When ISIS first stormed across the border into Iraq in 2014, the jihadist army looked all but unstoppable. In a few short months, black flags waved in the breeze over several major cities, including Mosul, Ramadi, and Fallujah. Over three years later, the “caliphate” established by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is no more. Mosul once again belongs to the government in Baghdad, while ISIS holdings in Syria has been drastically reduced to just a few small outputs in the southeastern desert.
Professor Ahmed S. Hashim’s The Caliphate at War details how ISIS came to be and how it tried (and failed) to build a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East. Although written before the final dissolution of ISIS-held Mosul, Hashim’s book clearly outlines all the ways in which the ISIS experiment had already failed by late 2015.
The Caliphate at War is neither a military history nor a rundown of the various intelligence plots designed to destroy ISIS. Rather, this is a political science text that examines the history of the ISIS idea and the ways in which ISIS innovated and created a jihadist paradigm that actually came very close to creating a functioning state.
The story of ISIS actually starts long before the U.S. military invasion of 2003. Indeed, Hashim traces ISIS’ roots back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. While nominally part of the caliphate located in Constantinople, Mesopotamia (the old Greek name for Iraq) was considered a backwater—a hot, tribal region with little to offer Ottoman officials who had been raised or schooled in in the Mediterranean.
In order to bring some form of state control to the restive region, Ottoman officials gave privileges to Mesopotamia’s Sunni minority at the expense of the Shia majority. This trend continued in 1919, when Mesopotamia became a British mandate. A year later, a large national uprising against the small British garrisons in the country almost ended London’s domination. In response, the British authorities again appealed to Sunni tribes with offers of wealth and privilege.
Sunni power in Iraq would not end until 2003, when U.S. military authorities tapped into the resentment of Shias and placed Shias at all levels of power in the transitional government. Unfortunately for the Americans, they believed that they had just conquered a secular nation that was eager to free itself from the shackles of Baathist oppression. Instead they found a society that had become increasingly religious since the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
More to the point, the last days of Saddam Hussein saw Iraq devolve into a failed state. The dictator’s old appeals to Arab nationalism and anti-Iranian feeling could no longer hold his turbulent nation together. Old religious divisions came to the forefront when a Jordanian terrorist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi broke with al-Qaeda tradition by using foreign-born fighters in order to massacre Iraqi Shi’ites.
ISIS would grow from this bloody seed. Despite the promises of the Obama administration, when American forces left Iraq in 2011, they left behind a small, but still effective Sunni jihadist cell called the Islamic State of Iraq. This group, which went underground after suffering massive losses due to American military operations between 2008 and 2009, reemerged thanks to the sectarian violence orchestrated by President Nouri al-Maliki, a man many Iraqi Sunnis considered a Shia supremacist.
The Caliphate at War makes clear that Iraq was always the target of ISIS. Although the Syrian Civil War gave Sunni militants from both Iraq and Syria (Hashim points out the Bashar al-Assad’s government had willingly provided sanctuary, money, and arms to Iraqi insurgents during the war of 2003–2011) a chance to regroup.
From here, ISIS created a military machine that was at once a terrorist outfit and a conventional military organization. Similarly, in cities like Raqqa and Mosul, ISIS tried to establish hospitals, banks, and other aspects of a modern state. Hashim claims that these efforts failed because of ISIS’ emphasis on brutality, its culture of privileging foreign fighters over Iraqi and Syrian locals, and its inability to appeal to white-collar administrators.
The Caliphate at War is an excellent overview of ISIS during its apex. But even after ISIS almost took Baghdad in 2014, its alliances with the more nationalist-minded Iraqi insurgent groups began failing. These intra-insurgent tensions, along with a reenergized central government supported by American, European, and Iranian firepower, ultimately helped to end ISIS’ salad says in northern Iraq.
Hashim warns that even though ISIS may be gone, Iraq still faces the possibility of another civil war. Most Iraqi Sunnis still fear the Shia militias that are loyal to Baghdad, while Iraqi Kurds, by gobbling up Arab-majority areas, may have already crossed one bridge too far in their quest for independence.
The future of Iraq does not look good, with or without ISIS.