Plenty has been written about the Islamic State since 2014, but the second edition of Fawaz Gerges’ profile of the group is particularly worthwhile. “ISIS: A History” tracks the group’s evolution from its early incarnation of Al Qaeda in Iraq, up until the present day. Gerges examines the marginalisation of Iraqi Sunnis under Nouri al-Maliki’s government and outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, arguing that these two factors were most significant to the group’s revival under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and that its future prospects are rather bleak.
Of particular note, though, are the sections discussing IS’ relationship with former Saddam loyalists and Baathist militias. Gerges’ in-depth analysis of how IS succeeded in co-opting the anti-Maliki Sunni insurgency to support its own interests is particularly interesting, as are the discussions of its relationship with the Sufi Baathist Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia militia, who helped it capture Mosul in June 2014.
All too often, it is assumed that IS magically appeared in Syria during its civil war, then equally magically conquered the best part of half of Iraq before being stopped at the gates of Baghdad in the south, and Erbil in the north. The reality, though, is far more straightforward than one would expect. Years of Iraqi Sunni Arab grievances and frustrations against the central Baghdad government were coming to bare by the 2013, and the massacre of unarmed protesters at Hawija in April finally initiated a low-level anti-government insurgency. It was this insurgency IS was able to successfully capitalise upon, Gerges argues, and eventually overtake by the summer of 2014.
Unlike many other writers who have had books published on IS, Gerges is also an academic (he holds a professorship at the London School of Economics), and so he writes with a relatively high level of rigour and analysis. While not the lightest overview of the group, it nevertheless remains one its best more in-depth histories, being suitable introductory reading for journalists, academics, and policy-makers.