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23 June 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:59pm

Blowback: who are Isis and why are young Brits fighting with them?

Hundreds of young British men are said to have joined the murderous group, first in Syria and now on its bloody incursion into Iraq. What happens when they come home?

By John Bew

Shakir Waheib, a senior member of Isis, stands next to a burning police car in Anbar Province, Iraq


The reaction to Tony Blair’s “Iraq, Syria and the Middle East: an Essay”, published by his office on 14 June – not least John Prescott’s suggestion that the former Lab­our prime minister wanted to take Britain “back to the Crusades” – is a reminder of the old adage about how we often end up fighting the last war. When it comes to western involvement in the Middle East, we have too many to choose from – and that includes the wars we haven’t fought, as well as the ones we have.

It is certainly the case that the west’s new bogeyman, Isis – the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – did not exist before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and cannot be understood without it. Isis grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq and was formed in response to western intervention there. The guerrilla group’s current leader, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, was held captive by US forces from 2005 to 2009.

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It is equally true, however, that western non-intervention in Syria has allowed Isis to flourish and become the dominant force across swaths of the country, giving it the perfect platform for its swift and bloody incursion into Iraq.

The Syrian civil war has been raging for three years. The one purported success that western policy has to its name is the partial disarmament of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile, despite suggestions that only a fraction has been declared to inspectors, and that some weapons are still being deployed. Incredibly, given the death of an estimated 1,400 people in a sarin gas attack by the Assad regime in August last year in the suburbs of Damascus, this now looks like something of a sideshow.

On every other index, the western diplomatic failure in Syria has been acute. US support for the rapidly dwindling number of moderates in the Syrian opposition, which has increased to the sending of “light arms” since January, is over a year too late to yield any success. Now, even the most unambitious bottom line of the western approach – containment of the problem within Syria – has disintegrated.

Yet it is worth remembering that many of the circumstances facilitating the rise of Isis are out of western control: an open Turkish border with relative freedom for jihadist networks to travel back and forth; extensive funding from the Gulf states; Assad’s previous tacit encouragement of Isis’s forebears (releasing prisoners to fight the coalition forces during the Iraqi insurgency); and, since the civil war in Syria began, the decision of the Assad regime to expend more energy against the rivals of Isis within the Syrian opposition.

Though it is flimsy, something of a Faustian bargain has existed between the two, with Isis even selling assets – such as oil from the territory that it controls – back to the regime in Damascus.

That the conflict has spilled over into Iraq, where so much western money and blood has been expended, has raised the stakes considerably in Washington. A military response of some sort, possibly involving US air strikes, is increasingly likely. But the fault lines run much deeper. The truth is that a military operation will do nothing to alter the reality that the region is now on the brink of all-out Sunni-Shia war, in which Isis has just opened up a new front, promising to attack the “filth-ridden” Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.

Broader diplomatic initiatives are also on the table – including the unlikely one of co-operating with Iran in order to combat Isis – but such moves are fraught with even greater potential dangers.

“While our interests in Iraq momentarily coincide (maintaining unity, fighting al-Qaeda) our larger interests do not, be it in Syria, or co-operation with our Israeli, Turkish and Sunni Arab partners, or in trying to win over Sunnis in Isis-dominated areas,” said James F Jeffrey, US ambassador to Baghdad from 2010 to 2012, in an interview on the defence website War on the Rocks. “Too close a US approach to Iran would be fatal,” he said.

As Washington explores its (limited) options, the first thing to note is that the risk of further fragmentation, sectarian conflict and civil war in Iraq does not depend simply on the next move by Isis. The abrasive sectarian approach taken by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government has in effect thrown away the brief opportunity that existed for stabilising and broadening the basis of the state. Gone is the window provided by the US-led surge and the so-called Anbar Awakening of the Sunni tribes who threw out Isis’s previous incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, in 2006.

Nonetheless, the rapid progress Isis made in taking Fallujah, then Mosul, then the oil-refinery town of Baiji and (at the time of writing) the Turkmen-majority town of Tal Afar is likely to force some issues, both for the movement itself and for those in its sights. In some ways Iraq, with an aggrieved Sunni population alienated from the state, provides similarly conducive circumstances to those that Isis has exploited in Syria. On the other hand, Isis’s own recent history in Iraq complicates the situation.

Terrifying final moments: Isis gunmen take aim at captured Iraqi soldiers before shooting them dead, 14 June. Photo: AP via Militant website




Isis has taken up the mantle of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq before his death in 2006. His extreme bloodlust, taking “all-out war” to the Shias, even earned him a rebuke from al-Qaeda’s central command. Though it is often said that the organisation is too extreme even for al-Qaeda, the “new Zarqawists” of Isis, led by al-Baghdadi, believe they have found a more effective formula. An Isis spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, last month issued a stinging rebuke to al-Qaeda’s official leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for being slow to respond to revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

Zawahiri was also denounced for failing to take the fight to Iran and for obsessing about the “far enemy” (the United States), leaving Sunnis open to the revenge of Shias. In the increasingly fractious communications between the two, Isis has also pointed to success where al-Qaeda has failed, establishing a de facto caliphate across a wide expanse of territory.

Whereas Zarqawi’s modus operandi was apocalyptic sectarian terrorism, al-Baghdadi sees himself very much as an emir, or head of state. Without diluting any of its sectarian fervour and bloodlust, Isis has nonetheless demonstrated a more pragmatic side than in its previous campaign in Iraq. It has gained experience of governance in Syria by filling the vacuum left by the collapse of state authority – running schools, ensuring the electricity supply, collecting taxes and even trading with outside entities.

Its pragmatism has also been seen in renewed efforts in Iraq to rebuild relationships with the Sunni tribes it alienated in Anbar from 2004 to 2006, and even with remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in Tikrit. This time, partly because of the failings of the Iraqi government, the incentives for the tribes to take a strong stand against Isis as they did during the Awakening are much reduced, and many of them feel that promises made at that time have not been delivered on. That said, it should not be forgotten that the Awakening was an extremely violent and bloody affair; any reconciliation between the tribes and Isis is unlikely to be seamless.

Will Isis rush to Baghdad or attempt to consolidate what it has gained in such a short time? In Syria, after bursts of expansionism, it has preferred to focus on establishing full authority in its immediate neighbourhood rather than risking all by staging a sustained assault on the regime. Indeed, it is perhaps best thought of as a highly effective insurgent group, which uses terror as a tactic but which is primarily interested in acquiring and holding a defined area of territory. In the meantime, Isis sympathisers are already doing significant damage in the capital with frequent suicide bomb attacks, allowing the group to exert other forms of pressure without courting a full-scale confrontation with the Iraqi army on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Another variable in Iraq is how Isis approaches the matter of the Kurds, who are in a much stronger position in Iraq than they are in Syria. The Kurdish peshmerga – potentially the most formidable opponents that Isis faces in the region – have seized the opportunity provided by the melting away of the Iraqi army in the face of the Isis assault to strengthen their own claim on northern Iraq. The peshmerga have an estimated quarter of a million trained men to draw upon.




Can Isis afford to point its bayonets at both the Shias and the Kurds, who are tough and well-prepared opponents, at the same time? One effect of its gains in Iraq, and in particular Mosul, is to open up a new front with the Kurds hundreds of miles long. It is unlikely that the peshmerga will be willing to afford Isis the luxury to entrench itself without challenge. This could be the battle to watch.

Under what circumstances, finally, might Isis turn its attention to the west?

It is alleged that, on his release from US custody in 2009, al-Baghdadi told US soldiers, “See you in New York.” Yet the gravest threat here, at least from a European perspective, is the one posed by foreign fighters who have flooded into Syria and will return home at some point. There are believed to be 2,000 – most likely more – European citizens fighting in Syria. Between 400 and 500 of those are Britons, and most of them have joined Isis.

While the Isis leadership has preferred to focus its efforts in Iraq and Syria, some of those who have travelled from Europe to join the fighting are known to think differently. Last month in Brussels, a man opened fire at a Jewish museum, killing four people. The chief suspect is believed to have spent a year fighting in Syria. Several Britons in Isis have also taken to social media to express their desire to replicate something on the scale of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the UK.

The significance of the foreign fighter threat, which was already of great concern to the British government, will not increase drastically in the short term because of recent Isis successes in Iraq. Evidence suggests that most of the British volunteers have remained in Syria rather than taking part in the offensive over the border.

That said, the allure of success and the opening of new fronts of jihad will likely strengthen and underpin the appeal of Isis, which has already overtaken Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s “official” branch in Syria, as the rebel force most attractive to foreign fighters. Notwithstanding the superior aptitude for the territorial game that Isis boasts, momentum remains the lifeblood of global jihadism. Isis certainly has that, though its rapid success in Iraq means that it now has something to lose. 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and an award-winning historian. Shiraz Maher is a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, and a co-author of the report “Greenbirds: Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks” (ICSR)

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