The Rise of the Islamic State and the Evolution of Violent Extremism

The Rise of the Islamic State and the Evolution of Violent Extremism
A fighter with the Islamic State group stands guard in front of the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the Christian village of Bartella, northern Iraq, Aug. 7, 2014 (AP photo).

For Islamic extremists, particularly the most angry and violent ones, al-Qaida is yesterday's news. From Yemen to Africa, fighters are leaving al-Qaida-affiliated groups and joining the ultra-radical and violent movement now known as the Islamic State. This gives some worrisome hints about the future of extremism in the Islamic world.

The ascendance of the Islamic State, initially known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is due in part to al-Qaida's failures. Over the years much of the funding al-Qaida used to energize and stoke militant movements was cut off or dried up. Pummeled by the United States and its allies, al-Qaida's leaders hunkered down in a desperate and sometimes futile attempt to stay alive or avoid capture. The best they could do was to push out an occasional manifesto or vainglorious video. Hidden deep in Pakistan's tribal areas, al-Qaida's leaders lost touch with the new generation of militants that saw the group’s ideas and ideology as "stale, tired, and ineffectual." Al-Qaida’s focus on the "far enemy," as it called the United States, rather than on the Islamic governments that it called the "near enemy" backfired: Rather than deterring the United States through terrorism or insurgency as planned, Osama bin Laden and his cohorts inflamed American passions and brought destruction to their organization.

The Islamic State, under the leadership of a militant known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, adroitly filled the vacuum left by al-Qaida's stumbling. It proved skilled at appealing to angry young Muslims though social media and was better than al-Qaida at generating its own resources, thus avoiding one of the vulnerabilities of bin Laden's group. The Islamic State's extreme violence proved a powerful recruitment tool for sociopaths willing to kill and die. In this sense, the Islamic State was more attuned to the modern world where only shrill radicalism attracts attention. Moderation and patience are boring, particularly to impassioned young militants hungry for attention. The Islamic State instinctively understood this, exploiting the brutality pioneered by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, perhaps the most pathological of bin Laden's followers.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.