the world. This Research Note argues that there is considerable overlap between the study of gangs and that of radicalized groups. Both fields examine violence conducted largely in a group context. Group structure, demographics, marginalization, strength of membership bonds, leaving the group, and the role of prison in expanding membership are all issues the two have in common. There are lessons those who study radicalized groups can take from the long tradition of gang research. This Research Note identifies eleven lessons learned (mistakes and successes) from the study of gangs that have relevance to the study of radicalized and extremist groups. 


Theatrics & Savagery

After a series of defeats, the Islamic State resorts to shock tactics | Richard Hall –  GlobalPost

A video released on Tuesday appears to show the Jordanian air force pilot being burned alive in a locked cage by the group’s fighters. The cameraman zooms in to show his last seconds.

There is a reason that al-Kasaesbeh was killed in such a theatrical and sadistic manner.

How the Islamic State Makes Sure You Pay Attention to It – Charlie Winter – War on the Rocks

The Islamic State (IS) has played us. It’s been playing us for a long time now. Since it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in June last year, the cogs of its propaganda machine have continually turned, cranking up hysteria across the world and ensuring it never appears far beyond the front pages of our newspapers. Every day, we read that IS militants have committed some new atrocity, be it a massacre, execution or use of child soldiers, and, every day, our cathartic fascination with it keeps its spectre burning brightly at the front of our minds.

This is not some unhappy coincidence. This is the fruit of the IS media machinery’s tireless efforts.

The ISIS shock doctrine « Steve Niva –  The Immanent Frame

when one considers what ISIS is actually doing in practice—waging a protracted and violent insurgency in various locations and phases that aims to undermine existing authorities and establish zones of control—it becomes clear that the ambitions and behavior of ISIS have less to do with doctrines derived from the Qur’an or the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad than with the strategic doctrines of Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and the tradition of revolutionary insurgent warfare in the twentieth century, dressed up for the information age. While ISIS may have a Salafist orientation, they are also a revolutionary insurgent organization. As the political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas notes, “There is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space.” In other words, the twenty-first century Sunni Salafist insurgents of ISIS may have added a new chapter to the modern theory and practice of insurgent warfare; a hybrid blend of the sacred and profane.

nisralnasr: Sacrificing Humans – Ellis Goldberg – Nisralnasr

A comparison that could provide insight is transformed into a mechanism of demoralization. The question that is worth asking is precisely why should the leaders of the self-proclaimed Islamic State choose this particular method of execution? People can be killed by gunfire or exposure and the Islamic State has used both. Why employ a method that, like the butchery of animals, requires so intimate a connection between executioner and victim? Like lynching, it deploys practices and language that resonate positively and negatively with a larger population and creates powerful emotional bonds among both those who perform the acts and those who observe.


Tunisia field report: Where are Islamists headed? | Shadi Hamid – Brookings Institution

Tunisia, despite all of its progress, is still very much in transition. Democratic competition hasn’t been “normalized,” and so an Islamist party like Ennahda must play by a different set of rules. One Ennahda figure, who lived in exile for most of her life, described the Tunisian predicament as two high-speed trains — Islamists and secular hardliners — hurtling toward each other. Someone had to choose another, safer path. And so Ennahda opted not to run a presidential candidate. Not only that, they didn’t even endorse a candidate. Then there was the odd spectacle, in the parliamentary elections, of the losing party celebrating its loss, not too dissimilar from the pre-Arab Spring phenomenon of Islamist parties “losing on purpose.” As one senior Ennahda figure put it: “We were relieved and relieved and relieved.”

Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany

Resistance from Activist Da’Wa Networks in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany – Martijn de Koning, Ineke Roex, Carmen Becker and Pim Aarns – IMES – University of Amsterdam

In this IMES Series Report the sort of activism employed in networks like Sharia4Belgium and Sharia4Holland is analysed. The authors address how the activism of such networks interact with practices of the government and media during the period 2009-2013.

2 thoughts on “An IS(IS) Reading List – Part One

  1. Thanks Lila Ghosh! I should have put it on the list of course, I will do so next time (part two will come in about 3-4 weeks).

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