Professors Discuss the Rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

November 18, 2015

As the Islamic State continues its attacks in Iraq, Syria and now France, Columbia News asked professors from a number of disciplines to evaluate the threats posed by the group. 



The History of ISIS

Austin Long ISIS terrorism Columbia University

Richard Bulliet is a professor of history who specializes in the history of Islamic society and institutions.

Q. What does ISIS want?

A. ISIS wants to dominate the Muslim world, to become the Islamic state. But in order to do so they have to destroy Saudi Arabia. And right now I think the really interesting question is what are the Saudis going to do?

Q. Can you explain that?

A. If the Saudis ignore ISIS and allow their citizens to give money and volunteer recruits to ISIS, then the world sees them as enablers of a criminal fanatic organization. On the other hand, ISIS believes in a strict form of Islam not too dissimilar from what the Saudis practice, and it also has a murderous attitude toward Shiites, a group the Saudis consider to be heretics. If they do what the West would like them to do and focus on ISIS, then in Muslim terms the Saudis would be allied with the enemies of Islam—America, France, Britain, Russia, Iran. That would undermine their authority as a dynasty that controls Mecca- Medina and sees itself as the center of Islam. So the Saudis are in an almost a lose-lose situation.

Q. ISIS calls itself a caliphate. How do Saudis view that claim?

A. According to Islamic tradition, the caliph must be an Arab and a descendant of the tribe that Muhammad belonged to in Mecca. While the Saudis are Arabs, they are not of Muhammad’s tribe of Quraysh. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’ leader, does claim to be descended from Quraysh, however. So because of Islamic doctrine, the Saudis cannot declare themselves caliphs, and their position as guardians of the holy places Mecca and Medina makes them potentially subordinate to a recognized caliph. So I think that the use of the word caliph by ISIS is effectively a challenge to the religious authority of the Saudis. Doctrinally their success puts the Saudis in a very difficult position.

Q. What can the Saudis do?

A. They are simply keeping silent. They have not done anything substantial to discredit or to combat ISIS. The Americans, the French, the British, the Russians, everybody wants the Saudis to take action. But they don’t want to, which is undermining their status in the region. Within Saudi Arabia there have been bombings, and hundreds of people who they say are ISIS sympathizers or ISIS operatives have been arrested. But all of the actions against ISIS within Saudi Arabia have been solely to prevent subversion. Islam has been used in Saudi Arabia basically as a tool for buttressing the power of the Saudi royal family, which has absolutely no intention of giving up that power to anyone.

Q. The Taliban has also claimed a caliphate. Why are we so much more concerned now?

A. The Taliban appeared to have no ambitions outside of Afghanistan. Bin Laden, who recognized the leader of the Taliban as a caliph, did have such ambitions, but not the Taliban. And even now the Taliban seem to be a local phenomenon.

Q. What does the future look like for ISIS?

A. I don’t think ISIS can survive in its current mini-state situation for more than five years. It has little sustainable income. It’s increasingly being attacked. It could metastasize, so even if it lost its territory in Syria it might then become a sort of distributed international terrorist organization. But I think it would be less appealing in such a form because these people who are being drawn into the ISIS orbit need a territory and a figurehead. They’re attracted by the romance of recreating the caliphate. If ISIS lost its geographical base, I think it would diminish its appeal to recruits around the world.

Q. Can the Saudis continue to avoid taking sides?

A. My feeling is in 10 years’ time Saudi Arabia either collaborates in destroying ISIS or it becomes ISIS. And if it becomes ISIS, then ISIS goes from being a landlocked, poor state with very limited resources to having the dominant role in the world’s oil industry. It would make a huge difference, not just to the world economy, but to the radical message pilgrims to Mecca would take home with them every year. One might then think of a Muslim Cold War, between the Shiites lead by the Islamic Republic of Iran and a hostile Sunni world led by an ISIS dominated Saudi Arabia So the Saudis, I think, are the people who are at the center of a decision crisis, and right now they’re unable to make a decision.

— By Adam Piore


How Paris Changes Things

Austin Long ISIS terrorism Columbia University

Stuart Gottlieb (Ph.D’96) has been a professor at the School of International Public Affairs since 2003. He teaches courses on American Foreign Policy, international security and counterterrorism. A member of Columbia’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, he formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter for U.S. senators Charles E. Schumer of New York and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.

A second edition of his book, Debating Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Conflicting Perspectives on Causes, Contexts, and Responses was published in 2013. Here, he discusses the Paris attacks with Columbia News.

Q. How do these latest events change the fight against jihadists?

A. The Paris attacks are an important pivot point in the fight against ISIS and the global jihad more broadly. Until now, the stated American strategy to counter the Islamic State has been to first contain the group in its Mideast safe havens, and then eventually degrade and destroy the organization. Paris shows why this is a dangerously shortsighted approach: while the core of ISIS may be technically contained into some recognizable territory, the group itself – and its ideology – is multinational. It now has formal affiliates in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Libya and other parts of Africa. And it has been training fighters from all over the world. Limited bombing campaigns alone in Iraq and Syria cannot begin to unravel what has become a major global security threat.

Q. How big a threat are you talking about?

A. Last year I wrote an article in which I said that ISIS is a direct threat to the American homeland and to Western nations in general. That’s because radical Islamist groups like ISIS think and act in terms of both local and global ambitions. In fact, what happened in Paris is very similar to the Mumbai attack in 2008, where members of a Pakistan-based Islamist organization carried out a four-day siege on hotels, hospitals and a train station, killing 164 people and wounding more than 300. Since Mumbai, the big fear among security officials has been that jihadi groups would increasingly target open, Western-style cities whose identities are based on their unfettered freedom. It now looks like the Mumbai-model is alive and well in the minds of ISIS leaders, meaning we have likely entered a new chapter in Western terror vulnerability. And let’s not forget that the ultimate objective of ISIS is not shooting up a few cafes and concert halls, but committing acts of mass destruction.

“ISIS and other sophisticated terror networks are increasingly operating in a secret digital world.”
— Stuart Gottlieb


Q. How should we respond to the current threats?

A. First we need to recognize that ISIS cannot simply be “contained.” In the last 10 days alone, we have seen an international jet brought down over Egypt, bombings in the Beirut suburbs and then the Paris attacks. The idea that we are “containing” ISIS is fiction. ISIS operates, as do all capable jihadi groups, as a globalized virus based on a radical ideology. Yes, we must deny ISIS access to territory from which to operate – and that must be a priority. But unless and until we target the roots of the ideology we will just be, at best, treading water.

That’s why the instinct of many Western governments, including ours, to call ISIS attacks “senseless killing” is so misplaced. There is nothing “senseless” about it. The carnage makes perfect sense in the militant Islamist interpretation of world history, and the global revolutionary war they see themselves waging. And now the chaos in Syria and other parts of the broader Mideast is turning the area into a spawning ground for global jihadists, who are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their use of encrypted social media to communicate, plot and carry out attacks. Combating this will require an enormously stepped up effort by Western governments, possibly through NATO, to help restore order in the Mideast while simultaneously redoubling counterterrorism efforts at home.

Q. How might this affect civil liberties?

A. ISIS and other sophisticated terror networks are increasingly operating in a secret digital world. Cracking down on such communications will also affect, if not violate, the privacy rights of hundreds of millions of people who have nothing to do with terrorism. In the post-Snowden world this will be immensely controversial. Paris shows that governments will likely need greater surveillance authorities, but Snowden shows that these new authorities cannot simply run roughshod over civil liberties.

Q. How does the refugee crisis fit into this?

A. ISIS is of course taking full advantage of the refugee chaos. One of the Paris attackers was apparently a Syrian refugee who entered the EU through Greece, and it’s a certainty that at least some terrorist operatives will slip into the West under the guise of refugee resettlement. On the other hand, this is one of the most acute humanitarian crises of the last century and the West simply cannot betray its values and turn its back on these events. There are very few good options.


The Threat of ISIS

Austin Long ISIS terrorism Columbia University

Austin Long, an assistant professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, served in Iraq as an analyst and adviser to coalition forces and the U.S. military

Q. Is U.S. policy responsible for the creation of ISIS, as some critics claim?

A. Had the U.S. not invaded Iraq, there would probably be no Islamic State. In 2009 Al Qaeda had been pushed to the margins of Iraq, mainly because the group alienated a lot of Sunnis. Since then, the rise of ISIS in Iraq has had more to do with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government’s refusal to deal with legitimate Sunni grievances, which led to a resurgence of resistance among Iraqi Sunnis.

Q. You were in Iraq with the U.S. military. Did you forsee something like this happening?

A. I could not have imagined the collapse of Syria. The Assad regime looked pretty stable.

Q. From the tone of media coverage, one is sometimes left with the impression that things are more ominous today. Is that true?

A. People forget how bad things were in Iraq in the mid- 2000s. It was orders of magnitude worse. What’s different now is the Syrian aspect.

Q. Could the U.S. have done anything to stop this?

A. I think the situation would be better, not great, had we left a military presence behind in Iraq—advisers and a small counterterrorism force of 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops. In Syria, the United States could have committed more quickly and forcibly to supporting anti-Assad forces that were not Islamic. But that route ran the risk of alienating Russia as well as Turkey. And there’s no guarantee it would have stopped it.

Q. How worried should we be about ISIS?

A. I don’t think they are going to commit resources to attacking people here in the United States. They are focused on establishing a caliphate. If you worry about regional stability in the Middle East, then ISIS is a huge problem. They’re good at generating money and converting resources into fighting power. They’re tough, shrewd and very well-organized.

Q. Are we eventually going to have to send in ground troops?

A. The Islamic State can point to success in seizing territory and creating a caliphate. As long as they can present this utopian vision, it’s going to be tough to defeat them. If they establish this caliphate and most regional opponents can contain them, probably not. But it will require some management. If you are deeply cynical, you could say worst-case scenario, the Russians, the Iranians and Hezbollah fight ISIS to the death.

— Interviewed by Adam Piore

Related: Bringing Diverse Expertise to Solving Global Problems, Columbia News, Oct 15, 2015


Do Terrorists Win?

Page Fortna ISIS terrorism Columbia University

Page Fortna, the Harold Brown Professor of U.S. Foreign and Security Policy, recently published an article with the provocative title, “Do Terrorists Win?” She is also chair of the Political Science Department.

Q. How do you define terrorism?

A. I defined it quite narrowly for the purposes of this project, which examined the use of terrorism by rebel groups in civil wars: deliberately indiscriminate attacks on civilians—such as bombing buses or marketplaces to kill random, innocent people, as opposed to people deemed collaborators with the other side. Most violence against civilians in civil war attacks specific people for a specific reason. Terrorism is different. What makes it so frightening is its random nature; anyone could be a victim. The attacks in Paris this past Friday, or those in Beirut on Thursday, were quintessential terrorism—the intended targets were ordinary people attending a concert or eating in a café.

Q. What do you mean by “terrorists don’t win?”

A. They don’t achieve the ultimate goals for which the group is fighting—such as secession or autonomy or changing government policy. They don’t win their wars outright, and they are much less likely to win concessions in a negotiated settlement. But to say that terrorism isn't effective is not to say it has no effects. It has a major effect in instilling fear in the civilian population. In my research I found it effective for organizational survival; groups use it to continue their fight. You end up with long, drawn-out conflicts that don’t get resolved. Terrorism is ineffective in terms of political change that rebel groups are ostensibly fighting for.

Q. What about ISIS, which has had some success in Iraq and Syria?

A. It’s too early to know if ISIS will win its war or achieve concessions at the bargaining table, but if history is a guide, it is unlikely. I would argue that whatever military success ISIS has had in Iraq and Syria has been despite its use of terrorism not because of it. Not everything ISIS does is terrorism by my definition. A lot of their attacks have been against military targets, and a lot of the horrific stuff they do targets people they consider collaborators. Although ISIS has shifted its strategy in recent days, to engage in transnational terrorism with attacks (assuming ISIS is in fact responsible, which we don’t know for sure yet) on the Russian plane leaving Sharm el-Sheikh, in Beirut, in Paris, my guess is that it is much more likely to backfire in the long run than to succeed.

Q. What are the lessons for policy makers?

A. It’s important not to fall into the trap of responding in kind, meeting indiscriminate violence with indiscriminate violence. Terror attacks makes groups seem more powerful and scarier than they are, but the ability to attack soft targets is not the same as the ability to win wars. Governments shouldn’t overestimate the military capabilities of groups using terrorism. I would hope the reactions to terrorist attacks are motivated by more than the emotions of fear and revenge. The most dangerous thing for the French government right now is to respond with policies that alienate Muslims in France even more than they already are in ways that would help ISIS to recruit.

— Interviewed by Georgette Jasen


The Destruction of Antiquities

Zainab Bahrani ISIS terrorism Columbia University

Zainab Bahrani, the Edith Porada Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology, realized over a decade ago the importance of documenting cultural treasures in war-torn regions. She now runs the Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments project.

Q. How has your work been affected by the rise of ISIS?

A. In northern Iraq several historical sites of huge significance to world history, including the legendary Assyrian capitals of Nineveh and Nimrud, were destroyed. Two UNESCO world heritage sites in northern Iraq, Hatra and Assur, have also been demolished. The Mosul Museum, an important archaeological museum, was looted, and its objects are for sale on the international black market for antiquities, providing funds for ISIS.

Q. You were in the field documenting monuments well before the ISIS threat. Can you continue that work?

A. This summer we worked in southeastern Turkey documenting Assyrian rock reliefs, historical mosques, and early Christian churches and monasteries. Now this area is in danger as ISIS begins to encroach. Other universities have digitization projects, but only ours documents monuments in the field from all historical eras and cultures, ancient to modern, religious and secular. Our work is even more urgent now.

“ISIS is attempting to destroy the links between peoples and their land...They want to write a new history in their own vision.”
— Zainab Bahrani


Q. You’ve said that the destruction of history is one of ISIS’s main goals. What do you mean?

A. By erasing pre-Islamic monuments as well as Shiite and Yazidi sacred shrines and Christian churches and monasteries that have stood in this land for millennia, ISIS is attempting to destroy the links between peoples and their land. They are attempting to erase any evidence of the history of multiple religions, ethnicities and languages. They want to write a new history in their own vision.

Q. How have your colleagues abroad fared?

A. During our 2013 field season in Iraq, one of our team members was a young Iraqi woman from the department of archaeology at the University of Mosul. During the takeover by ISIS she escaped the city on foot and is now a refugee with no home and no job. The most devastating event was the murder of a Syrian archaeologist in Palmyra, who was beheaded by ISIS in a public square when he refused to give information about the whereabouts of antiquities.

Q. What sites in Syria have been affected?

A. ISIS has blown up several temples in Palmyra that date to the Roman era, but which are distinctively local works built for Syrian gods. UNESCO world heritage sites such as the cities of Apamea and Aleppo and Krak des Chevaliers, the crusader castle, have suffered great damage. Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world and a jewel of Islamic architecture. The museums of the Syrian provinces of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour and countless other places have been looted, and numerous early Christian monasteries and churches in Syria and Iraq have been attacked.

Q. Is there anything the international community can do to stop the destruction?

A. The international community can stop buying antiquities. ISIS sells artifacts to support their state. They use this money to kill and enslave human beings.

— Interviewed by Eve Glasberg


Peacebuilding and Policy-Making

David L. Phillips is the director of Columbia’s Program in Peace-building and Human Rights. He is a former senior adviser to the United Nations and U.S. State Department.

David L. Phillips ISIS terrorism Columbia University

Q. Is a negotiated settlement in Syria possible?

A. Yes, but only after shaping the battlefield and giving the combatants reason to negotiate. Under current conditions there is no prospect for a political dialogue. The U.S. can lead by working with friendly parties in Syria, namely the Syrian Kurds, and some of the moderate Syrian opposition.

Q. How successful have the U.S. and its allies been in creating a viable moderate opposition force?

A. It’s been a dismal failure. The political opposition spends its time in five star hotels and has little influence over fighters in the field. The U.S. has spent a lot of money trying to train the so-called moderate Syrian opposition, without any results. Our biggest shortcoming in Syria was the failure to recognize and then support—militarily and diplomatically— the People’s Protection Forces of the PYD [Syria’s Democratic Union Party, run by Syrian Kurds]. They are the only group that has shown any capability of confronting and defeating ISIS.

Q. Wouldn’t the Turkish government have a problem with such a plan? They have been working to suppress Kurdish opposition next door for years.

A. The U.S. shouldn’t give Turkey a veto over its policies in the region. Beginning in 2012, Turkey was collaborating with jihadi groups including ISIS. Only recently did Turkey declare its willingness to work with NATO and the multinational coalition. Ankara finally agreed to let the coalition use the Incirlik Air Base near the Syrian border. Turns out that Turkey was really interested in joining the counterterrorism campaign so it could attack the PKK [a Kurdish militant group that has been struggling for greater political and cultural rights over 30 years.] There’s not much difference between Turkey’s AKP government and the ideology of ISIS. When Turkey’s deputy prime minister says that women shouldn’t smile or laugh in public because it’s wrong to attract attention to themselves, you expect that coming from Baghdadi [the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State].

Q. How seriously are U.S. policymakers taking the Kurds and this possibility?

A. There was a report earlier this week that we were going to be giving them ammunition and maybe weapons so they could establish a buffer across the Syrian border with Turkey. U.S. assistance will be measured by its actions, not its words.

Q. What are your thoughts on recent Russian actions?

A. Russia has jumped into a quagmire. It is not going to defeat the Sunni Arab population militarily. The only way to make peace is through negotiations. Putin is not interested in a political negotiation, he’s interested in supporting Assad and projecting Russian power and military force. Syria will prove to be Putin’s Waterloo.

Q. This war has been going on for some time. What has prompted the current refugee crisis?

A. Turkey is at capacity. It is creating conditions so that refugees leave Turkey and go to Greece and other destinations in Europe. If you don’t have any prospect where you are and you can’t go home, refugees are going to look to Europe, and Germany in particular.

Q. What should the U.S. and Europe be doing?

A. This is the largest humanitarian crisis in recent memory. It won’t be solved by by providing tents and blankets. The root of this conflict is a security crisis. A more robust military response will be needed to compel the parties to negotiate.

Q. What’s it going to take to get there?

A. More pain, and a reconfigured battlefield. In some ways, this is happening because of Russia’s engagement. But the U.S. has to step up and do more to support Syrian Kurds and moderate Sunni Arabs. The U.S. has always been a force for good in the world. Principled pro-active leadership is needed. No more leading from behind.

— Interviewed by Adam Piore

Related: Michael Doyle Brings Diverse Experts Together to Solve Global Policy Problems, Columbia News, Oct 15, 2015


ISIS Social Media Strategy

Claire Wardle ISIS terrorism Columbia University

Claire Wardle, senior research scholar and research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.

Q. How does ISIS use social media channels to bring its message to a global audience, and recruit new members from far corners of the world?

A. ISIS is incredibly sophisticated in terms of their understanding and use of social media and encrypted online communications. They distribute slick recruitment videos with compelling narratives, polished production techniques, and handsome 'actors' appealing directly to targeted audiences. Compared to Al-Qaeda’s amateurish films captured on low-quality recording devices and smuggled out to news outlets, the films, images and messages created and distributed by ISIS via social media channels, rival some of the very best creative content produced for brands.

Q. What specific methods do they use?

A. The key to their success is identifying target audiences and appealing to them on different platforms. For the disgruntled and disenfranchised, they produce content in local languages with recent recruits who can say, “I was you, look at me now.” They carefully seek out people who might identity with ISIS. The reach and granularity of social media means they can find and talk directly to people in every corner of the globe.

Q. How broad is their strategy?

A. The scale of their operation is staggering. They have multiples of every available social media channel. They work on the well-known platforms, as well as the less well known, including small social photo sharing sites. They understand where potentially sympathetic communities might live online and often target online message boards and chat rooms, moving people to personalized chat-app messaging when they can. And when details get specific they move to encrypted communication platforms. They understand audience engagement in a way that many brands or even news organizations do not. They are providing targeted messages to specific audiences, using tried and tested persuasive techniques. Ultimately their power is that for the people they target, they appear to be listening to them in ways that they don't feel they've been listened to before. That is what makes them so successful and so hard to counter.

Interviewed by William McGuinness


What Is Putin Thinking?

Kim Marten ISIS terrorism Columbia University

Kimberly Marten is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and Director of the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at Columbia's Harriman Institute.

Q. What is Putin trying to accomplish in Syria?

A. I don’t think there is a clear answer. My best theory is that he is trying to demonstrate his ability to support a foreign client and make the U.S. look bad at a time when he needs to show other leaders within his domestic coalition that he is still strong. The Assad regime has been a client of Moscow’s since 1971, it buys weapons from Russia, and Russia has a naval supply and repair facility in Syria. But Syria accounts for only about 5 percent of Russian arms sales, and there’s no evidence that its ability to buy Russian arms was in jeopardy, or that the naval facility could be reconfigured any time soon into a base for force projection elsewhere, especially given the state of Russia’s economy.

I have wondered all along whether the timing of Putin’s actions indicates that Russian military involvement in Syria was a pay-off to Iran, for Iran going along with the nuclear nonproliferation deal. Russia’s support was necessary to get Iran to sign off on it, and Russian troops appeared in Syria right after it became clear that the U.S. was going to approve the Iran deal.

Assad is fighting against his own Sunni population. Some Islamist extremists from Russia’s North Caucuses who are also Sunni have gone to fight against the Syrian regime. So Putin has argued that he’s in Syria to fight Islamist extremism. But Putin’s actions in Syria could provoke Russia’s own Islamist rebels to take further acts of terrorism inside Russia. So he is taking on enormous costs with no clear anti-terrorism benefit.

“Putin is like a gambler on a losing streak, taking on ever bigger risks to try to make up for what has he has lost.”
— Kimberly Marten


Q. What’s going on at home that would encourage Putting to get sucked into the Middle East?

A. Putin’s basic bargain with the Russian state has fallen apart. The deal was that he would crack down domestically in return for allowing wealth generation. Now the Russian economy is in decline because of the collapse of international oil prices. Furthermore, the situation in Ukraine hasn’t gone as Putin wanted, and international sanctions are still in place against Russia. As the leader of a patron/client regime at home, Putin must constantly demonstrate to people in his political milieu that he is still strong and capable of holding things together. The most convincing way of looking at what’s happening is that Putin is like a gambler on a losing streak, taking on ever bigger risks to try to make up for what he has lost.

Q. Does anyone in Russia really care about Syria?

A. What is happening in Syria is not directly threatening Russia. Then again, you could ask a similar question, why does the U.S. care about Syria? It’s indirect whatever it is. There are Islamic State rebels who could potentially threaten Russia, but then you would expect Putin to actually be going after the ISIS rebels and that’s not what’s happening.

But those who are trying to analyze Russian national interests miss the fact that there is no discussion of Russian national interests within Russia. Before Putin makes any decision there is no discussion about what that decision should be, and after he makes it there is no discussion about what the decision was. Russia doesn’t have any functioning policy making institutions, so policy choices depend on his personal connections. Rather than looking for Russian national interest we should be looking for Putin’s interests.

Q. Does he have an end game?

A. Putin is not a chess-player; he’s a tactical, not a strategic, thinker. I think the chances that Putin will put in enough military support to actually keep the Assad regime functioning are relatively small. The Russian economy just can’t support that kind of foreign adventure for long. He is not fighting primarily against ISIS. There is evidence that he struck some ISIS bases, but he is mostly striking American-supported rebels in Syria and Russian jets have repeatedly violated Turkish airspace, which was stupid and apparently intentional. I think it’s very good to be questioning what in the world Putin is thinking.