The sudden rise of the caliphate

The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising

Peter Hegarty

In his concise, highly informative account of the growth of the Sunni jihadi organisation ISIS – it now prefers to call itself Islamic State – Patrick Cockburn uses the term ‘Frankenstein’s monster’.

In fact two Frankensteins – Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading exporter of intolerance, and Qatar – have produced IS. Riyadh has long sponsored Sunni militants, using them as an arm of its foreign policy, which is characterised by bigoted hostility towards Shia Muslims in general, and Shia Iran in particular.

But IS now has a life of its own, is well financed from the proceeds of bank robberies,  protection rackets and illicit oil trading, with an army of mobile, motivated fighters operating sophisticated weaponry. It is a vigorous, rapidly expanding sectarian organisation over which no-one exercises restraint.

Cockburn’s words carry weight: he is The Independent’s Middle East correspondent and a respected commentator on the region. Before the jihadis swept out of the Syrian desert to seize Mosul and Tikrit, his Iraqi ministerial sources had often warned him that the conflict in Syria was bound to spill over into Iraq.

The extremists have ably exploited the resentment and anger felt by Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, the first ruled by a triumphalist Shia-dominated government, the second by a brutal dictator who draws whatever support he has from the country’s Christian and Alawite minorities.

In Iraq the new Islamist rulers enjoy the backing of many Sunnis. After all, the fighters have – in their cruel way – established order, ensured that people have access to food and water, and seen off the hated Iraqi army.

Cockburn describes that army, upon which billions of dollars have been lavished, as a ‘financial racket’: vast sums of money earmarked for weapons have simply disappeared.


When the jihadis swept into the northern city of Mosul, Iraqi troops, who greatly outnumbered them, fled without offering resistance. Cockburn argues that the debacle owes much to the corruption and ineptitude of the Baghdad government, and contends that the divisive sectarian policies of Iraq’s former Shia prime minister, Nourial-Maliki have pushed many Sunnis into the arms of the jihadis.

He is not sanguine about the prospects for stability in the region. With the emergence of the Islamic State, an outgrowth of the local franchise of Al Qa’ida, Iraq, the most egregiously artificial of the many made-up states in the Middle East will probably fall apart.

The Kurds, whose generals until recently dismissed the jihadis as a rabble, are  now struggling to defend their nascent state against them.

The Islamic State will probably send suicide bombers to attack western targets in retaliation for American air raids on its convoys.

The Islamic State will press on with its project – this includes the persecution of religious minorities and destruction of their churches and mosques – unless the millions over whom it now rules turn against it.

The international community should not count on such a revolt happening or succeeding in the short term: as this excellent history makes clear, the jihadis are ferocious opponents, zealous, motivated and confident.