Why has ISIS risen?


Bismillah was-salaatu was-salaamu ‘ala Rasoolillah.

In Sha Allah, this blog post will be divided into three (3) parts: the first, dealing with military reasons why ISIS has risen; the second, ideological reasons; the third, a brief refutation of their beliefs and actions from an orthodox Islamic perspective. (Note: I’m not claiming to represent orthodox Sunni Islam. I’m just basing my reasoning on its principles.)

Preface: Statement on Conspiracy Theories

The conspiracy theories about ISIS’s rise need to stop, right now. No, the group was not created by Hilary Clinton or the CIA. No, it’s not a creation of the Syrian regime – though it and the regime have had an interesting relationship, and their interests have indeed converged at times. And no, “the Shias” (*cue hysterical screams*) are NOT behind its rise either.

The group is a Sunni Arab jihadist movement that grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq. It’s self-financed, mostly from kidnapping and ransoming journalists, seizing arms and cash as war loot, and now “taxes” in the areas it controls. It does not have any state backers as far as I can tell.

Military Reasons

The “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shaam,” abbreviated as ISIS (or ISIL or IS), was created by Iraq-linked jihadists in early 2013 under the leadership of “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”. Soon after their creation, they split with their former allies Jabhat al-Nusra and began to fight them sporadically. This continued for a while, though most of the rebel factions continued to focus their efforts on fighting the regime. Later developments, in late 2013 and early 2014 (which I will elaborate on later in this post) caused other rebel factions to turn on ISIS, and an all-out war broke out between them.

A Saudi man who went to Syria, joined ISIS, and then came back was interviewed about his time there. The full interview can be viewed on YouTube, though I’ll quote the relevant parts.

After a while… The ISIS organization and [al-Qaeda-linked rebel group] Jabhat al-Nusra began fighting each other. There was also fighting between them and the other factions. The most disturbing thing was that Saudis were fighting Saudis, although, if you asked them, they would all tell you that they came to fight the regime. Recently, there has been nothing that could be called Jihad. All the fighting takes place between the factions. The regime used to be the only target, but now there is no fighting against it. All the factions are fighting one another. I advise the young people there to leave if they can.

As a result of this rebels-vs-ISIS conflict, ISIS were driven out of most of northern Syria in the Spring of 2014, and the rebels thought they could focus their attention on the regime. However, things took a bit of a twist from here. ISIS, kicked out of Syria, decided to start fighting in Iraq. They attacked the Maliki regime’s military in June 2014 to astounding results.

ISIS, with just a few thousand fighters, was able to defeat a US-equipped army of tens of thousands. Maliki’s corrupt and incompetent soldiers left their heavy weapons and fled, leaving huge swaths of Iraq (including the second-largest city, Mosul) in the hands of ISIS. ISIS then forced Mosul’s Christians to flee the city and destroyed sacred shrines from all religions (such as the Prophet Younus/Jonah Mosque).

Most importantly, ISIS captured thousands of heavy weapons the US had supplied to the Iraqi Army. Tanks, armored trucks, howitzers, as well as guns and ammunition. This loot turned ISIS from a militia to a formidable army. Additionally, many locals declared ‘allegiance’ to ISIS as a way to avoid persecution, swelling their ranks.

As you can probably see, one of the biggest actors fueling ISIS’s rise was the corruption and incompetence of Maliki’s regime. Indeed, many Sunni Arabs of Eastern Iraq were sick and tired of living under Maliki’s sectarian oppression and initially welcomed ISIS as a reprieve (it is unclear whether the bulk of Sunni Arabs living in ISIS-held areas hold this view at the present or not). Now they are stuck with ISIS, whether or not they like it.

Another factor helping ISIS was that the Syrian rebels were too late to confront them. ISIS was hostile to the moderate Syrian rebels since the beginning, but the rebels were reluctant to reciprocate the hostilities. A March 2014 article by Chris Looney for Syria Comment describes how one rebel group, the Northern Storm Brigades (NSB), hesitated to attack ISIS even after ISIS assassinated its leaders. Please note that all emphasis is mine.

What has not been widely reported is the nagging reluctance within the NSB to engage in combat against ISIS, even after ISIS had begun to assassinate its leaders… [The NSB’s leadership] agreed that they should avoid further conflict if possible and seek a mediated solution. The rationale behind this was not based on the fact that the NSB felt they were not powerful enough to take on ISIS; rather, it was founded on a hesitation to fight with their “Muslim brothers.”

It must be stressed that this was before ISIS, as one activist put it, “revealed (its) true colors…” Some members of the NSB were still uncertain of ISIS’ true intentions and skeptical that skirmishes between the two would evolve into full-fledged warfare. Wanting to return their focus to the regime, a quick, peaceful resolution to the dispute seemed not only practical, but also possible.

Of course, ISIS had other plans, targeting NSB’s already weakened leadership and decimating it even further. Now, NSB members say that ISIS fighters are “less than animals… We will burn them.” The war is now entirely against ISIS, they add. “We can deal with the regime after we deal with (them).”

In other words, the rebels considered ISIS to be their Muslim brothers but ISIS took advantage of this by betraying them, killing their leaders and seizing their resources. This story-line is not unique to the NSB, this happened to other rebel groups as well. Thus, hostilities between ISIS and other rebels continued to grow, and eventually reached a boiling point in January 2014 with the Abu Rayyan incident.

Dr. Hussein Suleiman, also known as Abu Rayyan, was a commander in Ahrar al-Sham, a Syrian rebel group. As ISIS-rebel tensions escalated, Abu Rayyan decided to pay ISIS a visit in order to settle their disputes. ISIS then kidnapped Abu Rayyan, “charged” him with some “crimes,” and murdered him in cold blood. Next, Abu Rayyan’s mutilated body was sent back to his family. ISIS refused any independent arbitration to hold them accountable for this crime, insisting that they were the “Islamic” state and their judgement was correct. You can read about the whole incident in-depth in this eye-opening post by Bilal Abdul Kareem, a journalist who has spent quite a bit of time inside Syria.

The rebels’ relations with ISIS deteriorated even further following this incident, and soon developed into an all-out war. Starting in January 2014, the rebels pushed ISIS out of Aleppo and most of Northern Syria. This push by the rebels was the focus of two videos by Vice News: here and here, both centered around the “Syrian Revolutionaries Front” (SRF), a rebel alliance that is somewhat more secular than the Islamic Front (though still pretty Islamist, as you quickly learn in the videos).

ISIS was on their heels for the first couple months of 2014. In June, they decided to attack Iraq as I described above. Now, using the weapons they captured from the Iraqi army, they have even begun to retake the territory in Syria they were pushed out from a few months ago. An August 2014 article by Today’s Zaman reported:

The mainstream rebels, including the FSA, are in chaos – encircled in Aleppo province by Syrian government forces on one side and the Islamic State group on the other side.

I think that sums up the military aspects of ISIS’s rise. Before we move on, I want to address one final point: who is responsible? Who should we blame for the rise of ISIS, from a military perspective? I think there are a few groups that should be blamed, in the following order:

  1. The Maliki regime. The Maliki regime was corrupt, autocratic, monopolized power, and ultimately incapable of governing Iraq. Their soldiers ran away when faced with an ISIS force an order of magnitude smaller than them. If they could have held their ground, the situation would be quite different. Of course, this also goes back to the disenfranchisement of Iraq’s Sunnis by Maliki and his cronies, and the failure of peaceful political process to achieve anything fruitful.
  2. The US/UK/West. They’re the ones who put Maliki in place, so they have a share of the blame too. For more info see this article by Ali Khedery, titled “Why we stuck with Maliki — and lost Iraq.”
  3. The Syrian rebels. The rebels are disorganized and constantly fighting and bickering with each other. If they could become united and adopt a coherent strategy, they could do better against both Assad and ISIS.
  4. The Syrian regime. No, there’s no conspiracy here, but Assad certainly has been reluctant to bomb ISIS until recently because they do serve his interests.

Ideological Reasons

Ideology has been a boon for ISIS. Their rhetoric is centered around concepts almost all Muslims hold dear: defending Muslim lands from oppression, establishing God’s law on Earth via a Caliphate, and giving your life for the sake of Islam (martyrdom).

There are many issues with the way Muslims view their history, especially the history of the Khilafah (Caliphate). We often think of it as a utopian golden age, in which everyone was at peace and science and progress flourished. The reality is a bit more complicated than that. Sure, the age of the Caliphate, from 632 until 1924 AD, was a better time for Muslim lands than the current post-WWI global order. But it was certainly not a utopia – it was a fallible system, people made mistakes, blood was shed, oppression and injustice did occur, and Muslims were not necessarily safe from invasion either.

Some Muslims believe that re-establishing a Caliphate will magically solve all the problems of the ummah. Nothing could be further from the truth. The problems of the ummah are to be solved from the bottom up, not the top down. First and foremost we have to take responsibility for the situation and stop blaming foreign powers. And then we have to be the change we want to see. This means an end to sectarianism, religious hatred, violence, corruption, lying, stealing, and dishonoring of women. I’ll talk about the problems of the ummah some more in the Refutation section of this post.

Another factor that has helped ISIS is the complete and abject failure of the religious leadership of the ummah. I’m not trying to slander the ulema here, I’m simply describing events as I see them. Among the masses of ahl-us-Sunnah, there has been a major crisis of faith in the religious leadership, and a little investigation leads to the conclusion that said leadership are the primary ones to blame here.

Last year, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was overthrown in a military coup. His supporters from among the Muslim Brotherhood protested, but the demonstrations were brutally suppressed. It has been estimated that almost 2,000 people were slaughtered by Egypt’s military and police in a series of massacres.

What’s most shameful about the events in Egypt last year is the stance of the ulema. The ulema of al-Azhar supported the coup from the beginning, and helped suppress protests against it by al-Azhar students. The ulema of Saudi Arabia were worse: they gave fatwas in support of Sisi, the general who led the coup and is now President of Egypt. There was even a Friday khutbah at the Grand Mosque in Makkah given by Shaykh Abdur-Rahman as-Sudais, justifying the massacres of the innocent people and praising the blood-soaked Egyptian and Saudi leadership.

So what are we supposed to think when the same ulema are condemning ISIS? Do they have any credibility left in the eyes of the people? More importantly, will people believe what they have to say about ISIS when they lied through their teeth about Egypt? Unfortunately, I think the answer is no. As Mohamed Ghilan put it on Twitter:

When Shaykh Sudais praises King Abdullah for supporting the coup in Egypt last year, his talk against ISIS this year is worthless.

Because of their immoral stance on Egypt (and Palestine), these ulema have lost their credibility. They can condemn ISIS a thousand times, but it won’t hurt ISIS at all. In fact it’s probably good propaganda value for ISIS to have these ulema condemning them.

Refutation of ISIS’s Beliefs and Actions

This final section of my post will deal with common claims by ISIS and their supporters, and the refutations of these beliefs from an Islamic perspective.

Claim Number 1: “ISIS aren’t attacking and killing fellow Muslims in Syria, they’re defending themselves from West-backed ‘Sahwat’ who are attacking them.”

This claim is false for a number of reasons. First of all, most of the Syrian rebel groups are NOT backed by the West; they get their foreign support (if any) from Muslim countries such as Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia. Secondly, it was ISIS who instigated the clash with the rebels via the incidents I described above, such as the murder of Abu Rayyan. I repeat: ISIS is the aggressor. The rebels have every right to fight back against ISIS atrocities, and the rest of the Muslims should support them in doing so.

Claim Number 2: “The ‘Islamic State’ ‘Caliphate’ sticking around is proof that it was given victory from God.”

This reasoning is extremely flawed. There have been many un-Islamic states throughout history that lasted long periods of time. England, for example, has been around for almost 1000 years (using the Battle of Hastings as a starting date). Also, the Rightly-Guided Caliphate only lasted 30 years, and the last 3 Rightly-Guided Caliphs were assassinated, so that argument pretty much collapses right there.

Another example is the Almohad Caliphate (also known as the “Muwahhidun”) was founded by a man claiming to be the Mahdi. This dynasty lasted 147 years, so either he was true in his claim (!) or the argument given by ISIS supporters is invalid. I’m not sure about you but I’m leaning towards the latter option…

Claim Number 3: “Beheading prisoners of war is justified in Islam; the Prophet Muhammad ‎ did so with the Banu Qurayzah.”

This argument from ISIS and their supporters shows a lack of understanding of basic seerah. The killing of Banu Qurayzah was not based on Islamic Scripture, but based on Jewish law. According to the Constitution of Medina, breaches of the law by the Jews would be judged based on Jewish Scripture. Sa’ad ibn Mu’adh, who came up with the ruling, did NOT consult the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammed ‎, rather he consulted the Torah. If ISIS are applying Jewish law on the thousands of people they are executing, this constitutes riddah (apostasy) on their part. Oops.


The Companions of the Prophet ‎ made jihad against the superpowers of their day, such as the Byzantines and the Persians. This was not done to spread Islam with the sword, rather it was done to battle oppression and establish justice on the Earth. (The Byzantines were Trinitarian Christians who oppressed all Non-Trinitarians as heretics. The Persians oppressed monotheists in general). ISIS, on the other hand, has done nothing to alleviate the suffering of any oppressed people, whatever their race or religion. They’ve done nothing but turn their guns on defenseless minorities.

The problems of the ummah today are many. A close investigation reveals that ISIS have in fact exacerbated these issues, rather than alleviate them. Here is a rough list:

  • Despotism. ISIS have strengthened the hands of dictators and absolute monarchs such as Assad, Sisi, and Aal Saud. They can now tell their people, “This is what the alternative to me looks like. Take your pick!” This picture describes the situation quite accurately.
  • Sectarian and religious hatred. ISIS feeds on this hatred, and has done nothing to bring people together. It calls all Christians “Crusaders” (despite the fact that the Crusades took place 100s of years ago and the Christians of Iraq have been around for much longer than that). It uses the derogatory term “rafida” for Shi’ites, whom it considers non-Muslim (the consensus of Sunni Islamic scholars is that Shias are indeed Muslims). It calls Yezidis “devil-worshipers” and considers them worthy of death or enslavement. Perhaps ISIS should look up how Muslims and non-Muslims co-existed peacefully for hundreds of years in Islamic Spain as a starting point.
  • Violence. ISIS are a violent group, so how they will bring peace to Muslim lands is beyond me…
  • Occupation of Palestine. Israel has benefited from the chaos created by ISIS to launch a massacre in Gaza which has murdered over 2000 Palestinians already. ISIS has nothing to offer our brothers and sisters in Palestine.
  • Islamophobia. ISIS has caused millions of people to hate Islam. Islam-haters are having a ball with every ISIS atrocity – “Look! This is what Islam is all about!” They have dishonored the Shariah and tarnished the image of Allah’s religion.

One talking point I’ve been hearing from Muslims wary of ISIS, but hesitant to unequivocally condemn it, is the lack-of-information excuse: there are many hadith about the End of Days being a confusing time, people will be deluded very easily, it will be a great test of faith, etc etc etc… hence, it could be that ISIS isn’t that bad, but the media is twisting things to make them seem that way, or something along those lines.

My response to this is to first and foremost, recognize that there have indeed been media distortions and fabrications against ISIS. For instance, there was the lie about Mosul banks being robbed, the FGM hoax, and other allegations discussed in this France24 article. The solution to this is to not rely on Western media sources for information on what’s happening on the ground. ISIS themselves gleefully publish accounts of their atrocities all over social media, so you can start from there.

If you don’t want to give ISIS propagandists an audience, you can follow Syrian activists on the ground in Syria, though you probably need to know Arabic for that. For example, this one reports that ISIS is shelling civilians (AR) in rebel-held areas. So there are certainly alternative sources of information, rather than relying on the Western media.


Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like ISIS is going away any time soon. However, they must be stopped from making any further advances, and for this our Syrian brothers and sisters are in need of urgent assistance in terms of weapons and ammunition. If they are contained, the people living under them will grow wary of their atrocities and this will make it difficult to hold on to their territory for a long period of time, God willing. In the meantime we must pray to Allah for the sake of his Beloved ‎’s ummah.

وصلوات الله وسلامه على خير خلقه محمد وعلى آله و صحبه و سلم

May the peace and blessing of Allah be upon Muhammad and his family and companions and those who follow them, ameen.

~ Yousuf

18th August 2014

UPDATE: 20th August 2014

The execution of James Foley by ISIS is inhumane and unthinkable. Why they would murder an innocent journalist, in cold blood, is a testament to the group’s barbaric and subhuman nature. I am also aware that the man who committed the beheading was British… may Allah keep us safe from such people. Ameen.

At the same time, we have to keep in mind that ISIS have been doing these types of executions for a while now, and the only reason the James Foley story got so much attention was because he was American. For example, in June 2013 ISIS accused a 14-year-old coffee seller named Muhammed Qattaa of “blasphemy,” beat him up, and executed him right on the spot. The boy’s apparent crime in the eyes of ISIS was that they wanted to buy coffee from him on credit (i.e., pay for it later), he refused, an argument ensued, and somewhere along the line he stated that even if Muhammad ﷺ came to buy coffee from him he would not give it on credit. So they shot him dead.

Whatever your opinion is about blasphemy and shariah, I think we can all agree that the statement given by the 14-year-old boy was not blasphemous, rather it was just rhetoric. Also, there is something called “due process” which Islamic law guarantees to everyone – but apparently these ISIS fighters, in all their holiness, are just too good for that. It does make you sick sometimes.

UPDATE: There was a fascinating documentary made by Aris Roussinos of VICE News about the Islamic Front rebel coalition in Aleppo, Syria. You can view the documentary here (I strongly discourage reading the comments section, though). These are my main takeaways:

  • The city of Aleppo has been completely destroyed by the war. This was one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the film to see. So many lives have been lost and so many landmarks have been ruined.
  • The rebels are fighting a war on two fronts. One against ISIS, one against the Assad regime. Many of the rebels consider ISIS to be worse than the regime.
  • One of the rebel fighters said this:

[ISIS] are more dangerous than the regime. The biggest terrorists have joined it. They gathered in our land and grouped together because of Assad and his associates. Because Assad is ready to cooperate even with demons to finish us, to kill his people. The most important point is, if IS and the terrorists continue on like this, they will get stronger and reach Europe, if we don’t get support.” (14:30 in the video.)

  • An Islamic Front commander said this:

“The strength of the FSA [Free Syrian Army], that has been fighting the regime, was weakened because the Islamic State is much stronger than the regime. They have weapons and ammunition. So they have exhausted us more, and many more of us have been martyred by IS than by the regime.” (57:09 in the video.)

Please note that all emphasis in the above quotes is mine.

~ Yousuf

24 October 2014

4 thoughts on “Why has ISIS risen?

  1. Great article and consistent with everything I’ve read in the news.

    Don’t you think the Quran itself is part of the problem though? It seems to me that organizations like IS will continue to plague the world until certain portions of the Quran are redacted. Thanks.


    1. Thanks for your comment.

      The Qur’an has been preserved for 1400 years and millions have memorized it. I don’t think “redacting” the Qur’an is feasible at all, and even if it was, the political situation is still what it is – despotism, bloodshed, extremism – so you will still get terrorist groups.
      For example, there isn’t that much about fighting in the New Testament, but you still have groups such as the PFLP, a Palestinian Christian terrorist organization. So the reality is the political situation is what creates terrorism, not verses in a holy book.


  2. What do you think about other rebel factions in Syria? I mean you condemned the beheadings of prisoners of war by ISIS, but I think it is not just problem of ISIS but also other rebel factions. Maybe I am wrong so I am just interested in your opinion. Maybe you could write some analysis just about Syria and Assad regime and what caused the whole situation in Syria. Because on one side there are western media accusing Assad regime and on the other hand the ‘alternative’ media are accusing western governments and other Arab countries of backing rebels just to cause chaos for their benefits. But I think truth is somewhere in the middle. So I would appreciate some complex analysis and how you imagine the way to solve whole crisis in Syria and Iraq. Thanks.


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